Games have rules. Be they card, tabletop or video, games work because they believe certain things should be OK, and certain things shouldn't.
The "Saints Row" series has one really simple rule: Just because.
Why can you bludgeon people with purple dildo baseball bats? Just because.
Why is there a gun that fires fatal dubstep? Just because.
Why is Keith David a character? Just because.
In "Saints Row IV," developer Deep Silver Volition goes a step further with that rule, cleverly making its open-world setting of Steelport a meta-simulation so that you can break the laws of reality, not just those of society. Your Boss, whom you can mold into any sex or style you want, can also sprint at 100 mph, jump 20 stories in the air and wield the hurty powers of half the X-Men. Oh, and in "Saints Row IV," the Boss is also The Boss, as in the president of the United States (... not Bruce Springsteen).
Though it feels like the most liberated of playgrounds, the simulation is actually a prison The Boss and the Third Street Saints have been locked in by the invading alien overlord Zinyak. So any murder and property destruction you commit isn't just wanton mayhem, it's basically a jailbreak. With plenty of callbacks to past "Saints Row" games, you'll put together a team in true "Great Escape" style. You can also chat them up on the real-world command ship, where one-button casual sex to lampoon "Mass Effect" is just the beginning of the game's many intertextual digs.
The Boss' powers make "Saints Row IV" feel less like fellow crime playground "Grand Theft Auto" and more like the "Infamous" superhero series. You can smite small alien armies with a single stomp of the ground, and battle beastly warden mini-bosses all up and down Steelport — dashing across city blocks, flash-frying the monster and any innocent bystanders in its vicinity, and frantically unloading on its unshielded face.
The platforming in particular helps "Saints Row IV" top even Sucker Punch's series in power fantasy fulfillment. In fact, it almost breaks the open-world system entirely. You can still hijack cars with a Bo-Duk-En dive kick through the windshield, but what's the point? It's much more fun to vault into the sky, glide several hundred meters, run up the side of a skyscraper and soar even farther, all in the dreamlike manner of "The Matrix." It's also incredibly easy to maneuver The Boss like a seasoned superhero. Dive-bombing within inches of your target at full speed from hundreds of feet in the sky is a thrill that doesn't fade fast.
The more grounded shooting action takes the game from mentally stirring to mindless, but still fun. With just a mildly upgraded shotgun you can prance around Zinyak's minions and spray them dead in seconds. But if you make them mad enough by maxing out your alien notoriety meter, they'll pop out of portals and buzz you with with UFOs and murderbots until you're dead. You can clean your slate by catching up with a high-speed golden orb, which is kind of annoying. Or you can just keep freezing the aliens and super-sprinting through them like movie glass, which is way more fun.
As a sandbox, "Saints Row IV" isn't terribly deep. There's an achievement for spending 40 hours in Steelport, but after 25, I'd done everything there is to do in the simulation short of co-op (which I didn't have a chance to play) and gold-medaling all the challenges. Those include the straightforward Mayhem — now with mech suit, alien weaponry and superpower versions — and the black fun of bouncing your mangled body against cars in Insurance Fraud. The new eye-shredding Trail Blazing sprint and telekinesis hoop throw are worthy additions to the roguishness gallery, but they don't lengthen the game by much.
With the action of the main story, side quests, collectibles and activities, you'll accrue money and XP to build your Boss into an even more badass murder machine. The game's upgrade systems are entirely serviceable, if a little safe, as you'd expect of a series in its fourth installment. There are also Zinyak statues to smash and text logs explaining the alien conqueror's past — again, just because.
The follow-up words to Volition's philosophy are typically "it's funny" — and in most cases, that's correct. It's hard not to chuckle at The Saints' reverence for Keith David, their random sing-along duets and their preoccupation with everything but the mass extinction staring them down. Even gags like the dubstep and alien abduction guns made me a little giddy. (The dildos are still too easy to get much of a laugh, though.)
With Neil Patrick Harris, Terry Crews and more stars on the "Saints Row" voice cast, there's no excuse for any lines to land flat. Laura Bailey, the Female No. 1 character, is especially funny, both frightfully malicious and a total goof. And Nolan North, so ubiquitous a video game voice talent that his actual name is listed below the six everyperson male and female options, is, well, Nolan North.
"Saints Row IV" can get a little glitchy, including menu-screen freezes, heavy slowdown when you sprint through crowded areas, and long stutters whenever you unlock an achievement. I wish I could write off its generously jiggling breasts as another glitch — though the game plays the sexes surprisingly evenly when it comes to character agency. After all, you can play as a female president. Just because.