Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Review: Saints Row IV (PC)

saints row iv

Saints Row IV is a long drive down the Pacific coast in a silver convertible. The top's down, an endless digital mix-tape is pumping out of the speakers. The sun has just started it's descent to the horizon.

Traffic is light, there's salty air swirling off the surf, and a friend you've known for 20 years (or more) is sitting beside you laughing about a shared memory that is 75% accurate and 25% exaggeration or outright bullshit. You're on a stretch of road you've driven many times, so the turns, inclines and declines are all familiar. There's some sad nostalgia, too. You last travelled this road with your now-deceased father when you were 15-years old.

Suddenly, there's a roadside stand that you don't remember being there: Hot Dogs.

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You pull off the road in a cloud of dust. The scent of caramelizing onions, cooking meat; the purveyor of the food stand is gorgeous. You look at the person not quite sure if you know them from somewhere. Then you remember and snap your fingers, point, "Weren't you that person that," and another shared memory flows into the air around you. Feeling good, belly full, you toss a wave and smile from the car as you press onward.

As the sun slides a little further toward Japan there's a Zen-like calm, a wash of peace and happiness that permeates your pores, feels like it extends out to those around you, like it's being flicked from your hair as it whips around in the wind.

The sights, the sounds, it's all so right.

The road will end eventually. That's destiny or fate, whatever you want to call it. Eventually the road will snag in a city but until then you'll wear a smile and enjoy every mile.

That's what Saints Row IV is.

 saints row iv          saints row iv

There's game stuff, too, but Saints Row IV is more accurately described as "experienced" rather than "played."

With a fully customized President of the United States, players will explore and conquer a digitally remastered version of Steelport last seen in Saints Row The Third. It's a place that you'll remember quite well if you played the previous game, but it's experienced in an entirely different way.

The Boss possesses a host of upgradeable super powers that render vehicles pointless and make getting around Steelport extremely easy. In fact, unless a mission forced me into a vehicle I never chose to drive/fly anywhere. Why drive when the Boss can outrun cars and leap into the air hundreds of feet then glide to a location that would otherwise be impossible to reach? And because the radio stations are accessible outside of vehicles, there's really no reason to every get behind the wheel. It's much more freeing and exhilarating to bound up buildings, toss tanks aside with telekinesis then dive bomb or flash freeze a group of enemies to soften them up then fire a black hole gun into the mix to clean-up the street.

saints row iv

In fact the sections of the game outside the simulation of Steelport and on some missions, where the Boss is indeed mortal and the super powers aren't accessible, it becomes a challenge to stay alive. Those stretches are mercifully short and the player can get right back into the insane power fantasy that Volition has created.

It's a lot of fun to just mess around in Steelport with the super powers but there's a story to accompany the action that takes some surprising and hilarious turns, which the characters in the game have no problem pointing out. "Why is it always three of these things?" the Boss says at one point. Why, indeed. And why did a real-world character I remember most from the 1980s suddenly appear? It doesn't matter -- it's just awesome that it happens. There are so many of these wacky and funny moments -- Volition really takes the piss out of the Mass Effect games -- that it was always difficult to tear myself away from the game. I always wanted to see what would happen next!

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Much of the "grindy" stuff can become a bit of a chore if done for long stretches. Looking for collectibles, side missions like Insurance Fraud, hacking stores, etc. could take the wind out of my sails but even then because they're mostly optional and not that necessary to levelling-up the Boss that feeling of being let-down or boredom never lasted long.

These side activities are also incorporated into missions supplied by the Boss's homies (after they're freed from their own personal Hells). The reward for completing each quest line is spelled out so players can look at it and decide if they really want to complete that series of side activities for the big reward rather than simply grinding them for XP and "cache."

There's some uneven bits but Saints Row IV captures what video games should be or at least strive to be: Fun.

saints row iv

That exuberance of playing around in a big sandbox with almost no limits placed on the player while spinning an entertaining yarn that fully acknowledges that itself as a game should put Saints Row IV on a lot of Game of Year lists.

- Aaron Simmer

The Good:
- Soundtrack list is incredible
- The power fantasy is near pitch-perfect
- Story takes so many weird/hilarious turns and loops
- Lots of optional things to do
- Saints Row IV is ALL video games
- You will never guess who the last Saint is

The Bad:
- Hacking mini-game to unlock stores can be irritating

Score: 10 / 10

Note: One aspect of the game that I couldn't take a look at is the co-op story mode or the Cat & Mouse events scattered throughout the world. I'll revisit this after the game officially launches on August 20, 2013.