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GAME REVIEW: With great power comes hilarious superhero mayhem in Saints Row IV

September 6, 2013 6:19pm
To think that the Saints Row franchise began as a parody of the Grand Theft Auto series. But achieving the absurd by virtually turning you into a god amongst men isn't only what makes Saints Row IV a blast to play; it's also its ability to borrow elements from a myriad of games and genres without diluting its own unique identity, without sacrificing its own deranged brand of over-the-top, stupid fun.


From the White House to the Matrix
 
In Saints Row IV, you play as "The Boss," leader of the Saints and now the President of the United States of America. Your gang is your cabinet. The White House, appropriately renamed the "White Crib," is your new watering hole, one you have populated with scantily-clad waitresses, gun-toting homies in suits and ties, and yes, strippers.
 
But being the most powerful egomaniac on Earth means diddly-squat when you throw in the entire universe. You're preparing for a press conference when wham! Aliens known as the Zin trash the White Crib, abduct your entire cabinet, and invade the planet. Their leader, Zinyak, who has a British accent because why not, then throws you into a Matrix-style simulation of the massive, open-world city of Steelport.
 
Kinzie Kensington, the Saints' tech genius, breaks through walls of code to reveal Steelport's bogus nature to you. It is when she learns to manipulate the program into giving you super powers that your insane, uproarious adventure begins in earnest.
 
Such delicious super powers!

 
Super Sprint, your very first power, lets you outrun and outdistance anything with wheels or wings. Upgraded, you can race up towering walls and even skate on water. Eventually you'll be running so fast, you'll be leaving a vortex of destruction in your wake—one that sucks up cars, unfortunate pedestrians, and anything not permanently attached to roads or buildings.
 
Super Jump allows you to leap tall buildings in a single bound with complete, joyful abandon. Upgrading it will unlock the power to glide. Employed in combination, these early abilities will let you zip through streets, vault over entire city blocks and skyscrapers, and soar effortlessly through the sky. Sure, it makes traversing the entire expanse of Steelport a cinch, but the delicious, adrenaline rush this mode of travel gives you is the true reward.
 
Story-wise, you’ll be using these powers to sow chaos in the simulation, all in the hopes of dismantling the entire system one sector at a time and freeing all the enslaved humans. To this end, you'll be gaining even more powers as the game progresses, such as the control over the elements of fire and ice, an earth-shattering stomp, and telekinesis.
 
So will you make a mad dash for the enemy as his bullets bounce harmlessly off your force field, then take him down by smashing his head into concrete? Will you punch a hole through a UFO with a missile or your fist—which contains all the power of a nuclear weapon? True, we've seen some of these elements in games like Infamous and Prototype before. But none have been used to such outrageously destructive extremes as in Saints Row IV.
 
Of homies and parodies

 
The main quests, which have you rescuing your cabinet so they can join your rebellion against the Zin, are as varied as they are ruthless in poking fun at some of the video game industry's most memorable titles. If you’ve been playing games since their modest beginnings on the Atari 2600 and the PC, chances are you will recognize many, if not all, of the properties behind the spoofs. Seeing a beloved franchise reduced to embarrassing clichés is a Major Guile Flash Kick to the funny bone, and you will be sporting an idiotic grin or laughing out loud throughout most of these missions.
 
When not flexing your virtual muscles, you can exit Steelport and chill with your gang in a stolen alien starship. If this segment doesn't remind you of certain, hugely popular space opera by BioWare, then you need to have your brain checked for quantum anomalies. You can even flirt with your crew members to hilarious effect—a definite crack at BioWare's embarrassingly clunky romance simulator.
 
As for your cabinet, you rarely meet such a motley crew of goofballs. Special mention goes to Kinzie Kensington, the spirited, half-insane computer specialist with an adorable chipmunk voice. Unlike some of the other characters, Kinzie is alarmingly charming and immediately likeable. Stroke of genius, making her the President's very first true ally in the game.
 
The only downside to many of the primary quests is that you can be de-powered in the middle of doing them. Imagine suddenly finding yourself stripped of everything that makes you an unstoppable force of nature on the streets of Steelport. The change is jarring, and you may get the feeling that the game is punishing you for being too awesome.
 
There's just…so much…to do!
 

Side missions and extra challenges will give you a plethora of other things to do in Steelport. One activity has you climbing gargantuan alien constructs until you are thousands of feet above even the tallest building. Navigating around these structures is tricky, but the payoff is well worth it; not only do you get a great view, the exercise also tests your mastery of your super powers. It's an incredibly satisfying challenge.
 
There are also hundreds of collectibles, most important of which are bits of computer code scattered all over Steelport. Finding and gathering these is an obsessive-compulsive's wet dream come true. Before you know it, you'll have spent hours chasing down that last bit of code sitting atop that giant smoke stack.
 
But there's reason to all this seeming randomness. Completing activities gives you "cache" which can then be used to purchase weapon and ability upgrades. Similarly, the collectibles can be spent to improve your super powers
 
And when you're not busy slaughtering things, you can customize your appearance by visiting clothing stores, tattoo parlors, and even a plastic surgeon. Tired of playing as a dude? Get a sex change! Sick of wearing clothes? Leap off buildings and grace the skies in the nude!
 
Sexy cars, beautiful guns, and The Penetrator
 
Because this is a Saints Row game, you can expect dozens upon dozens of cars to steal, from vintage classics to flashy moderns. However, your super powers are so efficient at getting you from point A to point B that acquiring a set of wheels is no longer a necessity. This may give Saints Row IV a somewhat off-balanced feel, almost as if the myriad vehicles are part of a gameplay feature that belongs to another game. It is one of the unfortunate repercussions of putting super powers in a game that began its life as a Grand Theft Auto clone.
 
Thankfully, the same cannot be said of the weapons. The chaotic nature of most combat situations means it is unadvisable to rely solely on your super powers. You get a bevy of beautiful firearms to play with—of these, the alien blasters steal the show. The Singularity Gun creates powerful black holes for instant spaghettification, while the infectiously groovy Dubstep Gun murders enemies with Skrillex beats and makes cars dance. It's pretty awesome.
 
Fans of melee combat need not worry—your favorite phallic weapon, a dildo bat dubbed "The Penetrator," makes a triumphant comeback!
 
Kicking alien butt across the galaxy, in style
 
The graphics are pretty at their best, bland at their worst. I was slightly disappointed with Steelport's appearance the first time I saw it. But the city lights do grow on you, and the scenery looks better in motion, which is great in a game where you're always moving at supersonic speeds.
 
The sound is fantastic for the most part, except for those strange occasions when explosions and crashes come out a little muted instead of ripping bombastically out of your speakers.
 
As for the voice acting, it's top-notch. The President's lines are delivered either dripping with sarcasm or bursting with a bravado that will have you grinning from ear to ear. Keith David's deadpan articulation will have you in stitches, and as for Zinyak and his British accent—wait 'til he sings.
 
Dominating the playing field
 
Perhaps Saints Row IV's greatest flaw is making you too powerful. Even the mini-bosses, the first real challenge you'll encounter, gradually become pushovers as your abilities grow. For some, the game's lack of challenge may lead to ennui.
 
Saints Row IV is a power fantasy, pure and simple. You have to give it credit for not pretending to be anything else. Story-wise, don't expect much depth or substance. The writing is often witty, mostly silly, and always entertaining; but don't expect characters to deliver insightful soliloquies or engage in intellectually-charged discourses that will make you reflect upon the meaning of life's various subtleties. If that's what you’re looking for, leave this game on the shelf and take your search elsewhere.
 
But if you want to have a crazy, amazing time just smashing and blowing things up, and laughing real hard while you're at it, then look no further.

Hail to the Chief. — VC, GMA News



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