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Wot I Think: Saints Row IV

Heaven Sent

After the fantastic Saints Row: The Third, the question from everyone went: how can Volition top this? How can they make a game that's more weird, more outlandish, more explosive? Then following the collapse of THQ, the license and studio was bought by a publisher who ignores the press when it's convenient for them, then hires pole dancers for preview events - could it survive this too? Well, the answers are in Saints Row IV, due out on the 20th. I've played it to the very last, and can tell you wub I think:

I think I can sell Saints Row IV to you in one anecdote:

I am driving from having killed a bunch of aliens using super-powered foot-stomps, toward a nuclear facility, with old comrade Pierce in the passenger seat. He finds Biz Markie's Just A Friend on the radio, and we both start singing along in Biz-style tuneless joy. This isn't a cutscene. I'm in control. I'm running over pedestrians who fuzz in and out of perfect rendering and blocky pixels, as the city similarly frizzles around me, its cybernetic origins revealing themselves. It's an amazing moment. When we're interrupted by the omnipresent voice of our alien overlord enemy, who's now singing along too, and... I changed my mind. I'm not going to spoil it. You find out. So I get out of the car and throw it at a building using the power of my mind.

Saints Row IV is an enormous, elaborate pile of fun, that somehow begins with the madness where the last game left off, and goes further forward into the crazy from there. Another vast playground of lunatic mayhem and carefully crafted challenges, utterly outdoing anything that it's done before.

It's simultaneously apparent that this started as an expansion for Saints Row 3. Volition have essentially created a total-conversion mod for their last game, and while I argue it takes nothing away from the ludicrously brilliant time I've had with it - and in fact is the best Saints Row game yet - the budget saving that's gone on is pretty obvious. Turns out: who cares!

The premise is so batshit insane that when I've told people about it, they've not believed me. But in a deadpan masterstroke, the game begins completely differently. You and the Saints are now apparently working for the American government, and are infiltrating a terrorist base somewhere in the Middle East. It's brown corridors, ordinary third-person combat - it could be any action game. And it holds this pose just long enough to weird you out. It's a statement, and it's a brilliant one. It's Volition saying: "Look, doing this is a piece of piss. We are so much better than this." So then you tear apart a rocket as it flies through the air, from the outside, to the tune of Aerosmith, and then fall from space, crash through the roof of the Whitehouse, and land in your presidential chair - because yes, you are now the President of the USA. Obviously. Yes!

Within a couple of minutes, aliens have attacked. They kidnap the Saints' regular characters, eventually including you, and, well, Earth is blown up. Yup. There you go. It goes from sarcastic rendition of the dreary state of action games, to destroying the entire planet, in the opening few moments.

This rather cleverly sets things up for re-using SR3's city and making it feel like that was always the plan. You see, the aliens have a computer program that creates a false reality around you, intended to capture you in your nightmare. Here your nightmare is a city filled with a few million of the seven billion people your hubris just got killed. (This is after being rescued from your initial nightmare - a gag I'll leave you to discover.) And at first, this appears to put you back into what at first looks like a traditional Saints Row setting, albeit in rather peculiar circumstances.

I'll save the rest of the twists and turns that get you there, but no - this isn't a traditional Saints Row setting. Because pretty soon you find yourself equipped with superpowers. Yup! Superpowers! A super-jump, super-speed, and others that reveal themselves as you play. And now this is something completely different.

Cars become irrelevant after about two hours. The only reason I ever get in one is if a scripted mission requires it. Because why would I, when I can leap and zoom about far more quickly? And perhaps more importantly, in a way that lets me have far more fun. I have never bestowed this compliment on any game before, but it out-does City Of Heroes for sheer mad pleasure of moving around its environs. It has the perfect leaping and speeding of CoH, combined with the lunatic brute force of Crackdown, making for a game that's not just fun to play because of its boundless content, but just purely fun to be playing.

There's the odd repetition of SR3's slow-to-get-going core missions, with only two or three on offer for a good long while. However, once again, get about 7 or 8 hours in, and you'll have nine or ten on the go. And of course that's alongside the city's hundreds minigames and distractions. These are almost all new for the game, which while it does mean still no return for the shit-spraying glory of SR2 (although they are joking references to it), there's a ton of new fun here. And much of it is designed around the ridiculous superpowers you now possess. So rather than racing cars, you're more often racing on your feet. Sometimes in the streets, sometimes in bizarre virtual reality constructs. Or you're demolishing stretches of town using other destructive powers you accrue, alongside the more familiar tanks or ships. There's a new version of Genki's murderous gameshow, this time involving throwing people, cars and giant costume heads through hoops, while being shot at, that's an awful lot of fun. There's an elaborated version of SR3's wrestling, this time an arena-based superhero battle. There's a giant mech suit, frame-breaking videogames, and so very many collectables about the city that getting around to the main quest is quite the challenge.

Alongside the main quest are dozens of side quest options, each relating to various members of the Saints Row crew. First you must rescue them from their unique private hell, then complete tasks for them around the city. And computer expert Kenzie has many, many more of the same. As becomes quickly apparent, rather than offering particularly unique extra story content, these are little more than the in-city missions loosely strung together. For Kenzie the narrative excuse is nice - you're weakening the program when you cause chaos within it. However, by the time you're doing more of the same because Ben King is researching a character for a book... it starts to feel a little like padding.

Thing is, as much padding as there is, and there's a lot, I almost never minded it. You may find that one mission type particularly annoys you - maybe the (rather decent) hacking minigame, the repeated "fraud" game of bouncing yourself into traffic, or one of the virtual reality oddities - and whichever it is, you'll be annoyed that it comes up so much. For me it was any mission that involved telekinetically throwing objects to cause damage - the objects never felt powerful enough, making these events a chore. But here's the thing - it's one or two of those. Amongst so many. And heck, just getting to them is so much fun.

And that's not mentioning the territory control, taking over vast platforming towers, clearing out alien encampments, or just stealing a bus and driving into things.

Like Saints Row: The Third, the writing is absolutely stunning, with stellar voice acting to match. There's barely a wasted line, conversations packed with humour, pathos, and surprising earnestness. The timing is always exquisite, the animations matching the delivery, such that an eye-roll can deliver a punchline. These are things that are almost unheard of in gaming! That you find them at their best in a game of such lunatic frivolity is doubly fantastic.

Set pieces are always massively enjoyable, too. A brilliant sequence spoofs the nature of stealth games, which somehow reaches a point where you're crawling around under a cardboard box, taking out guards with a knife. Each guard has a unique comment to gargle in his death throes, and each is superbly funny.

Alongside the amazing Biz Markie bit I mentioned at the start, there's also a running gag about singing along to Paula Abdul, so very, very many in-references to the previous Saints Row games, and fun poked at all manner of games. And for once - for one blessed occasion - this is a game that manages to effectively spoof, because it's inevitably as good as, or better than, the targets of its sarcastic ire. The Mass Effect romances ribbing is the greatest. And it's a fair hand, too, with many of the gags mocking their own history, picking up dropped themes from Saints Rows 1 and 2, referencing back to the dumber, more unpleasant inclusions, and being extremely meta about how far it's all come. SR4's Shaundi meeting SR1's Shaundi is quite the moment.

It's gross, too. But at the same time, remarkably sophisticated. If you look to Saints Row's beginnings, it started as a fairly repulsive game. A pathetic GTA rip-off of little merit, packed with deeply unpleasant portrayals of women. But SR4, even with its inclusion of a strip club, large-exposed-breasted characters, and numerous sexual innuendos, feels a million miles from this. Not least because of its ludicrously fantasised and sexualised men, and absolutely equal-opportunity offensiveness. This is a game where women are as strong as men, not under their ultimate authority, and give as good as they get.

My wife walked in as I was playing, and said in surprise, "Is that the main character for this game?" I said it was. "But she looks like an ordinary person!" I had, as I have in the previous two games, created my character to be a slightly overweight Latino woman with long dark hair (this time accidentally with a French accent, which works very well). She was dressed in a jumper and jeans. Because the game let that be an option. I could equally have played a monstrously fat woman wearing garish make up and no clothes at all, or a dangerously thin man in high heels and a giant bear head. Saints Row remains almost unique in letting you create characters that look not only ridiculous, but also like actual people look too. Increasing a bulk meter doesn't have to make someone more muscly - it can also make them podgy. It's incredible what a difference this makes.

This, in a game where using the "romance" option with computer whizz girl Kenzie results in,

"Hey Kenzie, want to fuck?"

"Let's GO!" [punches you in face, kisses]

The one issue, beside a frustrating couple of crashes to desktop, comes near to the end. I shan't spoil anything, obviously, but its plot does rather start to collapse in on itself. It's like there are scenes missing or something - the plot wildly leaping from place to place without any explanation. Suddenly someone is a baddie, then they're a goodie again, and it's all completely incongruous. It's also a mite ironic that it briefly becomes a bit of a regular shooter in one of the pre-climactic moments, which is a touch off. And I am genuinely looking forward to the discussions that will occur about the dance club scene - it should be interesting.

But then, well, this is the game where Keith David plays himself! (Having previously played Julius Little in SR1 and 2). And yes, including the film reference you'd most hope to see from him, as well as poking a million ribs of his role in Mass Effect. Real actor plays himself in a game, as a presidential aide, constantly explaining to you how important actors are. In fact, it's pretty much impossible to talk about Saints Row 4 without it sounding as though you're having a fever dream. Like, the Dubstep Gun.

Clearly riffing on videogame trailers' recent love for the groove, this is a weapon that when fired, emits Polyhymnia by Scout McMillan (or as I know it, the theme to the Kroll Show). This causes everyone in the vicinity to begin dancing against their will, until they die. Cars, buses, ambulances begin bouncing on their suspension, until they explode. Street lights fall over, and bins explode. It is the best of all things.

There's a gun shrinks people, another that causes them to be abducted by a mysterious light from the sky. You can open up black holes, or you can fire a weapon that inflates people. It really does that - they start to swell up, their heads hideously expanding, until massive eyeballs pop from their heads and they explode.

And as I keep coming back to, simply moving around this game provides a huge core of its fun. The leap combined with the speed, when fully souped up - it's utter bliss. You charge so fantastically quickly, whipping up the cars and people in the wake of your slipstream, and then leap hugely into the air. Once up, you can enter a sort of controlled descent flying mode, which you might use to aim for the side of a skyscraper, which you can then run up the side of. With practice, you can time and aim your leaps and bounces to perfectly land on narrow ledges, towers or funnels, usually aiming to pick up one of the 1200 or so 'clusters' - bits of code used to augment your powers - scattered around the city. It's joyous, and couldn't have been better implemented.

Come the end of the game and I've played for 24 hours, finishing it at 91%. I was thorough, because I wanted to gobble up every bit of it. I've travelled a total of 853km, of which 150km was super-sprinting, and 464km super-jumping. I've destroyed 1,485 vehicles, killed 2,998 aliens, 2,242 civilians and 841 police. I say all this to express the size of this game, to dismiss fears that its expansion origins has slimmed anything down, or cut any corners. Absolutely not.

It's undeniable that there's been cost-saving after THQ's troubles post SR3. Deep Silver picked up publishing duties most of the way into development, so the original penny pinching is still present in the game. But what's incredible is that it doesn't suffer for it. Sure, it's the same city, and sure, they re-use a bunch of the last game's locations (each time with an entertainingly specific justification). But it turns out that matters none, when you're having more fun with a game than you can remember.

That's what makes Saints Row IV so absolutely wonderful. It's not the ghosts of controversy that the series once had, and the promotional materials so desperately wish was still there. It's not dildo bats, or poorly pixelated winkies. It's fun. It's sheer, unbridled, unrestricted fun. It's a game that boldly lets you do everything you could ever want to, and can survive such freedoms. It's a game that realises its own potential - that this is a form in which no limitations are necessary, in which conforming to expectations is pointless. Games have the ability to let us live out such mad, explosive, eccentric nonsense, and yet they almost never do. Saints Row IV does, and that makes it incredibly special. That it does it with such panache, such ease, and such ceaselessly entertaining humour, makes it simply one of the most fun games I've ever played.

Oh, and stay for the credits. I couldn't breathe for laughing.

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