For a while, Volition’s Saints Row franchise stood in the shadow of Grand Theft Auto, struggling to find its own identity beyond being the goofy step-brother to Rockstar’s much more serious open world crime title. Then, in 2011, things changed. Saints Row 3 proved that the series was fully capable of carving its own path with a brash, carefree attitude.

The title embraced its sense of humor in a way previous franchise entries never could, and found success as a result. At the same time, this was just the beginning for Volition — their first steps with a better understanding of what makes the Saints Row franchise appealing. Which makes the impending release of Saints Row 4 next month all the more exciting.

To get a general sense of Saints Row 4‘s first few hours, Game Rant was provided with a PC build of the game to preview. The preview build featured full story missions, cut scenes, and an open world filled with a king’s bounty of side quests, collectibles, and activities. This wasn’t some vertical slice, but an early representation of the finished product.

Saints Row 4 Preview - President Walking

When first firing up Saints Row 4, players will be struck with a sense of déjà vu. That’s because the set-up for this sequel hits a lot of the same notes as Saints Row 3. The player character’s face is hidden under a helmet, the level is a very basic corridor shooter, and the tone is a little unclear at first.

During this early portion of the game, I was instantly struck with the feeling that Saints Row 4 might be nothing more than repurposed DLC. Then, as the player character ascends a missile headed towards the White House, and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” blared over my speakers, everything changed.

While the preview build only featured the game’s first two hours or so, that was more than enough time to convince me Saints Row 4 is a perfect follow-up to Saints Row 3. In a lot of ways it is a direct successor to SR3 — almost too much so — whose sole focus is making everything bigger and more outlandish. Case in point: the player is no longer the leader of the Saints, but of the entire free world.

Saints Row 4 Preview - Zinyak Arrival

After that brief intro sequence, the game kicks into the same White House mission from our E3 preview. Before that, however, players are once again treated to a very in-depth character creation screen wherein they can customize their version of the President. Players can go as silly or as serious as they like, customizing every detail over their character from their eyebrows to their voice. Like in Saints Row 3, the choice of voice actor has a direct bearing on the dialogue, and fundamentally changes the tone of a lot of the jokes. There’s also a bonus voice that is just so perfect we don’t want to spoil it.

After customizing your character, the E3 demo sequence kicks in, and Zin (the alien race in the game) leader Zinyak invades the White House, kidnaps the various members of the Saints, and takes the player character hostage. To get a better sense for how this sequence plays out check out the footage below:

From there, the game jumps into a brief ’50s era interlude (which is hilarious by the way), before it shifts to the virtual Steelport environment gamers have been seeing in the Saints Row 4 trailers. This is Saints Row‘s version of The Matrix, a virtual reality populated with the player character’s subconscious wherein the rules of the “real world” don’t apply. And like in The Matrix, the player character becomes an all-powerful being capable of leaping over buildings and running faster than cars

With these new powers at their fingertips, players can experience the world of Saints Row as they never have before. Much like the initial rush of causing general mayhem in Saints Row 3, zipping down the freeway and then leaping high into the air is instantly engaging. There’s also a Crackdown-esque feeling to the traversal, with players exploring seeking out collectibles called data logs, which can be used to upgrade their super powers. As players upgrade their character, they will be able to jump higher and run faster, and they will earn new combat abilities like telekinesis and a freeze blast.

These new combat abilities, along with the super-powered traversal options, add a new dynamic to enemy encounters. And instead of rival gang members, however, players will be taking on Zin soldiers or more powerful creatures called Warden. The moment-to-moment gameplay is still very familiar — aim to shoot, switch weapons, etc. — but being able to freeze an enemy, leap closer, and then shatter them with an old timey blunderbuss takes combat to a new level.

Saints Row 4 Preview - Super Spring

But beyond a brief explanation of the combat, story, and the various super powers, the most important message we can deliver is that the trademark humor of the series is well preserved in Saints Row 4. In a way, it’s as if Saints Row 3 was the gamble, and Saints Row 4 is seemingly the pay-off. The raunchy, goofy humor of SR3 was legitimized by strong sales, and now Volition has the freedom to take the gloves off. That isn’t to say Saints Row 4‘s humor — based on our few hours with it — is raunchier, or more absurd, but there’s a self-assuredness to the jokes that helps them land a little easier.

Overall, based on our very brief time with the game, it’s safe to say that fans of Saints Row 3 who wanted more will find it in Saints Row 4. At the same time, those who were disappointed in Saints Row 3 might not think the game is enough of an evolution. Yes, the super powers add a new dynamic to gameplay, but there’s still something familiar about it all that might turn some people off.

For me, though, Saints Row 4 took hold at Aerosmith and never let go until the preview ended. And even when it did, with the player character heading out into the real world, I still went back and played through two additional times. Messing around in Steelport is made even better thanks to the super powers, and even though they are further down the line, the promise of the dubstep gun and singularity gun has me itching to return.But what really impressed me about preview is how it could jump from parodying one genre to the next so seamlessly. In its early hours, Saints Row 4 is bigger, bolder, and funnier than its predecessor. August can’t come soon enough.

Are you ready for more over-the-top action in Saints Row 4? Have any questions about the game? Feel free to ask them in the comments below!

Saints Row 4 releases August 20, 2013 for the PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

Follow Anthony on Twitter @ANTaormina