There have been better games this year. There have been more ambitious ones. In terms of scale, Grand Theft Auto 5 throws Saints Row 4's production budget onto the screen between 30-60 frames per second. None of them have made me grin so much from start to finish though, or made me so sad to hit the final mission and know the good times were about to end. Quite an achievement for a series that started out actually offending me for how much it ripped off GTA to finish by making me wish GTA 5's cash had bought it even 1/10th of its sense of fun.
While the superpowers and general craziness are what got most of the attention at launch, they're only part of what made it so great. A big part, yes; there's nothing quite like being able to leap across a whole city in a single bound while being reminded you have both the TOUCH! and the POOOOWER! Volition's decision to not give even the tiniest hint of a scrap of the lingering scent of a s*** about things like 'balance' and 'what we'll do in the sequel' may have led to a lot of the best abilities being front-loaded, but damn, if it wasn't fun to just cut loose and be awesome without having to wait for a modder to come along and lift the normal restraints. Bombing around with super-speed and jumps just didn't get old, with the lack of challenge being part of the fun rather than something to be annoyed by. After all, you're the Boss. The Boss failing at anything is practically a plot hole.
Saints Row 4's biggest strength though was something far more surprising and unusual for open worlds; its sense of warmth. Somehow, The Boss especially became that rare example of a power not corrupting, having completed an arc from mere thug to staggeringly vindictive bastard to supervillain to someone genuinely likeable - still the worst enemy you could ever make, but now also the best friend you could ever have; a force of nature who will have your back to the end of the goddamn world. Literally. Around that newfound sense of puckish roguedom, the Saints finally became more than just another gang. They became a family, and temporarily being part of that family in all its Paula Abdul wrecking glory became joyful.
In particular, what Saints Row 4 understood and most comedy games still struggle with is that even in the silliest situation - and they don't come much sillier than charging naked and slime-soaked through an alien mothership to take on an opera-loving alien overlord by hacking the Matrix - the characters themselves have to take it seriously. Punchlines need punch. As crazy as the action got, it was always grounded with that, and a genuine love between both the characters themselves and Volition and its creation.
Most open-world games choose cynicism. Saints Row 4 had the balls to wear its heart on its sleeve and embrace raw fun instead. The 80s cheese. Scenes like the reunion between the Boss and Gat; the boys officially back in town even with one doubling up on x chromosomes. Matt Miller's obsession with NyteBlade representing every goofy-ass obsession we've ever loved. The singing. Nolan North, and less celebratedly but just as worthy of highlighting, Laura Bailey. The dubstep gun, finally giving that atrocious wub-wub noise a reason to exist. Text adventures. Damn near every character from the series showing up for one last ride-along and not letting death or animosity get in the way.
Better still, there's none of the unfortunate content of previous games that made it uncomfortable to recommend, like the Boss crippling a guy purely out of spite or Saints Row 3's prostitute-trafficking mission. It might be crude, but this time it's all good fun. Even in direct parody, Saints Row 4 never descends into meanness, taking only the mildest of pokes at even direct targets like Metal Gear Solid and Mass Effect - most memorably that game's long romances now trimmed down to, "Hey, Kinzie. Wanna f***?" ("Let's go" she then growls, hitting the Boss in the face and leaping into their arms faster than s/he can say 'Teacup!')
In many ways, it's an example other open-world games could do with studying. It's a rare case of one where the world and design aren't constantly at war, unlike recent GTA games' constant insistence on doing everything according to their invisible script and trying to tell realistic stories in a world where shooting up a police station just results in a slap on the wrist unless a cut-scene says differently.
It's also a refreshingly egalitarian one, where not only can the Boss be anything you want, but male and female characters are treated equally and all get a chance to shine and be naughty without any degree of either surprise or condemnation. (At least, outside of occasional moments in the script when Volition assumes the Boss is a guy, often clunky use of gender-neutral pronouns be damned, including still pairing her female version off with Shaundi in a 50s sitcom parody, having Kinzie specifically call her out for a lack of pants after her naked escape from alien custody, and most weirdly, having Matt almost vomit at seeing her dance in a stripclub. Still, it's more inclusive than GTA 5's treehouse, with its No Gurlz Allowed sign.)
There are of course a fair few problems here too, mostly involving its budget and it having started as DLC for its previous game. Just for starters, it makes no real sense that the action is set in Steelport rather than the Saints' actual home town of Stilwater, and even within that, the reused map and barely updated assets were unimpressive even before our return to Los Santos. There badly needed to be more activities, and ones as crazy or crazier than the sewage-slinging, tiger-shotgunning novelties of old, with the ones thrown in barely even pretending to be anything more than the filler that they so obviously were - though in fairness, usually optional filler around the far more entertaining plot missions where all the money went.
But did it matter? Uh... yes. I would have loved to see a Saints Row 4 with the budget to really cut loose. At the same time though, I suspect that it's the development restraints that really made it - the knowledge that every stone had to be turned, every string pulled and no card left unplayed that freed Volition to make something so ridiculous and potentially suicidal. After all, how do you scale up from blowing up the entire world and giving the entire cast superpowers, giant robots/mechs (delete as appropriate) and ultimately control of a great galactic empire? Where do you take Saints who have now officially become gods? How does the craziest game in the world become even crazier than DLC where you team up with Santa and... I'm not going to spoil Enter the Dominatrix. But that. That! How can Volition top that?
I have absolutely no idea. But I really hope we get a chance to find out.