Four installments in, “Saints Row” has come far from its roots as a “Grand Theft Auto” clone. Initially a “gang-warfare,” open-world third-person shooter, the franchise developed and embraced its lunacy, avoiding the path of providing “cinematic” experiences in favor of dumb, fun mayhem paired with hilarious writing and clever game-play gags. But by further developing its iconic elements, “Saints Row IV” is a cultural achievement in ridiculousness and smartly-designed dumb fun. But most importantly, “Saints Row IV” is a video game that knows very well that it’s a video game.
How ludicrous is “Saints Row IV”? As the boss of the titular gang turned mega-corporation, the first mission involves you stopping a nuclear warhead midair and then skydiving right into the Oval Office. Also, you are the president of the United States. Then, right after choosing, as president, whether you want to end world hunger or cure cancer, aliens attack the White House and abduct you and your cabinet members, placing you in a “Matrix”-like virtual simulation of the world, where you eventually obtain superpowers.
Everything is as fantastic as you would expect, but there are also plenty of clever, subtle gags sprinkled throughout the absurdness, such as a well-timed song in the first mission that fans of ’90s asteroid films or Bruce Willis will enjoy. “Saints Row IV” handles every moment with the perfect balance of humor and fun, embracing and indulging the dumb, explosive moments most modern video games provide but also acknowledging and expecting the audience to understand the more subtle moments.
Playing “Saints Row IV” is complete joy. When not completing the main-story missions, you spend most of your time in the open world, doing side activities such as destroying hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of property in allotted amounts of time or racing through the streets of the city with your superhuman abilities.
Within the first hour, you obtain the ability to run super fast and jump super high, which mostly replaces the need for cars and makes traversal through the world quick and enjoyable. Similar to the 2007 game “Crackdown,” data clusters, which are used to upgrade your superpowers, are placed throughout the world on rooftops and hidden areas, incentivizing superpower-driven exploration and collection. While the game is relatively short for its genre — taking approximately 15 to 20 hours to explore nearly all of the game’s content — there’s never a time when you are doing nothing or waiting for something to happen.
But many avenues of the game’s design, such as customization, are congruous in the stupid-yet-smart and diverse design aesthetic. Want to make your president a 300-pound black woman who speaks with a male voice and a British accent? That’s possible. Want to romance every crew member aboard your ship, no matter what gender your character is? That’s possible too. Nearly every element of your character is customizable, from his or her physical traits to his or her clothing. And, all of this can be changed even midway through the game.
Want to change that 300-pound black woman to a sickly, skinny Caucasian man that speaks with a Russian woman’s accent? All you have to do is hit up a plastic surgery station in the game. And unlike some games that try and fail to incorporate your customization elements, “Saints Row IV” doesn’t really care how you look, because more importantly, you’re the president of the United States, and none of your crew members will dare to doubt your decision to get a sex change halfway through saving the world.
“Saints Row IV” is the perfect example of intelligently designed, crazy fun. It’s the type of game that will have you shoot dudes with gun emitting deadly dubstep tones (which, of course, also makes your enemies dance) right after a “Leave it to Beaver” gag as rapper-extraordinaire Riff Raff provides the soundtrack to your mayhem.