Saints Row 4: an Empire of Parodies and Parody of Empires
With the bankruptcy of developing giant THQ and the auctioning off of its intellectual properties, the fate of nascent Saints Row 4 was up in the air for a while. And after it was picked up by Deep Silver, producers of Dead Island, more than its fair share of speculation was had as to what could be expected. Put in the capable hands of Volition, who developed such underappreciated classics as Ghostbusters: The Game, I had my hopes, which were simultaneously not met and exceeded.
For those who have followed the Saints Row series, you will recall that the first two games were played close the vest, emphasizing realism and to a greater extent the carnage (the freedom of which possibly apexing with Saints Row 2) of American inner-city street gang culture. Saint’s Row the Third heralded a change for the whacky, with increasingly outlandish characters, enemies, weapons, and scenarios. For those who weren’t paying attention, it also hinted at a sharp increase in the science fiction elements of the series.
Rather than continue in that vein, Saints Row 4 has opted to break with any attempt at sincerity by presenting a parody of just about every intellectual property you could name. There’s William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Star Wars, They Live, T2, Star Trek, Firefly, Dr. Who, The Matrix, Zero Dark Thirty, Independence Day, Firefly, and those are just the obvious ones. This represents a restructuring from the original material produced by THQ, and you don’t have to look closely to see where the old and new are stitched together like the flesh of some hollow yet satisfied Frankenstein’s monster.
As a warning, the rest of this review will contain spoilers.
To recap, you as the head of the Saints work with MI6 to thwart the plot of the previous game’s villain, killing him yet failing to prevent him from firing an ICBM directly at Washington DC. You do your Dr. Strangelove impersonation and are elected President of the United States for saving the country.
And then the aliens attack.
The Zin Empire, ala Independence Day, starts beaming people up, introducing you to their Emperor Zinyak. Try though you might, you still end up being beaten and waking up stuck in a Leave It To Beaver parody world in which your hacker ally, Kinzie, breaks to tell you that you’re stuck in a computer simulation controlled by Zinyak to be a prison comprising your worst nightmare. And to a sociopathic mass murderer, what could be more terrible than the peace and normalcy of 1950s television? You break out and wake up in a tank. Cue the warm liquid goo phase. You’re in the Zin mothership, where billions of humans have been put into storage, and you make your escape with the aid of Kinzie and Keith David, your VP and star of such films as They Live. But, in a blast, there’s no home to go back to, what with Zin blowing up Earth.
As tends to be the custom in Saints Row when one of your own is killed (a necessary plot device in every game), all motivations now point to revenge. And you go back into the simulation, which Zin has turned into a recreation of Steelport from Saints Row the Third, in order to destroy the system from the inside while freeing your old allies from their own personal simulated prisons which live out their worst fears again and again. A fun and dedicated element to ongoing gameplay comes from entering simulations dredged from the worst fears of each of your allies, giving you a deeper understanding of them as three-dimensional, dynamic characters which shows an admirable attention to detail on the part of designers and writers.
Since you’re in a simulation, and you know it, your character gains super powers over time, allowing you to do all the things you wished you could do in Saints Row the Third while being too lazy to generate a new map. Is this a bad thing? Not really. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I love the meta-fiction of a video game character realizing he’s in a video game, and then delving into further video games drawn from the minds of his allies, as well as the freedom from the laws of reality this results in. And that’s where I think Saints Row 4 shines brightest: In its dedication to add to rather than take away. You can save every vehicle you drive automatically to your garage and spawn them at will now. You can still upgrade and customize these vehicles as you always could. But why would you bother when you can now run faster than most cars can drive, bowling over anything in your path, and leap over tall buildings in a single bound? (Oddly enough, there was no Superman reference, which should be an obvious parody). You wouldn’t, but the fact is you still can. That’s the beauty of this design. Frivolity. Having it in there just for shits and giggles. And why not? An open-ended world allows for many adventures, there should be no single way to play it. That’s why you can play solo, call your homies, call in tanks, or heave cars around like Legos with nothing but a Japanese imported rubber tentacle and the power of your brain. Ride mechs, inflate people until they explode, call flying saucers to beam up the bad guys. Go hog wild. The opportunities for catharsis in the chaos gameplay presents are manifold.
Developers have also tapped in to the player’s mindset for acquisitions. A player always wants the new gun. Why? Because it’s new. It looks different. It might shoot different. Well, you have several choices in each category of firearm at your disposal. Each choice can be customized and upgraded differently. Also, each choice can be reskinned to look and sound entirely different. Han Solo’s blaster, the Colonial Marine pulse rifle, and Captain Malcom Reynolds’ sidearm are just a few choices on the menu, effectively taking the bare bones necessary for a respectable shooter and putting control back into the player’s hands.
Now that you’ve had the good, here’s the bad, which is not nearly as much as one would expect.
There are sometimes glitches with your character, such as when reloading a weapon your character will motion to throw away the old magazine, but it doesn’t actually leave your hand. It stays stuck there until you save and reload the game. This is a minor problem, but an annoying one. A more significant issue is the freezing. In a complete playthrough my game froze up four times. And were it not for the autosave feature salvaging what amounted in total to be about 30 hours of gameplay, I would’ve used the disc for skeet. Money is also an issue. Your hourly income is based on the completion rating of your map missions. But even at 100% completion, you won’t make enough money to upgrade all your abilities and weapons (not to mention the cars) until you’ve finished with your second playthrough. And for those of us whose time is limited, that’s just not gonna happen. It should however be noted that this is one of those titles in which a second playthrough, should you find the time, still presents itself just as fresh and enjoyable as the first time around. You would be amazed how much time you find yourself spending testing weapons on various bystanders, mixing up your wardrobe, and shooting the breeze because of the comfort and control established in your video game world.
As for the soundtrack, apparently demographics shows there are more people interested in reggae, hardcore gangsta rap, and dubstep than a classic rock or heavy metal station. Without the news updates and humorous commercials we’ve come to expect, it just falls flat and probably should’ve been reconsidered.
Now there’s the ugly. The storyline. It’s hard to know what the folks at Volition were thinking, but what they’ve managed to achieve is the reversal of almost every major story point from Saint’s Row the Third as well as the removal of all but a few essential characters. I say removal since the fate of much of the previous installment’s supporting cast is left unknown. I know one would think that because the Earth exploded they died, but Johnny Gat makes a miraculous return thanks to one of the most obvious retcons in the history of fiction. Zin captured him as Earth’s most puissant warrior in part 3, so he never died. And if Johnny can be resurrected so easily (with a flashback mind you) it’s not inconceivable that the other characters should be brought back at a later date. Especially considering the time travel revelation at the end of the game and the hints at a part five involving Jane Austen and other famous historical figures that Zin had “collected” and put into stasis.
That and the fact that it was never established why Zin abducted the majority of the human population and what he intended to do with them suggests that all this is building up to a transition of some kind in the upcoming sequel. CID, a new ally, also has a shadowy past that goes unilluminated. From the perspective of a storyteller, this is the equivalent of a “to be continued” slapped onto the last page of a book because the author couldn’t figure out how to better split the story into episodic installments. And, given the game’s propensity for parody, it will be hard to take any further attempts at genuine storytelling seriously.
The way I see it, there are a few tried and true science fiction avenues by which developers could continue the paradigm of an open-world environment with side quests, allies, weapons and upgrades, etc. All of it would essentially be creating a new Earth, be it through time travel, an alternate dimension, or colonization. That decision will ultimately come down to what new elements of gameplay developers can devise. In SR4 it is super powers. Scaling upward from there would involve commanding an empire, which you already do, or utilizing worldbuilding capabilities to make your own map. Just a thought.
And that, I think, is what pulled Saints Row 4 together: developers were not afraid of sacrificing story or credibility in order to provide players with a more entertaining game. That’s the point of it. That’s the long and short of it. Saints Row 4 is incredibly entertaining and has a high replay value thanks to all the extra collectables and side missions hidden away. It features fun characters, a tongue-in-cheek approach to violence (what the boss called being a puckish rogue as opposed to a psychotic mass murderer), and the novel experience of feeling as if you’re a god walking among men. Given our own conduct in such an environment, I suppose that explains how god treats man.