“Saints Row,” the shoot-’em-up video game franchise that debuted in 2006 as a knockoff of “Grand Theft Auto,” has always been unapologetically low-brow and self-consciously silly. “Saints Row IV” (Volition, for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $59.99) doesn’t veer from that pre-established mindlessness. In fact, it drives right through it, off a cliff and straight into outer space.
The latest “Saints Row” trades the series’ over-the-top urban warfare for an out-of-this-world cyberpunk romp inspired by the likes of “Tron” and “The Matrix.” Players are again cast as the nameless boss of the Third Street Saints gang. Since commandeering the streets of Steelport in “Saints Row: The Third,” the protagonist has been elected president of the United States.
That’s just the beginning of the ridiculousness.
The hero’s first term in office is short-lived after the Shakespeare-quoting leader of an extraterrestrial race called the Zin blows the White House — and all of Earth — to smithereens, trapping the foul-mouthed president in a virtual rendition of Steelport that’s been populated with twisted avatars, laser-blasting aliens, neon-hued rides and very violent mascots.
The game’s environment will feel extremely familiar to anyone who played the previous “Saints Row” outing, although the developers have updated the chintzy landscape with diversions that include stomping around the city in a lumbering mech suit and speeding across cyber race tracks. Inside the virtual world, the protagonist can now command superpowers, too. The gravity-defying abilities are basically clones of those found in such games as “InFamous” or “Prototype.” While the addition of powers like telekinesis and superspeed are addictive, they add absolutely nothing to the plot. In fact, they’re distracting, leaving the stuff that made past “Saints Row” editions fun, namely matter-of-fact carjacking, pretty pointless. Graphically, “Saints Row IV” is garishly glitchy, an issue offset by the fact the game is set within an unstable computer simulation. “Saints Row IV” won’t be very friendly to newcomers of the franchise because the bulk of the adventure is spent on reuniting the gang — and some other characters — from the previous three installments.
The most original addition to “Saints Row IV” is a doodad called the dup-step gun. Once it’s powered up and the trigger is pulled, the turntable-shaped weapon emits electronic dance music and colorfully explosive streams, inspiring nearby vehicles to hydraulically bounce and passers-by to pop and lock. It’s so simple yet so satisfying to employ when facing groups of Zin.
While it’s plagued with problems, “Saints Row IV” continues down its predecessors’ path as outrageously mindless fun, the equivalent of interactive junk food. It’s not as thought-provoking as a “BioShock” or as polished as an “Uncharted.” It’s just a yummy bag of gummy worms to gnaw on for a month before “Grand Theft Auto V” is released. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.