Volition stole everything it could for Saints Row IV, and the result is game that bathes in fun
The Saints Row series has always been more about having fun than creating a serious game, although the amount of content in Saints Row III wasn't created by messing around. Some game series are scared of being seen as stealing content or ideas from other franchises, and others feel the need to constantly innovate when it comes to features or social connectivity; even if these are things that players may not actually want. Saints Row IV, on the other hand, is concerned about tone and fun above all else.
And boy oh boy is Volition not afraid to just straight-up steal everything that isn't bolted down. The game doesn't really contain homages to the open world genre, it just kind of lifts everything that worked well from its predecessors. This has led to the creation of a game that is incredibly fun to play, familiar in feel, and somehow joyful. Volition takes and takes and takes, and to make up for it they give as much as they can to the player.
You are the President, and a captive
It's hard to talk about why the tone and feel of the game is so successful without giving things away. I laughed out loud multiple times in the first thirty minutes of the game, and that insane pace of humor and references doesn't seem to let up. You begin the game as the sort of POTUS that doesn't mind punching someone in the dick, or picking up a machine gun to directly address an alien threat.
You're the President that had red, white, and blue missile batteries installed on the White House lawn, and you're also the kind of President who wants to man those damned things personally, leading to a clever little Space Invaders joke.
The character creation screens are also filled with jokes, gags, and a variety of jabs at video games themselves. Your voice options? Woman one through three, Man one through three, or Nolan North. Because of course.
All this humor hides a game that allows you to be whoever you want, and to look however you want. If you're a stocky African American woman, you can make yourself. If you want to add piercings and dress up in women's clothing, who cares? Saints Row IV wants you to have fun, and it doesn't judge that fun. The game is a space in which you can play, and the results can be amazing. My character, at the time of writing, is a black shadow with scan lines moving over his body, looking like a completely digital creation. That fits the theme.
You fail to fight off the aliens in the opening portions of the game, you see, and their leader puts you into a computer simulation that's meant to keep you busy. Your first job is to bust out of the faux-1950's Leave it to Beaver setting the aliens use to keep you happy, and then you're back in the dystopian city you know and love, although all evidence of the Saints have been erased. That means no safe houses, no equipment, and no owned property. You're on your own, at least at first.
The designers at Volition have lost whatever tiny grasp they had on reality now that the game takes place inside a virtual world. You track down disturbances in the program, they look like little pillars of code, and collect them the same way you collected agility orbs in the Crackdown series. These give you the ability to upgrade what amount to super powers; you can run faster than the vehicles, and jump a few stories straight up, and you can link these powers together to explore and conquer the city on foot.
You can hold the “N” button when you're in a car to add it to your virtual collection, to spawn later. The character Kinzie talks you through your time in the simulation, and she gives you the paper-thin justifications for all this craziness to be happening within the context of the game. When “Opposites Attract” comes on the in-game radio station, you try to talk Kinzie into singing the cat's part. Because it's fun.
The regenerating health of Saints Row the Third has been replaced by enemies that spit out health pickups when you kill them, and this gives you much more of a fighting chance when jumping into mobs of enemies. Now it's not quite as easy to be overwhelmed as long as you keep moving and using your weapons well. You can also sprint out of bad situations, or jump away. You'll fighting monstrous wardens, and if you win you jump into them, stealing their powers. The animations and staging of these sequences are taken from the Matrix movies.
I haven't even begun to play in co-op, but it's impossible to explore this world without laughing. There is nothing about the game that takes itself seriously, and the mechanics are all set up to allow you to have the maximum amount of fun in the game. There is no sense of aesthetic or story that needs to be protected, if a fun idea popped up during development, it was thrown in the game. That's how the dubstep gun happened. Trying to track down all the jokes and references is half the fun, and if one doesn't land there is always another joke right around the corner.
This is an unholy mixture of The Matrix, Crackdown, Grand Theft Auto, inFamous, and pretty much anything else that had a good idea that could be copies and added to the stew. The game doesn't feel malicious in any way, the team at Volition has simply stolen all the fun bits from games and popular culture of the past twenty years or so, and stripped away all the bullshit. What's left is a game that's remarkably free of of the stuff that bogs games down, with all the good parts intact. I can't wait to play the full version.