Saturday, March 8, 2014

Saints Row IV: Even better than Saints Row the Third, which was great

You know I'm born to lose / And gambling's for fools / But that's the way I like it, baby, I don't want to live forever!

I've been meaning to write a review for Saints Row: The Third for a while. So long, in fact, that in the meantime, Saints Row IV came out and I loved it so much that I decided to review Saints Row IV instead. I will still talk a bit about Saints Row: The Third, because it is a great game. They're both great games. If you want to play a game that tries as hard as it can to make sure you're having as much fun as possible at all times, you should check out these two games.

I try to avoid spoilers in this review, but there is some info that you may find slightly spoilery.

My boss in SR3, with her friends Pierce and Shaundi

I had played some sandbox city games before, most notably Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, but they never really grabbed me. Screwing around in the city got boring pretty quickly, and the story struck me as dull. There was a lot to do, but it was not much fun. Conversely, when I played Saints Row: The Third, I was amazed at how much the game was built around helping the player find the fun. To put it another way, the game designers knew what players enjoyed doing, and made it easy to find it.

The story missions were fun, with characters who were colorful and likable. There were a ton of challenges to do between missions, from killing certain enemy types to streaking for a certain length of time without getting caught. There were tons of side-quests everywhere, bite-sized activities that were optional diversions from the main quest-line. You could check your phone for special challenges to assassinate specific targets or steal certain types of cars. The thing that really blew my mind was that even if you were doing nothing more than driving around the city, your cell phone would sometimes ring. It was totally up to you if you felt like answering it or not, and if you did, you were given a quick quest, usually to go somewhere and fight bad guys. It was like the game was saying, "Hey, if you want to mess around a bit, that's cool, but I've got a fight over here if you want it. No pressure."

As you progressed through the game, you took the city of Steelport over from the various gangs who controlled it. When you reached certain points, you would unlock "cribs," special bases inhabited by your followers where you can store your guns and vehicles and relax for a while.

Maybe one of the reasons I found SR3 more compelling than GTA:VC was that the latter game makes you play as its premade protagonist, but SR3 allows you to create your own boss. Not only do you get to choose your character's gender and appearance (with one of the most ridiculously detailed character creation systems I've ever seen), you even get several voices to choose from. That still amazes me: the player character probably has more lines than any other character in the game, and yet they had many different voice actors record all those lines, even though most players would only ever hear one voice speaking those lines. Now that's dedication to customizability.

Saints Row IV keeps things classy

The fourth game takes what was already a hugely fun city sandbox game and cranks it up to a ridiculous degree. In Saints Row IV, the world you inhabit is a simulation, and when you start to crack the code, you gain superpowers that let you jump to great heights, run super fast, and super kick people in the crotch so hard they go flying. You no longer have to worry about getting into helicopters to get to out-of-reach collectibles: now you can simply run up the sides of buildings. It's a great feeling of freedom and exploration, as the city is open for exploration, which is great, because the city is packed full of collectibles to discover.

Surprisingly, the addition of super powers does not alter the game balance too much, as your enemies are similarly powerful and, while you can run fast and jump high, your weapons still do the same amount of damage and you still have the same amount of health. Though speaking of weapons, SR4 gives you a huge assortment of weapons to play with. SR3 had an arsenal of pistols, submachine guns, shotguns, assault rifles, and an assortment of explosive weapons and special weapons to choose from. Most of these were pretty standard for shooter games, but some of them were more creative, like a gun that let you control an NPC's car like a remote control toy, and of course there was a famous floppy purple dildo bat. SR4 offers the same standard guns, but its selection of creative weapons is much larger. There is a gun that allows you to fire black holes that suck in enemies, a gun that lets you disintegrate most enemies with one shot, a gun that makes aliens abduct anyone you shoot with it, and, yes, there is a dubstep gun.

Though I prefer SR4 to SR3, I have to admit that there were some things I preferred about SR3. I missed Oleg, the enormous Russian scientist who was one of your teammates (or "homies" in game terms) in SR3 but did not return for SR4. I also missed having cribs to hang out in. Even if I never spent much time in them, but mostly just ran around a bit when starting each game session, I liked having bases of operation throughout the city.

Another aspect of SR4 that did not work for me is that a lot of the game's storyline is tied to doing side missions. You get a quest from one of your teammates, but it turns out to be a list of sidequests. Worse, you may have already done some of those sidequests, so you may not hear the banter between your boss and his/her teammates as you go to the next location. In one instance, I started joking with (spoiler) about her upcoming date with (spoiler), but I had not actually learned that (spoiler) wanted to date (spoiler) because I had already done the sidequest associated with that conversation, so the game skipped it.

"A khal who cannot drive is no khal!"

Both games can be played either single player or with a co-op partner who can join your game or leave it at any time. The game is very clever about how it handles this. If you are in someone else's game, anything you do that you haven't done yet will count toward your progress in your own game, so you don't have to worry about having to redo it once you return to single player. My only gripe about the co-op is that it's inconsistent about which boss's voice you hear. Sometimes both players hear the voice of the hosting player's boss, and at other times each player hears his or her own boss's voice, with no rhyme or reason for which voice the game picks to play.

I don't want to say too much about the SR4 plot because there are some pretty cool twists that I think you should discover for yourself. I will mention that the game makes a lot of references to the previous games in the series. I had only played SR3 before SR4, so a lot of the references were new to me, but the game does a pretty good job of letting you know what is going on if you haven't played all of the past games. That said, I did sometimes have the nagging suspicion that some of the jokes would have been funnier if I had a better idea of what everyone was talking about.

The Saints Row series is known for its raunchy humor, and since humor is so subjective and the games try so hard to be edgy, I can almost guarantee there will be something that you won't find funny in the games, and probably something that you will find offensive. I had a hard time with the treatment of "hos" in the third game, for instance. The prostitution ring the Saints run is depicted as being good for the women, because they are allowed to unionize and treated fairly, but I still objected to the way the "pimp" character, Zemo, talked about his "bitches."

All complaints aside, I do recommend Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV. I think the things that will stick with me the most about these games are the joy of exploring the city while listening to the radio ("This is Jane Valderamma..."), getting to know some fun characters, and especially the out-of-control shenanigans you can share with a friend in co-op.

One last thing that's great about the Saints Row games is that they go on sale fairly often on Steam, usually offering bundles that include a lot of DLC with the game at one cheap price. If you enjoy third-person shooters, sandbox games, or just games with good gameplay and a fun story, I think you should give them a try.

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