Saints Row IV disappointed me.
I’m not just saying this to be different. I’m not even saying Saints Row IV was bad — it’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a game in months. Disappointment is a different criticism. Disappointment is regret at the knowledge that someone isn’t living up to previously-demonstrated potential.
It’s difficult living in the shadow of a game as amazing as Saints Row: The Third, let alone one whose remarkable quality came as something of a surprise. I don’t think any sequel was capable of living up to that experience. That’s not what I’m disappointed by. What I’m disappointed by is how Saints Row IV manages to get wrong what so much of Saints Row: The Third got right.
From minute one, Saints Row: The Third emphasizes your friendship and camaraderie with your “crew” — dumped into an unfamiliar location with nothing but the clothes on your back and your talent for violent mayhem, Shaundi and Pierce provide a sense of grounding and familiarity in an otherwise unfamiliar location. The driving singalong to Sublime’s “What I Got” is arguably the most effective and memorable use of music in a game (narrowly beating out climbing an incredibly long ladder while shirtless in Metal Gear Solid 3). But in Saints Row IV, your initial “crew” isn’t your friends; it’s Kinzie Kensington (a character I love despite the game’s insistence on telling you she’s weird and off-putting), Keith David (a character plastered with betrayal foreshadowing from casting choice onward) and Matt Miller (one of your bitter enemies from the previous game).
Perhaps some of that is my fault for playing through all the activities first. Given how thoroughly and blatantly they use Mass Effect as a reference point, though, the developers couldn’t have been surprised that many players would choose to do all available side content before continuing the main story. I spent hours with my only “crew” being people that the game clearly doesn’t want you to like very much, and I was punished further down the line for this behavior, too.
The “side quests” for each member of your crew in Saints Row IV consist of those crew members telling you to go do a list of activities. On the way to each one, you’re supposed to get voiceover dialog from each of them tied into the activity you’re doing. The problem? If you’re NOT on the related quest when you do the activity, you never get to see this narrative content. I missed half of CID’s involvement in the main plot line, and every character’s side quests became them just saying “Go do this list of things for me” three times in a row.
I have nitpicks, of course, too, but few of those lower my estimation of the game as a whole. I cursed every time I remembered that you’re bizarrely incapable of firing a weapon while in midair. I groaned every time I turned on the game and heard Keith David’s voice reading the same audio log, apropos of nothing. I grumbled every time I noticed inconsistencies with how the game handled real-world continuity, from my haircut randomly changing to the varying on whether or not we had to rescue people from Zinyak’s ship after we disconnected them from the simulation. I swore every time I stopped because I’d mistaken environmental lighting for a collectible power-up — not just because I’d been tricked by a lousy design decision, but because I remembered that I was collecting what looked like power-ups for the electric-blue Deckers from Saints Row: The Third instead of the royal purple Saints, and turning things Decker-colored instead of Saints-colored when I took them back from the dreaded Zin.
Well, “dreaded,” in quotes. The most vile thing Zinyak does in this game is interrupt a singalong with Pierce. He also kidnaps and tortures all the Saints and blows up the Earth, but that second one there is never an effective storytelling choice. Seriously, writers, please stop doing that — or even threatening to do that. It’s not an act that takes place on a scale humans are capable of emotionally comprehending. Saints Row: The Third accomplishes more with the death of one character at the hands of an antagonist than Saints Row IV accomplishes with the death of most of the human race, and even the “torture” angle for Zinyak is robbed of its weight by the revelation that the “torture” is automated rather than personal, devising a virtual hell for each Saint automatically rather than via any personal attention.
Which brings us to perhaps the game’s weakest point: virtual Steelport. It’s the “virtual” part I take issue with, not the “Steelport” part — making huge open worlds costs money, the difference in how you interact with the city does makes it feel completely different, and the effort was clearly better-spent on the Loyalty Missions (which are by far the best parts of the game). No, the problem is in the entire “virtual” premise.
Saints Row games are about home. Saints Row was literally about “your” neighborhood. Saints Row 2 was about returning home after you’ve been away. Saints Row: The Third was about moving to a new place and making it home. The main objective of all of those games is to make your home better — perhaps only for you, but to make it how you want it to be. Saints Row IV breaks from that. You are in a world that is not home, that can never be home, where you never can go home, and with the primary objective of literally destroying that world rather than making it your own. It goes against everything the series was built upon, thematically.
Arguably that’s missing the point. Arguably, none of that should matter because I can fly, throw people a city block, and blow things up with a Dubstep Gun. And you can… in virtual Steelport. But nothing important happens in virtual Steelport. Everything important in Saints Row IV happens in someone else’s simulation or in the “real world.” In Saints Row: The Third, I could fight the antagonists using a giant purple dildo bat and a gun that shoots sharks. In Saints Row IV, no matter how much I’d love to fight Zinyak with a Dubstep Gun while dressed as Rowdy Roddy Piper, I’m stripped down to one universal weapon and one generic appearance in the final encounter, because all the crazy, awesome, over-the-top nonsense you get to do has been ghettoized into the “virtual” part of the game and given the unnecessary justification of “breaking the simulation” instead of just letting you be awesome.
Virtual Steelport isn’t even a very interesting place to be anymore. Thanks to superpowers, it feels small where Saints Row: The Third felt huge. The permanent bleak red-skied dusk in IV is ugly compared to the day-night cycle from The Third (which is still available as a bonus once you beat the game). Most of the landmarks that made Steelport interesting in The Third have been unceremoniously destroyed, and the few that remain are rendered insignificant in both gameplay and narrative, robbing virtual Steelport of any of the sense of place Steelport had in The Third.
It’s incredibly sad that, after Saints Row: The Third did such an amazing job of offering players genuine, no-right-answer choices, each with both gameplay and narrative consequences, Saints Row IV practically makes a mockery of that entire idea — presenting four meaningless choices in quick succession during the game’s intro, and then offering one choice at the game’s halfway mark where making the wrong choice causes an instant game over. It’s a colossal step backward.
Of course, when Saints Row IV is doing things right, it does them very right. The new weapon-skinning system is a smaller example of a pitch-perfect detail, letting you use the guitar-case rocket launcher from Desperado, a Van Halen paint job Super Soaker, Mal’s pistol from Firefly, or topping The Third’s Penetrator by letting you turn it into Dr. Manhattan’s Glowing Blue Penis. Jumping around Steelport manages to scratch the Crackdown itch better than Crackdown did. And the Loyalty Missions are universally fantastic… though they do expose a certain underlying flaw.
Nearly everything that makes Saints Row IV memorable and fun comes from outside of Saints Row IV. I don’t object to parodies and references — some of the ones in IV are so great that I’d say they justify the game’s existence on their own — but in the shadow of The Third’s largely original story, IV’s liberal use of them seems like a crutch. As great as exploring the past of the Saints Row franchise is, and as much fun as riffing on The Matrix, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, and They Live ends up being, taken as a whole it starts to seem masturbatory rather than clever. And as much as I love being reminded of that glorious sequence in The Transformers: The Movie where Optimus Prime kicks seven kinds of Decepticon ass to “The Touch” by Stan Bush, Saints Row IV’s need to invoke that particular memory during the game’s final encounter just served to remind me that Zinyak is an even weaker villain than one of the weakest, most hilariously ineffectual villains of the 1980s.
Part of me thinks all of these problems have one root source: Saints Row IV wasn’t originally intended to be Saints Row IV. It was intended to be the final DLC pack for Saints Row: The Third, titled “Enter the Dominatrix,” before they decided it had enough ambition and potential to expand into a sequel. Viewed as a coda to Saints Row: The Third rather than a completely new entry in the series, most of these criticisms would shrink in significance: The pacing complaints would disappear with the prior characterization provided during The Third, the villain’s ineffectual nature and underwhelming presence would be viewed as forgivable in the smaller narrative space afforded to a DLC entry, the narrative’s reliance on references would seem OK as the “fun” cap to a largely original game, and the lack of interesting choices would be consistent with the limitations of the other DLC expansions.
Unfortunately, as DLC, we likely would have lost the best — and sadly, briefest and least plot-relevant — part of the game. “The Saints’ Boss as President” sounded and looked amazing in advertising and promotional material, and as much as I bemoaned the choices presented to you as President being meaningless, they were super fun. Hell, taking over the White House and setting things up Saints-style is exactly the kind of home-building and empire-establishing that the Saints Row franchise is all about. As much as I approve of the narrative shortcut used to skip to “You’re the President now,” it almost feels like we fast-forwarded through the best Saints Row game ever in a rush to get everything in place for this one. In retrospect, that might be the biggest sin of all: Saints Row IV skipped the awesome part.
Given the sales figures for Saints Row IV, Volition will undoubtedly get another shot at making a Saints Row game. I’m glad about that. Even at its most disappointing, Saints Row IV was still super-fun. I’m excited to see where they take things next. I just hope they’ll carry a few more of the lessons taught magnificently by Saints Row: The Third forward with them next time.