Saints Row IV frightened me more than any game in recent memory; not because of limited resources, or large, predatory men with chainsaws. Saints Row has certainly never featured any of that. I was scared Saints Row IV wouldn’t be emotionally resonant.
Saints Row The Third set a bar for the sheer emotional impact one developer can cram into a single game. I have already seen the Citizen Kane of video games, and it is turning into an anthropomorphic toilet with Mega Man’s buster cannon. That is the sort of legacy Saints Row IV must conquer, and at once I told myself no sequel could recapture that feeling of audacity. As it turns out, developer Volition may have done just that. And, much like the Third Street Saints themselves, they did it with a complete disregard for the scale of their own achievement.
By this point, you probably know that Saints Row IV features the titular street gang running the United States of America. The series’ protagonist has been elected president, irresponsibly grandfathering in his/her posse to positions of entirely too much power.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, however, as, in this world the biggest of bosses must make decisions of incredible consequence. Immediately after starting the demo, the protagonist is tasked with one such challenge: Choosing whether to end world hunger, or cure cancer forever. According to Vice President Keith David, there’s only enough political clout to do one, not the other.
“Cancer had a good run,” my pre-designed character announced as I chose to “fuck cancer.” Keith David agreed, and I knew then that my decision was the right one. These are the morally twisting decisions only the brightest of mediums, vidja gaemz, can provide.
After a few equally philosophical choices I was introduced to the Saints’ latest nemesis, Zinyak, an intergalactic alien warlord. His intent is to bring Earth and its inhabitants to their knees (no doubt an allegory for early European imperialism). Zinyak appears to be a much more interesting and thoughtful villain than Killbane of the previous game. With the advantages of advanced technology and an alien armada at his back, Zinyak actually feels like a meaningful threat to the incredibly over-engineered abilities of the Saints.
The escalation of power works both ways, however, as the POTUS now has an array of superpowers, completing his/her transition into the messiah archetype hinted at so subtly throughout the previous installments. These include supersonic speed, telekenisis, and a Crackdown style super-jump (the game also includes its own version of green orbs, by the way) which can be followed up with a targeted ground slam. The breakneck sense of speed provided by the running ability and intentionally unbalanced superpowers do raise their own concerns. While vehicles can still be hijacked, it feels pointless. Being such a huge part of the previous games, it’s odd that vehicles feel almost completely vestigial this time out.
Weapons like the dubstep gun — which plays its namesake while being fired, and causes victims to jerk about to the rhythm — fare better, on the other hand. Most of them are so ridiculous as to make using them their own reward. Meanwhile, while the offensive powers are… powerful, they’re fairly limited in scope (ice blast, shockwave, flame pulse, etc.)
Another issue is that the game doesn’t look like much of a graphical leap from the previous game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but The Third had more than its share of low resolution textures and aliased character models. Saints Row IV hasn’t broken that tradition. I can never be sure if I’m really feeling the proper emotional impact of the pain in a character’s eyes when he’s punched in the testicles hard enough to go airborne. Is Saints Row IV‘s graphics engine powerful enough to make me cry? Early signs are discouraging.
Aside from those oddities and nitpicks, however, Saints Row IV seems like an improvement on its predecessor in just about every way. The emotional resonance! The bombastic audacity! The humor! It’s all here just the way you want it, and at no point does it ever feel like the game acknowledges it. It’s just another day at the oval office, and that’s exactly what it needed to be.
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