5 Things All Games Could Learn from 'Saints Row IV'
The Saints Row series is the Dragon Ball Z of open world gaming. They keep charging up and charging up, and just when you think it can't get any more ridiculous, somebody turns albino and blows up a planet. The first Saints Row game started off as a cheap Grand Theft Auto clone of no special note, the second became a slight parody of the genre, the third was a non-stop onslaught on punchlines about gaming in general, and now the fourth has launched off into space to explore brave new frontiers of stupidity. And as aggressively idiotic as every moment of the last few games have been, they have also been, without a doubt, the most entertainment for the dollar you can get. So maybe there's something other games can learn from the Saints Row series. Lessons like ...
Maybe Story Isn't All That Important After All
Oh God, and that's coming from me? Practically all I do is harp on the lack of atmosphere and quality storytelling in modern games, as though the entire "fun" aspect is tangential to the serious business of video games. If I seem to rant too much about the lack of story in games, it's only because I concede that games pretty much nailed the entertainment bit, and I think it's time for them to expand. So, yes, story is important, both to me personally, and to the overall growth of the entire medium. But sometimes, just sometimes: Fuck it.
If you follow the Saints Row series to find out where the story goes next, even the game itself kind of wants you to take a flying fuck at the moon. It's almost tradition that each new iteration of the Saints Row series abandons all that came before it. You can see it in the sequel numbering system alone. And Saints Row IV is no different: Within the first half-hour, you become President of the United States, get thrown into the attack scene from Independence Day, and then wake up in The Matrix. Those kinds of shenanigans aren't winning any points in the story category. As far as plot goes, it's wildly uncreative, flagrantly stolen, and almost total gibberish.
But none of it matters, because the story is really only a thinly veiled excuse to introduce new gameplay mechanics. The alien stuff seems a bit out of left field, but it also means strange new vehicles, bizarre weapons, and epic set-pieces in outer space. The Matrix stuff is, to put it politely, two miles past the offramp to retarded - but so what? Because now you get Neo-style superpowers, can jump between wildly different "simulations," and have the ability materialize objects right where you stand. No more phoning in for vehicle delivery and waiting for the AI to crash your shiny new jet into a building trying to reach you. This is the Matrix, remember? It's all just data, so why not have it beam in right where you're standing?
Don't get me wrong. I love it when games go for hyper-realism: I loved S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Metro 2033, and Fallout for their grueling mercilessness. When I found the thirst mechanics in New Vegas lacking, for example, I went out and downloaded mods to make the repercussions more severe. I don't know why I found that satisfying -- in what chapter of the Fun Manual is "realistically die from thirst" recommended? But Saints Row IV aims for the exact opposite type of satisfaction -- it targets the part of your brain that releases endorphins whenever a jet fighter shaped like a Screaming Eagle teleports in front of you, just so you can pick it up with your mind and whip it into a gas station.
I call it "The Explosion Lobe."
Give More to the Players
I have no doubt there will be hundreds of dollars of entirely meaningless DLC available for SRIV within the next few weeks. The last game stopped just shy of selling you new color patterns for your dildo bat. THQ has not exactly been the model of restraint as far as micro-transactions go. However, it cannot be said that they're holding out on the players for extra cash. Another side effect of SRIV taking place in the Special Needs section of the Matrix is the ability to re-skin whatever you want. The first time you step foot in the weapon shop, you're given the opportunity to customize your gun. Not by slightly altering the shade and texture of the grip, like most shooters offer. No, you can choose to have Deckard's pistol from Blade Runner; you can turn your shotgun into an old-timey blunderbuss and your assault rifle into a Tommy Gun. None of this is real, remember, so why not let the player do whatever the hell they want?
I guarantee you, if this were any other game, the player's first free options for customization would be "black or silver metal," and maybe "camo grip" if the developers were feeling generous. Saints Row IV gives you Mal's pistol from Firefly for nothing. Call of Duty charges you five bucks to change the type of leather your holster is made out of. Street Fighter IV charges you four bucks for Cammy's new thong pack -- there aren't many modern games left that give you decent extras right off the bat. Wire-frame tank from that old Atari game? That's probably a dollar. Turning your crew into Ninjas? Got to be a dollar, at least.
It's a lesson more game companies can take to heart: You can charge whatever you want for all that extra crap, but don't forget to throw a little of it our way as a reward for, y'know, buying the whole friggin' game in the first place. I'm sure Saints Row IV will sell you all manner of ridiculous, unnecessary customization and strange extras in the next few months. But the gun that turns everything to dubstep and the tentacle-rape bat, at least, are free of charge.
Go Ahead and Steal
Great writers will reword phrases, rework devices and occasionally lift whole arcs from other, classic works. Brilliant directors will frame shots and occasionally recreate entire scenes from their favorite movies. We should not hold video games to a higher standard than other media. Sometimes, it's OK to steal:
Saints Row started life as the Admiral Crisp to Grand Theft Auto's Captain Crunch. They've always been down with some petty larceny, and that legacy is preserved in SRIV. Some of it is done under the guise of parody -- there are large bits lifted from (read: directly mocking) Mass Effect and the Bioware games, there are a few text adventures in the style of Zork, and even a brief homage to Tank Wars. But that's parody, not outright theft. For the shameless stealing, Saints Row IV looked to games like Crackdown and Prototype. It's no longer about jacking cars and pulling drive-bys. This is a superhero game.
In a way, that ruins the whole experience. I can see you being heartbroken, if you were really attached to the ground-level crime-sim of the last few games. If that's the case, the new changes are almost vindictive: Vehicles are entirely pointless in SRIV. They're still there -- all your favorites, the sports cars and tanks and Akira-style motorcycles -- but you can sprint faster than any of them within the first 20 minutes of the game. You can fly as fast as a fighter jet within the first hour. That might be heartbreaking news to you, if you're expecting another GTA clone with slightly more liberal use of dildos. But Saints Row does try to make up for it by letting the player sprint up the sides of buildings and fire freeze blasts.
Ultimately, your system of value is your own, so I'll just say this: If that doesn't sound like a fair trade to you, then you might need to phone the Care Bears, because somebody has stolen your child-like sense of glee.
Don't Hold out on Us
Most games hold back on the best stuff: You don't get the ability to summon the soul-meteors of your ancestors until the tail end of a Final Fantasy game; you don't get access to the rocket launcher in GTA until well after the hooker-stomping mission; you can't unlock the Enzo until after you finish obsessively detailing your Camry in Forza. That's just how games are structured -- you have to save the best for last, because what's the alternative? An ever-escalating scale of absurd power, until the whole game devolves into nonsensical explosions and tank jumps?
Fucking yes. Yes, that should always be exactly what happens with everything.
Saints Row III was pretty good about this: They gave you a predator drone in practically the first mission. In the fourth installment, you unlock super-speed and super-jump right off the bat, which are pretty cool. But when do you get what you really want -- the ability to punt a man's crotch off of his body?
The answer is: You already have it.
It's not even unlockable. The game doesn't even make mention of it like it's a special thing. Of course you get the ability to fling a man's wang into a different time zone than the rest of his body -- just hit the wang button, son!
You'll find the power has been within you all along.
There are further unlocks to augment your strength in combat, but the second you get super-powers of any kind, you also instantly get the ability to punch a car into a grocery store. Being granted this level of unprecedented power so early makes for an unbalanced end game, but the question you have to ask yourself is: Do I really give a damn?
Balance is great, don't get me wrong. But it's not crotch-imploding drop-kick great.
Leveling Up is Awesome; Do It Constantly
Leveling up is the best experience in gaming. Perhaps because it stands as such a counterpoint to reality: In real life, self improvement is tiring, frustrating, and incremental. Spend two months practicing a language, and you will, at best, be marginally more intelligible by the end of it. In gaming, you spend 20 minutes punching a cat and you're rewarded with a golden explosion and the ability to shoot fire from your fists. The only downside to this is the gradual, progressive difficulty curve of leveling up -- it has to get harder and harder over time, in order to fool the player into a sense of accomplishment. Eventually, that leads to grinding: At the upper levels, you'll spend 10 hours slaughtering golems to get a meager 10 percent gain in MP. It sucks, but that's just what it takes to maintain balance.
Says god damn who?
Saints Row IV doesn't give one apathetic Sunday morning fuck about balance. It doesn't even know what balance is -- it lurches and staggers around your living room, breaking lamps and puking on the floor until it falls flat on its face. And it is awesome. The entire game is a constant, unceasing blur of upgrades. You unlock them by collecting data clusters. Don't feel like scouring the city for these hidden power-ups? Don't worry -- they're friggin' everywhere. You literally cannot avoid them. And at some point, you are going to want to avoid them, if only because there are about two soundbites your character uses upon collecting a cluster. Mine were "woo" and "oohhh yeaaah." If I made any sort of concerted effort to hop around and collect the clusters, it sounded like Macho Man Randy Savage having a mind-shattering orgasm.
By the time you get the hang of your last ability, you've already got a new one. It can almost get annoying, because you'll never make use of everything given to you. But that's a fairly minor complaint, modern gamers: We who remember when the Frog Suit was a game-changing revelation will not pity you -- as you leap over skyscrapers, glide across the city, sprint through garbage trucks and roundhouse an alien's dick into the ocean -- because you forgot about your super-stomp.
Saints Row IV has its problems -- some of them glaring -- but hey, it lets you play an open world simulation of just the interesting parts of Hancock.
Emphasis on the cock, of course.