For years, Saints Row has sold itself as Grand Theft Auto with the safety off - a freer, less intellectually inhibited take on the urban sandbox that effectively casts the player as a bling-obsessed sociopath with the attention span of a kitten. Where Rockstar has striven for the status of a Sundance Institute, growing pompous in its quest for narrative sophistication and social relevance, Volition has embraced the seediness and tackiness of "classic" gaming.
Its worlds are awash with gaudy, one-note exaggerations and knowingly cheap gratification - cartoon Gatling guns, side-missions where you smear buildings with filth, the opportunity to perform Mexican wrestling moves on bystanders, a female cast modelled on the residents of the Playboy Mansion.
Both approaches have their pros and cons. Rockstar's sense of the magnitude of its contribution sometimes blinds it to the fact that certain scenarios (e.g. GTA 4's social mechanics) simply aren't much fun. And Volition's urge to one-up itself, delivering ever-more sensational opportunities for goofiness and carnage, can be rather exhausting. After a while, you find yourself hankering for a game that adheres to some standard of naturalism, and imposes severe consequences for drifting from the designer's agenda.
Sadly, Saints Row 4 appears to represent this urge at its most frantic and stretched-thin - a loose, fairly charmless volley of new scenarios, weapons and characters which has more in common with the expansion pack it was originally supposed to be, than the full sequel it supposedly represents.
Touring a virtual version of Steelport as a super-powered US President, I'm struck by the absence of friction. There's a sprint move, for instance, which turns you into a nigh-indestructible battering ram - ploughing through civilians, vehicles, destructible objects at breakneck speed. I speg it in one direction for a minute, idly watching as the whole city folds up and detonates behind my rampaging form.
Then I hold A button and release to trigger a mighty, Crackdown-esque leap, from which I can either glide or hover temporarily in order to target a ground-pound. The result is the same either way - bundles of SFX, the archly worded wails of fleeing civvies, and a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction. We've been here before, Volition. We've done the "turn it up to 11" thing. The tune's gotten old.
In case you're new to the game, the context for all this is that Earth has been invaded by aliens with throbbing, B-movie foreheads, who've trapped the leader of the 3rd Street Saints (now, somehow, also the Leader of the Free World) in a VR delusion. A linear tutorial bit sets the stage, and also provides an opportunity for some "political" gags - on the way to a key press conference, I casually approve a cure for cancer and sock a dissenting senator in the balls.
This setup explains away the super powers and the fact that civilian collateral is no longer of the slightest concern (these are, after all, NPCs from a game within the game). It doesn't explain away the weirdly turgid movement and aiming, or the camera's habit of getting stuck behind walls during showy melee finishers, problems that have afflicted Saints Row since inception.
There's a selection of combat powers to support the predictably demented gun roster, including a flame cloak, a telekinesis ability that conjures the spectre of Red Faction, and an ice blast that freezes targets into shatterable statues. All undeniably fun, but in a fleeting, gimmicky way. The most realistic firearm on offer during the demo is a barrel-fed, hipfiring shotgun, which soon reduces the area around a mission prompt to a heap of bloodied corpses.