I was worried about Saints Row when the publisher went bankrupt, but apparently Volition itself was preserved, and they took what was going to be some DLC for SR3 and turned it into SR4. Which sounds like it could be lame (like Arkham Origins’ idea to tell Batman’s pre-Batman days as a set of combat maps), but turns out to be a lot of fun.

The president in fake Steelport in her alien princess outfit

The president in fake Steelport in her alien princess outfit

The story starts a few years after SR3, when the Saints leader (i.e. you, or in my case me) has become President of the US. Then aliens invade, under British-accented overlord Zinyak, and throw you into a simulation of Steelport, the setting of SR3.

The re-use of Steelport threatens to make the game a rehash of SR3… except it turns out not, because within the simulation you have superpowers. And surprisingly, that’s enough to make it feel like an entirely different game. For instance: you can drive around all you like, but you won’t, because sprinting, jumping and gliding are faster and more fun. And the combat superpowers change combat quite a bit.

The missions vary rather unpredictably in difficulty– there are a few very hard fights, as well as a jumping-sprinting mission that was pretty annoying (there’s one overlong jump in it which I kept missing). I found that the most reliable superpower is the freeze blast, which you get early– it’s great for immobilizing some of the really jumpy enemies; you just have to learn the dance of freeze-then-shoot.

The game freely borrows from all over– the waking-up scene from The Matrix, the ’50s simulation from Fallout 3, the loyalty missions from Mass Effect 2, various old-skool side scrollers, plus earlier versions of Saints Row.  There’s even a mission which satirizes stealth missions.  But all of these are done well and add some needed variety.

SR3 was essentially an open world game, where the goal was to take over Steelport, confronting each of its gangs in turn.  The emphasis was on fun, and it never threw too much story at you.  It had fun characters, and the voice acting for the player character was exceptional, but the Boss was, in fact, the one character that was barely there.  Which was fine, as you could interpret her the way you wanted.

SR4 gives a good deal more personality to the Boss.  There’s some explicit discussion of whether she’s a sociopath or a puckish rogue, there’s some conflicts with underlings, there’s her strange devotion to Johnny Gat.  This was fine with me, as Volition’s concept of the Boss accords all right with mine.  Neither of us are interested in exploring the actual mentality of a gang leader.

Another difference: it’s way more unified as a story.  One villain, one goal, and where you were encouraged to just mess around in SR3, finding mission hotspots on your own, in SR3 the side quests systematically lead you through them.

I finished it tonight; I’ve got over 40 hours in it, mostly very satisfying hours, but I probably won’t replay it multiple times, as I did SR3.  Not that there’s something wrong with it; it’s just rare that I get as involved with a sequel as with the original.  (Arkham City is the big exception.)

Overall, SR3 and SR4 are really solid, fun games.  They don’t take themselves too seriously, they don’t attempt a realistic simulation of everything; at the same time, you’ll probably end up genuinely enjoying the little band of minions you’ve accumulated.

My one quibble is that I could have used quite a bit less Steelport.  They’ve changed it in clever ways (e.g. all the city’s signage is now demoralizing messages from Zinyak), but many of the side missions explore other worlds, and I’d like to have had more of that.

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