Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X
August 23, 2022
Deep Silver Volition
It’s been seven years since we last spent time with Saints Row, with the last expansion “Gat Out of Hell” having you wage war against the Prince of Darkness throughout the 5 unique districts of hell. Certainly a far cry from Saints Row’s relatively humble GTA-esque beginnings. So once the world has been destroyed and you’ve battled Satan himself, where can the franchise go, exactly? According to this long-anticipated reboot, you go back to basics, capturing the beginning of “The Saints“, the titular gang that aims to run the fictional city of Santo Ileso. While the silly action shooter does a good job of hitting the reset button and introducing a new band of likeable lead characters, developer Volition attempts to course correct with Saints Row, but instead has over-corrected, leaving us with a frivolous fun adventure that doesn’t innovate or move beyond an open world template we’ve seen time and time again.
Saints Row starts off with a group of four friends, including yourself and three others, each involved with one of the core factions in Santo Ileso, trying to make ends meet and pay off your debts. A frozen waffle is all you have in the fridge, rent is due again and despite the unique set of skills your group possesses, you’re all trapped in dead-end jobs with no prospects. It all goes downhill rather quickly, and the solution comes up that you should start a criminal empire instead. When art imitates life, right? From there, you find a home base and form the Saints, with the aim to earn money and reputation. It’s a decent way of establishing the group of rag-tag characters, and it’s a nice touch that you form the gang as leaders, as opposed to other games of this style where you would usually merely join a gang as its newest member and rise through the rankings. Here, you get to “be your own boss” (as the tagline goes), and that allows for a bit more autonomy from the jump.
What isn’t established very well is the way these people interact with one another; the dialogue is awful. Cringe is putting it lightly. It’s not even really the goofy and irreverent kind of comedy that the Saints Row series is known for, instead trying to sound like the way young people talk to each other, except it’s written by a group of suits in a meeting room. Lots of swearing and bad jokes rarely ever made me smile. That’s not to say there aren’t funny moments in Saints Row, especially when crazy things happen during gameplay and catch you by surprise. But the script is bad, and not in the “so bad it’s good” kind of way – just awful and hard to sit through at the best of times. Comedy might be subjective but I doubt anybody would find the cheesy one-liners in this game amusing.
To be your own boss, you have to build your own boss, and it’s worth calling out again that the customisation on offer in Saints Row is stellar. A lot has been said about the creation suite already, but it does really feel like the sky is the limit when it comes to creating a character that represents you, or is just totally wild and chaotic. Beyond the physical attributes of your protagonist, there’s a large number of stores that are all themed differently throughout the city, providing you with various styles and outfits, from a slick suit, to denim booty shorts, to cowboy boots, a full-body taco suit and everything in-between. Smartly, the access to change your look is within your phone, so you can switch it up at absolutely any time you wish. No need to go to your house or hairdresser or anything else. I was constantly changing my look based on how I was feeling at the time, and it’s simple and fun to create new combinations and colours, with a lot of diverse options. It’s a brilliant system.
“…for a comfortable, fun action game to spend some time mucking around in, Volition has certainly provided that without pushing any real boundaries.”
Saints Row takes an open world structure that we’ve seen time and time again and doesn’t make an effort to iterate on it too differently. Many are looking for a comfortable, fun action game to spend some time mucking around in, and Volition has certainly provided that without pushing any real boundaries. That said, you’re almost entirely left alone from factions and cops unless you target them directly, so you’re not going to be hassled by the old trope of “escaping the police” very often, outside of key missions. This may make less sense compared with reality, but it does mean that you can cause as much chaos as you want, steal cars, kill pedestrians, explode vehicles… the cops won’t bat an eyelid, so just enjoy the crazy ride.
Where the adventure puts its best foot forward is in the main campaign, which incorporates missions that involve your core group of friends as you take down the rival groups who have wronged you. Los Panteros are your more “traditional” gang of thugs, The Idols are a group of pink-wearing millennials who want to “take down the corporations” through violence, and Marshall Defense Industries are essentially the military that police the city. The main missions offer some of the larger action movie-inspired set-pieces, like driving giant tanks to shoot down helicopters or jumping from car to car in a convoy chase scene, which switch up the world and keep you engaged.
In one memorable section, there’s a live-steam called Boot Hill, which is essentially a murder island that you end up taking part in to be the last person standing while killing everybody else, in order to recruit more Saints to your crew. It provides cheeky nods to the battle royale genre by providing new weapons and gear in “loot coffins” as you progress, with an announcer pushing things along. Another part that was one of my favourites involved a whole LARPing campaign that is taking place in the city; your guns are replaced with fake ones, and even the close-range melee attacks are converted to dramatic miming to match the tone. While the writing in the game might not be funny, the creativity here and the attention to detail to bring the roleplaying to life is very amusing.
The main missions are so enjoyable compared with the rest of the experience that it’s easy to get into a rhythm and power through them, but overall the campaign is over relatively quickly with just 25 missions in the core story. This left me wanting more; while the extra content can pad things out significantly, it’s less engaging and I felt like I’d sampled most of what the game had to offer after about 15 hours of play, which might be less than what you’re expecting from an open world game like Saints Row. It’s a shame that the side content doesn’t have the same level of detail, because they feel more carefully crafted and tie in the zany missions with the story in a far more meaningful way.
A large part of the Saints Row gameplay loop beyond the main missions are Criminal Ventures, a series of different businesses that you can plant throughout the city at the location of your choosing. Each unlocks a specific series of side missions across the map. The more of them you complete, the more income you generate in the background as you play. One of the early ventures is a drug-running business, using food trucks as a front. You have to go and collect the (guarded) food trucks and successfully bring them back to base to earn profits. Another venture is about insurance fraud, where your character insists on running into traffic throughout different locations to claim a large payday (which is the kind of silly we’ve seen before, but it still remains fun).
Most of these missions aren’t necessarily things we haven’t seen before from the genre, but the way they’re structured does mean that you’re progressively adding more mission types to the experience, eventually filling your map with lots of varied activities. You can even clear out rival gangs from each district to ensure your ventures make the most money possible. On top of that, there are side hustles, which work similarly but without the ongoing financial gain, like delivering cargo off-road while avoiding cops or giving businesses bad reviews and defending the turf from angry customers. Additionally, you can find “golden dumpsters” and take photos of key landmarks and items, some of which then become available to place in your HQ.
“I played the entire experience with a buddy, and while ‘games are always more fun with friends’ often rings true, I’d say it’s especially true with Saints Row.”
It creates a vibe that there is lots to do in Santo Ileso, but in practice, a lot of these criminal ventures and side hustles feel the same. They’re mostly variations on driving to a location, shooting a bunch of enemies and driving back, with different obstacles or themes. What you’re actually doing doesn’t change much, and enemy AI is so vague and unimpressive that it’s rarely challenging. They don’t take cover or have any sort of tactics, just running at you like a moving shooting gallery. They also don’t ramp up in difficulty, simply having larger health bars that make them more spongey as opposed to requiring any form of tactical thinking. The core mechanics of driving and shooting are fine, but they aren’t enough to carry you through the same style of mission over and over.
Saints Row is still mostly a fun time despite the repetition, but it isn’t helped by the large amount of bugs we experienced during the review period. While these may be fixed post-launch, there are some problems that had me restarting missions more often than I’d have liked. In one instance, I fell in some nearby water and could not get back out without “leaving the mission area”, triggering a fail state. In another, enemies repeatedly didn’t spawn inside the mission zone, leaving me stuck. Dialogue repeats itself, connection issues happened at least once per play session when playing cooperatively, and at one point, I loaded my save only to see my previous co-op partners character in place of my own.
Visually, things don’t impress; while at a glance the city of Santo Ileso is pretty at times (particularly in the neon-soaked streets at nighttime), in other instances there is a lot of pop-in when speeding through, with cars, trees and buildings appearing out of nowhere or textures loading in after the fact. Lighting and shadow effects also don’t load properly and look janky at times. It just doesn’t feel especially polished on close inspection.
I have to shout from the rooftops though that cooperative play is implemented really well. It’s drop-in/drop-out, and every single mission in the game, whether it’s the main campaign, side stuff, criminal ventures or even just running around the city causing all kinds of trouble is seamless when playing with a friend. Some connection issues aside, I played the entire experience with a buddy, and while “games are always more fun with friends” often rings true, I’d say it’s especially true with Saints Row. Those moments where something insane happens are more exciting and fun when shared; in fact, even the bugs and glitches don’t annoy as much when you’ve got a mate by your side. I wish more games allowed this kind of co-op, where you can play through the whole game together without barriers, so that makes some of its flaws fairly forgivable.
Saints Row also does a good job of utilising your in-game phone as a hub for all the information you need. It’s where you can access the map, missions, skill trees and abilities, like a fire-punch or the ability to throw grenades. You’ll naturally level up and unlock lots of these as you progress, but I wasn’t a huge fan of using grenades as an ability (instead of a standalone weapon). Not that you’re lacking in explosives as the game rolls on. There’s also an extensive garage that gets new vehicles added to it all the time, and having your HQ take shape and be filled with the trinkets you’ve taken photos of out in the world is a nice touch. Santo Ileso isn’t a thriving, jam-packed location like I was hoping, but there’s certainly a lot to see and do if you’re hunting around.
- Main missions are entertaining
- Lots of things to do and different mission types
- Customisation options are brilliant
- Cooperative play is well implemented
- Campaign feels pretty short
- Missions can get repetitive and lack variety
- Dialogue is ultra-cringe
- Quite buggy at times, with visuals not polished
Saints Row successfully reboots the much-loved franchise, although things don’t feel as wild or chaotic as I was expecting or hoping. The main campaign is a short but enjoyable romp with some decent creativity, but the open world template doesn’t innovate beyond the trappings of the genre. Side missions and distractions are amusing yet repetitive, and the adventure is lacking in polish overall. Still, being able to play the entire experience with a mate by your side makes for a lot of laughs, and if you can forgive the cringe dialogue, there are some fun moments between all the meandering that still makes it worthwhile. I can’t say that the Saints are “back and better than ever”, but gearing up for a modest romp with a lot of explosions and strong personalisation will certainly set them up for a roaring sequel if given the chance.