Play through Saints Row IV's intro and you could be forgiven for worrying that one of the series' defining characteristics is missing: its humour. What may have been intended as a parody of every militaristic action game ever made ends up a little too close to the mark to prompt laughter, or even a knowing grin. Then, with the launch of a nuclear missile and the arrival of a cheesy '90s rock ballad, you realise Volition hasn't forgotten what has made Saints Row special. And it only gets crazier from there.
Since the last game, the Saints' influence has spread further and wider, extending all the way to the White House. Yet your presidency doesn't last long: an extraterrestrial invasion sees you and your companions kidnapped, trapped inside a simulation of Steelport created by alien leader Zinyak. Luckily, former FBI agent Kinzie Kensington hacks into the virtual world's source code, allowing you to gain a variety of superpowers that transforms the game entirely. The closest touchstone is no longer Grand Theft Auto, but the likes of Prototype, inFamous and Crackdown. With collectible data clusters opening up further powers, you'll likely spend much of the early game sprinting at lightning pace, taking to the skies with a charged-up leap before gliding around Steelport's skies, hunting those blue glowing markers. In fact, it's so quick to get around by running and jumping that vehicles begin to seem pointless - though you'll no longer feel that way when you gain the telekinesis power and hurl a station wagon at a group of Zin invaders.
You'll also learn to throw elemental projectiles, burning and freezing enemies, and finishing them off with one of an impressive selection of weapons. Alongside the usual rifles and submachine guns you'll amass a haul of alien ordnance, while other guns allow you to inflate your enemies, suck them into black holes, or even blast them with a few bars of booming dubstep. Combine that with an ultra-powerful stomp and mind control capabilities and every combat encounter is rich with improvisational possibilities. As a result, missions are thrillingly chaotic and spontaneous, with Volition consistently upping the ante as your powers develop. And if the action escalates a little too quickly, you can always sprint to safety, or chase down a hovering AI marker that resets your threat level to zero when caught.
These rock-solid mechanics are in service to a scattershot story that makes up for in enthusiasm and humour what it lacks in coherence. Though efforts to develop the characters of your compatriots fall rather flat, Kinzie makes for a peppy, likeable foil to the protagonist. The constant craziness could easily be tiresome, but there's a restless energy and invention to the missions, even if many simply end up with you and your allies taking on waves and waves of alien foes. At one stage you'll fight a flying toilet; at another, you'll be driving a tank from a top-down perspective until Kinzie hacks in a 3D mode. Later, you'll tackle a stealth mission that pokes fun at Metal Gear Solid and its peers, as you're asked to shoot out every single light before engaging the guards.
Metal Gear is far from the only franchise in the game's satirical sights. The Saints' spacecraft home (from where they access the Steelport simulation) allows Volition to gently mock Mass Effect, with a rudimentary romance mechanic that offers a number of cheeky laughs. There's an early jab at Fable's moral choices, too, and there are moments of startling self-awareness, with several potshots at the previous Saints Row titles. Yet there's a playful tone throughout: this is a game made with real affection towards the medium, and that's particularly evident in a late game mission where you're transported into an arcade-style side-scrolling brawler, complete with crackly sampled speech.
Saints Row IV can be scrappy and unrefined at times, but crucially it's never dull. There's a range and flexibility to the combat that any open world game should envy, while the variety of asides gives the game some serious longevity beyond an already substantial campaign. Though individual elements feel familiar, particularly if you've played the likes of Prototype and Crackdown, they've been woven together with real skill. It takes real intelligence to make something this gleefully dumb, and Saints Row IV is a better game for the design smarts that underpin the constant craziness.
- Superpowers make for gloriously speedy exploration
- Terrific combat variety
- Jokes come thick and fast
- Not all the humour hits the mark
- Character development is thin
- A few minor technical niggles