Thirty minutes into Saints Row IV and we’ve shot our way through a military base before disarming a nuclear bomb in flight, winning the hearts of the nation and the presidency of the USA. We’ve signed off on a cure for cancer, and fended off aliens from a turret gun on the White House lawn. It’s immediately clear that Saints Row has finally abandoned any of the pretence at gritty underworld realism that was so at odds with the slapstick of previous games in the series. This is the game that finally provides an appropriate thematic context for Saints Row’s mechanics, one that sees the Steelport Saints emerge from Grand Theft Auto’s shadow once and for all.
In doing so it steps firmly into the arms of many others, admittedly, but this no rip-off, no homage. It’s a love letter to an entire medium. In throwaway NPC quips, side-missions and key central mechanics it’s made clear that Volition has been playing the same games you have. It’s cherry-picked from the ones it’s loved the most, thrown them all together and made one of the most coherent open-world games in a generation that’s been full of the things.
It’s Hollywood that sets the whole thing up, though: this started life as an expansion to Saints Row: The Third called Enter The Dominatrix. The Zin, the alien race behind the invasion, keeps Earth’s surviving inhabitants alive in pods of goo and drops them into computer simulations based on their nightmares. After we lay waste to ’50s small-town America with an RPG, Zinyak, the Zin’s leader and the principal antagonist, drops us into an even worse simulation: Saints Row: The Third’s host city of Steelport, shrouded in perpetual darkness, its rival gangs replaced with an almighty alien force.
Thanks to Kinzie – The Third’s computer geek who shepherds us between virtual and actual reality – we soon break free of the simulation, fighting our way out of a Zin space station and onto a ship of our own. From here we can move freely in and out of Zin simulations, rescuing our fellow Saints one by one, building a team to take on the alien aggressors. It’s Mass Effect, of course, right down to the loyalty missions and potential for romance. But this is still Saints Row, so you’re only a button press away from the latter, while the former turn your crew into superheroes.
Your new-found powers mean you’re unlikely to even notice, much less appreciate, a subtly overhauled vehicle handling model. Following the GPS around Steelport’s freeway network seems rather pointless when your super-sprint comfortably outpaces even the speediest cars and you can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Over time, you’ll learn to run faster and up walls. You’ll add a higher jump, an air dash and a glide to your repertoire. All are unlocked by collecting shimmering blue blocks of code, here called Clusters but which might as well have just been called Crackdown’s Agility Orbs. There’s a key difference: Clusters are currency, and you choose which abilities you upgrade and when, a smart design choice in a game series with a history of player customisation.
Your abilities extend beyond mere traversal, with four combat powers, each with switchable elemental effects, mapped to the D-pad. Blast lets you set fire to enemies or freeze them in place; Buff adds the same properties to your bullets. Stomp brings you down to earth at speed, flinging groups of foes into the sky, while Telekinesis lets you pick up and sling people and objects at the horizon. These, too, can be upgraded with Clusters, increasing damage, range and duration while reducing cooldown times. They greatly change the flow of Saints Row’s previously attritional combat; when enemy vehicles arrive en masse you’re only ever an icy Blast and well-placed shot away from a colossal explosion. And if any innocents are caught in the crossfire, well, it’s only a computer simulation.
Of all the changes it’s the arsenal that perhaps best reflects Saints Row IV’s welcome shift in tone. The Third’s headline weapon was the Penetrator, a gigantic purple dildo bat that, together with pornstar-fronted marketing campaigns, perfectly reflected the series’ puerility and attitude to women. The Third was, after all, a game in which you rescued migrant sex workers from a shipping container and had to choose between either selling them back to the person you’d saved them from or putting them to work yourself. Now the comic relief comes from the Dubstep Gun, whose sonic blast kills those caught in its path but makes everyone else bust out angular dance moves until the wubs run out.
The alien arsenal is a toyset, really, from the Singularity Gun (black holes), to the Disintegrator (instant vaporisation) via the Dominator (the stopping power of a shotgun with the range of an assault rifle). As before, weapons can be improved at Friendly Fire gun stores, but the best upgrades are no longer tucked away at the top of the tree; you can give your pistol explosive rounds before addressing base damage or reload speed, so long as you’ve got the funds.
Your new traversal and combat options make simply moving around the city and getting into scrapes a pleasure. You’ll take off toward your destination, swooping down to pick up a Cluster before scampering up the side of a skyscraper and taking to the skies again. Ad-hoc combat has historically been something to be avoided given the inevitable subsequent struggle to escape the police or a rival gang, but here you’re only a sprint and a jump from safety. And while other superhero games have scaled the enemy threat to match the protagonist’s powers – Prototype’s infinite helicopters, for instance – here you are, by some distance, the most powerful thing in the game, able to take down a UFO with a single Fire Blast. Combine all that with our hero’s ability to escape the simulation entirely, and Volition can break free of the travel-kill-escape template so common in open-world games.
It does so with gusto, dropping you into a hulking mechanised suit in an alien base, a tank in a vector-drawn limbo, a crudely illustrated text adventure, and a side-scrolling beat ’em up, to name but a few. Volition seems to be having fun throughout, especially in the missions that involve your fellow crew: each must first be rescued from their own private simulation then accompanied on a loyalty mission in which you help them overcome some long-standing rival or regret. You’ll revisit Stillwater, Saints Row 2’s host city. You’ll go on a stealth mission that lovingly pokes fun at Metal Gear Solid. You’ll help act out a fanfic episode of Nyte Blayde, Saints Row’s vampire hunter TV show. Each serves to deepen your connection to what has historically been a throwaway, archetypal supporting cast, and while most are played for laughs, there are exceptions: Shaundi’s struggle to come to peace with her hippie stoner past is particularly sweetly handled. There are tangible rewards to doing right by your fellow Saints, with completed quests serving up not only the standard dollop of funds and XP, but new powers, weapons and costumes, too.
Given how successfully Volition throws off the shackles of previous games in the series, it’s disappointing that after that blistering opening half-hour the studio settles into its old rhythm; the first few hours see you bombarded with quests that serve only to introduce each of the game’s activities. While it seems churlish to complain about being forced to play a round of Fraud – in which you throw yourself in front of a car then use some ridiculous ragdoll physics to bounce off successive bonnets and bumpers to build up a vast insurance payout – it’s one of a very few signs of Volition leaning on its established template. Not all the changes work, either: having the music keep playing after you exit a vehicle is a fine idea that makes sense in a computer simulation, but with only seven radio stations, most of which are acquired tastes, you’ll be reaching for the mute button long before the credits roll.
Yet these are merely scratches on the paintwork of a game that finally delivers on the vision laid out in the flawed Saints Rows of yore. This may be a scrapbook collage of mechanics magpied from other games with better reputations, but it’s packaged together with wit, charm and, crucially, heart. Saints Row IV is in love with videogames not for their worlds or their systems but for the simple pleasure of play, and the anodyne city of Steelport has been transformed into a playground – a sandbox in the realest sense.
With this game Volition has at last cast off the dumb puerility and blithe misogyny that have long blighted this series, and as we let loose a fully charged super-jump from Steelport’s highest point, gliding to an objective that’s almost three kilometres away, the whistling wind jostling with Montell Jordan’s This Is How We Do It for prominence in our ears, we can’t help but feel this is the game Volition has always wanted to make. One thing’s for sure: it’s the one we’ve been waiting to play.
Saints Row IV is released on August 23 for Xbox 360, PC and PS3. PC version tested.