After The Third, we left the Saints as celebrities, ruling over Steelport. In Saints Row IV we ascend to a higher office - the Presidency - and join returning characters on a space-bound adventure that shakes its stick of parody with a vengeance.
Originally planned as an expansion - a fact not easily disguised thanks to a rehashing of old content - a new story holds together this refreshed take on the Saints Row formula. The main injection of newness comes in the form of superpowers. Earned over the duration of the campaign, they drastically impact the way that players will interact with the familiar-ish open world of Steelport.
It kicks off in memorable fashion. At first we're stealthing into a military bunker and taking down terrorists. It's very silly, but not as silly as what happens next. Fast-forward a few years and Boss is the President of the United States. On his/her way to a press conference alien soldiers attack the White House, steal members of the Saint's crew and declare war on humanity. As before we're playing in the third-person, and after blasting down some spaceships with some AA guns on the White House lawn, we enter a QTE fight with Zinyak, the chief antagonist. He's an effete brute, with a spiky head and a face for radio. The encounter ends with Boss being transported away into a simulation. Enter the Matrix.
Aside from the Saints Row games that've come before, the Matrix is the defining inspiration here. There's numerous references, paraphrased quips, a visual style that borrows heavily from the movies, and a soundtrack that shares similar beats. Even some of the powers - and the animations that accompany them - are lifted almost intact from the films. There's plenty of other examples of parody and homage. There's traces of Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty and Battlefield. The list goes on, and it seems no genre is safe from Saints Row's sense of irony. In this respect, it's not an original game. It is, however, a very funny game. The odd joke may fall flat, but there's an unrelenting stream of chortle-inducing gags. You won't laugh at all of them, but enough will hit home for it to be considered a selling point.
In amongst all the parody are some moments that poke fun at Mass Effect. Once rescued from your digital cell, your base of operations is a ship in space that allows you to reenter the simulation at your leisure. That simulation is Steelport, and you can aid your overall mission by completing objectives, clearing out hotspots, and generally causing mayhem wherever you go. There's powerful guardians that pop up from time to time, and defeating these gives Boss additional powers in the simulation. When not causing virtual mayhem you can patrol your ship, chat to your homies and get missions, and even initiate the occasional lusty encounter.
Interactions with the game world are drastically different this time around, as the player can run faster than a speeding bullet, leap over tall buildings, lash enemies with elemental attacks, hoist aliens around with telekinetic powers, and smash opponents with a devastating stamp. There's short tutorial missions that take place on a rooftop, allowing time for acclimatisation. It's these powers, and the way that they force you play differently in the Steelport sandbox, that really sets the game apart from its predecessor. Running through lines of traffic and hopping between rooftops are genuine alternatives to hijacking a car and doing things the old fashioned way.
Like most open world games, players can follow the linear path of the main story, or deviate off the beaten track and indulge in side quests and standalone missions. Along with some of the more outlandish story missions, it's in these extra-curricular activities that the amount of variety present on the disc is displayed. Some are throwaway efforts that won't hold much attention, but other mini-games provide quality entertainment. There's towers to climb using your super-charged jump, targets to hit with various objects held in the grip of your telekinetic power, speed challenges, destruction-fueled tank missions, and many more besides. Most are fun, but the quality is variable.
Your crew can join you in the simulation and fight by your side once they've been rescued from the simulation. On top of the main characters, there's plenty of little bonuses to be unlocked (which I'll not spoil here, but there are several smiles waiting to be raised). There are key side-missions that you can tackle on behalf of the members of your crew, and successful completion of these offerings will impact the ending you receive at the end of the game.
The outrageous costume options return, and you can dress up in all manner of ridiculous outfits. There's a plentiful selection of wardrobe combinations, and you can tinker with the face, gender and physique of your character. There's also a selection of different voices on offer, including that of Nolan North (Nathan Drake, Desmond Miles). Great voice work is complimented by a decent soundtrack. What is Love booms out during a flying mission, you perform a sexy dance to Simply Irresistible. There's several other highlights, but we'll not spoil them for you.
From a visual perspective things don't really move on too much. The inclusion of super powers and lasers give the game a distinctive feel when compared to its predecessor, but it's still running on the same engine. There are plenty of neat little touches; sections that scream retro, purposeful moments of graphical distortion, and Matrix-esque effects. At times the screen is too overloaded with explosions and effects, and this can be disorientating, but it doesn't happen often.
Most of the time it all fits together. The game retains its sense of humour; many of the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny. There's a huge arsenal of weapons, some more silly than others (there's a Dubstep Gun, and the huge phallic truncheons return), and for the most part combat falls on the right side of fun. The sandbox world that holds it together isn't the largest we've ever explored, but it's crammed full of things to do. There's also the option to play the game in co-op, as well as several activities strewn across the map that can only be played with a friend. There's hours and hours of gameplay here, with lots to do, and plenty of laughs to be had on the way. While Saints Row IV may have started life as an expansion, that's certainly not how it's ended up. If you played a lot of The Third, the recycled content might be an issue for you, but if you're coming to the series fresh, consider adding a point to the score below.