Platforms: Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PS5, PS4, PC
After seeing its eponymous street-gang-done-good video game franchise conquering space and overthrowing hell, there was no real way that Saints Row could go bigger for the next game in the series. Instead, developer Volition has gone the other route, beloved of mega-franchises the world over: a ground-up reboot, returning the series to its _Grand Theft Auto-_esque roots and offering players a massive open-world city in which to establish a brand new criminal empire.
That city is the best thing about the reimagined Saints Row. Santo Ileso, dropped into a fictionalised corner of the American southwest, is an expansive sprawl of dustbowl weird-west; a snapshot of urban decline and rural desperation, already dominated by a trio of gangs and shady businesses before the Saints come along. Its design perfectly captures the air of desert madness and bootleg chintz of the real-world Las Vegas and its surroundings, mixing tourist traps out in parched desert locales with gratuitous capitalistic excess in its richer districts. Exploration is a real joy, and Volition have done a great job in populating its world with interesting curiosities even in the heart of the desert.
The reboot also retains the anarchic sense of humour of its predecessors, with its core quartet of new Saints – perpetually shirtless DJ Kev, motor goddess Neenah, aspiring businessman Eli, and your playable, highly customisable Boss character – rising through the ranks of Santo Ileso’s underworld with glib asides aplenty. Dialogue veers from snappy to corny, but rarely fails to raise a smile, while story missions and side quests often throw surprisingly satirical punches at consumerist society.
Thus ends the praise. Location and humour aside, Saints Row is not good. It is, often, actively bad.
While there’s a phenomenal amount of customisation available for your Boss, it’s all surface level. Actual character building is pathetically basic – gain a level, earn a specific skill. There’s no choice in which skills to unlock or when, or how to grow and develop your character, with only minor modification available in terms of which perks and skills you have active. Coupled with weightless shooting, a repetitive weapons cache, and a bizarre melee system that only allows HP-restoring physical takedowns on a timer, wracking up the kills in Saints Row feels – whisper it – boring.
Saints Row’s setting and humour is undone by how unforgivably buggy the game is.
As an open world game, its approach is also dated, offering a series of runabout tasks all laid out on a map for players to go to and check off. It’s the same progression format as a LEGO game, albeit without any of the charm. Saints Row is so rote that it actively undermines its own impressive setting – unless you force yourself to stop and take in the splendour and detail of Santo Ileso, you’ll fall into a habit of just following markers to tasks, opening the map, selecting the next one, and repeating. Even if you do stop, you’ll be treated to a cacophony of background characters repeatedly, endlessly, annoyingly commenting on how great your fashion is, since Volition is apparently extremely pleased with its customisation suite and refuses to stop pointing it out.
Some of the checklist tasks are more entertaining than others, at least. Insurance Fraud objectives see you flinging yourself into traffic, rag-dolling around the map causing collision after collision to rack up money for one of the many illicit businesses the Saints set up. It’s chaotic, explosive, and stupid in the best way. However, others are the worst form of busywork, such as hunting down trucks full of toxic waste and delivering them to a dodgy processing plant that’s actually just dumping the waste (repeat: Santo Ileso is fictional, and not present day Britain). Drive too fast, or have too many crashes, and the waste barrels explode, so you’ll just be driving slowly from one side of the map to the other at a snail’s pace. There are a dozen of these waste missions to check off and they are not, by any definition, “fun”.
Saints Row also suffers from abysmal saving, auto-saving, and checkpointing systems. The latter is so bad that if you fail an early section of a core story mission, you’ll have to sit through all the dialogue and cutscene material that preceded it, rather than just dropping you back before the action. Die out of mission, while exploring the open world or a side quest? Enjoy being dropped at the last fast travel location you visited, probably the other side of the map from where you were. Want to create a manual save? Fine – but expect to be back at the Saint’s home base when you restart the game, rather than anything sensible like, y’know, where you actually were when you saved. As with its approach to an open world structure, Saints Row’s saving and checkpointing feels like a relic from the bad old days, and far from what players have come to expect in 2022.
Worse still, what potential there is in Saints Row’s setting and humour is undone by how unforgivably buggy the game is. One of the early story missions involves having to jump onto a moving train to disarm a gun turret. It’s a hi-octane action moment, let down considerably by all the controls bar character movement, deciding not to work once the train had been boarded. On our playthrough, the glitch repeated when retrying the mission several times – only fully closing and restarting the game allowed progression. Sadly, it wasn’t a one-off. Several missions were cut off mid-flow by similar problems, requiring a full restart of the game to continue.
That’s not all – the game’s fast travel system is unlocked by taking photos of key landmarks, but sometimes the camera tool won’t register them. Once you have unlocked them, you can’t use fast travel in a mission, requiring you to either drive to wherever you’re being pointed or abandon mission, fast travel nearby, and then start the mission again just to save time. Objects may randomly float out of place in cutscenes, making it impossible to see important details. When the game first introduced its playlist app, which allows players to customise favourite music tracks from the game’s otherwise impressive selection of radio stations, it wouldn’t open at all, instead crashing the in-game smartphone that serves as Saints Row’s menu.
Not enough? Sometimes, the game just seems to get bored of your silly human expectations of continuing to perform functions it had been doing just fine. Shortcuts such as tapping up on the D-pad to instantly go into camera mode will suddenly stop working. Mission requirements for side-objectives may get randomly mixed up – for instance, telling players to destroy police surveillance vans when you’re actually trying to find local history landmarks for a world-building social quest. Sometimes, it even stops telling you what rewards have been earned for completing objectives, leaving you to wonder if the game’s even registered them as completed.
Saints Row is, in short, a complete mess. While future patches might make it marginally more playable in future, for a series about building a criminal empire, the biggest crime is that this has made it to release in as broken a state as it is.