Saturday, August 31, 2013

Saints Row IV - Everything You Want in Open World Gaming

I’ve mentioned before that open world gaming isn’t a genre that I normally pick up. My main experience in this genre of gaming has come from the Assassin’s Creed and Infamous franchises as well as Batman: Arkham City and Saints Row: The Third (as well as a couple hours of Grand Theft Auto). While I have some experience with Saints Row 2, it was Saints Row: The Third that got me into the Saints Row franchise, so my anticipation of Saints Row IV had already begun when development of it became known. As it turns out, while they were developing this game, they had cancelled the planned Enter the Dominatrix DLC for the third game, as they realized that they could expand the concepts from it into a full game and fold it into what they already had (though now Enter the Dominatrix will be DLC for this game, which is kind of weird). This explains why Volition returned to Steelport for Saints Row IV and recycled assets, but doesn’t explain why no one was mad at them for reusing Stilwater between Saints Row 1 and 2.

Every video I saw of it increased my anticipation, with the reveal of some of the customization and weaponry wishing I could play it quicker. In that time however, THQ sadly went under, which briefly put the franchise in a state of limbo. As the publisher’s properties went on sale to other companies, publisher Deep Silver acquired developer Volition as well as the Metro franchise. It is through this acquisition that Saints Row IV was able to be published last week and how I’m able to share my opinion on the game. This latest entry in the Saints Row franchise is an improvement on Saints Row: The Third and is a game that open world fans should definitely look into playing.

Five years after the events of Saints Row: The Third, the Saints have risen from taking over Steelport to taking over the White House, with The Boss as President of the United States. Things seem to be going well, although the President’s approval rating has dropped to only 20 points. Just before he can give a big speech however, an alien race known as the Zin invade and abduct the important members of the President’s cabinet. While the President attempts to fight them off, he is ultimately taken by Emperor Zinyak, leader of the Zin Empire, who places him in a simulation of Steelport for his own amusement. The President manages to escape from Zinyak’s control, ending up on a spaceship with Kinzie and Vice President Keith David. Seeking revenge, the President decides to use the simulation to rescue more people he thinks will be useful so that the Saints can defeat Zinyak and take back Earth.

Emperor Zinyak at his throne.

By focusing on a single villain, the story of Saints Row IV seems to have more focus than the previous game. While I did say I liked the story of Saints Row: The Third, though there were problems with it, there seems to be more to this entry. I saw some character moments that seemed to mean something and there is a specific scene which gives the player good motivation to try and kill Zinyak. We even get to understand the kind of person the President is and see that the justification for his actions is quite sound. However, while the story is longer than that of Saints Row: The Third, it does prove itself to be nothing more than an excuse to throw as much over-the-top lunacy as possible to the player, and I consider that a good thing considering what we get to play around with.

First off, let’s talk about the super powers. That’s right; the President of the United States has access to super powers. This feature seemed to be the one discussed the most, which is why I wish to bring it up first. Among the abilities accessible are Super Speed, which can extend to gliding and running up buildings, and a Super Jump, which will eventually let you leap tall buildings. Other powers, like Blasts and Telekinesis, also have further sub-abilities based on what element is selected at the moment. This means that, for instance, a Blast augmented with fire has different effects from one augmented with ice, which allows the player to use their newfound abilities as they see fit. Using these powers in combat gave me new thrills, but it was especially fun to just roam around Steelport with a combination of powers, especially as they got more powerful, which also really increased mobility and made it more fun to get to places, rather than having to drive a long way to a mission or go somewhere to acquire some kind of jet. Just having the powers gave me a sense of glee, and even if it does make things easier, I like that they didn’t completely remove the sense of challenge from the game.

Of course, just because you get super powers, it doesn’t mean you can’t use any weapons. Saints Row IV sees the return of the standard weapons from previous games (Pistol, RPG, etc.) as well as their different versions, but now there are a slew of brand new weapons that are so ridiculous you’d be crazy not to use them. Apart from standard alien weaponry –laser-firing versions of standard weapons– Volition has included such things as an Inflat-O-Ray, which cartoonishly expands people’s heads until they explode, a Bounce Rifle, which fires balls with the properties of a pinball ball, and my personal favorite, the Dubstep Gun, which fires Dubstep instead of bullets. The preview that introduced the Dubstep Gun was the one that sold me on the game and, as a result, this was pretty much the only weapon I used regularly, especially when fully upgraded, which made the wubs generated by the weapon explosive. If you have the Commander in Chief upgrade, you also have access to the 'Merica weapon, a combination of a dozen guns as well as flamethrower and rocket launcher, which is so American that it hurts.

The Dubstep Gun, the best weapon in the game (no, really).

The best thing about having weapons and super powers is that you can combine them in combat, such as using a freeze blast followed by a gunshot to break the frozen enemy, or even use a particular power to enhance your bullets with a selected element. You even have the option, should you desire, to only use conventional weaponry and keep the use of your powers to a minimum, but it’s good to be aware that you’ll need to use your powers sooner or later to fight off the Zin, particularly against Wardens and shielded variants of the Zin (as well as shielded Wardens).

In addition to the weaponry, there’s also a rather wide selection of vehicles. All of your favorites from previous games are back, along with some new ones acquired from story progression or completion of certain challenges. Your super powers may allow you to run faster than a car or fly at the speed of a jet plane, but sometimes you want to just go for a drive, or get into a tank and shoot the crap out of everything or even take a plane and do some barnstorming; whatever floats your boat. While you don’t have a garage anymore, vehicles you are currently in can be saved by pressing the down button on the d-pad so that you can summon it at any time with your phone. If that doesn’t sell you, then consider that you can even combine super powers with vehicles, which includes jumping off a tall building and then summoning a jet to your location, such as the awesome Screaming Eagle (available with the Commander in Chief upgrade), thus now letting you pilot it while you’re in mid-air. You can even steal a car Dukes of Hazard style by running up to the desired car while going at supersonic speeds and then initiating the action. Performing this on my own generated some laughs as well as amazement from accomplishing it.

While you can use super powers with your guns, you’ll no longer be able to use grenades, as they have been removed from the game…Whatever.

Of course, I should also mention the customization options, which blow Saints Row: The Third right out of the water. Not only can you customize the President or your car collection to absurd degrees, but now guns have a much greater degree of customization. Aside from a series of skins, your guns can also assume different shapes, including making your RPG look like a guitar case or a Burst Rifle appear as a Super Soaker, perhaps even making a Quickshot Pistol into a Star Trek phaser. There are even skins for these different looks and it’s amazing how much attention to detail there is on the weapons, such as how the different skins for the Dubstep Gun change the music that comes out, one being an industrial mix of the default music and another allowing it to fire “Vindicate” by Datsik & Excision; the Dubstep Gun even has dials which react in time with the wubs. The level of customization is insane and I like this game all the better for it.

You didn't believe me about the guitar case, did you?

Most importantly, I like the fact that the options are open for the players. Whether you want to use your powers or conventional/alien weapons or just go for a joy ride, you can do it all and have everything look the way you want. I applaud Volition for this move, as, even if I don’t take full advantage, I’d rather have the option be there than not have the option at all.

Another improvement over Saints Row: The Third is how activities work. In the previous game, the only real incentive for completing activities was to take over 100% of Steelport or complete another version of the same activity at a higher difficulty (Easy, Medium or Hard). In Saints Row IV, activities now have completion tiers (Bronze, Silver and Gold) in addition to having different levels of difficulty. Not only will you want to improve your performance, but getting enough Silver and Gold medals across all instances of the activity will earn you new stuff to play around with, which is fine by me because I want to be able to run on water and get Gold in everything I possibly can.

As for the activities themselves, you won’t be finding all of your favorites from the course of the series, including the oft-mentioned Septic Avenger activity from Saints Row 2, but what they do have are better versions of activities from the previous game, or at least in the way that they accommodate both cyberspace and the super powers. Trailblazing, for example, is now Blazin and has you using the Preisdent’s Super Speed and Super Jump to collect orbs that will increase his speed and temporarily freeze a timer, with the goal of running all the way to end while hitting every checkpoint. The Mayhem activity also returns, but with many more variations in the level at once, such as Tank and Mech Suit versions, to provide some variety and let you blow stuff up with whatever you happen to use. I’ll admit that super powers did make the Insurance Fraud mission a little easier to do, but in the fun way where I tried to see just how much damage I could rack up with my ragdoll flying a few stories into the air in its travels. There are others, one which features Professor Genki again, but most of them are really fun to play and the Gold medal rewards are worth it.

Yay! More Genki!

You can also perform missions for your Homies, which are actually the open world activities grouped into sets, their completion tied together loosely for one reason or another. As these missions grant worthwhile rewards, there are a couple of ways you could go about them Either you could keep going back and forth between your ship and the simulation, or you could actually complete every mission available and then talk to your Homies a few times to receive every available reward. This is something to keep in mind for those who don’t like the idea of constant movement, but all you really have to do is take advantage of the option to circumvent movement and give you more time to play around.

If you want to get the best ending in the game however, you’ll also need to complete each of your Homies’ Loyalty missions. These Loyalty missions reveal more about the characters and provide different spins on certain things, such as one referencing Genki Bowl, but reward you with a super powered version of that Homie to call on in combat with the phone. On the subject of references, the missions you perform to rescue members of the cabinet are isolated and warped simulations based on fears that those characters have. These levels are also unique in that they reference past games all the way back to the first one, as is the case with Benjamin King, or actually act as vehicles to lampoon other popular video games, such as Asha Odekar’s targeting Metal Gear Solid (as a fan of the series, I actually found it to be quite funny, though I was a little disappointed by the use of an inexplicably popular misquote). These levels contribute to the story, but also let you have some more fun with how ridiculous the game can get.

Before I end my review, I’d like to mention the music. How good the licensed music selection is in a video game is very subjective, but I think that the songs in Saints Row IV are more miss than hit. A lot of the radio stations return, including a new one devoted entirely to the Mad Decent record label. However, what I didn’t like was the complete lack of a Heavy Metal station, which had been a series tradition since the first game. Personally I liked most of 106.66 The Blood, as well as the presence of an Adult Swim station, and the former was actually the only station I listened to with any regularity. So, for the first time, I created a Mixtape of what I thought were the best songs in the game, including the lone In Flames song since it was the closest I could find to Heavy Metal; I hope that a fifth Saints Row game brings back this station. The only consolation I had was that the radio can now be heard anywhere in the world, not just when you’re driving a car, which is a huge improvement (and would’ve let me enjoy Heavy Metal at all times).

I find your lack of Metal...disturbing.

Though extremely over-the-top and occasionally nonsensical, Saints Row IV is the open world game to play. It improves over Saints Row: The Third in almost every way and while the story is ultimately useless in the long run, it did actually have a good progression and gave the player some reason to care about the events taking place. Fans who don’t mind an insane premise and equally insane execution should pick this up, as well as open world fans in general who want to be able to experience things they won’t be able to anywhere else (though if you liked Crackdown, Prototype and Destroy All Humans!, you’re in for a treat). While this entry did start life as an expansion, it has managed to become, and should be seen as, a full game in its own right.

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