IT’S been nearly a decade since the last Saints Row game, and fans of the series will be very pleased to know that once again they can don fleur-de-lys emblazoned purple clothes and make things explode in the newest series entry.
Saints Row, developed by Volition and published by THQ Nordic for PC, Xbox, and PlayStation (reviewed on PC) is a reboot of the series with less emphasis on complete anarchic lewd-joke insanity and more on being an irreverent open world crime game with some nods to its predecessors and somewhat more of a Gen Z worldview.
This will probably come as a surprise to a lot of people, but despite loving Saints Row III and Saints Row IV, I totally understand why the reboot needed to go in a different direction and I think it’s the right call.
In many respects, the previous two titles (particularly Saints Row III) were the Blazing Saddles of video games in that while beloved classics, you simply couldn’t make them today.
The broad story for the reboot is that you are one of a group of four friends – Kev the party dude/chef, Neenah the car enthusiast, and Eli the accountant – living in the city of Santo Ileso, which is located in the US Southwest. Three of you work for different groups in the city (you are a military contractor, Neenah is part of a gang with a thing for cars, Kev hangs around with a party collective) and decide that the only way to get ahead is to create a criminal empire startup and become big-time players in the local crime scene.
This, of course, involves lots of car chases, gunfire, explosions, and amusing banter.
If you’ve played Saints Row III or Saints Row IV then you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into here mechanically – an open-world third-person view sandbox with a range of activities involving driving, shooting, wingsuiting or ragdolling around the map, with bonus points for making things explode.
All the character and vehicle customisation options you’d expect and more are here; you really can get extremely specific in how you make and style your character – and you can change their appearance, voice, etc at any time in-game too.
Volition have done an excellent job of rebooting Saints Row for a newer, more easily offended generation, keeping the core irreverent humour and chaotic gameplay from the earlier titles intact, providing a good story with interesting characters and writing, but scaling the hypersexuality and shock value right back.
I really liked the side-stories and variety, particularly the ones involving the Dustmoot – a city-wide LARP best described as a cross between Mad Max and Game of Thrones.
Some of these missions have you doing things like raiding an enemy castle armed with a Nerf gun to capture vital supplies of cardboard and duct tape, so you can build your own even bigger castle.
The designers have done an amazing job creating Santo Ileso – it feels like a real place (and one I’d want to visit IRL if it existed), and is up there with Los Santos from GTA V in terms of being a memorable yet believable setting. One of the optional side missions is to photograph various attractions, features and public art around the location and tracking everything down is a lot of fun – not to mention nice to look at.
The main focus of the game is defeating the other gangs in the city, but also present are the idea of Criminal Enterprises – dodgy businesses you can set up to create money, such as the Totally Legitimate Laundry Service (crime scene cleaners; their missions require you to dispose of cars with evidence in some entertaining ways), Wuzyerz Repo (repossessing vehicles) and JimBob’s Garage (an automotive chop shop). These all earn money for you, and provide missions which can unlock new vehicles, clothes, and so on.
Combat in the game is about what you’d expect, but has the inclusion of a “Flow meter” that fills up as you fight/kill enemies. When it’s full, you pull off a finishing move – perhaps a wresting attack, or simply shooting someone in the head – and insta-kill them, restoring a bar of your health in the process.
At close range, the game looks great, but from a visual perspective it doesn’t take long before the wheels start to get wobbly and fall off, at least based on my experiences reviewing the game on a PC (running a RTX 3070 and 10th Gen Intel i9-10900H processor). Asset pop-in (particularly when flying aircraft), enemies appearing out of thin air, camera glitches, and enemies not reacting or attacking were all issues I experienced to various degrees even after a late-review period patch came through.
I’m pretty forgiving of this sort of stuff usually, but given the base engine just appears to be an upgrade of the one which was running the earlier games, it’s really not OK for a AAA new release game from an established and popular franchise to have this sort of stuff happening.
Tonally the game is a bit inconsistent, too. Mostly it’s a “not taking itself seriously” crime caper – and it does that really well – but there are times where it decides it wants to get serious (such as when one character has their car stolen, and there’s a heart-wrenching backstory to it) and those elements just didn’t quite land for me.
I have to say I didn’t love the radio station music this time around either, with one exception. There’s a broad selection of music here, including Latin pop, hip-hop, country, and classical, but no general pop/contemporary, electronic dance, or retro/classic hits, which was a disappointing oversight. Fortunately, there’s a synthwave station (and I do love synthwave), but it still would have been nice to have “music I’d actually heard of before” in the mix alongside everything too.
The main campaign path is really short for a game of this type – about 25 hours or so – and while there are a tonne of side-missions and things to do separate to that, the way the main campaign is structured means the story comes screeching to a halt right as it feels like it’s taking off. There’s several areas of the map you’ll never visit as part of the story, and while there’s still plenty to do after the story ends, the lack of a driving narrative took a lot of the impetus to really get out into those areas away for me.
I just couldn’t shake the feeling there was a lot missing from the game, given how much of the world map just doesn’t seem to be used at present.
There is a co-op option as well, letting you play with a friend as you work through missions, sidequests, or just cause havoc. Character progression carries over too, meaning you can level up while completing missions together.
There are some neat nods to the earlier games – mostly in the form of returning brands (such as the gun shop Friendly Fire), acknowledgement that the city of Stilwater (where the first two games were set) exists in this world, and even (if you look for it) appearances by Professor Genki, the unhinged homicidal cat character from Saints Row III and Saints Row IV.
I find myself ambivalent about Saints Row – it’s a well done and necessary reboot with a great setting, fun mechanics, and good writing, but the story was just not paced well and there were the graphical and AI glitches that held the experience back to me.
Overall though, I’ve had a lot of fun with the game, and that’s what games are about, right? Having fun – and Saints Row certainly lets, nay, encourages you do that.
If you head into this expecting Saints Row III: Breaking Bad Edition, you’re not going to have a great time, but if you appreciate it for what it is – a reboot of a solid franchise, albeit one with some flaws that really need ironing out before you put down your cash – then there’s an interesting and vibrant world to explore and cause chaos in Saints Row.