the first two hours: Saints Row IV

Before I get into Saints Row IV, I should explain why I’ve been quiet here this week.  It’s certainly not for lack of things to talk about.

I finished Gone Home last Thursday.  And I’ve been wanting to talk about it, all the time, here; but instead I ended up writing a 1000-word review of it for the NY Videogames Critics Circle, which will hopefully be going up Thursday or Friday.  (If for some reason it doesn’t run there, it will most assuredly run here.)  The short version is that it is a wonderful, heartbreaking, astonishing experience, and anyone who’s reading this who somehow hasn’t played it yet should get on that shit immediately.  And then, after you’ve finished it, you should dive in to the many wonderful pieces that have been written about it.

And along those lines, fuck it:  this is the postscript to my review, which may or may not end up staying in, being that it’s just links to those wonderful pieces referenced above:

I’ve been playing games since 1982, and I’ve been writing about games since 2008 or so; in all that time, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many heartfelt responses to a game before.  These are very spoiler-heavy, but well worth your time if you’ve finished the game and want to keep falling down the rabbit hole:

*     *     *

It is profoundly strange to be writing about Saints Row IV after the week or two I’ve spent ruminating intensely on the profound, emotional experiences I’ve had playing both Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and then Gone Home, games which feel like they’re using a completely different vocabulary from everything else.   Because after playing those soft, quiet masterpieces, Saints Row IV is a bit like having a pie filled with fireworks thrown into your face at a thousand miles per hour.

I know I’ve complained about how lazy it is for critics to compare one thing to another.  But it’s nearly impossible (for me) to talk about Saints Row without comparing it to GTA.  In my defense, though, Saints Row more or less explicitly demands this comparison.  Here are the very first lines of dialogue in SR4‘s opening cutscene:

“…When the Saints made their presence known to the world in 2006, they were decried for being pretenders to the throne.  The people were confused: were the Saints sociopathic killing machines hellbent on destruction, or puckish rogues living a life of mirth and whimsy?  The Saints needed clarity of purpose, and so the course was set:  More fun, less mercy killing.  This simple  choice revitalized the Saints; transforming them from a degenerate street gang into beloved pop culture icons…”

This paragraph more or less details the design history and development process of the Saints Row franchise, from the first game through the present.  While the first game was a competent but uninspired GTA clone that simply beat GTA4 to the punch to be the first big open-world action game on the current generation of consoles, the second game was where the developers started to work on achieving that “clarity of purpose” – to be over-the-top ridiculous, in stark contrast to GTA4‘s gritty, nihilistic realism.  And the third game was, to put it bluntly, fucking insane.  Ironically, this fully-committed, all-in approach to full-bore insanity is what made the third game such a resounding success; it had finally come into its own, allowed to run free as full, pure id.

To be honest, I had low expectations for SR4.  My understanding is that this game was originally intended to be an expansion pack for SR3, which didn’t necessarily bode all that well since the original expansions for SR3 were a bit lacking.  And then, of course, THQ (the publisher) famously collapsed and died, and so Volition (the developer) was in a bit of limbo for a while.

That SR4 somehow manages to out-do SR3 at every conceivable turn is nothing short of remarkable.

I’m only 2 hours in.  (I stopped playing last night shortly after the narrator told me that I’d finished Act 1.)  And yet I’m already leaping tall buildings in a single bound, zooming and jumping and soaring through the city, destroying cars just by bumping into them.  There is no reason to jack cars anymore; when my stamina is out and I’m forced to walk, like a normal person, I feel like a goddamned snail.

SR4 is no longer a gang-land simulator; it is a superhero simulator.  And where GTA remains firmly on the side of satire, Saints Row has now become a grand parody of this generation’s biggest AAA titles – the videogame equivalent of Weird Al Yankovic on a 48-hour bender of Mountain Dew and LSD.  The opening sequences felt like they were ripped straight out of a warped vision of Call of Duty;  30 minutes later it’s become, among other things, a grand homage to Crackdown‘s orb hunting (which still remains one of my favorite gameplay activities of the last 10 years).  If you needed any further hints as to how self-aware SR4 is, well, not only is there a “Nolan North” option in the voice customization menu, but Keith David plays himself.  As the Vice President of the United States.

The game is utterly ridiculous and incredibly fun.  Not to diminish the amazing achievements of Brothers and Gone Home, of course; those games are fun, too, albeit in a very different way.  SR4, though, is not about subtlety, or emotion, or self-discovery; it is about cramming as much fun per second as humanly possible.  It does not want to enlighten; it wants to entertain.  This, too, is noble.

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