Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When the Saints Go Marching In

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

I recently finished Saint's Row 4, and holy crap was it an amazing experience. In my last blog I expressed concern that SR4's sales might suffer with it being released so close to Grand Theft Auto 5 since they're similar games and some people my feel the need to choose one over the other. Well I'm happy to report that, after playing it, those fears seem unfounded. Saint's Row 4 is so far removed from what the GTA series is that it's hardly worth the comparison. SR4 is more in line with games like Crackdown or Infamous; its a super hero game at heart.

The new Saint's Row still has many of the gameplay mechanics you associate with GTA and earlier entries in the series: the ability to jack cars and planes, etc. However, within the first hour or so, you'll find that you will almost never have to set foot in a vehicle except for when the game's story requires it.

The reason is, early on in the game, your character earns the ability to run faster than any car in existence and jump incredibly high into the air. And, soon after, you'll be able to run up the side of any building, leap off at the top and glide across the city like some foul-mouthed flying squirrel.


The breezy, fluent traversal controls are easily one of the funnest parts of the game. It's simply a blast to get around the city, and the game provides more than enough collectibles to give you an excuse to just criss-cross the city of Steelport like a drunken Superman. Scattered all over the place there are more than 1200 "clusters" that function as a secondary currency that you'll use to upgrade your various super powers. There are several other types of collectibles as well, including audio logs and statues begging to be destroyed.

Enter the Simulatrix

Welcome to Virtual Steelport! Brought to you by the Zin Empire.
If you haven't been following SR4 up to its release you're probably wondering why you have super powers to begin with. The Saint's Row franchise, while becoming increasingly ridiculous over the years, has always been somewhat grounded in reality. So where do these powers come in to play? To explain that we'll have to dig into the story a bit. So, if you're planning to enter SR4 spoiler-free, you should probably stop reading here. Just know that the game is amazing and you should absolutely play it if what you've seen or read has interested you at all. However, be sure to play it on PC if that's an option for you; I hear the console versions suffer from some serious performance issues.

When the game opens, the leader of the Saints(your character) is in the middle of foiling a plot to nuke the United States. Despite your best efforts the warhead launches and you're tasked with climbing the missile and tearing out its navigation systems as it builds altitude. You ultimately succeed and dive off of the missile just in the nick of time. This event propels you and the Saint's from international celebrities to patriotic heroes. And, being the ambitious bastard you are, you parlay the public adoration into a run for the Presidency. And you win.

Things aren't all rosy for your administration, however. You're facing resistance from other political groups and all the major decisions being left to you have begun to take their toll. And, just when it looks like the leader of the free world is considering hanging it up for good, fucking aliens bust into the White House and abduct you and your cabinet members(your friends and fellow Saints.)

You wind up in a crazy virtual world based on Steelport from Saint's Row: The Third, But this place is designed to keep you in line and break you. To make a long story short, a couple of your homies help you break out of this digital nightmare and steal an alien ship to call your own.

Complete with futuristic shitter!
However, a number of your friends are still trapped inside this network of cyber prisons, known as The Simulation. And the only way to get them out is to plug yourself back in, track down where they're being held, and force them to snap out of the illusion. You'll also need to weaken the Simulation overall in an attempt to bring the whole thing down. But these are just the steps you must take to get your shot at Emperor Zinyak, architect of The Simulation.

It's basically a mix of The Matrix films and Mass Effect games, with tons of references to other games and movies thrown in for good measure. You'll see nods to everything from Terminator and Men in Black to Streets of Rage and Combat, and everything in between.

Hmm, I know this reminds me of something...
SR4's story is very well written, but it's ultimately just an excuse to give you ridiculous powers and the designers a chance to throw you into increasingly ludicrous scenarios that couldn't exist in a more realistic world.This lends the game's story missions a wide variety of settings and mechanics for you to play around with. And, since you're entering simulations that are based on your trapped homie's worst nightmares, it provides insight into these character's backstories, giving you a better sense of who they are. It makes you care about them, which makes you want to help them out.

After rescuing one of the Saints, you can speak to them aboard your ship or call them into The Simulation to aid you in combat. More importantly however, you gain access to a loyalty mission involving them. These missions are all unique to that specific character and are the source of some of the best and funniest moments in the entire game, especially if you've played the earlier Saint's Rows. Your reward for completing the mission? That homie becomes super powered within The Simulation and dons an incredible hero outfit, all of which are perfectly fitting for that person.

One of my only complaints with the game is that I wish there were more interactions with your homies. Aboard the ship you have two options with each of the Saint's, "talk" or "romance". The "talk" option just has them throw out a few lines related to what's going on, and the "romance" options leads to an immediate, and often awkward, romance scene which are consistently funny because of how abrupt they are. When you think about it though, that's hardly even a complaint; I like what they did with the characters so much that I just want there to be more of it.

Cue the mood lighting.

Let the Playa Play

Saint's Row 4 is clearly built on the same engine as SR:TT and it reuses a lot of assets from that game. However, almost the entire world has been re-skinned to fit the new motif which makes the setting feel new, yet familiar. This feeling applies to the gameplay as well; the shooting feels the same as the previous entry in the series, but your new found abilities make the combat, and especially the traversal, feel completely fresh.

There is no adequate way to describe the feeling of dropping from the sky next to a group of enemies, tossing a Freeze Blast in their midst and then shattering their frozen bodies with you automatic shotgun. To put it lightly, it feels gooood...

I can't stress enough how fun running, jumping, and gliding around fake Steelport is. It's so satisfying that Blazin' quickly became one of my favorite activities in the game. It's a new take on an activity that's been in SR since the second game. It used to be called Trail Blazin' and it's basically their version of checkpoint races. In previous iterations you'd perform these side quests on an ATV but, in SR4, you're on foot using your Super Sprint. I always enjoyed Trail Blazin', but it was never my favorite thing to do in the game. In SR4, it's a damn close second to the mainline story and loyalty missions.

Music to My Ears

I will be the first to admit that I am not the most musically inclined person. Very few games have music that serves as anything more than background noise to me; I almost never notice if it's any good or not. That's why I have to make special mention about the soundtrack in SR4, it's absolutely wonderful. I firmly believe that this game may have the best use of licensed music of any game, ever. There are just so many moments that are made ten times funnier by the games choice of song.

I don't want to spoil these moments, so the only example I'll give is one of the earliest. In the opening sequence I mentioned earlier where you're climbing the nuclear missile as it flies through the air, the Saints that were with you assume that you're not going to make it and start giving your their heart-felt goodbyes over the radio. And while this touching moment is happening, Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" begins playing in the background. It's so utterly perfect that I could barely keep playing because I was laughing so hard.
I think I might actually tear up.

When the Saint's Go Marching Out

Everything about Saint's Row 4 makes it feel like the perfect send-off for this series. Nearly every fan-favorite character from the previous games returns in some capacity and, as someone who's played every SR game to completion, the feelings of nostalgia were undeniable as the game tossed out references to some things from the past that I remember vividly, and other things that I'd forgotten about. You don't need to have played all of the previous games to enjoy this one but, if you have, your experience will be even more fulfilling.

That's not to say that there's nowhere else that this franchise could go. Personally I couldn't have imagined where else they could take it that would be crazier than space aliens and virtual realities, but the game's ending actually plants a pretty amazing seed that would be mind-blowing to see them follow through on. That being said, the people at Volition stated that this would be the last game in this version of the Saint's Row universe, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them move on to something else for their next game. Even if it's only to give them some breathing room before jumping back into this series.

In conclusion, I absolutely adored Saint's Row 4; it's easily one of my favorite game this year and I would recommend it to anyone. 

Game on!