Saint's Row IV PS3 / PC / Xbox 360

Saint's Row IV PS3 / PC / Xbox 360
8
When Saint's Row debuted back in 2006, it was nothing more than a less-ambitious Grand Theft Auto clone. Not that it wasn't relatively fun, but there wasn't much to this superficial street gang sandbox saga beyond that. However, the game's increasingly absurdist (and, not coincidentally, increasingly awesome) sequels are like a master class in how to save a soulless franchise.

The first follow-up was essentially a more refined version of the first game. You were still leading the Third Street Saints, driving and shooting your way around Stilwater while battling a trio of rival gangs and one evil corporation.

It was already beginning to drive in a comedic direction though, albeit a mean-spirited one, just as Grand Theft Auto IV was growing up and dealing with themes as grand as immigration and the American Dream. In response, Edge magazine decried Saint's Row 2's "fratboy misanthropy," declaring it the anti-GTA, though others like Gamespy praised the game's "irreverence, and its low-brow humor."

Then came Saints Row The Third, which introduced a new town, Steelport, and an old mechanic: battling three rival gangs and one evil corporation (well, paramilitary police force). Most importantly, it dramatically ramped up the series' over-the-top action and comedy, going so far as positioning the Third Street Saints as celebs with their own media empire, complete with farcical fans, stores, silly endorsements and a ridiculous reality show.

The fourth entry, however, simply removes the top altogether. As the Third Street Saints' gang leader, you start out moonlighting as a terrorist-slaughtering special agent who saves the world from a nuke. Then you become the president of the U.S. Then there's an alien invasion. Then you wind-up in a Matrix-like virtual world where you're trapped in what seems like a '50s sitcom before you get, yep, superpowers — and that's just the first couple hours. Oh, and did I mention there's a dubstep gun? It's exactly as advertised (that sound being "wub-wub"), with one of the destructive ditties coming courtesy of Canadian dubstepper Datsik.

The game gets so bat-shit insane so quickly, and does it with such absurd charm, that you barely even notice that your superpowers make driving pointless and the whole thing pretty unbalanced. But it's hard to care when you're having this much fun battling alien warlord Zinyak and his evil Zin Empire in a virtual reality Steelport. It's still lowbrow as all get out, but it's even more ridiculous, and the game's refusal to take itself seriously is a nice change in the overly realistic world of modern gaming

It still steals liberally from its peers — in this case, the basic GTA structure is enhanced by elements of super-powered sandbox games like Crackdown, Infamous and Prototype, as well as countless pop-culture spoofs — but somehow the resulting mash-up winds up feeling wildly unique and wholly entertaining.

Plus, the radio stations and mixtape-making tool offer a fantastic collection of music, ranging from classical to Kendrick, Blur to Thin Lizzy and Alex Metric to Vitalic. There's even an all-Mad Decent station.

Sure, it took a while for Saints Row to get to the point where it's essentially mocking its original incarnation, but the journey proves that sequels don't have to just be bigger. They can be crazier, too. (Volition/Deep Silver)