Although it's not obvious, there's a method to Volition's madness. The studio behind "Saints Row" had a plan that took the series from "Grand Theft Auto" clone to a franchise with its own identity.
To see that trajectory, players have to follow the path of the Boss, the player-created protagonist at the heart of the series. Creative director Steve Jaros pointed out that the Boss has gone from lowly thug to crime overlord. From there, the head of organized crime turned the street gang into pop culture icons so celebrated that officers ask them for autographs while the crew robs a bank.
Where does Volition take the series from there? Naturally, "Saints Row 4" puts the Boss in the White House. (Hey, Arnold Schwarzenegger's fame helped him become governor of California.) But Kinzie, Shaundi, Pierce and the gang won't be fighting other countries this time around. The bar is set higher as an alien army called the Zin empire takes over Earth and abducts the president and the crew.
Zinyak, the alien's leader, places his kidnapped humans in a simulation a la "The Matrix," where he plans to toy with them, but the Boss escapes the prison's virtual bonds and rounds up his crew. Throughout most of the campaign, players spend most of their time in Steelport, the previous game's setting. The lack of a new locale is a disappointment, but "Saints Row 4" is more of a narrative-driven game.
The landscape is secondary to the new gameplay tweaks and mission design. They are worked into the fabric of the campaign as the Boss has to free his comrades and disrupt the simulation by causing unfettered mass chaos.
That also happens to be the perfect scenario for a sandbox game, where players in the simulation have superpowers that let them jump over buildings and run as fast as planes. They can shoot fire or use telekinesis to toss cars at Zin soldiers. Volition effectively made the "Crackdown" sequel that fans always wanted.
Because this is a "Saints Row" title, there's more creativity when it comes to mission design. The campaign scenarios feature a few wow moments, especially for those who like Keith David's work. He plays the vice president of the United States. There are also a few absurd situations like fighting a skyscraper-sized drink mascot and fending off a town full of 1950s denizens. The game feels scattered at times and doesn't have the unity of vision that made "Saints Row the Third" so perfect. It's almost like the video game equivalent of a TV series clip show.
If that weren't enough, this sequel does have bugs. At the end of the generation, the team has created a title that pushes consoles to their limits.
Players will see stuttering and instances where they move so quickly the camera has trouble catching up. Being a "simulation," some glitches make sense in the universe, but that still doesn't absolve a game that still does a lot of things right.
'saints row 4'
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Platforms: Xbox 360,
PlayStation 3, PC