As usual: Spoilers! Spoilers everywhere!
Discussing the quality of Saints Row 4 seems a bit of a moot point by now. It's got a Metacritic rating between 77 and 86, depending on your console. It's a fan service heavy love letter to the fans who helped a Grand Theft Auto also ran evolve into a satirical, over-the-top orgy of comedy and violence. As Volition's fourth entry in the series, they've streamlined the experience in such a way that it makes the pace of other recent open world games like Sleeping Dogs and even GTA IV look plodding and slow by comparison.
What really makes Saints Row stand out is it's populist streak and it's inclusiveness. It's more than just the character creation or the fact that the game never penalizes you for how you choose to present yourself, male, female or otherwise. (If I want to cruise around virtual Steelport naked wearing only a horse head mask, and believe me I do, so be it.) They also aren't afraid to offend the homophobes by tying achievements into doing everything you can with a character. Including having The Butt Sex off-screen. With Dudes!
Given that the plot of the game involves the Saints being imprisoned on an alien spacecraft, there are numerous sci-fi references, including several to the still controversial Mass Effect 3. At one point, still early in the game, you are given a choice between going through one of two doors (red and blue, 'natch) each with their own arbitrary and ridiculous list of consequences that have no bearing on anything we've experienced up until that point. Faced with this choice, all your character can do is just sigh dejectedly and choose. It doesn't come off as mean spirited but as a bit of pointed satire... however, if you're like me and you spent months waiting for game journalists to talk about narrative logic, story mechanics and subtext only to hear them drone on about more meta concerns like "artistic integrity" and "fan entitlement" in-between wildly condescending to, or even outright insulting, their audience then hot damn does this feel like a bit of validation.
(And, seriously, the next schmuck who whinges about "it's the journey, not the destination" is getting a Ralph Waldo Emerson book thrown at their head so they can read that quote in context and finally realize why it does not apply to art.)
Even the romances, if you can call them that, are used for parody. There's no conversational courtship, gift giving or friend/rival bars to manage, it's just a button press. And you can press that button as many times as you like. So if you're one of the many dudes on my Twitter timeline who are madly in lust with Kinzie, you are, at any point, a button press away from a punch in the face and some wild (off-screen) sex. It doesn't effect your game in any other way and, if you listen to the audio logs, you'll notice that all of the characters other than The Boss have unofficially paired off with each other. Yet somehow, even as parody, there's something satisfying about the instant gratification.
Ultimately, the romances in BioWare games are pretty tame affairs that result in an equally tame sex scene. Once you succeed, you may get some additional in game dialogue and a mention in the epilogue but otherwise that's it. You don't have to manage it and you never have to worry about breaking up unless you initiate it yourself. (Just like real life!) As much as BioWare fans invest in these romances, they're actually very, very surface level. So having Volition point out the very real silliness of them works as another little love tap to the series and their fans.
I do have my quibbles with the game but none of them are too serious. I experienced some (unintentional) glitches and several system lockup's when transitioning from the spaceship that serves as your hub to the simulation where you spend most of your time. (Which might be the game or a sign my 360 is about to poop in it's hard plastic casing.) Once you unlock superpowers, driving becomes not only pointless, but an annoyance when the game forces you back into a vehicle for story or loyalty missions. The addition of superpowered running and gliding also cuts the overall game length by probably 2/3rds since you can cross the city in a handful of leaps and bounds. The side missions, while fun, still feel like busy work yet upgrading your superpowers are tied to it. Also, while the definitely slapped a coat of paint on Steelport there's literally no variation between The Third and Saints Row 4. It's entirely cosmetic.
What interests me more are the storytelling improvements and how Volition treats the formula of open world gaming and storytelling, in good ways and bad, and how developers can improve the formula going forward. Especially with a new Grand Theft Auto dropping in only a few days for everyone to chew on.
Saints Row was a pretty standard crime story. Not necessarily poorly told but not memorable either. Saints Row 2 wisely doubled down on the comedy yet still had some effective dramatic moments as well. Saints Row: The Third, despite all the pointless excess typified by the in-game porn stars (apparently at then publisher THQ's behest), still told an effective, if silly, story. The big drawback has always been that the other Saints were always plot devices or caricatures as opposed to actual characters. Nowhere was this more clear than the case of Shaundi.
In Saints Row 2 she was a lovable, easy going stoner chick who mostly just got damselled. In Saints Row: The Third, she underwent a complete 180 into a hyper capable, well-dressed, no-nonsense businesswoman. Who, again, mostly just got damselled. Saints Row 4 attempted to reconcile her odd personality transplant by splitting her into two different people. Because Saints Row ain't exactly subtle.
The push and pull between O.G. Shaundi and the real thing was the best written and best handled subquest line in the game. Shaundi's shame at her past indiscretions and lifestyle and how it lead her to overcompensate into what O.G. Shaundi, acting as the de facto voice of a lot of Saints Row fans, considered a humorless stuffed shirt was great fun to watch. It's also important that they didn't choose favorites. O.G. Shaundi, while unorthodox, was still effective while Shaundi was to-the-point but equally so. And the whole thing culminated in what initially seems like another damsel moment where you have to choose between them before they take control and save themselves. It not only works to reconcile the both sides of her but as a clear statement that the writers are thinking a bit differently about how they approach their characters. (And a special shout out should go to her voice actress who nailed present day Shaundi as well as O.G. Shaundi's hoarser, smoked out tones.)
Unfortunately, this doesn't extend as much to the other Saints, but they present different problems. Pierce, as comic relief, doesn't particularly need a more clearly drawn character. More pathos would just make him harder to laugh at. You can't do much with Johnny Gat either without running into the Wolverine Conundrum: how do you explain how a badass character becomes a badass without making them less of a badass? Cleverly, his mission involves being dropped into a Streets Of Rage style brawler from back when no one gave a damn about believable characters or motivations. Bottom line: Johnny Gat was always a badass. The End. You could have argued that his "death" in The Third was due to a death wish brought on after Aisha's death but since they've retconned that... nevermind, I guess.
While people who played the first two games are well acquainted with Gat, some more examples of Gat actually being badass would have been nice. There's a lot of deference shown to the guy without a whole lot good reasons for it. Especially since the mission I had to replay the most was one where Gat was in a chopper and kept getting shot down. Which isn't very badass.
Not being very emotionally connected to the other Saints meant their missions were a little more by the numbers. The only real oversight was the one character who, after Shaundi, could have benefited the most from some actual characterization: Kinzie. We know that Kinzie is a riff off of Lisbeth Salander from the Dragon Tattoo novels (in personality, at least) and that she's ex-FBI... aaand that's about it.
The extent of what I got from Kinzie's missions are: she's doesn't want to be "normal." Well, okay. Putting aside that it reused the 50's setting from the beginning of the game and a character from The Third with no direct connection to Kinzie and who they had to really stretch to make fit, it didn't really tell us anything new or interesting. Since she's the character you interact with the most over the course of the game, it felt like a lost opportunity.
This leads to something that's less a criticism of Saints Row 4 than open world gaming as a whole. We're rapidly reaching the point where the typical cycle of "go here, talk to this person and get a mission" is becoming stale. Many of the missions in Saints Row 4, for example, are gained by choosing them from a text menu. And that's fine. It's tried, true and easy to program. Nonetheless, with the number of games offering open world experiences increasing, the way developers approach interacting with the world is still largely the same.
We're given these huge worlds to travel through however we like, but the minute we undertake a quest it becomes an entirely on rails experience. Obtaining quests is also completely simplistic. Good writing can cushion the blow a bit but we're still able to see the strings being pulled. So what you end up with are games that constantly remind you that, when it comes to advancing the story, your freedom is a sham. And if you want to make it a question of immersion in the game: am I The Boss of the Saints because I'm the best? Or am I just the best at being told what to do?
Obviously most development teams don't have the time to implement a more progressive approach to quest gathering in open world games. Even Skyrim, which is arguably the best example of presenting a non-linear open world with dynamic subquests, is hamstrung by the fact that Bethesda has a reputation for games that are nearly broken on release which have to be patched over the course of months to be playable.
Part of the problem can be solved through things as simple as dialogue or misdirection. Having the character only grudgingly following orders or just changing mission objectives on the fly because your character decides he has a better course of action, just off the top of my head, would lead to a sense that you are still in control. Much moreso than just blindly following whoever is chatting at you in your ear. However much of a pain it would be to script entirely optional semi-hidden subquests or encounters that aren't listed on your mini-map with big gold stars, it would pay dividends in creating a world you actually feel a part of. In certain ways, I almost prefer the L.A. Noire style of open world where there are no distractions from the main plot. It had a story to tell and it told it.
Going into the next generation of gaming and seeing big publishers rely as heavily as they do on "open world experiences" some actual thought is going to have to go into how they present them. Assassin's Creed is going to eventually run out of notable time periods and locations to plunder for their yearly installments and even GTA is essentially presenting the same basic urban framework only bigger and more complex. Fatigue is going to set in, if it hasn't already. With the additional horsepower of the PS4 and Xbox One, hopefully we will some additional innovation to go along with it.
In the meantime, we still have games like Saints Row 4 which mine from a rich vein of potential parody in an industry that often, with the hundreds of people involved and potentially millions of dollars at stake, takes itself far too seriously. The series seems primed for a next gen reboot, unless they find some way to top taking over an interstellar alien race. (Time travel for an AssCreed riff?)
Parody and satire are a reaction to something rather than a facilitator, so while I don't expect the gang at Volition to redefine the genre, they've certainly proven themselves capable of evolving. We, as gamers, just need to keep the pressure on developers to keep evolving along with us rather than rehashing the same tired gaming mechanics.