No video game has a smooth path to release, but the latest Saints Row title has lived its rocky development very much in the public eye. Following the surprise success of Saints Row The Third, this expansion pack was promoted to full sequel, and kept its head while developer Volition's parent company THQ collapsed. Bought out by Deep Silver and Koch - a company with marketing methods as crass as the games' content - Saints Row 4 has somehow naturally evolved from gangsters fighting for respect to the president of the United States tackling an alien invasion with a dubstep gun.
For Eurogamer's Chris Shilling, this fourth outing is another reinvention of the series. "What began as little more than a poor man's GTA has evolved into a kind of anything-goes sandbox action game, but it's hard to pick out a defining characteristic beyond the fact that it lets you do stupid stuff," he says in the site's 8/10 review.
"Volition can't always decide whether it's parodying an idea or just embracing it, but there's a clear and wide-eyed affection for the games it either apes or mocks"Chris Schilling, Eurogamer
The game wears its pop culture and video game influences on its sleeve, with Shilling highlighting ideas grabbed straight from Crackdown, InFamous, Prototype, Mass Effect and Metal Gear. "Saints Row has always been a magpie, pilfering an assortment of ideas from other games and re-appropriating them for its own demented ends," he writes. "Volition can't always decide whether it's parodying an idea or just embracing it, but there's a clear and wide-eyed affection for the games it either apes or mocks"
With a review that's happy to gloss over technical issues - "the frame-rate doesn't always hold up, but if that's the price to pay for such giddy mayhem, then it's a bill most will be happy to foot" - Shilling concludes his review by embracing the stupidity and celebrating Volition's confidence in crazy.
"Saints Row 4 may lack refinement - nothing thwarts a superhero quite so frequently as an overhanging roof or your homies standing in a doorway - but it compensates with sheer exuberance. It's a heartfelt love letter to the superhero genre and to a medium that makes such madness possible. There's a fine art to being this gloriously dumb, it seems, which pretty much makes Saints Row 4 the Sistine Chapel ceiling of stupidity."
John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun is happy to see some critique of video game trends, suggesting that an understated opening to Saints Row 4 is a "sarcastic rendition of the dreary state of action games." He's just has content to embrace the madness, in particular praising the game as it "out-does City Of Heroes for sheer mad pleasure of moving around its environs."
But Walker is more critical of the game's origins, suggesting its easy to see where corners and costs have been cut in development.
"It's very apparent that this started as an expansion for Saints Row 3. Volition have essentially created a total-conversion mod for their last game, and while I argue it takes nothing away from the ludicrously brilliant time I've had with it - and in fact is the best Saints Row game yet - the budget saving that's gone on is unavoidably obvious."
"Volition have essentially created a total-conversion mod for their last game, and while I argue it takes nothing away from the ludicrously brilliant time I've had with it - the budget saving that's gone on is unavoidably obvious"John Walker, RPS
But like Eurogamer's review, any problems are erased by the quality of the end product. Walker in particular picks out the quality of the comedy writing and script.
"Like Saints Row: The Third, the writing is absolutely stunning, with stellar voice acting to match. There's barely a wasted line, conversations packed with humour, pathos, and surprising earnestness. The timing is always exquisite, the animations matching the delivery, such that an eye-roll can deliver a punchline. These are things that are almost unheard of in gaming! That you find them at their best in a game of such lunatic frivolity is doubly fantastic."
For IGN's Dan Stapleton Saints Row 4 is too much, offering power to the player that renders so much of the content irrelevent.
"Why do I need gun upgrades when I can shoot fireballs from my hands? Why should I bother summoning homies to help me in combat when I can throw tanks with my mind? What good are customizable cars with afterburners when they only slow me down?" he asks.
In a review littered with whinging, Stapleton complains about mission structure, the chore of collecting, recycled side quests, overpowered characters and how the game feels "strangely low budget" - but at the bottom of the page is still content to award the game a 7.3 score.
While IGN is down on the game, the Official PlayStation Magazine UK tries to kick it around the floor with a 6/10 and some gags crowbarred in by writer David Meikleham.
"Until you finish the main story, the entire metropolis is bathed in darkness, with an extra layer of blurry colour filters and horribly plain textures slathered on for eye-offending good measure. Add to this every main character looks like a Smackdown CAW from six years ago and there's no question Saints Row 4 is uglier than Quasimodo in a mankini," he writes.
"Occasionally excellent, often mired in mediocrity, Saints Row 4 is inferior to Red Dead Redemption and even five-year-old GTA IV in almost every way"David Meikleham, OPM
"Worse, the framerate frequently tanks. It may have been a glitch with our review code (or a fault that can be fixed with a day one patch), but the game dropped to about 10-15fps for over ten minutes on three separate occasions over the course of the story."
Meikleham is bored of the main missions, enjoying the side quests more, but even those can't save a game that for him isn't able to stand shoulder to shoulder to other titles in the genre.
"Occasionally excellent, often mired in mediocrity, Saints Row 4 is inferior to Red Dead Redemption and even five-year-old GTA IV in almost every way. And while you're always likely to miss when comin' at the kings, Volition's effort still falls short of the more cohesive Sleeping Dogs, the expansive frolicking on Just Cause 2's Panau and the polished pantomime of Infamous 2."
Just over an hour since the review embargo lifted IGN and OPM seem to be the two sites most critical of the game, with big scores from the likes of Destructoid, Polygon and Joystiq likely to cary more weight amongst players, the marketing team at Deep Silver and the developers of Volition who have seemingly enjoyed themselves putting together a game under such trying circumstances.
For the majority of reviewers then, Saints Row is a game that finally lets players push the boundaries of the ridiculous potential of video games. As RPS' Walker concludes: "Games have the ability to let us live out such mad, explosive, eccentric nonsense, and yet they almost never do. Saints Row IV does, and that makes it incredibly special. That it does it with such panache, such ease, and such ceaselessly entertaining humour, makes it simply one of the most fun games I've ever played."