Review: 'Saints Row IV' – heaven or hell?

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In recent years, the concept of “realism” has been in vogue in the video games industry, with many titles tending toward a more gritty, serious tone than the cartoon style of the 1990s.

But now here comes “Saints Row IV” – a game that throws realism out of the window, and shoots it with a rocket launcher just to make sure.

The wacky “Saints Row” game series, although taking huge chunks from the “Grand Theft Auto” playbook, has carved out its own niche by moving away from the serious tone of the former and bringing in its own ridiculousness and outrageous humor to the fore.

The latest entry into the franchise does not disappoint.

Your character, the unnamed leader of the gang known as “The Saints,” has become President of the United States. Yet after about 10 minutes of relative quiet, aliens known as the Zin invade and the POTUS must shoot down the incoming craft with the secret artillery mega-gun parked on the front lawn. Even Edward Snowden didn’t know about that one!

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From then on, the game gets only nuttier. The President is locked up by the victorious aliens in an alternate reality -- an artificial Matrix-like construct of the fictional city of Steelport. However, via a sidekick’s ability to hack the system, the protagonist manages to unlock epic superpowers, from super-speed running to the ability to jump over buildings and shoot fireballs from his hands.

As the President, you must break the virtual construct, reform your gang and defeat the evil alien with a British accent known as Zinyak.

Because of your companions’ hacking upgrades, within a very short amount of time the President becomes a superhuman fiend capable of wiping out hoards of enemies, and then running up and over the nearest skyscraper to the next mission.

While these ridiculous abilities distinguish it clearly from "Grand Theft Auto," it has its disadvantages. It's fun to play a superhuman, running faster than cars and smashing through scores of enemies, but the game loses a lot of its meaning very quickly. For instance, what's the point of upgrading your car and souping it up with new rims and colors, when you can eventually run and leap to your destination quicker than you can drive there?

Also, the constant reminder that you are in a simulation gives the cool moments a little less of a punch. When you are told again and again that it is just an alternate universe created by your alien tormentors, it is difficult to get as excited when cool stuff happens. Running around causing endless death and destruction at random is fun for a short time, but after a while the gamer may want something with a little more depth.

Criticizing the lack of depth in “Saints Row IV” is like complaining that McDonald’s fails to provide a well balanced, nutritional meal, of course – it isn’t why you’re there. That being said, with a 20-plus hour game, the goofiness and downright crass humor begins to grate, and it’s possible that “Saints Row IV” has moved too far to the other end of the reality spectrum.

That isn’t to say that the game isn’t a lot of fun. The variety it provides in the main missions, if not the side missions, is commendable and keeps the game fresh. There is a lot to do, and very little of it feels like a chore, from racing around the city in a hijacked UFO, to simply smashing up a stronghold of alien bad guys with a giant robot.

It also has a superb soundtrack, packed with radio stations that will appeal to all music tastes, and rare it is that one encounters a game with as good of a sense of humor. Gamers will spot the multitude of mocking references to various other titles, and ‘Saints Row IV’ even finds plenty of time to mock itself.

At the risk of being tautological, "Saints Row IV" is what "Saints Row IV" is: a silly, immature version of "Grand Theft Auto" that drops a lot of the story-telling and realism for idiocy, explosions and sexual innuendos. Those looking just to run around shooting the place up will have a blast. Gamers looking for a little bit more substance may find themselves undernourished.

The game is therefore neither saint nor sinner, but somewhere in between -- on the series’ road to gaming perfection.

Rating: 7.5/10

Saints Row IV is out now for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The Entertainment Software Rating Board Rating is M—Mature.