Friday, September 13, 2013

Deriving Pleasure: Impressions of Saint's Row 4

Derivative is often considered a bad word in the entertainment business. It can mean stale and safe, and is frequently seen as a company simply milking a property for more money. But when it's done right, deriving means refinement, distillation and even evolution. Saints Row 4 is definitely derivative, but the designers at Volition knowingly play off of our expectations from previous Saints Row games to brilliant effect. And that's why I love this game.

But let's be mean for a second. This game feels like an expansion pack to Saints Row the 3rd. They're running on the same engine, and the shooting, driving, running, and gunning feel very familiar. We're even walking the same well-worn streets of Steelport, albeit with less exploration and a few minor graphical effects. Though given Volition's bumpy road lately, it's amazing this game even came out.

Saints Row 4 actually started as a standalone expansion to Saints Row the 3rd, titled "Enter the Dominatrix." Then, in late 2012/early 2013, their head company and publisher THQ went bankrupt and had to sell everything off in pieces. Somewhere between the slow decline of THQ and Volition's subsequent purchase by European publishers Deep Silver, Volition decided to tie their work on Dominatrix in with their early ideas for the 4th installment. So where do you go after the insanity of Saints Row the 3rd? What if we gave our beloved puckish rogues, the 3rd Street Saints, super powers that let them break the game, and made a lot of Matrix references? Throw in some aliens with crazy weapons to steal, and we're off to a good start. Also, you're the president of the United States now. Why not?

Although Keith David is the VP in the game, I chose The Chronicles
of Riddick
 to represent him because I'm a terrible person.

That's pretty much the setup for Saints Row 4. You save America from nuclear chaos, become the baddest leader since Mike Haggar, and everything's coming up Milhouse. Unfortunately, there's a problem. Ziniak, alien God King of the aptly named Zin Empire, arrives and abducts the best Earth has to offer and sticks them in a computer simulation. Mainly to torture them with their worst fears and mistakes, but also to let the developers go crazy and create interesting environments for us to play in and destroy.

Fortunately your time in this simulation is buttery smooth. One of the main reasons this game feels so good to play is because of its iterative nature. The gunplay and movement feel great, and you're crazy agile now. What once was a Ferrari-wrecking road block to be slammed into can now be nimbly jumped over or simply jogged through at super speeds. Or you can just chuck a huge fireball at it and blow everything up.

Should I go with a Sugar Ray lyric or a Lord of the Rings reference?

Speaking of which, you've got plenty of overpowered new toys to play with. The weapon designs in this game get pretty exotic. What better way to stick it to the man simulator than to overload it with chaos and explosions? You'll be causing plenty of both, whether in the side and loyalty missions or the bizarre main campaign. The side missions have much better variety than in the past, and though you've still got a few staples like "insurance fraud" and racing, there are quite a few new types and variations on the old, like platform jumping and super-powered fight club.

The loyalty missions, however, stood out to me. I haven't played the first game, but I could not care less about and/or actively hated most of my gang members in the 2nd and 3rd. Imagine my surprise when the loyalty missions flushed out the Saints Row lore and I actually found them compelling! Characters have some depth and motivation other than revenge and blood lust! I actually looked forward to freeing my companions and interacting with them in a Mass Effect-esque style on my ship.

Always bet dubstep!

And the references don’t stop at Mass Effect – there are a ton of fun game and pop culture references, from Mortal Kombat, to Double Dragon, to Starfox 64. But these aren't the "cool story bro" kind of references of Borderlands 2 (my other favorite derivative game of late); these are the well done, pretty damn humorous, nostalgic kind. Many of the best story moments come from referencing previous Saints Row games though, especially the mostly forgotten first and second installments. While the games all technically tie together, until now it was never really addressed. Each game started with a blank slate, a character creator screen, and a new empire to build, but Saints Row 4 wonderfully breaks that trend by adding continuity to the series.

And with that, the Saint's Row franchise has built its empire. What started out as a lowly GTA clone has come a long way into its own ridiculous identity, and it's been a hell of a ride. In moments when the action stops to take a quick breath, even the characters take a second to wonder at how weird things have gotten for a former small-time street gang. It doesn't seem like much for a series to remember its roots, but each game has built upon its predecessors and open world games in general, in some unique and entertaining ways. I mean, where else can you beat a man to death with a 5-foot purple dildo because he didn't like your best "has anyone in this family even seen a chicken" chicken dance?

Steve Miscik loves coffee, things that rhyme with orange, and single female lawyers [Ed: And giving his friends free Steam keys!].

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