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The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 21

Earth is no more. Humanity is all but wiped out. Those few that survive are trapped in a tortuous hell of monstrous alien creation. So let’s have some fun!

It’s Saints Row IV!

John: This is my game of the year. And I never imagined it would be. While I loved Saints Row 3, and was certainly looking forward to the next game, the collapse of THQ took place between the two. And it became apparent that what was intended to be an expansion for SR3 was now being turned into a full game. That has disaster written all over it. Saints Row IV should have been an awkward, half-arsed attempt to stretch something disposable into a full game. (Or “Doing a Dragon Age 2”, as I believe it should be known.) But my goodness, that didn’t happen. SRIV is the best of the series, a phenomenal piece of work that stands as a banner for all of gaming about how expectations and “realism” are the bane of ambition, and just a mad ton of fun.

It’s obligatory whenever you write about Saints Row to point out that it began as a pathetic GTA rip-off. Because it did. It was ugly, tacky, and I still have no idea how it didn’t end in a court case. It’s obligatory because it further emphasises the achievements of Volition to have taken something so tawdry (in every respect) and built on it to create one of the most fun games ever made. And even better, they did it cutting corners in the most incredibly clever ways. SRIV presents you with the same city as SR3, and entirely gets away with it!

That’s in a huge part down to the writing. The premise: aliens blow up the Earth and dump you – briefly the President of America – into a computer simulation of the city you knew. Same city, brilliantly glitchy graphics. You’re then tasked with rescuing many members of your previous crew from the hell-programs in which they’re trapped, while also driving super-jumping and flying around the city, just having a good time. It’s a world of bad puns, ludicrous destruction, and guilt-free murdering of pedestrians and cops, since they’re either simulations or evil aliens. Wheeeeee!

I throw that away, but that’s a huge thing too. While GTA descends further into a grim universe of misery and contempt, Saints Row ascends into a glorious playground of silliness and upbeat nonsense. This is a game where a dubstep gun causes pretend people to dance themselves to death. Where you have as much fun throwing giant furry animal heads through impossibly floating hoops as you do firing guns at policemen.

And it does all this with some of the smartest writing I’ve ever seen. SR3 delivered a superb script, with remarkable pathos. SRIV gets even better, if somewhat more light-hearted. The dialogue is like nothing else, so sharp, witty, and constantly hitting one-liners out of the park. And yet the characters have weight, significance. They build on their behaviour over the last three games, even lampooning their more crude realisations in the first two. Where Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon worked so incredibly hard to fall short of spoofing 80s gaming, Saints Row IV does it far, far better in a couple of throwaway scenes. The game is so bursting with talent that it almost feels casual about being brilliant. And Keith David!

All this, and the game where you can play as anyone you want. A fat, Hispanic transsexual? No problem. An emaciated black man with a giant panda head? Go for it. It allows you to be as outrageous, refined, grotesque or plain as you wish, and seems to honour that choice. That the extraordinary volume of dialogue for your character is recorded multiple times in multiple accents and personality types is incredible. Pick a French accent and your player will throw in French words. Pick Nolan North and, well, you’ve got Nolan North. It’s emblematic of just how much work went into this, how every detail was so cared over, and just how much this isn’t an over-stretched expansion.

Then my goodness, the Roddy Piper scene! The Biz Markie sequence! These are utter classics of gaming, moments we should be and are quoting in our gamer playgrounds. And then, that final gag, that moment post-credits. I laughed harder at that than anything else I can think of in years. I laughed so hard that I couldn’t breath. For real. I was collapsed on my desk, in genuine pain for lack of oxygen, and still chuckling, my face soaked in helpless tears of laughter. There’s no point finding out what that joke was, because it wouldn’t be funny out of context. But after 15 hours or so playing the game through, and then that line. That moment alone makes this my favourite game this year.

Jim: For the first few hours of Saints Row IV I had a spectator sat at my shoulder. He didn’t want to play, and he only begrudgingly watched. He was not impressed. He did not like what he saw. What a silly game. He was right. It is a silly game. And that unrepentant maelstrom of unsensible tastelessness was the reason I loved it.

It’s an explosion of ludicrousness. When I am playing Saints Row IV I am beating a piñata filled with games best ideas and worst jokes. And also its best jokes and worst ideas. They come tumbling out in a stupid mess. The fact that Volition where able to hold down this mad octopus of a game and get it out in a workable state is incredible. The fact that my spectating chum did seem why a make-up caked President Of The United States fighting UFOs with a AA gun wasn’t entertaining is more incredible still.

If anything took the sheen off this game’s expedition into batshit country, it was the overall feel of it. There was a sort of constantly sliding weightlessness that I never quite came to terms with. Something to do with the physicality of the characters (or lack thereof) and the general “gunfeel” which never quite gelled. That seems an odd reason to push this game down my list and away from GOTY candidacy, but it was enough.

Graham:

I played Saints Row 3 as a Latino toilet, but when the voice actress for my character didn’t return for the sequel, I felt like I needed to start fresh. So here’s my Saints Row IV character.

Maximum face.

This is maybe all you need to know.

Even after the joyful silliness of the previous game, I was constantly surprised by the effort Saints Row IV and its developers would go to make a joke. That’s typified early on, when your character is tossed into a Leave It To Beaver-style parody of 1950s Americana. There’s a town to run around, models and animations you’ll never see again, specific music, a ton of dialogue…

This is what makes Saints Row IV so special. It’s not just that it’s funny, it’s one of the few games where the jokes are the point. It’s not Monkey Island or Portal, where the comedy is a salve or buffer between puzzles. Saints Row IV’s action and combat are there to fill time while you walk between the jokes.

I wonder if the full-bodied gamey-ness of those jokes is why SRIV’s writer(s) aren’t as well known as Monkey Island’s and Portal’s. For Saints Row, the level artists and game designers are joke-tellers too.

Nathan: I think some random person on Twitter put it best: Grand Theft Auto V pretends to care but doesn’t, and Saints Row IV acts like it doesn’t give a shit, but really, really, really does.

It’s such an audaciously earnest and sincere game, especially for a triple-A production. Faux-cynicism and mean-spirited barbs give way to a cast of characters with natural, gloriously silly chemistry. It’s like that best friend you communicate with entirely by way of insults, but would take a bullet for in a heartbeat.

There are so many magnificently warm, incredibly dumb moments. Whether it’s watching modern Shaundi and the younger “Fun” Shaundi bond over a power-and-drug-fueled sprint through the city followed by a craterous co-op bitch-slapping of their awful ex or joining Matt Miller on his weirdly adorable Nyte Blayde geek-outs, Saints Row IV will make you smile about more than just dumb jokes. I don’t care if you cryogenically froze your heart cockles and then fired them into the deepest, loneliest reaches of space. This game will warm them.

And the best part? Anything goes. Yeah, Saints Row IV is still rampantly offensive, but it’s very nearly – and here comes a weird word choice – tasteful about it. Or at least even-handed. The game goes out of its way to let you be whoever you want – no matter what kind of wild (or entirely reasonable) fantasy you wish to fulfill. I think the moment my ludicrously American fusion of Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty, and Jesus asked Kinzie, “Hey, wanna fuck,” and she replied by affectionately punching him in the face and saying, “Let’s go,” I knew everyone was more or less on equal footing. (That said, when vice president Keith David spurned my advances, I was heartbroken. HEARTBROKEN.)

That’s to say nothing of the basic mechanics, which are basically Xbox cult favorite Crackdown on radioactive flying squirrel steroids. In other words, delightful, though also rather janky and weightless in places. But the simple acts of soaring for miles and tentacle-batting random pedestrians halfway to Japan made this my favorite open world to rampage around in since Just Cause 2. I didn’t get quite as much mileage out of it (At this point, my Just Cause 2 You’ve Played counter reads, “Please, do something else. The world is so rich and full of possibility. Volunteer at a soup kitchen! Buy a pet iguana!”), but I might have had just as much fun.

In closing, Saints Row IV made me grin like an idiot. Four more years! Unless that’s in reference to how long it’ll take before Saints Row V comes out, in which case less than that.

Adam: I agree with everything written above, including the part when John says Saints Row IV is his game of the year and then Jim says it can’t possibly be his game of the year because the movement and shooting doesn’t feel all that great. I’m particularly on board with Nathan’s assessment that this is most sincerely silly thing I’ve had the pleasure of playing in a long time. It’s a gloriously daft game, packed with strong performances, intelligent humour and more superheroics than you could shake a Penetrator at.

Instead of repeating things that have already been said, I’m going to tell you about the most ridiculous in-game habit I formed this year. A friend watching me play Mass Effect a few years ago was amazed by how brutishly ugly my Shepard was. He had a head like a scarred potato. A cheap and considerably cheerless Halloween decoration bought in the veg aisle at Aldi when all the pumpkins had run out, and then carved into the semblance of a face using a plastic spoon.

I explained that Shepard was like that because he’d been born that way. I randomise everything that genetics would choose, allowing myself to pick beards and hairstyles, but leaving everything else to chance. Saints Row IV has the best character customisation I’ve ever seen and through the wonders of plastic surgery, it’s possible to change the president at any point in the story. So this is what I do – every time I die, I head to the nearest clothes store and randomise my outfit, buying one new item in each category and then rolling a die to pick each piece of clothing. I do the same at the plastic surgeon.

I’ve leapt from the top of alien towers as a rotund goth, sprinted through the streets wearing nothing but a holster and a hat, and discovered the most diverse cast of characters I’ve ever seen in a computer game. And they were all me and they were all beautiful accidents.

Back to the Calendar!

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