Saints Row Review
You don’t have to be an action game devotee to have heard of the Saints Row franchise. In terms of popularity, the games aren’t all that many rungs below GTA. In terms of notoriety and all-out, envelope-pushing, nose-thumbing raunchiness, Saints Row Saints Rowhas always edged out Rockstar’s series. But the times, they are a-changin’. Brandishing oversized sex toys as weapons and using crude as a starting point doesn’t cut it anymore. So, in the spirit of these more enlightened times, Volition has rebooted Saints Row. How does this new version of the Saints hold up against its hilarious but sometimes embarrassing predecessors?
The short answer: pretty damn good. The long answer, well, that’s a little more nuanced and populated by qualifiers.
Keepin’ It Real
Volition has stated that this reboot of the Saints is “more grounded in reality.” Instead of body-snatching aliens and presidents in clown makeup, your squad is a nerdy MBA named Eli; a shirtless brawler DJ named Kevin; Neenah, a LatinX wrencher and ace driver and you, the Boss, a one-time paramilitary soldier and weapons expert. Their backstories and problems are more down-to-earth and relatable, like paying off student debt or trying to make a success out of a new startup company. That venture is The Saints, your newly formed gang. The Saints are part social media brand, part real estate tycoons, and still largely an ambitious, criminal enterprise.
Saints Row’s newly-minted, realistic approach to characters and narrative doesn’t always do a great job of avoiding cliche or trying too hard to mirror the Me-Too, social media savvy, irony-fueled culture of its Gen Z protagonists. That realism can also feel like a mismatch with the game’s still-ridiculous action. Sure, Eli listens to motivational tapes and tracks the Saints’ corporate progress on a whiteboard. But bullet-sponge enemies still take repeated headshots to bring them down, your character glides around Santo Ileso in a wingsuit and drops grenades down the trousers of foes. Do the characters feel like real people in the real world? Nah, they feel like video game constructs, but they’re mostly likeable enough.
Makin’ It in the City
Forget Stilwater and Steelport from earlier Saints Row games. For the reboot, the Saints have moved house to a massive new city called Santo Ileso. It’s a cross between Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and a handful of other southwest landmarks. While it does have an upscale financial hub with towering skyscrapers, the nine districts of Santo Ileso make use of the wide open spaces of the western landscape. It might not boast the largest downtown of any open-world game, but overall, the map is immense and nearly always interesting to explore. Like the characters, Santo Ileso is a patchwork of reality and ideas copped from other games. Still, the open world of Saints Row is probably its standout feature.
Except in small doses, Santo Ileso is too big to navigate on foot, so as you complete main and side missions, you’ll have access to a huge variety of cars, boats, bikes, trucks, tanks, hovercraft, jet skis, helicopters, your wingsuit, and whatever you can steal. They all control pretty well, and the game does a good job of pointing you to the mission objectives. You don’t need to waste time hunting down the next stop along the mission’s route, and getting there is half the fun. The game rewards you for the most reckless driving imaginable. Cars restore themselves in your garage no matter how beat down they get.
Your crib can become a hoarder’s dream, and vehicles can be infinitely customized. Actually, the appearance of just about everything, from guns and rides to your character, can be changed up as new skins and options are unlocked. Saints Row has always had a pretty robust character creator, and this new one is definitely the most detailed. Unlike some games — are you listening, Cyberpunk 2077? — Saints Row blurs out the naughty bits, but aside from that, anything goes. It’s obsessively fun to keep swapping looks and voices, though of course the rest of the characters never acknowledge even your most outlandish appearance. Santo Ileso has tons of shops selling specialty clothes and weapons. There’s even a street stall selling Volition-branded merch.
Three factions control Santo Ileso. There’s a military-style security force called Marshall Defense Industries, the car-culture and fitness-obsessed Los Panteros, and the Idols, a raver, anarchist faction trying to “stick it to the Man” while co-opting social media and as many high-tech toys as possible. The Saints’ connections to, and conflicts with, all the factions as they rise to power form the heart of the campaign. As the Boss, you and your fellow Saints’ goal is to take over Santo Ileso. You play one faction against another, but mostly, you wage war against them all.
Broad strokes, most of the campaign’s multi-part missions end with protracted firefights. They often include a driving sequence with some smaller battles along the way. You’ll fight a lot of the same enemies types from each faction, but at least the different gangs have unique approaches and weapons. Either the Saints have poor conflict resolution skills or the developers lack imagination, because the main missions get pretty repetitive.
In part, this comes from the scripted, puzzle-like nature of the shootouts. Aside from weapon selection, there are few ways to be creative. You just shoot until everyone is dead, playing by whatever rules the mission is built on. Having more freedom to approach each firefight the way you see fit would definitely reduce the fatigue factor. It would also help if your fellow faction members actually contributed. Most of the time, they don’t do much.
A Game for the Easily Distracted
Unlike some open-world games, Saints Row’s main campaign isn’t really optional, at least for several hours in. The campaign opens up the world, adds useful apps to your phone, and lays the foundation for exploring Santo Ileso. Aside from the campaign, Saints Row is absolutely committed to making sure you’re never without something to do. There are dozens of hours of bite-sized content aimed at short attention spans. You can do quick challenges for cash, XP and gear. You can hunt for wanted criminals in various districts. The meatiest side missions involve clearing out enemy gangs and establishing legit-looking fronts for criminal enterprises. Do enough of these and you claim new districts for the Saints. If nothing else, you can ride around Santo Ileso looking for treasure and trouble. In terms of its open-world design, Saints Row feels pretty old school. The map is dense with icons.
Unfortunately, sometimes that trouble can come in the form of serious technical issues. All open worlds have jank, and the Saints Row franchise is legendary for it. There’s the usual stuff like weird visual anomalies, clipping and cameras that get in the way. More problematic are bugs like mission checkpoints that don’t reload but instead crash the game. Or characters that get stuck in an animation that stalls a mission, and requires a restart. There were three or four story missions I had to replay multiple times due to bugs and crashes. There were also some significant framerate slowdowns in multi-vehicle sequences.
One of the Districts is Uncanny Valley
Graphics aren’t everything. It’s a good thing, too, because Saints Row is all over the map. Santo Ileso looks great, with an effective day/night cycle and impressive lighting effects. Character models look pretty far behind the curve, sometimes shockingly so for a triple-A game in 2022. I got tired of seeing my character’s beard float a couple of inches away from his face, so I switched it to a more manageable soul patch. Sure, he looked kind of like an insufferable hipster, but at least it connected to his chin. That said, the PC version has an admirable number of graphics, sound, control and accessibility options to play with. My personal suggestion: turn enemy damage way down. Even in the middle range, they’re annoying bullet sponges that take way too long to kill.
Voice acting is well done, with an amazing number of choices and scripted lines. The writing itself is pretty low-key, especially compared to previous games. As always, Saints Row is full of pointed commentary on current culture. This time, the target for a lot of satire is social media.
The various radio stations have a good variety of licensed tracks in a range of genres, which can be turned off for streamers and YouTubers. Overall, the sound design is detailed and effective.
Ride with the Saints or Stay Home?
Saints Row is an ambitious reboot of a popular franchise. Its open world is expansive and entertaining to explore. There is always something to keep you occupied, most of it served up in bite-sized missions that are fun to check off. The game rewards you for almost everything, so your time is never wasted. Unfortunately, the main campaign is a little less successful, often falling back on repetitive action, gunplay and set pieces that go on too long. Despite some tech issues and inconsistent mission design, this kinder, gentler incarnation of Saints Row is probably a step in the right direction.
***PC code provided by the publisher for review***
- Imaginative open world
- Tons of content and things to do
- Detailed customization of everything
- Well acted
- Enjoyable action
- Bugs, some serious and game-stopping
- Repetitive main campaign
- Dated character models