Saints Row IV is an epically meta mindfuck of a love letter to fans of Saints Row, which is to say an epically meta mindfuck of a love letter to videogame power fantasies. Profane, indulgent, sleek, varied, luminous, familiar, new, and brimming with the joy of chaotic chaos. No one does open worlds like Volition. And almost no one does self-referential humor like Volition, a studio that vaults gleefully over the top, cackling madly the whole time, without leaving the basics behind. If you don’t fall head over heels in love with Saints Row IV, you are a little dead inside. Also, I can’t be your friend anymore.
After the jump, is Saints Row IV the best game of all time?
I wish you could go into Saints Row IV not knowing about the obvious inspiration from The M****x and the *****powers and the alien ******** and the cast of ********* characters, because the discoveries are such delights if you don’t know they’re coming. But if you’re the type of person to read this review before you’ve played the game, you’ve probably also seen publisher Deep Silver’s marketing, which ruins some of the fun in the service of selling the game. Fair enough. THQ did the same thing when they marketed Saints Row The Third. That’s their job. But it’s a real delight discovering all the ways Volition has shattered the usual conventions to make your sandbox more sandbox than ever before, not to mention the tale they have to tell. Tall doesn’t begin to describe it, because tall isn’t meta enough.
As for the gameplay, it’s Saints Row meets Crackdown and Prototype and MMOs and the worst bits of Mass Effect rightly ridiculed. It’s full of progression and upgrades and skill points and character relationships and all the necessary trappings of open-world gaming, peppered generously throughout the world, but this time more carefully calculated to guide you through them if you’re not the type to just stop and do them just because. Now you’re doing activities in the service of caring about characters, who have become a strong point in the series and an important way Saints Row stands apart from other open-world games that aren’t called Brutal Legend.
But where Saints Row IV stands apart most gloriously is how it stands on the shoulders of the previous games, hooting triumphantly, splashing around, drunk on glee, wearing a skimpy top, eager for you to come in because damn is the water fine. Look at this! And this! And that! And these! Oh, man, look at these! Did you see those? It’s crazy in here. Can you believe it? Look! Even more than Volition’s brilliant Red Faction: Guerrilla, Saints Row IV lets you break rules, if not geometry. There’s a sense of having grown up and grown out and outgrown the way things are. When Saints Row was a child, it spake as a child. But when it became the fourth in the series, it just blew the everlivin’ crap out of everything in sight and giggled like an eight-year-old with a new toy and disappeared along a cyberblue blur inviting you to follow. It is a mad will o’ the wisp flitting about inside a dream, breaking invisible fourth walls and rolling 42s on 20-sided dice. It’s an anarchist throwing a bomb into pure math. You won’t find another game so delightedly hyperactive with its excesses as Saints Row IV.
But for all its excess, this is still a game that knows what makes it good. The weapons, the cars, the homies, the writing, the characters, the humor, and most of all the unparalleled self-awareness. Saints Row IV knows, for instance, that I miss Freckle Bitches. It knows why we think Keith David is cool. It knows obvious jokes are obvious. It knows you have more money than you can spend so, oops, no you don’t, but look what this awesome thing is you now have instead. It knows geography and geometry and jumping and driving and minigames and power curve fantasies. It knows you’re just as likely to be some fat dude with a rainbow afro as a hawt chick in a skintight superhero outfit talking with Nolan North’s voice (I was constantly surprised at some of the places Saints Row IV managed to integrate my character choices). Saints Row IV knows. It has read your lips and acquired sentience and activated Skynet and paved the way for a Vogon hyperspace bypass and greedily swallowed both the red pill and the blue pill before Morpheus could explain that it was supposed to just pick one. Rabbit holes, worm holes, black holes, inverted sinkholes drinking rubble into the sky. It’s all good. Now let’s play this song we licensed from the 90s that you can’t remember the name of, but you sure do recognize the tune. Saints Row IV knows you as well as it knows itself.
Occasional scripted missions break the rules breaks, but it’s always in the service of a good joke or a story beat. An unspoken agreement between us gamers and you game developers is that you never take away our guns. Never! Except, okay, for those few times when it’s for the best. But there are so many opportunities to get new and better and different and game-breaking powers and guns that Volition is fully within their rights to take them away from time to time to show you something before you summarily disintegrate it. Saints Row IV is 90% over the top re-goddamn-diculous godliness and 10% cool your jets for just a sec. What kind of crappy story would Lord of the Rings have been if Tom Bombadil had the One True Ring? Everyone knows you can’t give someone three wishes in a role-playing game. For Pete’s sake, even Professor Genki has to play by occasional rules. But the consistent thrill of Saints Row IV is how it constantly, eagerly, happily, accommodatingly asks you “Hey, how do you want to break the game now?” And for a game so colossal, so occasionally dumb, so often colossally sharks-with-laser-beams-on-their-heads-that-can-also-breathe-fire-and-fly-and-turn-invisible-and-you-can-even-ride-them dumb, what an incredibly smart thing to do with an open world, a franchise, and a story. If only Quarter to Three was as unfettered as Saints Row IV, you would see something other than the following rating: