Saints Row is the rare example of a reboot that manages to be faithful to the original game while also adding something new to the mix. While the story and setting are all new, the core experience feels distinctly Saints Row.
The storyline is one of the best parts about the game, and kept me going until the end credits. The new setting – millennial housemates who get pushed into creating a gang and taking on the entire city in a quest to pay rent and hold down a job – feels like a direct comment on 2022’s recession-soaked hellscape, and the characters are surprisingly well rounded: getaway driver Neenah loves cars, but she’s also a huge art nerd, while the perennially shirtless Kev is all about beats and brunch.
The weak link is actually the player character. While your character – the Boss – is designed to be a blank slate for players, it means they don’t have the same magnetic charisma as the rest of the characters. The Boss’ only real skill is senseless violence, and his interests are… crime, I guess.
Games are products of their environment, and it’s hard not to feel that – while tonally dissonant – the same era of shitty politics, everything being generally pants and the urge for human kindness that produced popular Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso has also created Saints Row. In the city of Santo Ileso, the main characters feel like well-rounded and kind people who care about each other on a deep level, though have no qualms in single-handedly killing the population of a small town before the final credits roll.
Take a mid-game scene where an ice-cold badass killer – that would probably serve as the player character in the franchise’s pre-reboot form – is won over by the Saints, as he accompanies them on a “teambulding” day of doing their favourite activities. Sure, it devolves into murder, but it shows the team’s capacity for human kindness and a general interest for each other – a million miles away from the banter and mass murder approach that has typified open-world crime games in the past.
It’s good to see these characters interact because it’s so rare for games to actually examine friendship. Usually in games, most friendships are of convenience, because people are shooting at you, or functions as a sort of Stardew Valley arrangement where you put in tokens until a fully formed friendship drops out. Here, the main characters are just long-time friends, and decent people that give a shit about each other, which is cool to be part of, and ends up being the narrative glue that gets you through the campaign.
Otherwise, the plot is fairly by the numbers. Saints Row feels shorter than most open-world crime games, and has just a handful of missions. There are a few great set pieces, but it felt like the story ended just as it was really getting started, and it was a bit disappointing to realise I was on the home straight. The city also feels more compact than other open-world games, but there’s still a lot to enjoy there, with plenty of cool details for players to find.
The game’s city feels like a character all of its own too. The run-town city feels like a world that hasn’t been explored much in games before, and there’s a definite feeling that Santo Ileso’s best days were long before you were driving its streets.
Otherwise, there’s a fairly decent action game here with a wealth of content and unlocks to achieve. All of the classic Saints Row activities are in there, hidden away behind the game’s new empire system. Building up your arms trafficking business involves getting into the Mayhem activities, taking out scores of cars and other objects with a rocket launcher or even a VTOL. A dodgy Saints-funded hospital leads to you performing insurance fraud, tossing yourself into traffic for ill-gotten gains.
Between side hustles, you’ll throw down with three different gangs: the car-obsessed Los Panteros, social media mavens The Icons and the private security company Marshall. The Saints’ rivals are all very different opponents, and offer unique challenges. However, nothing ever really feels difficult, as most of the enemies are fairly easy to beat with the judicious application of firepower. Even with a couple of minibosses in the game, nothing manages to feel like a fair fight against The Boss.
Despite that, the combat is engaging – at first. You’ll unlock new skills as you go through the game and can pull off tricks like planting proximity mines, putting a grenade down an enemy’s pants and tossing them at an enemy, or even pulling off some flips while spraying bullets everywhere. At first these feel great, but there’s just no real reason to use them after a while, and I often resorted to just shooting my opponents in the face with a shotgun. Completing challenges with weapons unlocks passive bonuses, which is a nice perk for putting the effort in.
The weapon selection is a little less engaging than the usual Saints Row fare: the selection of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles is fine, but a little underwhelming from the development team that once gave us the Dubstep Gun or the Black Hole Launcher. That said, there is a throwable projectile that has hidden jets which can take down helicopters or even blast people into low orbit – it would be great to see more of this sort of nonsense weaponry.
One of the biggest disappointments is that outside of a player-triggered reinforcement of The Saints, you never actually see the gang you’re building up on the streets. In the story you’re taking over the city but this is mostly seen with the buildings you’re placing in empty lots and by the map being daubed in purple, rather than by seeing the muscle on the streets. It feels like a missed opportunity, especially as you pick the cars and outfits for your crew before… never seeing them away from the church that functions as your headquarters.
The game’s soundtrack – while being used to great effect for some set pieces – is largely disappointing: while M.O.P’s ‘Ante Up’ might be great for robbing a train, when you hear it for the hundredth time while driving around it loses its edge a little bit – there aren’t enough bangers on the soundtrack, so every radio station just feels like you’re just waiting for the good track to come back around again.
Saints Row is a mixed bag, in honesty. I had a lot of fun during my time with the game, but there’s no escaping the fact that it just isn’t all that good. I usually give games a pass for bugs during the review process but there were several here that soft-locked me into the character creator, or into a car, or blocked progression on a level. Across the board everything is pretty much okay, so the bugs bring it down into being somewhat annoying. Still, Saints Row is good fun, it’s just a shame that the characters and setting of Saints Row aren’t matched by the other aspects.
Saints Row is a decent action game plagued by bugs, but offers a unique proposition: it’s an open-world game that you might actually be able to finish. It’s unlikely to be a GOTY contender, but Saints Row is a good opener for release season and often you’ll be having a blast.
- Good fun
- Beautiful setting
- Great characters
- Story feels too short
- Shooting feels fairly average
- Disappointing soundtrack