Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Superpowers are the glue that holds Saints Row IV together

On paper, Saints Row 4 shouldn’t work.

Originally conceived as an expansion to Saints Row The Third, it takes place in the same city, reuses some of the same jokes and gags, and has some of the same tired activities. But with a different premise, the introduction of new characters, and a varied narrative, Saints Row 4 feels like one whole cohesive game wrapped around the concept of superpowers.

While Saints Row 4 takes place in Steelport, it doesn’t actually take place in Steelport. Instead, you’re inside a simulation of Steelport called simulation 31. Because it’s a simulation and not the real world, you can run faster than any vehicle, shoot fire and ice, use telekinesis, and jump over buildings. Imagine the Matrix in the style of Saints Row.

It’s because of these superpowers that Saints Row 4 feels different from Saints Row The Third, despite its similarities and borrowed material. Steelport might feel the same as it did before, if it weren’t perpetually at night. The buildings might seem familiar if you weren’t jumping over them and seeing new perspectives on old locations. The streets might give a sense of déjà vu if you were driving a car and not running past them at the speed of sound. Simply the way you move, your locomotion, feels radically different from that of Saints Row The Third, and in turn makes the city feel different.

Superpowers, however, don’t help Saints Row 4 from treading over the same things that made Saints Row The Third unique. Missions like the Tron-inspired Decker’s Die level, singing with Pierce in a car, and the text adventure game were all standout moments that I can still vividly remember. But they all appear again in Saints Row 4, and while they have a bit more flavor added in this time around, like Zinyak interrupting Pierce and yours rendition of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” they feel more like checking off a list of expectations rather than being memorable.

Surprisingly, superpowers also help alleviate some of the more problematic elements from previous Saints Row games. Personally, I always found the insurance fraud side missions frustrating and tedious. In Saints Row 4, they suddenly become my favorite activity. Running at top speed, head first, into a car, bouncing off, and twirling down the street doing cartwheels while earning money for each bounce and bone-crushing sound associated genuinely felt like I was breaking the engine’s physics.

I don’t think Saints Row 4 is a better game than Saints Row The Third, but Volition did an amazing job at making it feel so different, it doesn’t have to be. Between walking around your pseudo-Normandy, talking and romancing homies, using music to destroy enemies with the dubstep gun, and being the President of the United States, Saints Row 4 doesn’t fall into the trap of just simply being Saints Row 3.5. It finds a way to carve out its own place instead of doing the same thing again like other open-world games.

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