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Saints Row IV

By guest author Rob_Lane

Saints Row IV is the forth installment of the infamous Saints Row Series developed by Volition and published by Deep Silver, which takes the gangster sandbox genre and turns it into rollercoaster of insane high-jinxs and perverse humor. The game begins with the player character, now president of the United States of America, being trapped in a simulation by Aliens. This sets off the rest of the game which goes through a host of parodies and new gameplay mechanics as you try to reassemble your crew and take down the Alien leader with various superpowers granted to you through your rigorous destruction of the integrity of the simulation.

Saints Row IV’s simulation of Steelport is based on the sandbox map from Saints Row: The Third, and is a city that is a cross between New York, Chicago and Detroit and has themes that appear to be inspired by the industrial decay of Rust-Belt America as well as a tongue-in-cheek approach to gangster culture. It also has a really sloppy railroad in it.

Trains

Not So Rapid Transit

One of the first things you might notice in the city of Steelport is that around the inner city there is an elevated railroad, which feels faintly eminent of the ‘L loop’ of Chicago. This makes sense seeing as the previous games had their rapid transit system called ‘The El’. This system has no name within game, which is okay, because nobody ever uses it since it’s wrecked beyond reason and has no logic in its design or construction.

Now I respect that designers can impart a certain style into their games, and this style can take many forms and be applied to the trains as well. I’m not looking for 100% accuracy here. But clearly the people who Steelport contracted to do the construction have no idea how much steel rail can weigh because they have their tracks supported by nothing but thin driftwood resting on metal girders.

They also don’t understand that trains need some method of propulsion, which makes me wonder what these subway cars are doing scattered about like a derailment in a Train Sim made in 1999. Perhaps they are powered like model trains, which is plausible since if you follow the track around it makes a complete circuit with no switches or side tracks (which comes with its own issues of storage and maintenance and expansion for the railroad). There are no signals, a lack of stations and purpose to their locations, and omnipresent themes of decay. However this is all overruled with a final damning blow: the bogies are hollow without motors or pickups, they’re the same as the bogies on the freight cars scattered throughout the city, and there isn’t any apparent way the cars could be linked together. I’m not entirely sure what the developers were planning when they set out to create a transit system that both looks horrible and doesn’t make any logical sense.

A Class III to No-Where

The other, less noticeable use of trains in Saints Row IV is that of a Short-line railroad that services the local industries and a large chemical treatment plant that inhabits one of the many islands that make up Steelport.

In regards to this railroad, the biggest issue is that it goes to nowhere. There are 3 terminations for the railroad in various industrial settings (a pier, a factory, another pier along with some storage tanks) but at no point along the tracks is there a way for cargo to be loaded effectively onto the trains. Even in the above image of one end of the railroad those switches and side tracks are clearly too small to properly handle any train of considerable length.

I would also like to propose a drinking game for anyone exploring the industrial side of Steelport: take a shot every time you see a shipping container stacked in a way that it would make it very hard to access the ones around it.

To cross the many rivers of Steelport the railroad would need bridges, but for some reason the contractors hired by Steelport thought it would be a good idea to make these bridges out of wooden piers, which are found to be horribly broken as a result of their poor planning. A steel truss bascule bridge might have been better suited if watercraft utilized the waterway beneath. Those weirdly bent rails look suspicious though… Other then being in an awkward place making sweet car jumps off of them clumsy and hard to do, they’re bent upward, implying that whatever destroyed this wooden bridge did it from the bottom up, when one would expect them to be destroyed by a careless seagoer plowing into one of the piers and causing the bridge to collapse downwards into the water instead.

Chemical Plant? More like Nonsensical Rant

Going farther down the track you will find the Ultor Steelport Chemical and Waste Disposal Plant, which has a lot of pipes going into the ground and walls and in some cases just end mid-air. At the time of writing I’m only 1/4th of the way towards a degree in chemical engineering, but even I have to question the purpose of all the flaming towers all over the place. It’s like they looked at an oil refinery, copy pasted it a few times, merged them all together and slapped the name on it without even consulting a professional of the field on proper plant construction, layout, industry specifications, and safety regulations.

The track and sidings throughout the plant once again lack any purpose other than to house rusted and graffiti laden cars and subsequently lack any sort of loading/unloading apparatus. But wait! I found some grade crossing signals!

Oh. The second one is pretty accurate relative to the rest of the railroad equipment in this game, but the first one isn’t effective in the slightest. I can assume it was placed there as a replacement for a lack of proper signals, but that’s not what that equipment was designed for.

Messy Terminations

At one of the ends of the rail line there is a storage area, which makes sense because the theme in this part of the city is shipping over water. Not sure how anything is supposed to be loaded onto boats here without any equipment, but I’ve already pointed that out.

If you continue down the track from there you’ll find that it ends in a pier and the most ridiculous smashed wooden-bridge in the game. On the other side of this river, the remains of a track can be seen, implying that at one point there was a bridge that traveled that high of an incline over that large of distance and had been made completely out of wood. It’s even more nonsensical when you realize that the hill the pier is standing on declines almost immediately after this cliff. Building around the hill would have been more efficient and probably easier to construct. It’s almost like they were trying to waste money and effort building this railroad.

The other termination is at a factory with two sidings, which isn’t interesting in any possible way, and once again lacks any equipment to load or unload goods. However this isolated railroad section far away from any of the tracks discussed already has a variety of equipment for loading and unloading ships and railcars, including various cranes like this Intermodal Gantry Crane.

It’s a shame this rail line terminates literally on the other side of a road at the end of the pier, making it useless.

Rollin’ Stock

The rolling stock and locomotives are pretty good, for a stylized game. There are, of course, only a handful of models to choose from, with only one style of locomotive, which I can let slide because locomotives are usually bought in bulk and there are also technical limitations with keeping size of the game file down. This 6-axle hood unit looks like an EMD SD40 to me, which is a good thing. Hood units are mascots of the American freight industry (although wide-nose units might be a more modern representation). Unfortunately, the bogies are hollow and don’t show any signs of propulsion, which is just as disappointing here as they were on the rapid transit cars.

The real issue is how the locomotive has apparently been ransacked by hordes of rampaging angsty teenagers looking to break stuff. It’s clear from the blown out bridges and derelict train cars littering the track that the theme is that the railroad hasn’t been fully used in a while, but the damage done on this locomotive is ridiculous, and goes beyond what is normally seen by people tearing out the wires to sell the copper. The railings are bent, the stairs are crooked, the front coupler has been carefully removed in a way that doesn’t leave any evidence it was even there, the panels to the side have been bent into awkward shapes and the windows have been broken then sealed from the inside with some sort of metal plating without any of the broken glass being removed. The locomotive has even been derailed without any signs of fault in the tracks or an apparent outside force. It’s trying too hard to look damaged and weathered which makes it look silly as a result.

The rolling stock is your standard American affair, with boxcars, flatcars, tankcars and hoppers. Overall, they look fine and can set the atmosphere from a passing car but on closer inspection they fall apart as realistic representations of their real –life counterparts. The cars have a lack of brake-wheels or brake-wheels in an improper location, the trucks are the same hollow ones on the rapid-transit cars, and the couplers are all attached in ways that would tear them straight off the frame had any force actually been placed on them. The Devs were nice enough to add a ‘gas escaping’ hissing effect to the tank cars when you shoot them, but it disappears after a second making me believe the tank cars are all filled with hot air. The weathering job is more subtle but still too flashy and attention seeking. It doesn’t take long to google a guide to realistic weathering for model trains, which would give all locations and details needed to create a realistic looking rail car. It’’s just a shame that the Devs didn’t follow these guides enough or at all. Ultimately, the rolling stock is gussied up to look worn down and a victim of industrial decay, but upon closer inspection it’s shown to have unrealistic weathering and poor construction that rivals that of an insurance scam of epic proportions.

Wait a second……

Final Conclusions

The horrible rapid-transit system? The wooden bridges that look blown up? The clearly improper infrastructure and overly damaged rolling stock? It all makes sense… Volition have constructed a story within the environment about the City of Steelport!

It must go like this: The City of Steelport, now drowning in debt after the loss of its industry and rise of gang violence, is forced to construct a purposefully ruined Short-line railroad and rapid transit system in a massive insurance scam to generate enough revenue to pay its bills! Then they had the various gangs of Steelport damage the railroad equipment by derailing trains, scattering railcars like children’s toys, weathering trains and destroying bridges to make it convincing enough to fool even the most well trained insurance agent. It’s clear to me that Volition has revived a form of environmental storytelling that hasn’t been seen since Half-Life or System Shock 2. Of course I don’t have any other information to support this claim, but that only adds to its plausibility as any decent scammer wouldn’t leave behind any evidence. And besides, what other reason would game developers have for creating a sloppy illogical railroad? Time constraints? Lack of proper references? Sensible efficiently in level creation? You’re underestimating Volition’s narrative genius.

Now that I think about it, “The Penetrator” weapon is probably a post-modern representation of a new generation freely expressing their sexually to an aging society who finds their promiscuity unwelcome. Move over BioWare, Valve, and Bethesda, there’s a new game company in town ready to blow your stories out of the water.

In the Name of Good Design

I’d like to take a moment from ceaseless nitpicking and unfunny insurance-scam jokes to share some aspects of game design and how it relates to Saints Row IV.

Truthfully, the most disappointing aspect of the trains in Saints Row IV (and Saints Row: The Third since they use identical environments), is that they are merely static models instead of a dynamic train system. This subtracts from the quality of the sandbox, considering that the city of Steelport is already a downgrade from the city in Saints Row 2. Saints Row 2 had multiple enterable interiors, the AI drove a wide array of vehicles, and there was a moving rapid transit rail system as well. All of this helped make Saints Row 2 feel like a living breathing city and made Steelport feel comparatively more like a dead, lifeless simulation (which is ironic considering the setting of Saints Row IV, but my point still stands). I wouldn’t be surprised if trains were planned at some point, seeing as all the resources are in the game, but ultimately got cut because of time constraints and budget concerns. But had a simple short-line railroad been implemented into the game, perhaps a simple point-to-point operation like those of small model railroads, the environment would have felt more vibrant and exciting.

On a different level I feel like an opportunity was missed with including trains in gameplay as well. Normally, trains in sandbox games offer various forms of entertainment such as:

All of which provide endless hours of player fueled entertainment on its own. But Saints Row IV’s gameplay revolves around Superpowers. You can pick up a car and throw it across the city, run faster than a missile, and jump higher than a skyscraper. All of which is good fun, but imagine how neat it would have been to throw an entire freight locomotive at an enemy helicopter. Or use your super speed to chase down a freight train before it derails (or, knowing how the plot of Saints Row IV works, cause it to derail). Or, fitting in with the “interesting” weapons Saints Row IV offers, what about a gun that summons a freight train to plow down enemies for an entire city block Inception style before exploding? Saints Row IV is still a fun, wacky game, but the trains presented feel like a missed potential for some great gameplay moments.

The Review

Saints Row IV is probably one of the best Sandbox games on the market right now. It’s legitimately funny, adventurous, and absurd all at the same time. The story concerns the player character, now president of the United States after a wonderful intro sequence that establishes the level of insanity that’s in store. Within minutes after the intro sequence, things get moving real fast and the Third Street saints are abducted by aliens and it’s up to the president to save the gang, save the earth, and bring the simulation down on the Alien leader’s head. To do this the game revisits characters and settings from the previous Saints Row games, effectively turning a boxed-standard Alien takeover plot into a celebration of the Saints Series as a whole.

This means that if you haven’t played the other Saints Row games, you might be at a loss. So here’s my quick recommendations. Saints Row: The Third is pretty bland honestly. The tone is a bit too all over the place, the combat is lacking, the sandbox is somewhat lifeless (as discussed), and there is also a lot less variety when it comes to between Mission messing around, but it’s still a bag of fun if you see it on sale.

Saints Row 2 is perhaps one of the best sandbox games of the previous generation of consoles and still holds a special place in my heart for it’s attention to detail in both it’s gameplay and its environment. However, the PC port is almost comically horrible so unless you run Windows XP on a 3.20 ghz processor you might want to get it on a console. I haven’t played Saints Row 1, but from what I’ve heard it’s alright.

The gameplay of Saints Row IV is really, REALLY fun to use once you get into the thick of it. If you need someone to tell you that running down a street at super speed, sprinting up the side of a building, jumping off and gliding halfway across town before dropping 10 stories to punch the ground with the force of a small earthquake is fun, then you need to take a hard look at your decision making process.

These abilities are unlocked few hours in and I’ll admit the game is a tad slow when you’re just starting out with the basic powers, but upgrades are linked to exploration in such a way that it’ll be a while before the game becomes a grind.

Combat is also fun, with lots of interesting weapons and enemies dropping health arcade style. All of the side-quests are really enjoyable and give desirable rewards to both your crew and yourself. I did find that I got a wee bit obsessive with the side quests and hit burnout around 5/8ths through the game but that wore off quickly and I came out of the experience feeling like I had a good time. So consider Saints Row IV a must have for your next holiday shopping list. I will warn that the game is really not for kids and the humor is very raunchy so if that’s not your thing you might want to not include it on your shopping list. Also, the trains in it aren’t as bad or noticable as I’ve made out. Just don’t get too close or you might notice the missing details.

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