Throw the word "reboot" into the great and varied social media corners and alleyways of a much-loved franchise, sit back, and gaze in wonderment as a thousand fans spawn a thousand comments, all containing the same few queries: what will be retained, what does it mean to carry the name forward, and will there be a return or reimagining of certain things? Saints Row, which presents developer Volition’s first new entry in the series since 2013’s Saints Row IV certainly retains the look, feel, and spirit of the franchise. Chaotic arcade action in an open-world sandbox that has as much Ancestry.com-style lineage with golden-era Looney Tunes as it does with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto.
But, it’s an unfinished mess.
As the fourth mainline Saints ended with the planet being destroyed and all of the action taking place inside a simulated city, the fresh slate here kind of feels like the only logical step the series could take. This means new characters and new Saints in a new fictional south-western American location called Santo Ileso. A pretty sizable locale that features a small downtown district, a mini Vegas strip, industrial areas, residential homes, and plenty of wide open desert and mountainous regions.
But it’s fairly empty, with few signs of life. Not to mention the general lack of cars, pedestrians, and traffic. And with only four factions to go up against, each comprising three or four unique enemy 'types', it all looks and feels very “last-gen”. Especially when one faction is the police, and another is your run-of-the-mill militarised security firm. Outside of the fresh faces and a few modern touches, it’s all quintessential Saints Row. And that’s a good thing. Because enough time has passed that something as over-the-top and ridiculous as Saints Row feels refreshing. And bad, because the structure is a static map-based icon checklist to work through without anything to differentiate it from the Saints of old outside of a change in location.
With only four factions to go up against, each comprising three or four unique enemy 'types', it all looks and feels very “last-gen”.
It all begins with the character creator, and the impressive Boss Factory of Saints Row 2022 lets you create anything from a standard athletic hero through to a sweaty comb-over creep that walks around in a jacket and jock-strap. No shirt, no pants. From there, in-game stores and hidden secrets let you customise golf pants and gimp suits with materials that look like an animated planetarium presentation or a piece of wood. But, as powerful and impressive as the customisation is, it’s also buggy. The Style app that lets you change your look freezes a lot, randomly adds to or removes items from your character for no reason, and ignores others. Considering it was released as a standalone app prior to the game’s launch, you’d assume this side of the experience would be smooth.
On the plus side, the carefree approach of the customisation underpins just about every aspect of this new Saints, from the narrative to the cartoonish violence, juvenile, and crude dialogue, broad parodies, and even the activities. Outside of the main story and other connected missions, creating a criminal empire is all about ventures; fronts, illegitimate companies, and other shady goings on for making money. Ventures open the door to side missions and activities, like fan-favourite modes Mayhem and Insurance Fraud. There’s running a food truck business, and working with a scientist experimenting with new weapons and gadgets too.
But, it’s a very mixed bag. Insurance Fraud, the classic mode that sees you run into traffic to ragdoll your way to a pay-day is not fun at all. The physics are all over the place, traffic barely shows up, and there’s no challenge or reward outside of hitting a certain dollar amount within a very generous time limit. The same goes for short-lived Mayhem missions. The flip side to this, some of the new mini-game missions simply rinse and repeat what you have to do without any changes or variation, in a way that feels bloated and boring.
Weirdly, some of the most fun we had with ventures came with the seemingly simple tow-truck missions that have you go out and tow something back to base. Instead of taking the tow truck, we took a helicopter armed with a tow cable and magnet to bypass the grind and treat Saint Ileso like a giant claw machine. Heading into a Pentaros hot spot, hovering, and then yoinking their fancy ride with them none the wiser was pretty funny.
In-game stores and hidden secrets let you customise golf pants and gimp suits with materials that look like an animated planetarium presentation or a piece of wood. But, as powerful and impressive as the customisation is, it’s also buggy.
When Saints Row allows you to play in its sandbox like this, it borders on capturing some of that Saints Row: The Third magic.
But these moments are few and far between, which is a shame. And locked behind side missions and ventures thanks to the idea of ‘what you can work towards’ mostly being a mystery. If you were to ignore the side stuff outside of the “complete x amount of ventures” required to progress the main story, the whole experience begins to feel stale and repetitive. The guns you get in the first few missions basically become the only guns you use, as all unlocks come from seemingly arbitrary missions and ventures. This includes vehicles too, so you really don’t have any indication of what’s to come.
Saints Row lacks weapon variety in general, to the point that one of the late-game discoveries - a football that attaches itself to enemies and vehicles and then takes off like a firework - almost single-handedly saves this side of the game from outright mediocrity. Because it’s fun and physics-driven, where just about everything else feels half-baked. The ability that lets you put a grenade in an enemy’s pocket and hurl them is cool, but it’s the same thing every time. Take-downs as a means to recover health becomes similarly uninteresting.
Car chases are designed entirely around the new sideswipe move. Which isn’t that great to begin with. The Notoriety system results in endless faction spawns sidling up to your ride, waiting for that sideswipe takedown. As soon as you do it the next enemy car immediately spawns behind you. So how do you get rid of Notoriety? Good question, and one the game fails to answer.
Yeah, the best way to describe the new Saints Row is to say that it’s all a little sloppy. Every part of it, including the main story. A mishmash of missions that attempts to tell a character and personality-driven tale about friendship in the style of a violent and crude cartoon, but falls short when the narrative juggles multiple gangs and villains without giving any of them enough screen time. Take the two street gangs in the game, the Los Panteros and Idols. You’ll know as much about who they are, their structure, and what they’re about at the 1-hour mark as you will at the 20-hour mark.
The physics too are so over-the-top as to be equally ridiculous and seemingly broken, though capable of providing moments of unintentional hilarity, especially in co-op.
The physics too are so over-the-top as to be equally ridiculous and seemingly broken, though capable of providing moments of unintentional hilarity, especially in co-op. Driving into any of the one thousand or so fire hydrants in Santo Ileso will send your car spinning and flying several metres into the air. Going over a curb can also trigger a flying car moment too. Hitting another car and the effect is like a pinball smashing into bumpers, it’s silly - and from what we can tell, intentional. But then, the very few traffic jams you do see almost always end up with exploding cars flying all over the place. It’s baffling.
Ultimately the new Saints Row is a disappointment, especially if you’re a fan of the series. The co-op mode, although highly problematic when trying to establish a game, was commendably solid once up and running, and fun for a while. The new location and characters don’t really land and the sloppy nature of just about every aspect gives the impression of yet another game released long before it was finished. And even though this might sound like a random aside, when a Saints Row game with multiple radio stations features only a handful of memorable or recognisable tracks - to the point where you don’t even notice driving around in silence - you know there are issues.