Why I don’t like Saints Row IV (but can totally understand why people do)

SRIVcoverI really loved the Saints Row franchise.  It may have followed (closely) in the footsteps of the Grand Theft Auto but the first Saints Row on the Xbox 360 was an admirable attempt at bringing that style of game into the next generation.  Many people criticised it for that and for that reason it perhaps is remembered a tad more harshly than it deserved to, but despite the calls that it was derivative of the GTA behemoth that had won over millions of PS2 (and later Xbox) owners, developer Volition proved that it was more than capable of bringing to market a cracking open world crime-’em-up.

Not content with resting on its laurels, Volition blew out of the gate in 2008 with the vastly improved sequel Saints Row 2, which took everything from the first game and made it more ridiculous and the process more fun.  At a time when Rockstar was experimenting with mature and adult themes in a more grounded playground, it also brought into stark contrast the differences in approach to both tone and gameplay from both developers, and in doing so set the tone for the franchise for future games.  Saints Row: the Third  upped the ante again and went on to gain both critical and player acclaim, selling over 4 million copies in the process.

And then there’s Saints Row IV.  The only game in the series I haven’t been able to finish.

Saints Row IV is the most ambitious game in the series and  right from the start its ludicrous premise makes it blatantly obvious that Volition didn’t pull any punches, and if the Alien invasion doesn’t give it away the superpowers you acquire early on certainly will.  Saints Row IV is the series’ equivalent of the fourth and final season of The OC in that any semblance of sensibleness and continuity is thrown out and the writers and designers seem have been given absolute creative freedom.  The Third was a bit crazy, sure, but next to Saints Row IV it looks positively tame.  It seems that the mantra behind the development of the game was throw everything in the mix and hope for the best.  It is an admirable approach and one that resulted in probably the most interesting and feature complete game in the series.  But it also makes it perhaps the most inconsistent and underwhelming from where I sit.

I appreciate how much thought went into making this game as fun, as ridiculous and outrageous, and as humourous for the player as possible.  In most of those respects Volition have succeeded admirably.  If you’re into open worlds that throw everything but the kitchen sink at you, Saints Row IV is your game.  If you like dick jokes, Saints Row IV is your game.  If you like travelling into the mind of a creative madman, Saints Row IV is ABSOLUTELY your game.  Dildos, pimps, dubstep guns, arse jokes, transvestites – they’re all here.  You will fall in love with Saints Row IV and have the same great experience that I had with previous games in the series. 

But for the same reasons many people will love Saints Row IV I was left wanting.  It felt like the game was brainstormed but never designed.  While there have been countless great ideas added to an already sound game, there doesn’t seem to have been the same amount of thought put into how to actually make them work and fit in the broader context of the game.   The superpowers are the game’s biggest additions but like so many other ideas they never feel like they’ve been integrated into the overall design of the game.  Not only do they make travelling by vehicle redundant but they are taken away as soon as you enter a mission meaning they never feel fully integrated into the game and are left feeling like a gimmick thats function is never fully explored.  So while the game in the over-world is something new and exciting when it comes to actually progressing through the linear mission-based storyline you’re relegated to a regular joe in a regular third person shooter.  So while the designers show off their ideas in the open world and unstructured Steelport, none of that translates into the game proper. leaving you with nothing more than a new and remixed version of its predecessors.  While the game’s concept easily explains away this strange design decision, at least where I got up to, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the fact that Saints Row IV is just a mutton dressed up as lamb.

But the bigger problem for me was that while Saints Row IV introduces a whole swathe of new powers and ways to traverse the world, it is constrained by an engine and control scheme that wasn’t build for it.  Jumping hundreds of metres in the air is a great feeling but you never feel fully in control of your character when you’re doing it.  So while ridiculous feats of athleticism feel natural in games like Assassins Creed IV where the game is  built from the ground up around that type of player movement; in Saints Row IV it feels amateurish and tacked on.  Rather than a sequel with refined gameplay so much of the game feels like a third party mod and that’s rarely seen as a compliment.  The superpowers should have been the biggest strength of the game but rather their poor implementation makes them its biggest liability.

Saints Row IV is different things to different men.  Some people loved that the unarguably talented men and women at Volition turned it up to 11 (for want of a better cliche).  But I couldn’t get past the fact that while some things change, something things remain the same.   It isn’t very often I can’t pull myself through a game but SRIV unfortunately found itself on that very short list at the beginning of the year.  Quite simply after a good six hours flying around a virtual Steelport I lost interest in what it had to offer and haven’t returned since.  A flight of fancy turned to frustration as the smoke and mirrors fell away and revealed a game that was confused about its identity, something the over-the-top and often times laboured humour can never make up for.  SRIV had all the markings of a game that had evolved into something new, something bigger, something more magnificent.  But the marks just covered up old scars that although hidden still held the game firmly in the past.  Saints Row IV isn’t necessarily a bad game; but its one thats schizophrenia didn’t allow me to embrace the game its developers aspired for it to be.  And that’s a real shame because somewhere amongst the mish mash of ideas is the makings of one unbelievably great sandbox game.  It just needed more designing.

The greatest compliment I can pay the game is that although I didn’t like it; I can absolutely see why scores more people did.  And that is the wonder of video games in a nutshell.