5 Reasons Why "Saints Row IV" Is The Best Superhero Game
- by Leo Stableford, 2 September 2015
Poor old Saints Row. It's a franchise that is always looked down upon. Most commentators view it as a mere pretender to the open world gangster game throne. Whereas Grand Theft Auto is seen as the benchmark, Saints Row is ever pegged as an also-ran.
Most commentators can't even bring themselves to be nice about the series. Some do admit that it is nice to see a game trying to offer a wide variety of activities. Even that becomes a back-handed compliment. Always followed the news that its humour is childish and it is short on originality. (It has to be said all the jokes about 'hos' fall flat. Every last one.)
The most frustrating thing about this is that it's just not true. The Saints Row team worked hard to pull their idea together and build its own identity. Admittedly, yes, it did take a while to find a trajectory. When it did though... wow.
The culmination of the franchise's evolution to date is Saints Row IV. I haven't played "Gat Out Of Hell" but it doesn't sound like a step forward, just from its design. Sure, the franchise started out life as Grand Theft Auto without the grim-dark protagonist. Where it ends up is so far from its derivative beginnings that the comparison fails after Saints Row 2.
I was not a big fan of Saints Row 2. I only picked up Saints Row the Third because people kept insisting that the series became a lot better. I enjoyed The Third so much that I was desperate to see Saints Row IV. A game infamous for its ridiculous plotline and the introduction of super powers.
Only when I began to play Saints Row IV did I begin to fully understand what I was experiencing. This wasn't just Grand Theft Auto with super powers. This was the greatest super hero game ever made. Here are the reasons why.
1. IT'S NOT JUST ONE SUPERHERO GAME
At the heart of the Saints Row experience has always been the idea of customisation. Your character (known only as The Boss) can be male or female, any race, any build. You can choose one of six different voices to deliver their dialogue. Seven in IV - the six usual ones and "Nolan North" for added gamer cred.
In the true SR spirit you have not just a couple of super powers, but the option of several. I played the whole game and only used about six of them. I tried a couple of the others out, but didn't really like them.
The main powers are "Super Leaping" (they stopped short of flight) and "Super Sprinting". I was a super leap kind of hero. I pranced from roof top to roof top, running up the sides of buildings and sailing across the city of Steelport.
A couple of times I needed to get from A to B along a route without enough tall buildings. So I sprinted. If nothing else, The Boss's impersonation of The Flash is spot on, but more destructive. The feeling of whooshing along in the centre of your own personal tornado is unbeatable. It's so exhilarating.
In addition to these two powers come Super Strength, force blasts (Ice! Fire! Mind Control!), Super Stomping, and Telekinesis. You could just pick the power profile that you enjoyed and stick with that. For this reason you can accomplish your mission objectives in a huge number of ways.
2. IT'S INFINITELY CUSTOMIZABLE
Add to this an array of clothing and weaponry options and you can very much bake your own superhero. My version of The Boss was an alabaster-skinned woman with dark hair. She was covered in tattoos and dressed like an escapee from the Matrix. There were other options but this was my vision.
If you didn't fancy bounding everywhere, or sprinting there were vehicles aplenty available. Choices ranged from VTOL UFOs to Tron Bikes to sports cars and helicopters.
People understate it when they call Saints Row a toy box. It's not that you're expected to do everything. It's more that you are offered the option to do everything. It's not that you want to be a superhero who goes everywhere in a pink bunny costume. It's that it's nice to be offered the option...
3. IT'S A LIGHT-HEARTED ROMP WITH A VILLAIN WE CAN ALL AGREE ON
In case you don't know. The plot of SRIV is that The Boss has risen from obscurity to become the President of the United States. Then aliens invade. The alien leader consigns The Boss to a virtual prison based upon the setting of the previous game. With the aid of his/her hacker companion Kinzie Kensington, The Boss acquires superpowers. He/she uses these to free the Saints. Together they take an ass-kicking of galactic proportions to the alien invasion.
The game is cleverly designed in several respects. Its satire is broader than that found in GTA. GTA is quite political. By contrast Saints Row has become a video game that parodies video games.
What's more important is that the behaviours of The Boss do not change. Even so they mean something completely different in SR IV. Acts which are sociopathic in the previous games now become the actions of a hero.
The game starts down this path from the outset - a mission where The Boss and MI5 infiltrate a terrorist bunker in the Middle East. They stop the bad guy and prevent a nuke landing on Washington. The mission is pretty identical to most SR missions. You run through the map killing every enemy you see.
Saints Row II opens with you breaking Johnny Gat out of a trial for 300 murders. Saints Row The Third sees you battling a rival super gang during a publicity stunt gone wrong. All the missions have the same basic mechanic. The meaning of the action is altered each time.
Twenty minutes after saving the White House from terror nukes you do it all again. This time it is the Zin Invasion force you are dispatching. Actions which were once reprehensible have become heroic. Yet nothing has changed.
This alteration of context across the series is one of the cleverest things in any video game ever. It is like the designers are pointing out to the audience that in action context is everything.
The Boss never changes, not at core, but the world about The Boss redefines their actions for them. In SR2 you become the kingpin Mob Boss at the end. In SR4 you do the same exact things and save the human race from extinction. It's not just political satire, it's philosophical satire. Lofty indeed.
Also the context of IV meant a reduction in the number of rubbish jokes about prostitutes... win.
4. IT RESTS UPON AN ESTABLISHED CONTINUITY
None of this would be possible without the established continuity of the franchise. Upon release, SRIV was criticised because the powers enabled a particular style of play. You didn't have to engage with the streets of Steelport.
I didn't feel distanced from Steelport because I'd played through SR The Third. It's the same map. In fact SRIV started life as an April's Fool Gag about a DLC mission pack called Enter the Dominatrix. All SRIV did for me, therefore, was change my relationship to a well known setting. That was fun.
In many other respects as well SRIV would not have been as rich as it was, if not for its affection for its own roots. The leader of the aliens is portrayed as an SR canon nerd.
He conjures enemies and simulations from the past of the franchise. At one point the character of Shaundi has a big disagreement with a version of herself from the past. The game is full of this kind of self-reflection.
The Saints Row team show full awareness that their game is weird. It's bizarre to have a game that started life as Boys N The Hood meets South Park become, well, what it became. In a way, this ungainly and awkward evolution is a good thing. It gives the Super Boss of SR IV an extensive and bizarre origin story.
5. IT IS PLEASANTLY SELF-AWARE
At many points during the game I found myself wondering how something so insane could be so rich and complex.
The Boss is a deeply weird character, for instance. The script writers for Saints Row had to write a character, who worked on some level no matter who they were. Because the player could choose for them to be anything.
I happened to think The Boss sounded right being an athletic, boyish woman. I kept thinking about what the dialogue would sound like coming from a man. It would just make The Boss sound like Sterling Archer*. From a woman it sounds like she's got some very interesting mental health problems. Whatever, I preferred it.
So The Boss has a personality, but it's at the whim of the player what kind of body that personality inhabits. Over time this seems to have given the world of SR an equally mutable character.
One minute you could be helping stop a zombie outbreak for the Mayor of Steelport. A couple of missions later you're tracking down a psycho wrestler on Mars. Then, of course, you're stomping aliens in power armour. After that you're rescuing an MI5 agent from a hilarious parody of Metal Gear and Splinter Cell.
"Shoot out the lights," the stealth agent commands.
"Why would I waste two bullets on the lights when I could use one on the guard?" The Boss complains. Failure to comply with the bizarre commands of stealth result in arbitrary insta-death. Funniest insta-death ever.
The bad news is that to get the most out of SRIV it's probably advisable to at least play SR The Third beforehand. The good news is that SR The Third features zombies and Tron parodies. In addition to sweet VTOL jets, and "Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax". So it's a fun ride.
And that's before you even get to the aliens and the super powers.
*Oh, but if H. Jon Benjamin had been a voice option I would totally have gone for it. At one point a character criticises The Boss for being a sociopathic thug. He/She shoots back "You don't think I'm just a 'puckish rogue'?" Such a line was born to be uttered by Sterling Archer.
Now you know! Saints Row IV makes other superhero games obsolete! How do you feel about that? Let us know in the comments!
Tagged: video games.