I try to judge most games based on the quality and effectiveness of their design, but sometimes I can't help but judge a game based on the number of irrepressible smiles it manages to stretch on my face. I'd like to think that factors such as originality, depth, and intelligent AI drive my critical game analyses, but sometimes I have to consider the amount of times I tell myself I should really go to bed before actually turning off the Xbox. It's one thing to weigh all these serious elements of game design when reviewing a game, but it's also important to remember that irrepressible smiles and sleepless nights have a weight of their own. My experience with Saints Row IV brought me plenty of both, and even if the game stumbles occasionally on the serious stuff, I found that by the time the credits had finished scrolling, I genuinely didn't care. Saints Row IV handles sheer absurdity with rare skill, somehow managing to one-up its predecessor for zany action while bringing back the coherence and smooth pacing of Saints Row 2 for a complete package that may be the best Saints Row game yet. It's almost a shame that Volition is claiming that SR IV will be the last in the series, but considering this game involves alien empires, mech suits, superpowers, and Keith David as himself, the franchise has nowhere left to go but down.


So what's it like at the top? How do you begin a sequel to the game that saw the 3rd Street Saints become pop culture icons, take over a multinational crime syndicate, and demolish a futuristic paramilitary force with laser rifles and hoverbikes? Apparently Volition didn't really know how to answer this question, because the game putters around aimlessly for about an hour, first throwing you into a modern warfare parody mission in which you save Washington DC from a nuclear missile, then transitioning awkwardly into a scene five years later where your character has somehow become president of the United States. The game lets you play around as president for about five minutes, then the Earth is invaded by aliens, you and your homies are abducted and put into a Matrix-like simulation of Steelport (because what are assets for if not to be shamelessly reused?), and the fact that you were ever president immediately becomes pointless. This is probably my biggest gripe about the game. It spends so much time on these lackluster opening sequences, where combat is stripped to the bare essentials and you're bombarded by obnoxious quick-time events, that you would hope it would all be building to something important. Volition and Deep Silver have even marketed the hell out of the whole “you are the president” angle, and yet, once the Zin Empire invades and the United States is destroyed, your status as president means nothing. It's brought up occasionally as an afterthought, but it never impacts the story or gameplay again. It just seems like such a waste of potential, as if there were an entire game missing from the Saints Row series in which you run around Washington DC as the president of the United States drop-kicking senators and crotch-chopping in front of passing tourists.


However, once all this nonsense is dealt with, it's all uphill from there. You quickly learn how to manipulate the simulation to your own ends – also like the Matrix, though the end result more closely resembles Crackdown meets Prototype. Almost as soon as open world gameplay begins, you have super jumping and super speed at your disposal, and your powers only get crazier from there. Soon enough, you'll be running up walls and gliding from rooftop to rooftop. While these superpowers could feel awkward and tacked on since the game engine from SRTT is essentially unchanged, Volition went the extra mile to make the abilities feel better than the games they were cribbed from. I can honestly say I've never had so much fun just running and jumping around in one of these superpowered sandbox games. The controls are as precise as they can be, and the developers even took overhanging ledges into account when wall running, as your character automatically jumps over jutting balconies and other obstacles.



Some have pointed out that super jumping and super speed make vehicles obsolete, and while I did find that to be the case later on, at the start of the game vehicles are still your best bet when you have limited stamina, and they provide a different experience in case you're tired of running and jumping around everywhere. As I said, the powers are so much fun to use that that's not likely to happen often, but it's still comforting to know the vehicles are there if you want them. Not many superpowered sandbox games can boast as many transportation options as SR IV, and I believe that works in the game's favor, even if everything but the Zin starfighter falls by the wayside once you've maxed out your super speed.



All these wacky superpowers (of which I've just scratched the surface in this review) might seem like they would throw the game's pacing off and ruin the satisfying progression from zero to antihero that you get in, say, SR 2. However, Volition did an excellent job of spacing out the superpowers and the upgrades you can apply to them, and the increasingly over-the-top enemies you encounter later on demand that you use them effectively. If at any time you feel overpowered in the game, it will likely be due to the terrible enemy AI, or lack thereof. Most enemies will just stand where they are and shoot at you, and only the superpowered Wardens will require your full attention since they actually move around and even dodge your attacks every now and then. The guns at your disposal remain useful throughout the game, and almost all of them have a glorious variety of alternate skins (with unique effects) for customization freaks such as myself to choose from. There are some fantastic new additions to the arsenal as well, like the singularity gun or the thoroughly ridiculous Dubstep Gun.



I'd like to get back to the story for a bit, because if superpowers and guns that fire weaponized wubs sound a little too over the top, even for Saints Row, I've gotta say that the plot does an excellent job of keeping these goofy elements within the simulation, while the plot takes itself just seriously enough to get players invested without losing the irreverent charm that the series is known for. It almost nails this balance as well as SR 2 did, but the story does tend to wobble a bit at times, like with the aforementioned presidential nonsense. Still, for what it is, the plot is surprisingly engaging. Zinyak, leader of the evil Zin Empire, is a much more compelling antagonist than anything we saw in SRTT. He regularly stops in to heckle you during missions, sometimes quoting Shakespeare and sometimes singing along to the car radio. He's got a soft spot for Jane Austen. He's campy as hell, and you'll love to hate him. He and the Zin Empire also provide a more interesting conflict than the Syndicate and STAG did in SRTT. The Saints were so powerful in the last game that none of their foes seemed like a challenge, and an alien invasion was about the only thing Volition could do to raise the stakes. It pays off, though. Instead of merely pitting two absurdly powerful gangs against each other, SR IV becomes a story of dystopian resistance. There are some great references to They Live that I won't spoil for you, as well as some more obvious references to The Matrix and Mass Effect. As in Mass Effect, you have a ship in the real world where you can interact with your team when you're not in the simulation. Also like in Mass Effect, you have romance options. I'll let you find out for yourself how that plays out in the Saints Row universe.



Another improvement over past games is the removal of the notoriety system that's plagued the series for so long. Rather than forcing you to play through activities to unlock more story missions, the game allows you to continue the story at your own pace, and activities make up the side missions you can accept from your crew. Some of the game's best rewards are given through these side missions, so you'll most likely find yourself playing them anyway. You don't have to accept a side mission or even have the mission available for the activities to count toward their completion, so I'd recommend completing all the activities in an area rather than strictly following the list of activities that your crew members give you. They tend to place the activities on opposite sides of the map, so if you only follow your objective marker, you'll spend most of your time running back and forth across Fake Steelport. It's still an improvement over the notoriety system, and most of the activities are so fun (the superpowered street races may be one of my favorite Saints Row activities ever) that you'll want to complete them whether you care about the rewards or not.



It's worth mentioning that this game isn't without its share of bugs. And not the hilarious intentional bugs, like when citizens of the simulation walk by a glitch in the system and their eyeballs balloon out like Mickey Mouse ears. No, I'm talking game-crashing bugs, and if you've seen other reviews out on the web, you've probably already heard about them. I can confirm that crashes are as frequent as they say, at least on my copy. I had two on my first playthrough, and based on what I've read elsewhere, I may have gotten off easy. This shouldn't deter you from getting the game, but it's something to keep in mind and it certainly affects the game's score.


As a matter of fact, none of the negatives I've brought up should deter you from getting this game. Sure, the intro is weak and overwrought. Sure, the AI is pathetic. Sure, SR IV's best features are ripped wholesale from other games, including previous entries in its own series. But despite all of that, SR IV has so much zany fun and roguish charm to offer that none of these factors will matter to you by the end of the game. If you're like me, and you fell in love with Saints Row 2 but were let down by the unfocused mess that was Saints Row: The Third, you'll find that the best elements of both have been merged into this Saints swan song. I, for one, am glad that Volition has decided to retire the Saints at the top of their game, and I look forward to whatever this developer has in store for us next.