By Ian Abbott
Saints Row IV is a giant black hole of joy. It offers happiness; it provides choice and delivers absolute rapture. Bound up in a sci-fi plot, the opening mission set the tone as I found myself alone in space having recently mounted a detonated nuclear bomb which was hurtling towards Washington. Aerosmith were providing the soundtrack as I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing resounded from the speakers. I yanked a few wires from the guts of the bomb, avoided disaster, glided down to earth in a power suit of armour whilst proffering thumbs up and landed directly in the WhiteCrib’s Oval Office. I’m anointed President of the United States of America.
Underneath the masquerade of the opening absurdity, there is an interesting sci-fi narrative and technology on display. An alien race called The Zin have arrived on earth, atomised it, killed the entire human race and trapped the Saints inside a simulation of earth which they must try to escape from. As the President endowed with new superpowers, I have to re-recruit my crew, re-discover Steelport and fulfil their wishes to get the team back together for one last hurrah whilst dealing with glitches in space and reality mixing with time travelling alien warlords; the path of a presidential Saint is littered with danger.
In sandbox games choice is king. The ability to personalise my Saint, his actions, enhancements, and route through the game deepened my connection and investment with the world in which I spent 25 happy hours. The sheer depth of generosity offered to the player by the developers Volition to personalise their character, vehicle and superpowers, built upon and surpassed that which was previously on offer in the Saints Row The Third.
It’s also wasn’t afraid to reference itself or the wider games industry with a knowing wink and sly grin at those developers who may take themselves too seriously. The vocal options for the character (after I’d finished painting his body metallic silver, donning a judges wig, and widening his sex apparatus) included 3 male voice, 3 female voices and triple AAA international superstar gaming actor Nolan North. Knowing full well that he’s appeared in over 60 games and is the gaming equivalent of Tom Cruise, (though only gamers would know who he is), celebrated the saturation which North is approaching and wilfully billed him as a vocal option in his own right. There were two other referential moments in which happy noises escaped from my mouth; I was on a particular mission for one of my crew and we were suddenly 16-bitted, transferred into a gaming side scrolling homage à la Sega Megadrive classic for 3 miniature levels to rescue another character with an appropriate retro soundtrack. There was also a visit to a sort of hellish, non-violent, and enforced conformity of 1950s Americana where I couldn’t run, could not bear arms, or even drive on the wrong side of the road; all I could do was happily stroll about the town, elbows and knees marching high in a Leave It To Beaver style and make my way past white picket fences and anodyne housewives.
Part of the emotional pleasure came from the canny selection of songs and music from the radio stations (which could be listened to outside of vehicular travel – great when as a superhero president I could leap and run faster than any car). The Touch by Stan Bush (originally from the 80s animated film The Transformers: The Movie) and The Safety Dance by Men Without Hats provide home karaoke sing-along moments from The Mix 107.77 but my personal musical peak was delivered when I evaporated dozens of aliens to Holst’s The Planets, 1st Movement: Mars as it provided a fabulous antithesis to some of the glitch hop and electronic beep beep soundtracks of recent games. There was the opportunity to have Klassic 102.4 belting out Mussorgsky’s A Night On Bare Mountain or John Philip Sousa’s The Liberty Bell or I could record my own mixtape featuring the likes of A$AP Rocky, Alex Metric, Eek-A-Mouse and Toots and the Maytals from the seven radio stations on offer. A personalised in-game soundtrack is not unique to Saints Row IV (especially with R*releasing their latest Grand Theft Auto iteration next month) but the character options, music and the incredible weapon arsenal available which expanded as I progressed through the game made me feel like there’s no one out there having my game experience and that felt good.
There were dozens of delicious side quests on offer including one which involved racking up millions of dollars worth of damage whilst flying a UFO around a tightly built up city district. Professor Genki was back after teaming with the alien high priest Zinyak in the new live action game show “Mind Over Murder” whilst old favourites like “Tank Mayhem” and “Fraud” complement the new options in the Rift (a training ground to learn new super powers). A Black Hole Launcher (sucking everything into it in a 10m radius) and an Alien Abduction Gun (where a white beam of vertical light from the sky removes your target) were just a couple of the technically fantastical accoutrements which I exterminated to my pixellated foes. With a mass of irreverent humour built alongside some witty environmental messaging and cutting radio station DJ dialogue there was so much to discover in Saints Row IV. The structure of the missions and side quests gave me the freedom to either hack a plastic surgeon and augment my features or complete a mission in a giant flying mech suit.
Saints Row IV is out now on X360, PS3 and PC. It's a wild, fantastical hit of sci-fi gaming goodness and the developers Volition have ensured a generous playing experience which will leave a beaming smile permanently stained on faces for many months to come.