Saints Row Review: "A Welcome Refresh, Mired By Technical Issues"
As I remember it, there was a time when you couldn't move an inch in a game store without encountering dozens of attempts to recapture the magic of Grand Theft Auto. That was the golden goose of game design, to follow in Rockstar's footsteps. Here in 2022, we are nine years removed from the release of GTA5, the next game in the series is still a few years out, and there really hasn't been much to fill that gap unless you like your open-world crime capers to be Wild West themed.
One could say there has never been a better time for another open-world crime series to fill that void, and who better than the one game in the genre that ever came close to Rockstar's level? Saints Row is back, with a brand new game and a statement made; this is no sequel. So we are here to answer the question, is this an all-new Saints Row for a new generation, or simply a quick and fresh coat of paint?
There has been some understandable confusion as to where this game stands in the series. Saints Row is by no means the first franchise to release a new entry with a paired back title, devoid of any numbers or subtitles. For clarity, this is a reboot. In the original series, you played as a character who joins the Third Street Saints gang, works their way up to be the boss and leads the gang to new heights, which include national franchising, energy drink brands and becoming President of the United States.
In this new Saints Row, you are once again the Boss. At the offset, the Boss lives in a vaguely American Southwestern city called Santo Ileso, and with their three friends is struggling to make ends meet. The Boss has a particular skill for murder, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, decides to start a new criminal organisation with their friends. Over the course of the game, you will build the Saints up into the biggest gang in the city, much like the Boss of the previous games.
Considering the fame and success of the Saints in the original games, it seems incredibly unlikely that this game is a canonical sequel, unless Santo Ileso exists in a pocket dimension where the Saints were not the biggest brand in the world, did not take over the government and also, and this one is fairly significant, the world didn't blow up as it did in Saints Row 4.
Nostalgia Vs Innovation
So this is a different game, a different story, and a different universe. Many things have changed, but this is still Saints Row, and many things have also stayed the same. In fact, some aspects of this game are a little too familiar. Both combat and driving feel very much like how I remember in the previous Saints Row games, which admittedly I haven't played since they came out. In some ways, this new Saints Row often feels like a game from 2012.
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, no. Yes, innovation is something we like to see but the wheel needn't be reinvented at every opportunity. It took a bit of getting used to, but I got into the swing of things with driving and combat in this game. It felt like the game was digging into my past, and forcing me to bring back long-forgotten muscle memory, but it worked.
I won't say I wasn't a little disappointed when it became glaringly clear to me that this game had not really modernised these aspects of the series, initially it felt like the game was taking a step backwards. However, with some time spent in the game, I feel differently. The gunplay feels a bit outdated, the driving even more so, but they are functional parts of the game that bring me straight back to Saints Row The Third and frankly better times. In this way, Saints Row pays homage to the originals and I cannot really fault it for that. If you came to play Saints Row, then they are giving you Saints Row.
That is not to say the game is completely lacking in new features and ideas in these areas. This new Saints Row has multiple enemy types that each require a different approach. As well as your standard grunts shooting guns at you or running at you with melee weapons, you get different tiers of enemies with different abilities based on their faction.
Idols bring unique weaponry like grenades that disorient you and enemies who swing roped batons so quickly it becomes a shield you cannot shoot through. The Panteros have some absolute brutes who charge you down and can take massive damage. Marshall has some seriously advanced military tech, with some units that can trap you in place or create holographic clones of themselves.
There are many more enemy types, which keeps the pace of fights quick and interesting. You will be constantly swapping weapons as the situation changes, snapping on your aim for quick headshots, charging up and performing your melee finisher to restore your health. Combat is fast and frenetic in Saints Row. Getting over the slightly antiquated feel opens up some of the most fun and engaging combat that the series, maybe even the genre has ever had.
A Modern Take On Mass Mayhem
While the gameplay may feel like the past, the writing feels very present. One of the cues that the Saints Row series borrowed from Grand Theft Auto is the irreverent tone, and a satirical take on modern life. While the previous games ascended to some fairly ludicrous heights, the new Saints Row brings things back down to a more relatable level. Four young people live together in a small, run-down apartment. Despite having decent, well-paying jobs, they still need to grind hard to make ends meet. Now, in this version of events, decent jobs mean working for massive criminal organisations, and grinding hard means robbing payday loans places to pay the rent.
The gig economy has democratised the murder business, and everyone is unhappy. Wanted is the big new app, like Uber but for hiring assassins. Now, anyone who needs some extra cash can pick up some work murdering people as requested by others through the app. This is the late-stage capitalist world of Saints Row, where the over-the-top violence of the series meets the socio-economic struggles of people today. The echoes of Professor Genki can still be heard, but there isn't a dildo bat in sight.
This is quite the contrast to Rockstar's approach of lampooning everyone, this Saints Row has a bit more to say about the world it is satirising. If you are concerned that Saints Row will continue the tradition of these kinds of games, sneering at the world and popular culture without actually saying anything about it, then you do not need to worry. Saints Row sees the way of the world today and has zero issues with pointing out how dumb it is.
Three Good Friends Are Better Than Any Gang
At the core of all of this is the Boss, your player character, and their three friends. You have Neenah, a brilliant mechanic and driver who starts the game as part of the Panteros gang. Then there is Kev, your shirt-averse roommate who has many talents, including cooking and music, and who has friends among the Idols gang. Then there is Eli, who is not much of a fighter, but he has all the bright ideas and business acumen that will take the Saints from a lowly gang to a proper money-making empire.
Saints Row is not Saints Row without an eclectic cast of characters surrounding the Boss. While this has always been a strong part of the series, it may just be strongest here. The group dynamic among the four main characters is really strong and very believable. This is a truly represented group of friends. They live together, they laugh together, and they struggle together. They are a very likeable bunch, and their dynamics add a lot of fun to the story. They are all very well written and acted, you want to spend time with them and ultimately, that is all you can ask of companion characters in a video game.
This quality of writing and acting extends even to the Boss themself. Your player character is yours to customise and control, the only choices that aren't yours are their personality and dialogue choices. That is not a criticism, as this game is not an RPG. The fact that those are the only aspects you do not control is a strength of the game, you have to play as the Boss but the Boss can be whoever you want them to be.
What's more, the writing works to establish how the Boss becomes the Boss. In the early goings, when the Boss is still working for Marshall, they show signs of leadership and the ability to take charge. What's more, it is shown many times that mass murder is a specific talent that the Boss exhibits. The traits that make you the Boss are written into the story and the game's fabric.
It's All About Aesthetics
You can fully customise your Boss, as well as just about everything else in the game. Saints Row has been famed for its customisation options for many games, it quickly became a pillar of the series. Customisation in the new Saints Row feels truly without limits. The options are vast, and the game does not step in to tell you what you can and cannot be. Particularly nice to note is the inclusion of a wide variety of prosthetic limbs, and the ability to alter physical features regardless of body type.
This level of customisation extends to weapons and vehicles. All weapons can be customised with different paint jobs and colour schemes. Any vehicle you see can be yours if you simply liberate it from its current owner and return it to one of your garages. From there, provided you have completed the mission helping JR to get his shop started, you can fully customise any vehicle to your liking. There are dozens of cosmetic features to change and apply, as well as performance upgrades and even a functional tow cable which you can use to pull around other cars and heavy objects like a wrecking ball behind your wheels.
There is an openness and lack of contrivance to customisation in Saints Row which is really refreshing. Realism is not a factor here, if you want to pull out your phone in the middle of the street and use it to change every physical feature and clothing item of your character, that is your prerogative.
Overall, my impressions of the new Saints Row have been very positive. There have been some hiccups along the way, I really wasn't sure about the combat and driving at first, but they clicked with me before too long. Those things never turned me away because the writing and plot kept me interested.
The setting of Santo Ileso is gorgeous to look at and so much fun to explore. The city is a fairly perfect mix of sizeable, yet not so vast as to make exploration a chore. The long list of available music tracks that the series is known for is back, with some absolute bangers. From metalheads to hip-hop fans, rock and pop to synth-wave, there are tunes here to keep everyone happy.
So, let us finally discuss the part I have been putting off, and for good reason. At the time of writing, this game has bugs. Now, almost all games launch with bugs, this is nothing new. Many of the bugs I have experienced have been minor, my character's beard often does unusual things during cutscenes and occasionally, I spawn into the game naked. To pull back the curtain a bit, there has been an update to the game since I started playing it, and since the update, the game is definitely running a lot smoother. I have been holding off on writing much of this review in the hope that the game will work much better closer to launch. That said, there are still many issues. For example, a bug that has completely prevented me from finishing the game...
Unfortunately, and there are no spoilers here I promise, one of the missions on the critical path of the game crashes the game for me every time I play it. This crash has happened four times, and always in the same spot. I cannot exactly compare notes with other players, as at the time of writing the game is not out yet. Now, most games launch with patches on day one and I don't imagine this game will be any different on that front. There very well may be a patch that fixes the issue I have been experiencing, but I cannot wait for that to happen. The game is coming out and I cannot write a review that says "it'll probably be fine".
This is the thing that makes reviewing video games particularly difficult. The product I am reviewing may be vastly different from the one you purchase. From my perspective, you are reading this review in the future, because that's how time works. When you read this, the issues I have with Saints Row could be gone, amended by one or a series of updates. That could be on the day of release, a week later, or a month later. Maybe never.
Regardless, I have an obligation to review the product as it is now. I can only review the game in front of me and currently, that game is fundamentally broken. Not Cyberpunk levels of broken, but enough to say I cannot recommend buying it until these issues are fixed. I can see an excellent game beneath the issues that hamper it, and I am genuinely excited to experience it when these issues are put right.
Even as it is, I have a lot of love for this new reboot of Saints Row, and I have high hopes they will put it right. When they do, I hope to come back and amend this review and make it a glowing one. Until then, I have to caution you to hold off on spending your money, but hopefully not for too long.
(score based on the amount of game playable, likely to go up when the game is patched.)
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.