The Saints Row series began as something of a bargain bin Grand Theft Auto knock-off, aping the best parts of more successful games without their cleverness or creativity. Somewhere along the line, likely during the development of Saints Row 2, the developers realized they could only reach so high as pale imitators, so they went their own direction by lampooning the whole thing. Saints Row 4 is the culmination of this attitude, and as much video game parody royalty as Naked Gun is for films. It's cheeky, goofy, and the full realization of Volition's choice not to live under GTA's shadow anymore.
Playing through SR4, especially after the prior installments, is an exercise in watching Volition sharpen its parody chops. It's less reliant on skewering specific gags than ever before, instead riffing on common video game tropes. Jokes in the dialogue or missions might have been a little too on-the-nose, if not for the fact that they were poking fun at an industry that often is too. Despite that, it never carries a bullying or judgmental tone. It simply acknowledges that sometimes games are dumb fun, and that's fine, so it set out to crown itself the king of that particular castle.
The fact that this is all delivered with incredibly snappy dialogue is icing on the cake. We get to watch the Boss once again fail upward, bolstered by the support of his (or her, or its) crew. There's a sense, however subtle, that the Boss is nothing but a cocky idiot without his friends, and by the end I felt surprisingly sad that I may not get to hang out with this crew of screw-ups anymore.
All the cleverness in the world wouldn't have done it any favors if the gameplay was lacking, though, and fortunately Saints Row 4 had a solid foundation to rely on. It may have even leaned on it too much, considering the environment was so familiar. But by wasting no time empowering the player, it made the whole city feel like new again. Even the simple act of navigating to my next mission start point was engaging and fun, and it constantly rewarded me with new powers and abilities to toy with. Saints Row 4 starts where most games would end, and then ratchets it up all the way to the finish line.
When I wrote my Saints Row 4 review, I said it was among the most fun I'd had all year. When it came time to cast my Game of the Year ballot, it still was.
The Shacknews Best of 2013 Awards were determined by ballot voting across the entire Shacknews staff. Stay tuned next week as we reveal all our winners.