Saints Row started this generation as an attempt to ride on the back of GTA's success, a pretender that would have been laughed out of town if it was released on the previous generation. So what? THQ wisely knew that no Grand Theft Auto for at least a few years would leave the door wide open for such a game, and took its chance. Hey, why not?
Two sequels of ever-increasing quality later - and one depraved, childish, hilarious carved out niche - and it appeared that Saints Row had established itself. Not as a contender to GTA's throne, though. Instead, Saints Row was very much standing on its own two feet, stepping out from the shadow of Rockstar North.
With that in mind, then, why does it feel like the series is going to end this console cycle firmly back being compared to Rockstar’s monster, unfairly or not?
There are a few reasons. In short, to me at least, Saints Row 4 feels like a game too far this generation. That it follows its predecessor by only about 20 months isn't really a problem - many games are on two-year turnarounds. It's the fact that this 'new' Saints Row doesn't look particular new. Its theme of alien invasion and superpowers might be a different direction for the franchise, but at the same time there’s that feeling this started out as an idea for DLC. Which, as we all know, is exactly what happened.
Granted, Volition has expanded it into a fully-fledged game, and it is true that one of the best instalments in the GTA franchise - Vice City - both started out as an expansion AND followed just one year later.
The problem for part 4, then, is that it doesn't seem to offer what you would expect from the next chapter in a series that has been propelling itself forward in great leaps with each step. Saints Row 2 showed a cleverness (albeit a puerile one) and a diversity that its predecessor lacked. The Third took this further, pushing the nonsense like never before, while shoehorning in more pop culture gags (Ric Flair strut!) than you could shake a dildo at. If GTA IV was a, relatively, sober entry into Rockstar's series, then Saints Row: The Third was gin-drunk: stupid yet sharp.
IV doesn't feel like that. A perception problem? Maybe. But, then again, that's why most publishers don't slap the numeral on the end of all sequels; there’s a fear of how the audience might construe it. Ubisoft don't with Assassin's Creed, and Activision hasn't with Call of Duty this year. Is there any reason for Ghosts to ignore the Modern Warfare 4 branding? Not really, but as a cross-generational bridge, it's not particularly wise to. Ghosts, no matter how it fairs, is unfortunately timed.
So, potentially, is Saints Row IV. It arrives on August 23, and does so just three weeks before what many see as not only the biggest game of the year but possibly of the generation. On that same note, once GTA 5 has arrived, the console landscape as we know it is going to end less than two months later. Wouldn't you have preferred Saints Row IV - as in, a brand-new experience that takes advantage of the hardware - to come out then, even if it was a year or so away?
I know I would. Not that more Saints Row is a bad thing - playing co-op in 2 and 3 are some of my favourite gaming experiences in recent memory, and I'm looking forward to tearing Steelport up in 4. I can't help but feel it’s going to lose a little of its lustre, however, among the crushing hype for that other game; this entry isn't going to help matters much.
I hope I'm wrong, and it's not unheard of for excellent sequels to come out at the end of a console cycle. God of War II being a great example, as well as the likes of Shadow of the Colossus and San Andreas itself. I want Saints Row to join them, and I know that I'll be dick-punching people to death and strutting away afterwards… a lot. But I won't be surprised if two years later we get a sequel we've really been waiting for.
Even if that's the case, as long as Volition can build on what's been introduced - as it has been doing since the original - and create that next big step for the series, any missteps now will, most likely, be swiftly forgiven.