Over the last week or so, I've been making my way through 2013's chaos simulator, otherwise known as Saints Row IV. Good lord is this game over-the-top -- and I mean that in the most entertaining albeit mindless sense of the phrase.
Playing Saints Row IV will cause you to spontaneously smile, laugh, gasp, and sometimes roll your eyes. It's packed with an epic soundtrack and enough pop-culture references to make you feel like you're in on the joke.
Saints Row IV does a fantastic job at appearing it doesn't take itself seriously, but in reality there's a very calculated delivery of hilarious writing, tongue-in-cheek jokes, and baked-in industry jabs. Creating comedy in games is arguably the hardest of genres to fully realize, but Saints Row IV makes it look easy.
If you've been following along with the Saints Row series, you'd know that what started as a Grand Theft Auto clone has evolved into a completely off-the-rails sandbox action game. As the title gang has gotten more powerful and influential with each passing iteration, the gameplay within has reciprocally spiraled into all-out anarchy.
Now four games in, the Saints have transcended the stigma of street thugs and have wound up in the White House (yep, you read that correctly). If that weren't ridiculous enough, the Saints are now faced with an equally realistic threat: an alien race that has it in for all of humanity.
The invading Zin have created a Matrix-style virtual world that you'll jack into, which is where most of the game is played. Total disregard for human life and private property is a much easier pill to swallow when you're playing a simulation of well, a simulation.
Because you're in this artificial "real world," your character has access to supernatural powers, which takes Saints Row gameplay to a different level. Early on you gain the ability to run faster than cars, which definitely changes the way you approach navigating around town.
Once the opening narrative settles, you'll find yourself free to do what you wish. However, some of the side missions are carbon copies from past games. "Mayhem" and "Fraud" quests are back, and if you're like me, they tend to outstay their welcome fairly quickly. But while there are side quest reruns, there are also some clever new additions that are well worth pursuing. The problem is you don't always know which are the ones to initiate.
Of course Saints Row has become synonymous with absurdity, but it doesn't hide the fact that the game can be frustratingly handicapped at times. There's dozens of weird glitches that are peppered throughout such as missions that fail to trigger, odd vehicle entering and exiting animations, and other strange behavior. Nothing here is a deal breaker, but they're also tough to ignore, too.
On the graphics side of things, it appears that Saints Row IV is pushing what current-gen consoles can handle. There are significant frame rate drops throughout. Switching to the PC version might temper these imperfections and thankfully the recommended requirements won't break the bank. I found a noticeable improvement using an x17 Digital Storm gaming laptop.
If you're a fan of what Saints Row has offered recently, you'll probably enjoy IV, even if the game doesn't follow the same formula beat by beat. There's still a dizzying amount of character customization on hand, and the skill and leveling-up system has new and rewarding paths to explore.
Still, I'm sure there will be Saints fans who will be disappointed with the whole alien invasion angle. It's jarring and unexpected, especially for those who haven't been following along with the trailers leading up to the game's August 20 release.
CNET verdict: You've been warnedWhile it's certainly not for everyone, Saints Row is a guilty pleasure that will have you laughing, scratching your head, and questioning the moral integrity of its entire development team. Without a doubt it's a game that needs to be seen to be believed.
It's far from perfect, but I'm not sure there's another game out there that can cram in the sheer amount of addictive absurdity that Saints Row IV manages to pull off.