Saints Row IV is insanity itself.
There's no other way of really opening proceedings, other than to say that. From the various “homages" to great video games that have passed before, to the off-the-wall comedy and the racier portions of the game, the whole thing feels like it's assaulting your brain from start to finish. For a game from a franchise that is often compared negatively with Grand Theft Auto to make a player feel that way, it must be doing something right.
In fact, Saints Row IV does a lot of things right. You customise your character as you'd like, and then straight out of the opening sequence – which will have you laughing out loud – your character becomes The President of the United States of America, and has to square off against an alien race as they threaten to destroy life as we know it. Without giving too much of the story away, your main character is placed into a computer simulation of a sprawling metropolis in relatively short order. Being a simulation, the laws of physics and reality don't necessarily have to be adhered to. This means that super powers such as the ability to leap a few hundred feet into the air, fall from the top of a skyscraper and not be hurt, or sprint faster than a car come into play. In turn, this means that it's not long before you feel as if you're as free as a bird, able to traverse the map however you see fit. You can still hijack cars and vehicles of course, but there's very little need to, given that you're able to run faster than the beefiest of them.
And running faster that a street full of cars, charging your super-jump, leaping into the sky, hitting the side of a skyscraper and running all the way up the walls to the top is a great feeling. Jumping off is even better. Leaping from the highest point in the game, gliding towards an enemy encampment, and dropping a super-stomp move to kill them all stone dead in one shot is something that takes skill, but it has to be one of the most rewarding experiences we've seen in gaming in quite a while. You can spend hour after hour just exploring the city, finding ways of getting from place to place in the coolest way possible.
Graphically, Saints Row IV tends to get the job done with tons and tons of neon. This is no bad thing. Given that the game takes place pretty much entirely in the dark, the developers have managed to give what would be a standard-looking cityscape a look and feel all of its own. Add that to a soundtrack that features the likes of Haddaway, Cypress Hill, and Paula Abdul, and you've got the full aesthetic package.
And as if that wasn't enough, there's an absolute ton to do in the simulated city of Steelport. Limited empire building comes in the form of hacking stores so that your hourly income increases, and stacks of mini-games are unlocked as you play through the main story. The nods to other games begin here, too. There are more than a twelve hundred power clusters to be collected, with these being used to upgrade your abilities – Crackdown-style. There are five towers to climb, and a bunch of “flashpoints" to clear out and take over – more than a little like the radio towers and strongholds you'd find in Far Cry 3. If you're running low on attractions, you can also find and destroy the thirty-seven Zinyak statues, or go around disabling the alien shield generators that are dotted around, hopefully defeating and then absorbing the heavily armoured bosses (called “Wardens" here) that turn up when you've caused too much destruction. Or you could take part in the hilarious and compelling main story or the side quests of course, checking out takes on Streets of Rage, Tron, Mechwarrior and more as you do so.
The fact that there's so much to do here, and that so much of it is genuinely enjoyable, is why it's such a shame that the game has so many experience-busting bugs. In a lesser game, it almost wouldn't matter as much when the first three apparently-fearsome wardens that you face all fall into the water and get stuck there, meaning that you can just take them down with no need to defend yourself. It wouldn't matter as much when one of your squadmates got stuck in a groove of running back and forth in front of you as you're trying to aim an RPG shot at an alien tank, causing you to invariably hit them, and die in the explosion. It wouldn't matter as much when you randomly fell through the scenery, or when – on multiple occasions – mission trigger points either didn't trigger at all, or triggered randomly without you completing an objective. Later on in the main story, the enemy develops a weapon that is essentially a laser turret that appears out of nowhere. Possibly the most frustrating weapon ever to be found in any videogame to date, the thing appears quite literally on top of you, causing you to go flying. Running up a set of stairs to the roof? Bam! Sorry, you took a spill and fell four stories. Don't worry! Get back up and…no, you've gone again. Don't even talk to us about all the places that you can just randomly get stuck, either.
As we say, if it wasn't that Saints Row IV wasn't such a superb proposition, these bugs and annoyances wouldn't really matter quite as much as they do. But just as you're exploring the world and starting to feel like this could be the greatest thing ever made, there's always something that crops up to prevent that feeling from fully forming. It comes close though, as even when you've just been robbed of half an hour of playing time by a nasty bug, you'll want to keep on playing.
For every bug, there's a belly laugh, and most of the time the laughter is enough to carry you through. If you're sucked in to the game world, there's a good chance that you'll not get out of it for weeks but as cruel as it sounds, if ever a game could have done with a couple of months more polish and playtesting, this is most definitely that game. Saints Row IV isn't a million miles away from a perfect score, but the downsides just can't be ignored. A flawed classic.