Full disclosure: 1) I am only about half way through the game; 2) I am a movie/game nerd in my 30s.
Saint’s Row. How you have grown!
I never really played #1. As a poor man’s GTA clone, I wasn’t interested. #2 Has entertained me. It was just irreverent and gratuitous enough to have a personality beyond its very familiar crime-lord-dominates-city motif. #3 Was the first one to really capture me.
In Saint’s Row The Third, you were tasked with helming the resurgence of the stumbling media empire which the Saints had become. It was a giant, colourful, sweary, brazen playground. The stunts and missions were bigger, more ridiculous than ever and holding it all together was a small cast of knowing, incredulous characters, who seemed as amazed and as excited by the stupid things they had to do as I was. I had a good time with #3. Sure, it has problems; not least that if you observe it with anything other than an utterly ironic head on your shoulders, then it’s a terrible, terrible game about violence, decimation, the objectification of women in particular, but everyone where available…pretty much everything awful about games.
The fourth game in the series is interesting for many of the ways in which it addresses some of those problems. But…and here’s the crux of the matter…who cares? If you’re looking for depth and subtlety, social conscience and progressive thinking, then you shouldn’t be playing any of these games.
You’re here to have fun.
Saint’s Row The Third was utterly dedicated to providing the player with a good time. More than any other game I could think of, it set out to wrangle as much entertainment from each moment as it could, but…somehow it still felt constrained. To use a metaphor specifically designed to needle my Big Gay Pals; it had come out to its friends and family, but it hadn’t yet bought the feather boa and the bumper sticker.
Well, Saint’s Row IV is parading down the street in its bright-tight-white undies and chaps. It’s waving its rainbow flag.
I get the impression that the developers have watched every game, movie and TV show of the last few years and written a list of things they enjoyed. Perhaps with the coming end of the generation of consoles, they felt freed to drop all pretence at being a realistic game, to thumb their nose once and for all at the accusations of GTA clone status. They have taken their list of “Things We Enjoyed” and squeezed as much as they possibly could into their game. I think every time anyone had an idea that they thought was funny, that they got to give it a go and see if anyone else laughed.
Let’s start with the references. The characters are constantly spouting lines from films and music…films and music that I know well. They know they’re doing it, too…the characters all seem to have grown up in the same universe as I did and know and love the same things. It’s fun to hang out with them, even if for no other reason then because of our shared cultural heritage. The characters are having just as much fun as I am. We geek out at the same times. It never feels like someone said “No, we need to be serious…gravitas, damnit!”
The references do not stop at the script, either. The plot is a hackey mashup of The Matrix and…well…something schlocky with aliens. It’s broad, glorious science-fantasy. It’s not apologetic about it either. It KNOWS it’s the Matrix and goes to town. Put your character in a long coat and watch the power-jump and landing animations and tell me they are not cribbed directly from Keanu’s performance.
The gameplay is a mashup, too. The guns and gangs feel just like the third game. The super-powered movement is straight out of [prototype] and the orb-collecting is pure Crackdown. The mini games make a return; the glorious opportunities to, for no readily good reason, get a tank and drive around blowing up EVERYTHING. Or if not a tank, then a flying robot-suit. Or just explosive wrecking balls thrown about with your telekinetic powers. For the most part they are translations of the games from #3, but there are some newcomers, not all of which I really enjoyed. However, finding one or two small games that don’t float my boat amidst such a raging torrent of fun is…to be expected.
The bottom line is, I think, that I get the strong impression that the developers are just like me. They know the same films and shows, they grew up with the same TV and music, they love the same geekiness and fandom. I cannot tell you how torn I was between having guns that look like Deckard’s sidearm from Bladerunner, or Captain Mal’s pistol from Firefly. WHO MAKES ANOTHER PERSON MAKE THAT CHOICE?!?!?! At least for the other pistols there was a clear winner in Han Solo’s laser gun. I cannot tell you how happy I was when, upon piloting a giant ship out of an even gianter ship, that the lead character shouts “Stay on target!”.
Am I getting this through to you? I love this game. I’m not sure I could ever defend it to a council of angry mothers, but it’s just so joyously silly, so proud of its loves and its heritage, so determined to make me have a good time, that I cannot deny it. It’s a celebration of everything the developers enjoy and you get to join in. No other game makes me laugh the same way. No other game satisfies my nerdity so regularly. No other game has me defusing a nuclear missile – in flight – to the swelling 90’s power of Aerosmith, then later engage in some super-powered falling-over to Pomp & Circumstance. No other game has the main character react EXACTLY as I want them to when they are presented with a shiny new robot.
Get your tighty-whiteys on, buy your feather boa and get thee to Steelport.