Saints Row 4 review: The Saints rule everywhere

Being properly, legitimately astonished by Saints Row 4 is an unavoidable eventuality inherent to the experience, but there's something to be said for going in completely blind, as I did. If at all possible, I highly recommend it – Volition's latest is a non-stop cavalcade of self-aware meta-humor and surprising, bombastic gameplay decisions from stem to stern, and to enter the experience with even the slightest knowledge of what's coming would be doing yourself a major disservice.

If you absolutely must be convinced, however, allow me to elaborate on exactly why Saints Row 4 is a modern classic befitting the insane legacy of the 3rd Street Saints.%Gallery-191107%

After the events of Saints Row: The Third, The Boss and crew have been called into action to aid MI6 in a covert counter-terrorist operation. Since "covert" isn't really in the Saints' vocabulary, the situation quickly devolves into the kind of explosion-filled mayhem they're more accustomed to. Cut to five years later, and after heroically foiling the terrorists' plot, The Boss has converted the resulting notoriety and fame into a successful Presidential campaign. The United States of America is now a Saints-run operation.

Everything is going pretty well for The Boss until evil alien overlord Zinyak (of the Zin Empire, natch) invades during a White House press conference, kidnapping the entire Cabinet and, eventually, The Boss. Things only get worse from there, when The Boss awakens to find herself trapped in 1950's Steelport – or rather, a computer simulation of 1950's Steelport. The Boss has been trapped in Zinyak's virtual prison and must not only escape the simulation, but find and rescue the rest of the Saints in the process.

From there, the game takes place in both the real world and inside of the simulation, Matrix-style. It's the first of many genre pastiches that make up a decent portion of the game, but somehow Volition avoids making any references or allusions that seem hamfisted or forced. It's always obvious, but it's also consistently clever, which is a hard thing to pull off when making such elaborate pop-culture references. There's a fine line between "this is a thoughtful homage" and "this reference was easier than being original," and Saints Row 4 stays firmly rooted in the former throughout.

Most major gameplay staples from Saints Row: The Third return in Saints Row 4, including the fantastic breadth of character customization options, dozens of different customizable vehicles, buyable ability upgrades and an emphasis on expanding Saints territory through store ownership. Steelport itself is also unchanged topographically, though the feel of the city is quite different due to being under the oppressive thumb of its new alien ruler. The only major thing that doesn't return is the upgradable Crib system – the game even makes a point of demonstrating that Zinyak blew up The Boss' apartment.

None of this is to say that Saints Row 4 is even remotely the same sort of experience, however, as The Boss' new range of superhuman abilities - a side benefit of being trapped in a virtual space - completely alter the fundamental experience of navigating Steelport, as well as the way both story and side-missions are constructed.

Super jumps, ultra-speed, telekinesis – making my way from mission to mission has never been this consistently enjoyable. Locomotion in SR4 is that same kind of destructive, free-flowing madness seen in the likes of Prototype or Crackdown, only with a signature flair of Saints insanity that both delights and exhilarates.

There are eight superpowers in all, each of which can be upgraded by collecting and spending Data Cores strewn across Steelport, and/or augmented with new effects earned by completing quest chains given by members of the Saints. Challenge Missions are also scattered around the map, each one tailored for a specific power: Super-running races, super-jump platforming levels, super-stomp destruction courses, etc. Each new challenge type hits the mark perfectly, consistently proving itself as a worthwhile distraction from the flat-out incredible story missions that weave everything together.

Saints Row 4 review The Saints rule everywhere

Said missions, while dramatically varied in scope and theme, are still primarily built around combat and gunplay, although there are exceptions to this rule. The game's shooting mechanics function identically to those found in Saints Row: The Third, in that everything is over-the-shoulder and a radial menu grants instant access to the player's sizable armory of equipped weapons.

Gunfights are as solid as they ever were, which is to say remarkably so. Each type of weapon maintains a unique, satisfying feel when used, and each gun is useful at every stage of the game's progression, provided you keep up with the upgrades. This means that I never had switch to a weapon type I wasn't fond of for the sake of utility – so long as I kept pouring money into them, my trusty pistols would always get the job done.

Just as many aliens died at the hands of my incredible superpowers as they did from gunshot wounds, and that's a big part of what keeps SR4 so fresh throughout: The method to my madness was always of my own choosing, and it was as complicated or as simple as I wanted to make it. Sometimes I felt like keeping it classic, rolling into a Zin encampment in a stolen, tricked out rides, firing bullets wildly from every open window.

On other occasions, however, super-powered melee was more apt, with my righteous, glowing fists zooming at near light-speed from one alien beast to the next. In a way, Saints Row 4's combat is a pure distillation of the game's entire design philosophy: Do whatever the hell you want, and feel awesome doing it.

More subtle improvements to the formula have been made as well. Weapons are now customizable, which means The Boss has pretty pink polka-dotted assault rifles to match her pink and purple magical girl outfit. The radio returns, but now functions whether the player is in a car or not – a fantastic creature comfort considering that the player spends far less time in vehicles, on account of their superhuman running speed and gliding capabilities.

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All of these iterative changes help keep the gameplay fresh, but a huge part of what truly makes Saints Row 4 such a memorable experience is its phenomenal script and the intangible chemistry between its voice actors. Laura Bailey, Natalie Lander, Arif S. Kinchen and the rest of the cast are so entirely on-point with every single delivery that no joke ever falls flat, and no touching moment ever feels forced or alien to the Saints universe, no pun intended.

Furthermore, the story missions that tie these brilliantly crafted moments together constitute one of the most diverse, madcap and worthwhile single-player experiences I've ever encountered. Every single thing in Saints Row 4 is worth doing, which is a huge accomplishment on its own, but its story missions in particular are inventive, hilariously unexpected examples of truly inspired game design.

I was worried that Saints Row 4 would never be able to live up to Saints Row: The Third, that its status as an expansion-turned-full-game would translate to a sloppy experience built on filler and same-y gameplay. Thankfully, Volition's skill for building a living world, lovable characters and ingenious gameplay is as sharply honed as ever. Be it in Steelport, a computer-generated simulation thereof or the very depths of outer space, the Saints rule everywhere.

This review is based on the Steam version of Saints Row 4, provided by Deep Silver.

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