Saints Row is the game that decided to out-ridiculous Grand Theft Auto, and since 2006 it has been providing players with an over-the-top gameplay experience that mimics the open world sandbox of GTA, while adding a ton of tongue-in-cheek humor and oddities. For instance, you can go streaking in the game and if you shock enough people, you’ll gain experience. Sadly, that just doesn’t work in real life, or I would have had some extra credit in college.
But with each of the three successive games, the series has gotten stranger and stranger. You play as the leader of the Third Street Saints, a gang out the Chicago/Detroit inspired city of Stilwater. Despite the extremely high body count you have racked up in previous games, you’re now the President of the United States, and Keith David (yes, that Keith David) plays himself, and serves as your Vice President. Which is meta in itself, as David also voiced Julius Little in the first two Saints games, original founder of the Saints.
But strap yourself in and click the buckle, because that is child’s play compared to the rest of this game, which kicks the needle off of the meta-meter and goes for broke. As Saints Row IV opens, you find yourself on the way to a presidential press conference, spotting several familiar faces from previous games along the way. I should stress at this point that you don’t have to have played the previous games to enjoy the hell out of this one, but there are a lot of in-jokes for people that did.
There’s also a major plot point in this game that concerns the death of one of the characters in Saints Row the Third, but the game will recap things for you if you need a refresher. So, as you stroll through the hallowed halls, taking the time to decide whether or not to cure cancer or end hunger, aliens attack. While the White House doesn’t get annihilated Independence Day style, it does get turned into Swiss cheese, and all of your friends are abducted. After visiting the Oval Office and loading up on guns in hidden compartments (naturally), the President proceeds to blast alien butt while spouting filmic one-liners.
But as you go head to head with Zinyak, the leader of the alien invasion, things turn wonky. Zinyak isn’t quite the pushover that your ego led you to believe he might be, and you find yourself zapped into a Pleasantville-esque simulation. Set in the 1950s and complete with a Leave it to Beaver-style soundtrack, you learn Zinkyak is attempting to brainwash you and ultimately humiliate you while his entire race watches like a reality show. Which actually sounds about 98% better than most of our own reality shows. Except MasterChef. Don’t you dare dis MasterChef.
Once you bust out of the simulation, you’ll find yourself in yet another simulation. This one is meant to mimic the town of Steelport where you last did your gangbanging in the Third Street Saints, but it has been given a Zinyak makeover, complete with statues dedicated to him around the city, and a lot of other changes.
So this is where the game turns into the Matrix, complete with your actual body stored in a pod somewhere in the “real” world, while your brain gets zapped into a mutable simulation. But before you can say ripoff, your character will say “Hey, this is like a trilogy of films I saw one time…” Which means I’m sure the developers tossed around the word “homage” a few times. But that is just the tip of the virtual iceberg. The game goes on to reference just about every beloved geek franchise in existence, including but not limited to Harry Potter, Metal Gear Solid, The Terminator, Godzilla, Portal, Seinfeld, and of course They Live. I mean, you have Keith David in there, so why not?
The developers got Rowdy Roddy Piper to appear in the game as well, and the result is just… completely amazing. There are tons of laugh out loud moments just based on these references alone, and when you toss in the voice acting (Nolan North, video game voiceover mainstay is one of the voices you can pick for your character), there are hours of entertainment packed in here.
This thing really is the “Ready Player One “of the video game world. Below all of the pop culture references and geek love, there’s a solid video game set in an open world with plenty to do. And since you’re playing inside a simulation now, a whole new world opens up. You can get superpowers. You can visit outer space. You can get zapped into Tron-like worlds on missions. You can rescue your homies and bring them back to the alien ship you’ve commandeered and established as your base of operations. You can shoot a Dubstep gun at people and kill them with music. You can access Commander-in-Chief DLC and gain access to the ‘Merica weapon, the Screaming Eagle jet, and an Uncle Sam suit. You can even find and play text adventures on a computer within the game.
Saints Row IV goes so far over the top that it orbits the planet, but for some strange reason, it scratches nearly every video game itch you have ever developed. Sure the gameplay can get a bit repetitive, but with so much to do, it’s hard to complain about boredom. Hell, you can even stand on a street corner and just listen to snippets of conversations from passers-by, and then shed all of your clothes and go streaking for bonus experience points. I’m sure that Fox News with have a field day with this game at some point, but right now this is the President that we need and deserve. One who isn’t afraid of a little ass-kicking, or testicle punching.
Saints Row IV is out now for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.
Kevin Kelly studied film and television at The University of Texas at Austin, before moving to Los Angeles and working at Sony Pictures and The Jim Henson Company in story development. Since turning to writing, Kevin has written about movies at AOL, Slashfilm, The Austin Chronicle, and right here at Film School Rejects. He has also written extensively about video games at Joystiq, G4, and MTV as a staff writer. He is terrible at fighting games, constantly gets crushed in StarCraft 2 multiplayer matches, and spends far too much time playing Infocom interactive fiction classics like Zork 2. You can make fun of him on Twitter @kevinkelly.