Saints Row 4 review
This is the only game I’ve ever had to pause because I was laughing too much to play. I want to tell you about the exact section that caused me to crease up. I want to sit you down, do the voices, and perform a poor recreation of the whole thing. And I want you to know about the other hundred-odd moments that physically contorted my real-life face into real-life grins or my real-life mouth into real-life laughs.
"One of the most fun videogames I’ve ever played."
I won’t tell you about all of them because I’ll spoil them. But I want you to know because they’re so joyful, so playful, that they turn this third sequel to an average Grand Theft Auto clone into one of the most fun videogames I’ve ever played.
Like Saints Row the Third, Saints Row IV is set in the city of Steelport. Except it isn’t. The game starts with an alien attack on Earth, with you as president of America. Except technically it doesn’t do that, either – the game actually starts once you’ve infiltrated a terrorist base to find a nuclear missile, and clambered up the side of it mid-flight, yanking vital bits of wiring out, as Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing’ blares. The missile explodes, you fall to earth, and manage to crash through the ceiling of the oval office. Congratulations, you’re president!
I’m including this precise description because it sets SRIV’s tone early, and better than I could with words like ‘madcap’ or ‘anarchic’ or ‘what?!’ This tone continues throughout – throughout the subsequent alien invasion, throughout your incarceration in a Matrix-esque simulation of Steelport (see why it technically isn’t the same place?) – and all the way through the ten-hour campaign and twenty-plus hours of side missions.
It’s even present in the character creation screen. Long ago, PC Gamer developed the concept of ‘maximum face’: mutants produced by pushing every slider to full. The overweight, hollow-cheeked, elfeared weirdo you see in these screenshots is a product of that. For the first three hours, simply seeing his face kicked me into fits of giggles.
"If you really fancy, you can play as a small white hovering toilet."
I played my hero for laughs, dressing him in a towel, then in Lara Croft hotpants, then as a giant foam hotdog. But you’re also free to play him straight, a man in a suit amid the madness of an imperfect simulation of an already-mad city. Or you’re free to play as a her. Or as a him with a her voice, or a her with a him voice, or a her with a her voice pitch-shifted to 100%, or even as a him with Nolan North’s voice. Or, if you really fancy, you can play as a small white hovering toilet.
I created a monster, with an ageing wrestler’s body, a pencil moustache, and giant buggly eyes, and gave him a cockney voice pitch-shifted to 60%. He talked like Jason Statham huffing a birthday-partyful of helium balloons and loomed out of the screen like a child’s drawing of a nightmare. By the end of the game, I loved him. I’m still not quite sure how that happened.
But I think I’ve got an idea. SRIV is surprisingly inclusive. It trades on ridiculousness – but unlike its raison d’etre Grand Theft Auto, it’s never sneering or cruel. Where GTA lauds movies and music as cultural touchstones, SRIV takes on games. Mass Effect is one of its most visible targets. Punching out of the alienrun Steelport simulation for the first time, I got my own spaceship, with cabins for a crew I’d later recruit by rescuing them from the Matrix.
Press E on a crewmate and you can talk to them. Press R and you’ll ‘romance’ them. There’s no convoluted conversational minefield to unlock fade-to-black shagging here, though: almost all of your friends – male, female,å or robot – will immediately agree to a quick fumble. It’s a pastiche of BioWare’s RPG sex vending machines – feed enough in and collect your hump from the slot below – but also indicative of SRIV’s desire to simplify.
"Ten hours in and I barely needed to touch the ground."
That desire is the best thing about the game. Options unfurl as you play. Steelport is a city full of cars, and, as in GTA, any of them can be hijacked and driven. They felt good. Half an hour into the game, I unlocked nitrous boosts – for all vehicles. My already-quick cars went faster. They felt great. An hour into the game, I unlocked super jumps. Holding the spacebar would power-up a leap to get me halfway up a tower-block. It felt fantastic.
Two hours in, I could run faster than cars. It felt brilliant. Three hours in, I’d unlocked a glide move that meant I could float between objectives like a disgusting flying squirrel. It felt amazing.
Ten hours in and I barely needed to touch the ground. My favourite way to get to a story mission-marker was to sprint to Steelport’s central island, bound up the tallest skyscraper while charging an upgraded tier three superjump, then leap off and glide toward my objective. Fifty storeys above it, I’d turn myself into a human missile through an upgradeable ability and slam to the ground with a powerful shockwave. Pedestrians and cars would careen away from my impact point, and I’d saunter the few feet to my destination in luminous pink high heels. It felt fucking glorious.