Saint Row has built a reputation for itself among a crowded market due to its unrepentant use of humor and insane levels of destruction and carnage. Saints Row IV continues to crank up the madness in ways that will please fans, but the amount of rehashed material will likely rub even the most stalwart Saints Row addict the wrong way.
SRIV finds our hero, always known simply as The Protagonist, at the height of their power. Immediately picking up where Saints Row: The Third left off, The Protagonist is now the President of the United States. Before the newly inaugurated President can solve world hunger or reduce the deficit though, an alien race known as the Zin arrive on Earth and trap The Protagonist, along with the Cabinet, in a virtual simulation.
The Zin's virtual simulations are the perfect vehicle for developer Volition's brand of madness. The only way to defeat Zinyak, leader of the Zin, is to reassemble your Cabinet of homies. Shaundi, Pierce, and all The Protagonist's allies are being held in their own simulations, and as you journey through each one, the situations keep getting more crazy. One minute you are terrorizing a Norman Rockwell vision of the 1950s, and the next you are turned into a hopping toilet, fighting off wave after wave of enemy. Even when you aren't in someone else's simulation, there is still plenty of Volition's brand of mayhem. A satisfyingly eclectic mix of vehicles and weapons, nicely supplemented with the Zin's own technology, ensure there is no lack of ways for you to cause wild destruction. Of course, the addition of a partner doubles the destruction. As in SR3, co-op is seamlessly integrated into SRIV and you can play across every main and side mission in the game with a friend.
A Saints Row game wouldn't be complete without a completely irreverent sense of humor. Compared to SR3, SRIV has toned down some of the raunchier humor, which isn't to say Volition have lost a step on past titles. SRIV still refuses to take anything seriously and everything from movies to video games is in its crosshairs. Its one thing to spew out one pop culture reference after another, but most hit their mark, whether lampooning old text adventure games or cult sci-fi movies like They Live.
Volition also aren't afraid to poke fun at themselves. SRIV is full of humorous callbacks to earlier games, and more than a few familiar faces will make a reappearance. All the callbacks are part of what makes the game so fun to play. SRIV feels like Volitions love letter to the franchise, a fond look back at what made Saints Row what it is today. It is clear that Volition cares a lot about Saints Row, which makes it an all the more pleasurable game to play.
The most notable addition to SRIV are superpowers. With a little technological trickery, Zinyak's simulation is duped into providing The Protagonist with a bevy of superpowers. Some of the earliest abilities you receive are a super jump and super speed. Even performing mundane routines, like stocking up on ammo, are far more entertaining when you can zip all over the place like the Flash or leap around like the Hulk. As you progress, you unlock more powers, each designed to inflict more mayhem. A particularly nasty power gives you the ability to light everyone in your vicinity on fire, which when coupled with your super speed, makes you an unstoppable fire storm of destruction.
Your superpowers may give you the ability to cover huge amounts of ground with a single leap, but it feels wasted on Steelport, SRIV's city, which makes a return from SR3. As in SR3, Steelport feels cramped, and by the end of the game, you will have seen all it has to offer many times over. Your superpowers actually detract from the city, as they make Steelport feel even smaller because of how quickly you can cover large distances. Also, very little has been added to the city, so if you played SR3, be prepared for more of the same. It is a shame, because as SRIV's Steelport is just a simulation, so nothing should have held the developer's back from going wild and adding all sorts of new areas. The same can be said of the Zin. When it comes to designing an alien, only your imagination should be the limit, which is why its so surprising that Volition settled with bland bipedal humanoids with a few spikes in their heads.
Just as your superpowers made Steelport feel smaller, they also make it feel duller. Your superpowers are such an effective way of getting around, it dissuades you from using cars, and the city feels positively dead as you are leaping and gliding over it. Even if you do go down to street level where the action should be, there is hardly anything to do outside of the main story missions. Side activities are scattered throughout the map, but the plethora of activities boil down to only a handful of mission types that have little to no variation across instances. These side activities also do nothing to forward the story or build your character, so while some are pretty fun, they wind up feeling like busywork, especially when you are repeating it for a third or fourth time.
Character customization, now a hallmark of the franchise, is something that should set SRIV apart from other open world games, much like your superpowers, but it too has negative consequences. The sheer number of ways you can customize your character is admirable, but what isn't so great is that many outfits, accessories, and hair styles conflict with each other. Not in the way that people say you shouldn't wear white after Labor Day, but that hair and clothing will often collide and clip into each other or into the player's body. For example, long hair will often disappear unnaturally into large coats. It doesn't detract from gameplay but is very noticeable throughout the entirety of the game and it really stands out against SRIV's overall level of polish.
Completing Saints Row IV is a puzzling experience. While there were plenty of good times to be had, and you can take some satisfaction in that you are now not only President of the United States but also the world's savior, there is also a strong feeling of deja vu. Even with the additions to SRIV, it does not feel like its own individual entry in the series. Rather it feels like a super hero DLC and an alien DLC for SR3 were smushed together. Even worse, this recycling of SR3 content actually has an adverse impact on the new content Volition did add. As a numbered entry in the franchise, it is hard not to feel disappointed with Saints Row IV.