Saints Row IV builds off of Saints Row: The Third's successful break from the open-world crime game norm in plenty of successful ways by giving you new abilities and options set in an increasingly ridiculous world that gets wrapped around some solid, funny writing. In plenty of ways it's all-but-identical to the previous game, but plenty of deviations both big and small make it feel quite different. On the small side, a more-focused track through the game's side missions makes it more enjoyable to see and do everything the game has to offer. On the large side, the developers at Volition effectively created "Lewd Crackdown" by imbuing your cyber-President with the ability to leap over buildings, glide around the city, and collect hundreds and hundreds of orbs. Clusters! Sorry, they're called clusters. Orbs, sheesh, where did that come from?
The story picks up where The Third left off, more or less, with a quick escalation and a five-year flash forward to the point where the boss of the Saints (that's you) is now the President of the United States. Oh, and then there's an alien invasion courtesy of the Zin, your main enemy for the bulk of the game. The alien leader, Zinyak, tosses you and your crew in a Matrix-like computer simulation of Steelport, the same city from the previous game. Since real-world rules don't apply in this oppressive simulation, things quickly spiral out until you can run faster than cars, jump higher than buildings, and shoot freeze blasts out of your fists. This, as you might expect, changes everything.
The developers' willingness to utterly deprecate major parts of the previous game is really interesting. Why would you ever drive or upgrade a car once you can run faster than the game's fastest vehicles? Grenades and other thrown weapons are completely replaced by a trio of super abilities and the weapon tree gets blown out with guns that shoot black holes, alien rockets, or the healing--sorry, destructive--power of dubstep. It makes a game that was already pretty goofy even goofier. And throwing the vast majority of the game into a "dark" simulated version of the city of Saints Row: The Third makes the whole thing feel like some elaborate expansion or mod, rather than a full-fledged sequel. Obviously, that has good and bad baggage associated with it. Returning to the city makes for interesting story setups and remembrances of the previous game, but even if you're gliding over all of it and ignoring most of its structure, it occasionally doesn't feel like something that stands on its own.
Actually, the story leans pretty heavily on your knowledge of Saints Row: The Third, to the point where I'd probably recommend playing that game first if you haven't already. Crazily enough, it also throws back to the first two games in some key ways, but missing these references won't leave you struggling too much--also those games are a lot harder to go back to at this point. The story goes in some interesting directions by occasionally focusing more on the characters around you and giving you some insight into their past and present motivations. These missions are the best part about Saints Row IV, and in many cases, they give the characters more depth than you'd expect from what might otherwise look like one 17-hour Matrix-meets-Mass-Effect gag. Unfortunately, a few opportunities for character building are really squandered, leaving all the interactions with one highly anticipated return character feeling completely flat.
That 17-hour number isn't something I just pulled out of the air, by the way. That's about how long it took me to complete Saints Row IV, including all of the side missions (most of which with silver or gold medals) and with copious amounts of time devoted to collecting well over a thousand of the clusters. The game is shorter, but in a way that comes off as more focused. The side missions are offered up to you in batches, so if you like, you can let the game guide you from one task to the next, with a bonus item or buff waiting for each group you complete. Or you can run around as before and just complete the tasks as you find them, and the game will adjust accordingly and not force you to complete the missions twice. It's a smart adjustment that makes the tasks far more manageable while giving you meaningful rewards for your efforts.
Visually, Saints Row IV has the capacity to look better than the previous game. The moodier lighting of the simulation and the way the walls occasionally swim as the simulation's textures animate across the sides of buildings is a nice effect, and things even look nice when you're flying high above the city. But from a tech perspective, it's mostly on-par with Saints Row 3. The characters models are roughly identical, the weapon effects are often similar, and so on. It's not a huge leap forward, even if the game's engine is better at serving up its polygons and textures at high speeds. Also, I can only say this about the PC version of the game.
Not to sound elitist, but going from the PC version of Saints Row IV to the Xbox 360 version of the game was enough to make me think that they maybe shouldn't have released this game on consoles. The frame rate of Saints Row: The Third wasn't pretty on consoles, and the bigger ask related to your character's speed and mobility make this game run even worse. The frame rate is rarely acceptable and on top of that, the game likes to hitch up completely for a bit when it autosaves. Making precision landings and lining up headshots is more difficult with its rotten frame rate, and the game is, overall, less fun on the Xbox 360 than it is on a proper PC as a result.
That said, I enjoyed it a great deal, and parts of this game almost feel like they've been specifically tailored to my interests. I mean, Riff Raff hosts one of the radio stations. That's a great choice. The game is packed with some great moments that subvert the open-world crime genre even further than SR3 did, it's funny, and its references aren't just lazily tossed off, they're earned. You'll feel like you've played some of this before, but if you're at all interested in Saints Row's brand of weird, it's absolutely vital.
Play it on PC, though.