Thunderbolt logo

Saints Row IV

Saints Row

Saving the world from nuclear disaster, winning the planet’s admiration and becoming president of the United States of America is all in a day’s work for the leader of the Saints. But being president does bring with it a new share of problems. Filling the White House with alcohol, strippers and a tiger named William Dafoe didn’t go down too well as taxes increased. A bill to end world hunger went unnoticed as you claimed to be the world’s most important person. Then an alien invasion happened. And now the president is locked in a virtual reality. Politics are about to get a lot more complicated than ever anticipated. Thankfully, violence remains as simple as ever. Old habits die hard, and so will those alien scumbags.

screenshot

“A beautiful irony”There’s a beautiful irony that such pleasure can be found in personalising antisocial behaviour. Now that the setup is a game-within-a-game, with the leader of the Saints trapped in a virtual Steelport, we become an emblem of the sociopathic protagonist. Murder hundreds and become the leader of the Saints. Murder thousands and become president. Murder a species and save the Earth. It’s a self-aware power fantasy with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

By acting free of guilt we come closer to the frame of mind that a high-achieving sociopath could have. Our goal is number one. We are number one. Everyone else is a virtual non-entity on our road to further power. That Volition has captured this within the sheer entertainment value that is presented speaks to IV’s creativity. As the Saints work to break free of this constructed city, the coding is hacked and tweaked to their advantage to increase carnage further.

Embracing a direct correlation between the story beats and unfolding butchery avoids ludonarrative dissonance; an oft cause of discussion this year. Driving a car through a group of pedestrians and then punting a police officer over a house is fine. They’re all fake virtual drones without emotion or pain. This step away from reality allows a deeper connection as we content to the ludicrous becoming normal, and the characters gain contextual grounding.

The basic framework of the series continues. Side missions are now tied in with suitably titled ‘Distractions’ which provide quicker access to new abilities and weapons. The radio stations return but move to the background as driving becomes pointless. This is a virtual world made of code. And code can be hacked. Soon alien weaponry and super powers become the norm.

screenshot

“Fun always presides over frustration”Rather than rely on the trope of taking powers away at the beginning and turning them into progression rewards we’re consistently empowered. Soon running faster than cars and leaping over buildings is the norm. Then additional abilities are layered on top as whole patrols of alien soldiers can be frozen/set alight/shrunk. Fun always presides over frustration.

An unexpected narrative surprise aside, Saints Row IV contains more laughs than any other medium in quite some time (since Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s film A Town Called Panic, to be precise). The writing by Steve Jaros, Jason Blair and Jeff Bielawski here caused laughter into the double digits, and evidences that interactive entertainment can hold its own when trusted to do so. The cinema references and videogame lampoons rarely miss the ball, including the ode to a ‘80s cult classic leaving me grinning from ear to ear. Add on top of that fresh, new humour that isn’t borrowed or a parody and it’s a treat.

Part of this success must be credited to the range of voice actors. Robert Atkin Downes – a personal favourite of the series – delivers his best/worst cockney accent full of gusto, making each exchange of dialogue, internally or with other characters, an absolute charm, whether that’s from localised retorts to the absurd. And an English man becoming president of the USA is all the more fitting in this ‘turn everything up to 11′ world.

screenshot

“Part of this success must be credited to the range of voice actors”Eccentric it may be but the subtle moments of drama here do work. Thus avoiding overfamiliarity and an increasing lack of care about what happens. It’s this success which Saints Row: The Third missed and it has since been addressed. The core characters have their moments through a run of loyalty missions. Each one denotes appropriate time to playfully explore their unique traits and grandiose fears, providing many of the best moments and rounding it all off by increasing their powers within the virtual prison. Reward for having fun would seem such an obvious core blueprint to any interactive entertainment design. Yet this acted as a reminder that it’s not always the case; here strength displays a widespread weakness in common design.

The comedy – and therefore IV as a whole – isn’t without failures. The over-sexualisation of a female character as an attempt at a playful twist on her individuality is a little uncomfortable; on both occasions. This isn’t malicious on Volition’s behalf. It’s the same joke that falls flat both times. Shaundi’s revealing outfits are an extension of her personality as her younger self is referred to and planted as a counterpoint. Once young and happy, she’s now cosmetically enhanced and miserable. The context is lacking, however, for another character.

This person didn’t need a camera to follow her cleavage insistently on the two occasions she displays bravado and confidence. On one hand the message is saying showing what you’ve got isn’t a true sign of confidence, and then goes against this by showing that it is. It’s a minor moment but I’d rather have done without it all the same.

The usual irks of this series returns, with mission restarts occasionally required when an objective falls to the bottom of a lake or the president is knocked over a wall from an explosion and there’s no way to get back round. Outside of these instances there’s a lack of common open-world frustration that makes smashing down Steelport a relaxing ride. The pacing is on track throughout and it nails the essence of Saints Row with precision.

screenshot

Saints Row IV does not innovate nor break new ground. What it does do is reinvigorate a simple idea often lost in the race for cinematic showboating: having fun. This is a fitting and well handled ending to the Saints’ story, with its wit showcasing the quality of the writing team and range of voice actors. It caused more outbursts of laughter than anything else in quite some time. Funny, crude and yet charming, it’s difficult to imagine a better finale to this series. The superior sequel and a conclusion that doesn’t disappoint – a rare breed indeed.

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

Gentle persuasion

Think you can do better? Write for us.