Saints Row – It’s been nine years since Saints Row IV was released, pitting the 3rd Street Saints against an alien invasion that featured superpowers, time-travel, Matrix-style simulations, and the complete destruction of Earth. Where do you go after a game so ridiculous and outlandish? After a period of absence, rebooting the series sounds like a logical next step, and that’s exactly what developer Deep Silver Volition has done with this new, stripped-back Saints Row.
It’s still not “realistic” by any stretch of the imagination, but it is slightly more grounded. However, you still shouldn’t envisage finding many of the modern trappings of open-world games. For as much as Saints Row differentiates itself from the bombast of its past few entries, it still closely resembles a game from the same era, leading to an experience that often feels stale and dated.
For the most part, this isn’t something you could level at Saints Row IV’s approach to freedom around character identity and gender, and this has carried over into the rebooted Saints Row. The character creator lets you design pretty much any person you want. There’s a broad range of prosthetic options, various types of vitiligo, a number of sliders for body options that do away with binary gender selection, a choice of six distinct voices, and the ability to make an asymmetrical face, to name just a few of the available options. You can also hop back into the character creator at any point and change your entire look. This sounds like an insignificant feature, but it isn’t always a given and speaks to Saints Row’s focus on inclusivity.
You can create a character that represents you, or simply delve into some of the more eccentric customization options and devise a creation with metal skin, demonic eyes, and glowing red hair. There are already some fairly accurate recreations of Shrek being shared, just to give you an idea of how exhaustive the process is.
Once you’ve finished creating your ideal gang boss, you’re thrown into a story centered around four young friends who share a dingy apartment and commit crimes to try and make rent. Saints Row adopts an anti-capitalist stance and touches on some socially conscious issues throughout its first few hours, with characters bemoaning their crippling student debt and lack of health insurance, while also taking a satirical swipe at toxic corporate culture. Alluding to these issues makes the cast somewhat relatable, but it doesn’t take long before you’re building a criminal empire and discarding these topics in favor of more outlandish endeavors.
While the main character is a self-described murder machine, the rest of your friends are well-rounded and avoid falling into a pitfall of homicidal archetypes. The perpetually shirtless Kev, for instance, is obsessed with food and music, regularly talking about the kitchen appliances he hopes to buy when not busy DJing a party. Neena, on the other hand, is a mechanic who loves restoring classic cars but also has an appreciation for art and an interest in gallery curation. Then there’s Eli, the strategist and aspirational entrepreneur of the group. He’s averse to violence but spends his off-hours LARPing in the desert and shooting like-minded individuals with foam bullets.
The heart of Saints Row has always resided in its characters, and the dynamic and playful banter between the friendship group is the highlight of the story. They may be violent criminals, but they’re the kinds of people you wouldn’t mind hanging out with and provide a bright spot in an otherwise unfulfilling narrative. The overarching plot is fairly boilerplate and plays out as you would expect. It’s anticlimactic, too, as most problems are solved with relative ease, adversaries are simply dealt with, and more than a few loose ends remain unresolved. After the previous two numbered games in the series were imbued with such creativity, it’s disappointing that the storytelling in this reboot is so humdrum.
While the story does touch on some modern social trends, the gameplay feels dated. Much of Saints Row feels like a throwback to the open-world design of a decade ago. Its third-person shooting is adequate, but it’s tough to get a good feel for the aiming when playing on a controller. The reticle is always slightly too finicky, even after fiddling with the sensitivity settings to try and find a sweet spot. It’s something I grew accustomed to over time, but the best way to approach combat is by making liberal use of the auto-aiming assistance that locks onto targets when aiming down sights. This makes it easier to execute headshots and trigger the satisfying splat that accompanies them.
The arsenal of weapons at your disposal is rather lackluster, however. There’s the usual assortment of pistols, SMGs, and shotguns, but there’s little reason to deviate from the starting assault rifle. The inaccuracy of the SMGs only compounds the game’s awkward aiming, and the shotguns feel decidedly weak and are irritatingly slow to fire–an issue when most enemies soak up damage. The base assault rifle excels in any situation, so it quickly became my go-to for the majority of the game, especially since neither of the upgrades for it were all that appealing due to their slower rate of fire.
Fortunately, the addition of whimsical skill moves does spruce up combat quite a bit. By completing missions and earning experience points, you level up along a linear progression path where each level unlocks a new skill move. You can assign up to four at once and utilize them in combat by killing enemies to accrue the Flow points you need to activate them. These points fill back up relatively quickly, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever be left wanting for a chance to use one of these skills.
For as much as Saints Row differentiates itself from the bombast of its past few entries, it still closely resembles a game from the same era, leading to an experience that often feels stale and dated.
The first one you unlock lets you grab an enemy and stuff a grenade down their pants before heaving them back towards their buddies, which is especially useful for crowd control, on top of just being fun to do. Other skills range from a powerful flaming punch to an anti-gravity device that launches enemies into the air and leaves them defenseless. The standard weapons are lacking, but these skills add some much-needed variety to combat that shake up the familiar routine.
For the most part, these skills also incentivize you to push the attack and mix it up in combat, and this is something the game factors into its health system. Your health bar is divided into separate chunks. Your health will recharge automatically if you don’t sustain damage for a few seconds, but it will only refill up to the nearest checkpoint–whether that’s one-third of your health, two-thirds of your health, and so on. To get more health back, you need to kill enemies by getting up close and performing a stylish execution. You can only use these cinematic takedowns once before the ability needs to charge, but kills recharge the meter much more quickly, so you’re encouraged to create mayhem in order to better heal yourself.
There’s no cover system, only a roll that can help you avoid weapon fire, so combat is all about staying on the front foot and being aggressive to survive. It’s at its best when things are frantic and you’re overwhelmed by enemies converging on you from all sides. This happens more often on higher difficulties, but the checkpoints in campaign missions are so unforgiving that the tradeoff doesn’t seem worth it.
When not shooting people, most of your time is spent behind the wheel of various vehicles. Driving in Saints Row feels overly floaty, but this was never a hindrance to my enjoyment of cruising around the city. There’s a dedicated drift button that lets you swerve around corners with ease, and the addition of a sideswipe attack makes vehicular combat more exciting. Having to shoot and drive at the same time has never felt good in these types of open-world games, so being able to shunt cars off the road and watch them explode in a fiery blaze is a marked improvement on what’s come before.
It helps, of course, that the fictional city of Santo Ileso is so visually appealing, mixing towering skyscrapers with quiet suburbs and large swaths of desert. Set in the United States’ Southwest, it calls to mind places such as Albuquerque and Reno while being distinctly its own. You can see the influence of Mexican culture in some of its architecture and the beautiful murals adorning certain buildings, while the neon lights of its casinos cast a seedier vibe. It’s a shame, then, that the city doesn’t produce the emergent action that would give it life. This goes back to the game’s archaic feel, where you spend much of your time simply driving back and forth between missions.
A significant part of Saints Row’s campaign revolves around various Criminal Ventures. Once your startup is up and running, you can purchase these ventures to generate more money and gradually grow your business. You start off with a car dealership before being able to acquire a restaurant, laundromat, toxic waste disposal service, and more. Obviously, each one is a front for illicit activity, and it’s your job to help out with that side of the business.
You need to steal food trucks full of drugs for the Chalupacabra restaurant, for example, while the car dealership tasks you with jacking specific vehicles around the city. These missions initially seem optional, providing you with another avenue to earn some cash. Before long, however, your progress through the campaign is gated by missions that require you to have purchased and completed a number of these Criminal Ventures. I always had multiple missions available, so it never felt like this halted my progress; the main issue is that these ventures are decidedly milquetoast.
Each one usually involves driving from A to B with only minor variations between them. Sometimes you’re being chased, other times you have to avoid the police by dodging their big red circles on the mini-map. Either way, it’s a lot of driving from point to point, over and over again, and it doesn’t take long to become tedious. Some of the ventures offer a little variety, like the clothing brand that asks you to take pictures of different materials, or the medical clinic where you commit insurance fraud by throwing yourself into moving vehicles. The latter has featured throughout the series before and is the best of the bunch; the rest are just bland.
The traditional story missions add more impetus by engaging in action-movie hijinks, but the mission design still feels like a relic of the past. One early mission sees you assaulting a convoy by leaping from car to car to make it up the line. This sounds like an exciting set-piece, but in practice, you’re just shooting static enemies before watching a short cutscene of your character making an untroubled jump. These missions are still enjoyable at times, but there’s always this nagging feeling of déjà vu because it all feels so familiar.
Even when its creativity shines, it’s let down on the gameplay side. One of the Criminal Ventures you can purchase involves Eli’s Mad Max-inspired LARPing exploits. These missions are combat-focused and stand out because everyone is committed to role-playing. Your previously violent executions now consist of fake punches and pretend-chest-bursting, and your arsenal is replaced by toy weapons that fire foam projectiles. Later on, there’s a giant cardboard worm that knocks people over with its roar, and there’s an excellent recreation of the greatest death scene in movie history. I loved everything about this quest line except playing it. Despite all of these changes, combat is very much the same, only you’re forced to use bad weapons that take twice as long to kill people. Saints Row has a lot of good ideas, but it restricts itself by not being ambitious enough from a gameplay perspective.
It’s also worth noting the open-world jank that comes with the territory. There’s everything from characters that appear as floating heads to NPCs getting stuck in walls, broken vehicle physics, and enemy AI falling apart to the point where they don’t realize you’re there. For the most part, these are minor oddities that don’t significantly hamper the game, but I also ran into a few more serious issues. During one mission, the scripting failed and left me trapped with no door to go through, while restarting at the nearest checkpoint caused the game to crash. There was another instance where a vehicle I had to destroy was indestructible, and a few other cases where a mission wouldn’t progress.
Saints Row reins in the absurdity to a fairly significant degree but still manages to indulge in some of the chaotic action and silly hijinks the series is known for. Its story is simple and fairly predictable, yet spending time with its diverse and well-rounded characters makes it worth seeing through to the end. It’s a shame the gameplay isn’t quite as progressive, opting instead for out-of-date mechanics and level design. Combat is decent, and the story missions are enjoyable when at their most over-the-top, but there’s too much bland filler in between. Rebooting the series made sense, yet in many ways, Saints Row is still stuck in the past and struggling to live up to its legacy.
The new Saints Row reboot is bland, boring, and broken
I shoot a man in the face with my rifle. I shoot a man in the face with my rifle. I shoot a woman in the face with my rifle. I shoot a man in the face with my rifle. I shoot a woman in the face with my rifle. A cutscene plays, in which I am told of the incredible power of friendship. I shoot 20 more people in the face with my rifle. Later, I will drive a car.
Phew! It wasn’t easy, encapsulating the entire 40 hours I spent playing Saints Row, the shiny new reboot of the long-running open-world crime franchise, in a single paragraph. But I think I got pretty much everything in there—the only things missing being some sporadic bouts of meme-based humor, and the regular-as-clockwork bit where I had to restart a mission because some aspect of its scripting had managed to bug itself out into oblivion. (To be fair, the latter, at least, might end up addressed with a patch at some point; the former is probably here to stay.)
There’s an interesting question raised by this latest effort from original Saints Row developer Volition: Has an effort to “go back to our roots” ever put its focus on roots this manifestly bland? The original Saints Row was, after all, the most blatant and milquetoast of all the Grand Theft Auto clones that cropped up in the mid-2000s, a blank-eyed retread that tried to sell itself with one tiny extra dollop of “attitude” to lure players in. It was only with the games’ sequels that the series started to stake out an actual identity for itself, growing sillier and stranger with each installment, even as Grand Theft Auto got more serious and dour. And while you could certainly argue that there’s a point where, say, Saints Row IV’s blend of superpowers, alien invasions, Jane Austen cameos, and sex toy jokes aplenty crossed a line from “dumb fun” into just plain dumb, it’s hard to imagine that the best response to that problem was to do what Volition has done here, tossing the baby out with the proverbial dildo bat bathwater, and stripping out all the fun bits that gave this series any sense of what it actually was.
We open in Santo Ileso (think Vegas, but scuzzier), a city currently being torn apart in the grip of three rival armies: The Panteros (bodybuilding car dorks), The Idols (murder-ravers), and the Marshall mercenary company (space cowboys, but not in a fun Tommy Lee Jones sort of way). Our central characters are a crew of roommates who roughly map onto the low-level rungs of each of these factions, with your own player-crafted avatar a new recruit to Marshall who regularly describes themselves as “being good at murder.” After a series of setbacks that sees them ostracized from all of these various power brokers, the group decides to form their own dang gang, founded not on a drive for power, fame, or wealth, but on a shared dedication to each other, and to the idea of the little guy rising up and seizing their destinies for themselves.
They then murder a couple thousand people in pursuit of these lofty goals.
And, look: I didn’t just fall off the back of the games discourse turnip truck here; I can rattle off my thoughts on ludonarrative dissonance—i.e., the gap between what a game says it’s about versus what you actually spend your time doing while playing it—with the best of them. But it’s rare for a game to put quite this much energy into trying to get you to like and root for characters who are extremely glib about all the murders they intend on doing. Where previous Saints games embraced a sort of gleeful amorality as a shield against any serious critique, Saints Row 2022 doesn’t hide the fact that you’re expected to sympathize with and grow to love roommates Kev, Neenah, and Eli; listen to their emotional backstories; connect with them over shared bonding rituals. Your character’s friendship with these three people has been placed, quite successfully, at the very heart of this game. It’s just that the game they’ve been placed at the heart of is also all about stabbing people in the face. To pull a TV metaphor, it’s kind of like if the main characters of How I Met Your Mother were all also in the Mafia together—conceptually interesting, admittedly, but also pretty disorienting in practice.
As to what you’re actually doing while all this heartwarming banter/heart-stabbing action is going on, well: See that first paragraph up top. Having removed large swathes of the sillier gameplay actions that have dominated Saints Row across its last few installments, Volition has replaced it with, honestly, not all that much. Sure, activities will be described as though something fun is about to happen, but nine times out of ten, what the game really means is “Drive to this place and shoot someone.” (Sometimes, to break things up, you’ll shoot someone, then drive somewhere else to shoot some people again.) There are a few glimmers of innovation here and there—generally attached to the “Empire” system that makes up much of the game’s side content, tasking you with building various criminal fronts that provide passive upgrades and income in exchange for completing certain tasks. But you’d be shocked how often “seize control of drug-dealing food trucks” or “clean up a crime scene for cash” translates to “drive somewhere and shoot a guy in the face.”
As to those two key verbs, they’re a somewhat mixed bag. The driving is actually pretty fun, once you adjust to its quirks: There’s a bouncy cartoonishness to the way most of the cars handle that puts an emphasis on drifting, catching air, and generally having fun with the physics. (Also, every car that isn’t yours is basically made of tissue paper, turning even the most cautious commute into a series of extended explosions.) Tearing across Santo Ileso in a souped-up supercar can be a genuine blast, especially if you stick a tow cable on your favorite sportscar so that you can drag some hapless sap behind you as a makeshift wrecking ball. (The worst thing you can say about the driving, really, is that the game’s mission mode is perversely averse to letting you use your own cars, sticking you in a bunch of virtual lemons instead of your hard-earned speed machine.)
The shooting is less satisfying. Although there’s a decent number of weapons available, few of them go beyond the basic “pistol, SMG, rifle, shotgun” model, and enemy variety isn’t much more varied. In an interesting touch, healing is handled through a melee-based “takedown” system that encourages you, along with fairly hard limits on how much ammo you can carry, to constantly push forward towards threats, which break down between basic mooks and slightly tougher enemies with a few special tricks. All of which is fine, except for the fact that almost every firefight has been padded like the participants are trying to make a good show for their boss; never expect Saints Row to throw three enemies at you when it could fill the screen with a dozen, instead. For a game so interested in making murder seem fun and frivolous, it’s perversely okay with translating it into tedium, instead.
The most irritating thing about Saints Row, though…Well, I was going to say something about “the wasted potential,” or the ways it occasionally slips up and lets itself get genuinely goofy and fun for a minute before getting back to the death grind. (If you play the game, do yourself a favor and push toward the “Eurekabator!” criminal front early; it’s the one place where the game lets itself get truly wild.) But that would be a lie: The most irritating things about Saints Row are the bugs, which, in our pre-release review version, were abundant, and which varied from silly to immersion-ruining to mission-aborting. There’s nothing quite like loading up a mission in a game like this—which sometimes run to 20 minutes in length, at least—and feeling that pit of anxiety in your stomach because you just don’t know if the damn thing will actually work. Publisher Deep Silver has promised a Day One patch that will hopefully address some of this, but I can honestly say that it’s the most frustrated I’ve been by the technical side of a game since the release of Cyberpunk 2077 back in late 2020.
Saints Row is a confusing game, on multiple levels. I can’t say I didn’t have fun with it—there’s a compulsive pleasure in open-world gaming that’s hard to tamp down, no matter how intent the game seems to be on keeping its players from enjoying themselves too much. (If you need a big map of stuff to checklist your way down, the game will absolutely scratch that itch.) Its tonal issues are, weirdly, a function of making its characters too likable, instead of not enough. And it desperately wants you to think you’re having fun, without ever providing concrete steps towards giving players more to do than function in a very rote loop. In hindsight, it reminds me a bit of the whiteboard that your business-buzzword-obsessed buddy Eli busts out early on, when the Saints are first figuring out how to turn themselves into a functional gang: Some big, flashy concepts; very few ideas on how to execute.