Saints Row 4 is an unusual beast. It’s an AAA game about gaming. It’s a top of the line meta game that goes meta on the meta with lines like “This is just like playing a game. Wink.” With the wink pronounced out loud.
SR4 begins with a Call of Duty parody and is based around a Mass Effect parody. And there are send ups of everything from Metal Gear “that lightbulb had a family” to the whole Saints Row series. Adding to that there’s a built in text adventure game, a mission that turns you into a character in a side-scroller beat-em-up and a whole bunch of jumping and racing games that are 3D versions of the games you might play on the phone to pass the time.
All that makes Saints Row 4 a lot cleverer than the GTA series thinks it is with its latest take on Organized Crime = The American Dream. An idea that was stale a few years after the Godfather and imitation mob movies finished beating into the ground. But that doesn’t mean that SR4 is good.
Saints Row 3 was a polished machine full of gags, missions that transformed into something more hilariously insane and a territory to explore. Saints Row 4 dumps you into the same city with a few small things switched around and alien gear everywhere. It also overlays the old drive and shoot gameplay with a whole bunch of superpowers so that the cars don’t matter.
SR4 feels like the DLC that it started life as. Its missions feel less polished and while a few match the brilliant insanity of SR3, there are so many filler missions that its own DLC, Enter the Dominatrix, jokes about them.
With everything from lightsabers to terminators to Roddy Piper showing up in the game, Saints Row 4 is trying hard to distract you with shiny things. Superpowers, moddable guns that can be turned into the weapons from Firefly, Star Trek and multiple other franchises. Jumping games, racing games, lots of unlockables. But what it’s trying to distract you from is the lack of gameplay.
Integrating superpowers into a drive and shoot game doesn’t go well either. The superpowers are neat, but the system for deploying and choosing them is awkward. The alien enemies are diverse, but few of them have superpowers. The Wardens who do are the worst thing about the game cutting the player off at a top notoriety level and forcing an annoying battle that ends with a notoriety reset.
That makes the whole superpowers thing feel like a played mod that wasn’t well thought out instead of the center of the game.
Once you’re dumped into the simulation, most of the game consists of going into the other simulations where the other characters are trapped to rescue them. And then fulfilling their loyalty missions. Some of these are surprisingly well written and well acted. SR4 does more with its ridiculous characters and goes deeper than Grand Theft Auto 4 ever did. Others are just filler.
SR4 balances out serious backstory and ridiculous gags. It wraps up its own narrative. But it feels unfinished. There aren’t enough missions and the ending is abrupt and awkward. And too many of the missions feel like pointless fetch quests to stretch out the time.
Saints Row 4 has plenty of great moments, but not enough of them and the closer you get to the ending, the more unfinished it feels until you’re looking at a credits sequence composed of concept art for what the Saints are doing in the real ending.