This shit don’t play by nobody’s rules.
Immediate and brutal stabbing. So reads the beginning of my notes on Saints Row IV and so the game continues, pretty much throughout.
Lacking the depth and grit of its oft-compared superior Grand Theft Auto, the strengths of Saints Row IV lie where they have throughout the series – in a hit-and-miss sense of humour grown mostly hit and from a sense of gamer camaraderie, stemming chiefly from a series of gaming in-jokes, predominantly recognisable only to the hardened enthusiast – from a Batman shaped shadow to Crackdown style races.
In the past, Volition’s open world blockbuster has occasionally fallen prey to accusations of catering to the whims of the lowest common denominator, appealing to frat boys and thirteen year olds who stash seedy tit-mags under their beds (or whatever the 2013 equivalent is, perhaps clearing your history after a furtive glance at the Brazzers free trial).
Unfortunately, this is never more evident than in the first ten minutes of gameplay when you’re presented with an homage to Bioware’s oft-repeated conversational system and get to choose one option or the other: ‘Punch a dick head’ or ‘Punch a dick in the head’ a joke which can only have come from the mind of a beer-pong addled wretch named Chad.
Thankfully though, when the humour does work it works well enough – a sign reading ‘No Infidels Beyond This Point’ on the door to terrorist central proves a particularly amusing touch, but glimmers like that can be too often eclipsed by juvenile titterings, littering the Saints Row landscape like white chicks at a Kanye concert.
In game and having defused a nuke whilst listening to Aerosmith’s ‘Don’t Wanna’ Miss a Thing’ in an inspired (and hilarious) homage to Armageddon, you’re quite literally dropped into the White ‘Crib’ (less hilarious) and made President of the United States, peppering your staff with pimps, hookers and a liberal helping of stripper poles, conjuring up fond reminiscences of the Nixon administration.
Your Utopian leadership is cut short by the leader of a race of alien invaders who abducts your cabinet and places you, the President, into a Matrix style netherworld, a prison in which you enjoy almost unbounded power but from which you are (seemingly) unable to return, a world where none of your actions are real and as such where none of the virtuous bystanders you run over/shoot/blow up/punch in the crotch until they die are of any relevance or concern and in which you can do anything you feel like, gradually increasing in power through a series of upgrades until vehicles become a thing of insignificance as you leap from one end of the lovingly detailed city to another, like an irrepressible, irresistible, irresponsible Superman.
Thus have developers Volition been able to intensify the game’s joyous, wanton-in-the-absolute-best-sense-of-the-word action way past eleven. Saints Row IV is a master class in Armageddon, a hymn to shameless carnage and bloody good fun to boot. Two hours into the story a colleague turned to me and asked if there were any amusing cheats to be had, at which point it occurred to me that any cheats there might be were rendered an irrelevance by the amount of time you spend inhabiting a perpetual, blissful, God mode .
The series has ever lacked the grit, the realism, the effortless, bona fide, golden age of the Gangster movie glamour of GTA and has suffered both critically and commercially as a result; cast as the drunk at the party, making an idiot of itself to become the centre of attention. But with Saints Row IV, Volition have embraced what the series should always have been about – unsullied, unadulterated, fun, highlighted perhaps best by the total sense of liberation you’re offered within the character customisation options. Anyone who can’t summon at least a smile in the face of a seven foot tall, three hundred pound man with the voice of a six year old girl, crotch-kicking an alien across a rooftop whilst wearing a Lady Gaga dress doesn’t deserve to play video games, because they’re a cock. You, the gamer, can dress, cross dress, and alter the positioning of your testicles to your heart’s content, being rewarded all the while for thinking as outrageously as possible, with the game bequeathing a series of statistical bonuses to the player who embraces, in the grandest sense of the word, equality and the notion that just about everybody has protagonist potential. A system which was perhaps only ever intended to provoke flippantly cheap laughs has instead gone some way to addressing the issue of games which have only ever provided the one size fits all, white-male protagonist to its player base. This is a game for everyone; everything, and I mean everything, is yours to tailor as you see fit.
Whilst parents and er, Australia, might worry about the game’s lack of regret and two middle-fingers to the man spirit, the developers have given themselves a neat sidestep in their ability to point out that none of the in game actions are really happening, even in the most trivial in-game sense. Leaving that aside, you get the impression that the R-rated, gimp suit wearing shemale embracing heart and soul of Saints Row IV couldn’t care less about those parents anyway and gives absolutely no shits about Australia.
Taking inspiration from some of gaming’s latest greats (Assassin’s Creed, Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect, Call of Duty and dare I say it, GTA) the Saints Row series has stepped out of its own shadow, becoming surprisingly lovable, eminently enjoyable and more than anything else, utterly joyous in the process. Long live the Saints.