Things are about to get crazy, really crazy! From Deep Silver and Volition comes the fourth trip into the insane world of the Saints. If being President, fighting aliens, and having super powers piques interest, you're in for one blisteringly over-the-top ride. Although all of these abilities may be just a little too much, and detract from a very well designed and constructed action game.
At the end of the third, The Saints took over Steel Port. In that time, the "leader" of the 3rd Street sect from Stilwater has become President of the United States. Yes, you are the President, and your main homies like Oleg, Keith David, and Kinzie are still in tow to help run the country. But before a White House media briefing, Kinzie informs you that aliens might be ready to invade, and in that instant, the press room explodes! The hole in the roof reveals war ships of the Zin empire, led by their patriarch Zinyak. These other worldly beings have a Predator-esque Modus operandi in mind. They have traveled to Earth to select the most intelligent humans and plan to add them to their "initiative," hoping the knowledge will assist them in their efforts of galactic conquest.
After brief fisticuffs with Zinyak that ends with the President being knocked out, you wake up in a very different Steelport. One that resembles mid-20th century suburbia. Just before it seems you'll be stuck indefinitely in Leave It to Beaver purgatory, the voice on Kinzie enters into the picture. Luckily, she was able to get to the Saints space cruiser and has uncovered that you are stuck in the Zin "Simulation," a virtual/digital infrastructure where the powers of the mind determine one's abilities (if this sounds familiar to the narrative backbone of a certain film trilogy that started in 1999, that's because it should). The Saints' brainiac is able to pull you out of the "dreamworld." All good, right? Wrong. Zinyak still has a stranglehold over the human race, and the best way to attack him is by transferring back into the Simulation to do what you do best: wreck enough havoc to draw the ire of the Zin leader and have a scenario to take him down when he reveals himself.
The first thing you'll do in IV is customize the President. The Saints games have always done a superb job in playing the "pronoun game" so that no assumptions can be made about the character you decide to create. Because of this, the plethora of tools at your disposal to make the protagonist your own is extremely deep. Every aspect can be adjusted, from gender, to height and weight, to body type, it's as if it doesn't end. For example, there is an adjustable category labeled "upper eyelid height." I had to slide the percentage meter to the extreme ends to understand exactly what I was modifying, which happened quite a bit during the process. The awesome part is all of the little "individual" touches to be had. Like eye color. This choice ranges from simple brown or blue, to the rather eccentric "green cat" color to complete whiteout peepers. So, in case you ever wanted the U.S. President be Bishop from X-Men lore, consider that wish granted. Hairstyles are no different. Go from a goatee with a bald head (Walter White, anyone?) to the 50s Housewife 'do complete with rollers. Hopefully future DLC installment includes a big rolling pin as a melee weapon choice. The thought of chasing down Zin troops yelling profanities while waving around a wooden kitchen utensil looking like Lucille Ball is hilarious to me, and I don't really know why. It took me about 20 minutes to complete the "shaping." This may seem like a waste of time, but considering the third person perspective and how much the model is used in cutscenes, it's well spent to not labor through hours with a character that looks "dumb."
The playable surface, much like previous Saints titles, is sprawling. To the point of being overwhelming at times. Gratefully, Volition designed a very useful and in-depth Menu to help with traversing the landscape. Pressing select brings up many options, including the Map. This will show you every street, unlocked Activity, Store, and other assorted points of interest. Quickly queue up a GPS point to streamline the navigation process. The Phone function also returns. In a pinch with Zin bearing down on you? Call in some Saint backup to help even the odds. My favorite choice is the vehicle retrieval speed dial. Because of the digital setting of IV, no longer will you have to drive to a Crib with a garage to save a whip you want to use again later. Tapping down on the D-pad locks in a virtual copy. Now, with the retrieval Menu option, pick one from the list, and the car/bike/kart/space ship just "appears" with you in control. This becomes seriously handy when you have members of your gang with you. Instead of having to wait for the AI to direct them to the vehicle and have them step in, they are also just "beamed" into the car, which makes evading the authorities much better.
One of the biggest functional changes brought in with IV is the ways in which the Missions "feel." The same general rules of violence and destruction still apply, but everything has been "cranked up" a notch. I'll go more into detail about this later, but just know you unlock super-human abilities very early in the proceedings. In accordance, Actitivies and "Quests" are designed with this in mind. Remember the Gang Operations from THE THIRD? Those "secret" locations where rival gangs would be plotting their next move, and you go bust up the party with brute force. Those have been replaced with Flashpoints. They're essentially the same, but you'll be dispatching Zin troops instead of, say, Triad members. But the Zin are nothing to be trifled. In big enough groups, they can be tough to conquer. So, in the times I'm alone without backup, I essentially use the upgraded Sprint ability with the quick Melee attack by clicking R3. This initiates those awesome wrestling style combat moves I was very fond of in the last entry. The Blazin activity is another IV special. Using the insane sprint ability, a tricky point-to-point course line is layed out that has you racing against the clock. Depending on how much time you have to spare once all the checkpoints have been raced through determines Gold, Silver, or Bronze placement. That is considering you don't run out of time. And to be honest, the Activities aren't as easy to finish as they may have been before. Favorites like Mayhem are back, but sometimes the weapon they have you use in unfamiliar. There were times I would fail the objective because I didn't have an effective start to rack up points quickly. I like this addition. Getting a higher medal should require some trial and error, some practice. If I want to just leisurely blow crap up, then I just won't select an Activity. Simple.
The second Mission type is Quest. These are the story driven selections that are lengthier, offer more Cache, more Respect, and unlock new abilities and weapons. For the sake of not playing spoiler, I'll refrain from delving too much into this section, but there are some notable constructs worth mentioning. The first is that the Quest section in the Menu is split up into two type: Story and Side Mission. The old idea of accomplishing objectives based on the requests of other characters is the same. So one choice might have you doing something in the Simulation for Kinzie to have increased access, and the next VP Keith David needs some Zin defenses knocked down. Story mode stuff can go from being chaotic to downright odd, but I've yet to play a mission I would call "bad." Again, these all work better with the narrative arch behind them, and you'll see what I'm talking about when you start forging through yourself. Side missions work a lot more mechanically. Most of them line up a handful of activities for you to finish in order to get the rewards for doing so. These usually attach a "big prize" like an interesting alien firearm. What's also cool is that you can start a side quest, and methodically mark through the objectives at you leisure. Say you run across a Flashpoint that's just begging for you to tear down, go ahead an stomp some mud holes while going to the next item on the "Side list." Flexibility like this make trudging through the laundry list seem like less of a chore. By the way, for all you Professor Genki fans out there (for which I am also one), there's a very new and quite frantic activity called Mind Over Murder. Again, I'll spare the details, but just be ready for a very different experience that still remains vintage Genki.
In a game such as this, the tools of destruction at your disposal can be what makes or breaks many things, including the fun factor. The IV features a grandiose repertoire. The standard SMG, Pistol, Shotgun, and Sniper classes are here, as to be expected. And can even be upgraded to the nth degree with crazy things like acid laced bullets. But considering the new landscape and enemies, these don't cut the mustard as well as the newer, more off-the-wall selections. The main slots can be replaced with Zin weapons, which may not be a bad idea to exchange if you don't plan on doing a ton of upgrading to the standard ones and have ammo concerns. I actually prefer the Zin assault rifle over the "human" one. But most of my time during the playtest was spent using the whackier choices. Volition designed a shoulder mounted gun that pumps out dub step vibrations and blazes a path of destruction within its fire range. Only SAINTS ROW. Although my favorite is the Abducto-Matic. This recharge based cannon allows you to "paint" a given area and tractor beams all enemies in it's radius into space. Not only is this a very effective dispatch method when upgraded, it's also very funny to see a host of Zin that are firing at you just all the sudden being lifted helplessly into the air.
In terms of overall effect on how you play the game, weapons in IV take a serious backseat to Powers. Again, because the game's story is based in a digitally simulated city (that is, in essence within a simulation because this is a videogame, which is a form of digital simulation in itself. SimulationCeption you have superhuman capabilities. I've already touched on the insane sprint ability to a certain extent. Like, I don't mean you just run faster than the other inhabitants of the world. No. You sprint faster than sports cars and super bikes. And running into vehicles causes them to careen off into the other lane or off the road all together. The first few times I ran down a car I wanted to drive, only to then knock it over because I didn't stop running was kind of frustrating. But once I unlocked unlimited sprint, that became my chosen mode of transportation. That, coupled with the Super Jump ability. There are data fragments scattered about called Clusters. And while you use Cache to upgrade weapons, these are used to boost Power stats. So once I collected enough to increase jump height twice and unlock wall running, I stopped bothering with driving unless I had homies with me. Kicks and punches are also OP and prey on those mischievously violent moments we tend to have in these types of games. Punting an NCP from one end of a parking lot to the next shouldn't be awesome, but it is.
There are other Powers that are more specific to actual combat. The Blast feature gives abilities like Freeze and Fire burst to use at you disposal. Stop a vehicle dead in it's tracks or set a group of enemies a blaze. Effective uses are only limited by your imagination. Undoubtedly, one of the coolest Powers is Telekinesis. With this, you can pick up things with telepathically and "push" them several feet in a given direction. Pick up a dumpster and treat the Zin like bowling pins! Additionally, Telekineses drains "life forms" for health. Entrap pedestrians and vampirically transfer their energy.
This game is very good about its 'step-by-step' functionality. IV makes sure you have what's needed to tackle the next challenge. Whether that's granting a new ability, or offering the assets necessary to unlock a proper upgrade, everything it planned out well. And yes, while this isn't exactly a "revolutionary" sentiment, what is refreshing is that these check marks aren't readily evident. What seems like just another "toy" actually becomes vital in an un-obvious way. For example: I was clearing out a random Flashpoint, and when all the regular Zin were iced, in came a Warden. Wardens are hulking Zinyak allies hellbent on destroying you. Think of them as reoccurring mini-bosses. Tough, but not "unfair" to fight either. Between the time from my first encounter with a Warden to this one, they gained a shield system that thwarts away all bullet fire. What to do!? Luckily (wink, wink) I had unlocked the Freeze Power previous to the battle. This temporarily takes the force field down and opens it up to a regular ammo barrage for a short period of time. Repeating the process takes the scum down for good. Up to that point, I hadn't found an important function for Freeze and that event happened sometime later. It's not as if the altercation launched directly after getting Freeze. Good design by those at Volition.
At first I felt conflicted playing this new installment. There was just something about it that I couldn't quite put into words. All I knew is that I didn't feel like I was having as much fun as I should be having. What was it? All the main aspects from The Third are all here and that was one of my favorite games of 2011. Then slowly but surely it started coming into focus. Running around with unlimited sprint, leaping over buildings, kicking trucks into bodies of water, punching holes through people, and all of this being ad nauseam is the problem. It's the difference between the phrase "anything's possible" to "everything's possible." In the last iteration, a lot of the aforementioned things happened, but didn't occur all the time. When something really insane, really crazy, really, well, SAINTS ROW happened, it seemed special. "Holy crap, did you see that!" moments were to be treasured. Even thought the outrageous is what makes this series what it is, and gives it competitive legs in the sandbox action landscape, it could still be classified in the same realm as it's competition. In IV, everything is possible. Available at a moment's notice. After a while, this loses its luster. The classic case of "too much of a good thing." Before everyone flips out, let me clarify that this isn't a bad game and this aspect doesn't throw a wrench in the whole design. In the heat of an insane mission, you'll be grateful to be so OP. When accomplishing a big Story objective, it's crucial to shoot fireballs from your hands and leap tens of feet in the air. But in those times when all you want is aimless play (the "Free Skate" philosophy), it's not as engaging. I had WAY more fun doing Missions in this game, which has an eventual end. But the beauty of sandbox is that, other than being in control of a certain character, you're not so different from the NPCs around you. I know, it sounds like I'm nit-picking. If I would have read someone saying what I just said before playing the game, I would have said the writer has no idea what he/she is talking about, is and being a jaded, snobby game critic. From a personal standpoint, however, I have to be honest. And I truthfully didn't have that giddy feeling with IV compared to the other ones.
The presentation, however, is as strong as ever. The voice acting is yet again top notch. You can even have the voice of Mr. Nathan Drake himself Nolan North deliver your created character lines. The script is quite hilarious to listen to, and can even be somewhat distracting in the middle of a firefight. The visuals really come through well. Ordinary metropolis scenery meshes solidly with the alien influence of hovering space crafts and other "outer worldly" items. Collision detection had no noticeable hiccups, which is commendable considering everything is usually cranked to 11. The audio work is just as crisp and offers good spacial recognition along with pleasingly loud effects. The soundtrack is pretty good with a variety of rock, hip hop, "dance," and classical. You can also keep the "radio station" when not in a car, if you so choose.