With the chest-thumping GTA V preparing to take over the world next week, now seems like exactly the right time to cleanse the palate with the latest instalment of its sometime rival , Saints Row. While driving cars and clobbering passers-by is both games' bedrock, Saints Row IV is an entirely different animal. Like Saints Row: The Third before it, it takes absolutely nothing seriously, least of all itself. The big switch here, however, is that it's left its satirical gangster foundations behind and gone full-on sci-fi.
This is a game in which the president of the USA gains superpowers and battles an alien invasion. There are reasons of a sort as to why that happens, but if you care about those reasons you're approaching SRIV in the wrong spirit. The only answer to any question of 'why?' is 'because.' And so it is that you can leap tall buildings in a single bound, levitate lorries with your mind, freeze hordes of aliens or fly hover-turrets around the skies at speed.
Frequent diversions have you donning mech suits, finding yourself transformed into a 50s house wife who refuses to break the speed limit, climbing impossible alien towers that would give Babylon a run for its money, or listening to the invaders' pompous leader performing dreadful recreations of Romeo and Juliet. The game's full of chaotic merriment, to the point that on paper it sounds doomed to be a confused mess, but unbelievably it hangs together, becoming a vast, joyful theme park without barriers, rather than a irritating glut of gimmicks.
Drive (or super-sprint) (or fly) (or power-jump) to any intended objective, no matter how tantalising it might be, and an hour later you'll realise you were merrily sidetracked by a dozen other things you hit en route, finding yourself in a spaceship, 'liberating' entire city blocks with your arsenal of customisable and appropriate weapons, or by getting lost in upgrading the deliriously overpowered abilities.
The game's remarkably irritation-free, and smart at ensuring little time is wasted in the event you die or otherwise fail and objective. Perhaps it robs meaning and sense of achievement at times, but the wall-to-wall distractions, quip-riddled dialogue and chain reactions of mayhem means you're simply too busy enjoying yourself to care about why you're doing it. Where so many games create challenge by imposing restrictions, Saints Row IV sees what happens if it tries taking all the brakes off and giving you everything.
Letting the side down a bit is that the game can be pretty damned ugly. It's technically proficient enough, graphics-wise, but the murky lighting and reliance on the sort of spiky-with-strip lighting sci-fi architecture that's used and abused by so many other recent games means the joy of the unbridled interactions it offers can look muted in practice. On the other hand, some of the powers and their effects are so outlandish that it basically doesn't matter that the world's clad in permanent darkness.
When it wants to - such as that temporary visit to a Leave It To Beaver-styled 1950s small town - the game's entirely capable of visual vibrancy, so it's just a shame that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
But given SRIV offers far, far more than any other open world game to date does, that's a small price to pay. Of course everything about it is lightweight and throwaway, but it knows that and intends it to be the case, which is why it gets away with it so well.
The question we're left with, inevitably, is where can Saints Row possibly go after this? Well, we said that after the last game too, and Saints Row IV answered with aplomb.