Have You Played… Saints Row 4?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

We were all left mystified as to how Volition would follow up Saints Row 3’s epic nonsense. Few guessed it would be by Saints Row 4 [official site] having you become President of the USA, then get captured by aliens, the Earth blown up, and you and your crew trapped in a computer simulation of the previous game’s city. Oh, and you get super-powers.

Obligatory reference to how the first Saints Row game was a hateful thing. There, done. By 2 the series realised its niche, and that niche heavily involved spraying shit over neighbourhoods to lower property values (a feature they’ve devastatingly failed to repeat in later games). In 3 they realised that there was nothing to be gained by emulating GTA, and instead they should be something other, something far, far sillier. And by 4, well, they demonstrated that most games are so severely underestimating their potential for fun.

This is all despite Saints Row 4 being in many ways a cost-cutting measure. The same city, but re-rendered, very similar tasks, major plotlines using side-quests rather than bespoke challenges. But this was all hidden away beneath some of the most stunning writing you’ll find in a game, the ability for players to create a character of either gender or mix between and have the game notice but not alter itself in response, and the ludicrous addition of super-powers, including leaping tall buildings, speedster dashing about, and ridiculously powerful attacks – the most satisfying super-powers since City Of Heroes.

And most of all, it’s hilarious. Not “hilarious for a video game”, but genuinely guffaw-inducing. There are moments that made me beam, the extraordinary recreation of the notorious scene from They Live, complete with the original actors, or glorious sing-a-long with Biz Markie’s always wonderful Just A Friend. And then the final joke during the closing credits – I do not exaggerate when I say that I couldn’t breathe for laughing.

It’s understandable that so many were put off by the wretched first game, and then further put off by the vile, misogynistic marketing for the subsequent games, especially Saints Row: The Third (which was a game that represented female characters often extremely well, and so horribly didn’t deserve the marketing disservice). But Saints Row 4 is above all of it, and just a joyous pile of silliness, cleverly belying some extremely sharp writing, and even moving moments.

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37 Comments

  1. Barchester says:

    I did. Didn’t like it. Also didn’t like 3. Saint’s Row’s brand of zany humour and complete weirdness just isn’t for me.

    • dsch says:

      This, basically. I have no idea why the gaming press seem to love it so much, when it’s basically made up of things they criticise other games for. The over-the-top powers you get make no attempt to mask the rote grind. The mechanics are so clunky you can almost hear the parts banging against each other. The story goes for brainless silliness rather than any semblance of interest, and the humour is juvenile.

      It’s something (like Far Cry: Blood Dragon) that would have been good for a laugh if it were a half-hour mod for something else, but stretched over a full release.

      • dsch says:

        (When I play it, I feel like someone is constantly shouting in my ear, “YOU ARE HAVING FUN! YOU ARE LAUGHING SO HARD AT THESE JOKES! LOOK AT HOW POWERFUL YOU ARE! ISN’T THIS GAME GREAT!”)

      • Deakul says:

        Sorry you have no soul, I guess.

  2. JakeOfRavenclaw says:

    This is my favorite open-world action game of all time.

    Everything John says is true–that final joke is fucking incredible–and there’s so much more good stuff besides. Like how the game addresses “Heat” levels, for instance: like every other game of this sort you’ll attract more enemies as you rampage around the world, but unlike other games, when you hit max level your get to fight a mini-boss, and then your heat level gets reset. It gives you an opportunity to stand your ground rather than running away and losing the cops, which is always the most tedious part of GTA. (You can also clear your heat level by chasing down and smashing a golden-snitch-like glowing orb–again, it avoids a lot of tiresome running and hiding).

    SRIV also embraces the fact that pedestrians in this sort of game are generally little more than props for physical comedy–there’s actually an upgrade that gives you health pick-ups for killing civilians, meaning that I’d occasionally break off from a fight to start frantically gunning down pedestrians on the sidewalk (and it’s all a simulation anyway, so you can feel free to go nuts without a guilty conscience. The prevailing sense of good humor goes a long way). It’s all about embracing the things that are *actually fun* about this genre, instead of making you do a bunch of bullshit in order to conform to the setting. And the characters, for all the absurd nonsense that they get up to, actually feel like real people who have real relationships with one another. It’s incredible!

    Also this is the only game where you can leap a hundred feet into the air, pluck a passing UFO out of the sky, and slam it against the side of a skyscraper while “The Safety Dance” plays in the backgrounds. So it’s got that going for it, too.

    • JakeOfRavenclaw says:

      Also you can hear the main villain read passages from Romeo and Juliet on the classical radio station. This is the best game ever.

  3. [email protected] says:

    I didn’t think it could get much better after Saints Row 3, but I was so wrong. It’s a shame this series has the reputation of the first SR haunting it…I still remember the marketing for that game trying to go toe to toe with GTA and predictably failing.

  4. Yachmenev says:

    Didn’t play it, since I didn’t care for Saint’s Row 3, which was a game that wasn’t particulary good at anything and not really funny at all.

    Should have given this one an attempt during the free weekend, but was busy with other gamers.

    • April March says:

      Saints’ Row 3 was a dip after the excellent 2, but 4 picks up the ball again and carries it off into space. Do pick it up next time it’s for like a dollar in a bundle.

  5. Geebs says:

    The city has absolutely no personality, the mini-games are fussy and tedious, and the super-powers make about 90% of the open-world gameplay completely pointless. What’s left is an annoyingly twitchy third-person shooter coupled to a staggeringly inappropriate amount of fan service for a bunch of NPCs that never actually had any fans in the first place.

    On the positive side, it’s very purple. Oh, and I’m told the character creator is decent.

  6. GWOP says:

    Never played SR3, went straight into SR4. Had a blast.

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    Jiskra says:

    SR4 is funniest game ever made :)

  8. Rao Dao Zao says:

    I found the jokes that I ‘got’ hilarious, but most of the humour seemed very referential — so although I overall enjoyed the game I also felt that I was missing out on a whole lot of other jokes based on pop cultural things I had never seen or heard of. Like it was relying too much on poking fun rather than actually being funny?

    I mean, I only knew the scene from They Live because one of my friends is big into it and we watched it a while ago. Hell, even for that I was a bit “oh, I recognise this” rather than “hilaaaaaaaaaarious”… Whereas climbing up the nuke to the sound of Aerosmith had me in stitches (then again, I’ve seen Armageddon so that’s just the flip side).

    … I… I’m not sure what my point is. Your mileage may vary?

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      To me SR4 did not feel as much as “Poking fun at things” but rather “Taking the silly things we all love from things and then running with it”. It’s many references feel more like odes to it’s various inspirations rather then mockery.

      It’s like it’s laughing with rather then laughing at things.

  9. Jay Load says:

    SR3, my woman looked like that white-dreadlocked thing out of the Matrix, but with a long black coat this time. In SR4, she chose to look like Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy, making the super-biff feel far more righteous.

    SR4’s a bit of a masterpiece, really. The writing is spectacularly good, up at a level that GTA has consistently failed to achieve. So many lovely moments. So much fun.

    Pat yourselves on the back, chaps

    These are great games. By the time the credits were rolling on SR4 I was actually sad to be leaving them behind. Must find time to give one or both a replay this year.

  10. a very affectionate parrot says:

    I just wish the missions that aren’t part of the main story line weren’t so terribly boring and repetitive.
    As a result I never finished it and starting it again without all my crazy powers seems like too much of a slog.
    Other than that the game is great, will have to dig my save file out of my old desktop and see if I can resume where I left off.

  11. Tyrric says:

    I have spent a bunch of time replaying SR3, SR4, and Gat Out of Hell. In fact, I recently started replaying the Third, with 4 on deck, and for me it seems like each game is equally hilarious, although I give SR3 a slight edge due to Zimos.

    If they remade the second game using the engine for 3/4, I’d grab it in a heartbeat.

  12. Ron Peppers says:

    Honestly the godawfulness of the first still stops me. Both 3 and 4 seems to get nothing but love and the absurdity of them seems right up my street yet everytime I’m tempted the thought of that turd of a game steadies my hand.

    I just…. just can’t.

    • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

      Whilst I’m sure that you were not being literal, SR3 and 4 by no means get “nothing but love”. There seems to be a pretty stark divide between people that loved SR2 and didn’t like 3&4, and vice versa. Personally speaking, I found Saints Row 2 to be a fantastic sociopath simulator that allowed the indulgence of all sorts of proscribed behaviours in a way that seemed extremely fun. 3 and 4 were just joke cannons, jokes which I personally found to be painfully trite and unfunny even if John and others liked them. I really think the “humor” is the underpinning of the experience in the latter two games, as the actual city and mission design are both widely acknowledged to be terrible.

      Anyway, I only reply specifically to you so that you are aware that there is no general consensus that the games get better, and that you should definitely play SR2 as well as 3&4 if you decide to sample the more recent games. My ranking order would be 2>>4>3>1, though that is of course a very personal decision. I even think 2 had much better music, customisation options and writing FWIW.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      I detest SR2 – played and beat it so I could be sure I wasn’t being melodramatic by saying that, and I wasn’t: it’s utterly reprehensible, screamingly unfunny rubbish that constantly tries to glorify and celebrate and lionise a cast of characters who’d be nonentities if they weren’t such disgusting, repellent, psychopathic monsters. I really liked SR3, and I adored SRIV. Glorious, joyful, wonderful games, the closest any open-world GTA-a-like has ever come to Crackdown’s brilliant collectible hunting. Yes, the city’s low-budget and somewhat bland, yes, you can and indeed are encouraged to grind your way through the game – don’t care. Movement is simply thrilling, to the point leaping off skyscrapers and taking flight to Promises just does not get old. The grind feels like anything but. (Cueing that song up on YouTube is seriously making me want to reinstall the game.)

      Basically, SR2 is bad and anyone who actually likes it and thinks it’s any kind of worthwhile artistic direction for anyone or anything to be pursuing in any form should feel very bad indeed. SR3 is great. SRIV is pure, raucous, irreverent joy in digital form. If you hate the first games, give the other two a shot. You might actually like them as much as I do.

      • malkav11 says:

        SR2 knows full well the protagonists are sociopaths, particularly the Boss. Unlike virtually every GTA and most of the many attempts to emulate that series, it never once attempts to pretend that you’re a good person dragged into the game’s obligatory mass murders and millions other felonies by fate or circumstances. It gives people exactly what they come to these games for, lets you bathe in it, and then every so often gives you a reality check when they do something that’s extreme even for this sort of game and it -isn’t- played for laughs. It’s brilliant.

        Unfortunately, after that they seemly decided that actually the Boss and co were just fun loving rascals and…sorta heroes? that happen to have sextuple digit body counts. And, to be fair, 3 and especially 4 are regularly screamingly hilarious and 4’s superpowers are pretty much the single most enjoyable execution on the open world superpower concept ever (even edging out Prototype, previous award holder.) But the series has never been as richly endowed with things to do, never as lovingly crafted or as coherent and smartly written, as in Saints Row 2. That game is a masterpiece and a labor of love. It’s a pity the PC version was farmed out to such incompetents.

        (While I love SR4 with very few reservations, the world isn’t anywhere near as dense or detailed as SR2. SR3 has great writing in individual blocks but the story is told in a really disjointed, incoherent way and I’m super sad about the way that it dumps all SR2’s best activities and preserves most of the worst, while making you spend far too long with underpowered weapons and over-HP-laden enemies. Mediocre, at best. Gat out of Hell’s flight is a joy and it’s got some fun activities but the near total lack of story missions is a huge bummer.)

        • Jay Load says:

          Interesting. I played 2 last year and got so bored by it. The graphics are terrible, the writing dull, gameplay unrefined (especially the driving), the missions uninspiring….I didn’t finish it and doubt I’ll ever go back to it. Meanwhile, 3 & 4 really sparkled for me.

          Different strokes, I guess.

          • malkav11 says:

            When playing SR2 on PC it is pretty much mandatory to install the Gentlemen of the Row mod to smooth out a lot of technical issues (plus add a ton of stuff). It’s one of the worst ports ever made, and it really does a number on the game that GOTR mostly manages to alleviate (though there are limits on what the engine can be made to do, alas). I virtually guarantee that any issues you had driving were the port, not the game design, and GOTR will almost certainly fix them.

            No accounting for taste on the writing or the missions, I suppose. I can certainly see why someone might prefer the outright wackiness of 3 and 4 to the tongue-in-cheek gangbanger fare of 2, and if you’ve played enough GTA I don’t suppose the missions are a million miles away from that (though there’s more of them and they’re more varied in objectives and gameplay than any of the later games, to say nothing of the side activities). And lord knows the superpowers in 4 (and Gat out of Hell) are ridiculously fun. They just cut so many other corners. I’d really love to see a proper Saints Row 5 that puts a Saints Row 2 level of love, care and attention into a game with better tech. I don’t know what they’d even do with it narratively at this point, admittedly.

        • Eight Rooks says:

          No. No, it really doesn’t. It isn’t tongue-in-cheek in the slightest. It completely fails to be a knowing wink at anything. It’s constantly reinforcing how utterly, utterly awesome these people are and how great all this stuff they’re doing is without giving them a shred of anything approaching actual characterization whatsoever. And you’re clearly, clearly supposed to buy into it wholesale – if the cutscenes centered around you-know-who wot gets killed were actually intended as parody, Volition clearly needed someone to explain to them that “parody” doesn’t simply mean “lifting narrative beats and emotional cues wholesale without the slightest indication you’re not supposed to take this seriously”.

          If you’re so in love with the whole YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO FEEL school of game design, that’s one thing. But the idea anyone can actually take this slop as good storytelling in any sense of the words just makes me feel ill. It’s almost as bad as Wanted – “My life is awesome because I can kill anyone I want, take whatever I want, destroy whatever I want, and anyone who can’t do the things I can is a god damned loser who should kill themselves post-haste”. SR2 is close enough to that you’d have to pay me to play it again. It’s a Rob Liefeld comic straight from his ALL OF THE POUCHES days with a half-assed street art makeover, with Mark Millar’s self-satisfied “Ain’t I so transgressive?” smirk plastered on top, and the number of people who still, still, still think that it’s a masterpiece simply because how dare a videogame try to make me feel bad about shooting manz just makes me weep.

          • malkav11 says:

            Yeah, that’s also a misreading of Wanted. Although a common one. And frankly I’m not that inclined to spend time defending Millar after later shit like Kick-Ass that’s just kind of nasty and misanthropic from start to finish.

          • malkav11 says:

            As far as SR2…whether you feel the humor in it succeeds is of course completely personal taste, but even the most surface-level reading should make it clear that it isn’t serious for more than a minute or two at a time.

  13. Chaoslord AJ says:

    1&2 played pretty dumb but 3 was one of my favourite open world RPGs. Even GTA 4 with its tired “showing America the dark mirror”-attitude can’t compare.
    There is almost everything: gangsters, aliens invasion, zombie apocalypse, super heroes, stupid activities like insurance fraud. Sportscars, jets, motorcycles, stretch, ufo, tank – they all work. And manages what the best animes can: making you feel compassion and warmth for a dumb cast of silly friends.
    In the end you’re not left with the usual nihilistic grimdark feel.
    Now SR4 feels like more of the same.

  14. Monggerel says:

    Could’ve been better
    could’ve been worse
    really at this point I’ll take anything
    I have no standards
    no taste
    no sense of right and wrong
    GTA V was the best game of 2015
    Medal of Honor Warfighter was probably not too bad
    CoD 3 is an unsung heroic masterpice

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    alison says:

    This game was fucking epic. I bought it on a Steam sale last year on a whim and it massively exceeded my expectations. I was laughing from beginning to end, especially after having just played through the entertaining but painfully earnest Mass Effect trilogy. I didn’t go on any sandbox tangents, i whizzed through the icons and the main plot line without discovering half of the interesting features, but the insane silliness level completely endeared itself to me. It’s like the WWE meets Wipeout meets Bomb Queen meets idspispopd while Terrence McKenna force-feeds John Carpenter DMT. Exploitative, bombastic, irreverent, ludicrous… The most American game EVER.

  16. wombat191 says:

    played 2 and while interesting it had a nasty side to itself, while 3 and 4 were plain insanity and i loved it.

    i dont know any other game where i can raid the national guard armoury wearing a mascot outfit while wielding a giant sex toy to steal an attack helicopter

  17. Ejia says:

    I did, but on an Xbox 360. DON’T TELL ANYONE

    • Jalan says:

      That tears it – you’re outta the club! Hand in your PC and walk down the corridor of eternal shame!

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    particlese says:

    Nope, not yet! But it’s sitting there on my hard drive, waiting patiently for me to get bored of Elder Scrolls Online and now Devil Daggers.

  19. April March says:

    I’ll admit the first game is horrible enough that you’ll dislike it no matter which angle you approach it from, but it’s also the only game in the series which had tie physics.