Saints Row gets a raucous reboot, but the series’ sandbox silliness has lost a lot of charm and personality along the way…
Less than an hour into Saints Row, the new boss is looking suitably ridiculous. After visiting a few clothes stalls in downtown Santo Ileso, she sports offset pink pigtails, shades, and cowboy boots with elongated toes that curl up like giant bananas. A little later, she’ll be machine-gunning gangsters while dressed as a smiling ice cream cone, before switching to a violet business suit and a hot dog hat. None of which feels unusual in this franchise, of course; it’s more like a rite of re-initiation. Yet perhaps these outfits have more symbolic significance this time around – like them, Saints Row can be entertainingly silly, but also rashly assembled and barely coherent.
One thing’s for sure, more is definitely more here. The finest missions are those that escalate absurdly, and the more vehicles in a car chase, the more cathartic the explosions and pile-ups. Indeed, many of Saints Row’s unscripted highs arrive when you’re inside a vehicle.
The systems are set up to enable maximum mayhem, giving any car, truck, buggy, or jet ski you commandeer a robust health bar, in contrast to your all-too-combustible foes. A punchy sideswipe move is perfect for barging them into concrete pillars, or if you’re the passenger, you might climb onto the roof and direct traffic with an automatic rifle or rocket launcher. There’s also a decent range of scenery around the city, full of ramps and shortcuts to help you improvise greater destruction.
These thrills do, however, suffer from repetition, and once the novelty subsides, few missions manage to pick up the slack. Much of Saints Row plays out as a stubbornly old-fashioned GTA-like, ushering you to drive from A to B then gun down hordes of rival gangs or law enforcers. And shooting, unfortunately, is far less enjoyable than driving, thanks to twitchy controls, bland weapons, and enemies that simply swarm around, slowly draining your health until you’ve erased all of theirs.
Sequences that successfully mix things up, such as a chaotic prison escape boosted by Onyx’s hip-hop anthem, Slam, don’t come round regularly enough, so it’s left to the narrative context of your efforts, rather than the actual content, to create any impression. The prime example here is a branch of the story focused on LARPing, where you wield fake weapons to invade rickety forts made by rival teams. The cardboard costumes and faux-medieval banter don’t change the fact that you’re still merely shooting plagues of idiots.
In such moments, Saints Row could be a parody of its own shallowness, as if pointing to the void of imagination and identity under its shell of superficial amusement. Indeed, it’s never clear how this reboot wants you to relate to it. The decision to swap out the original series’ gangbangers with university grads turning to criminal enterprise to escape the gig economy could have felt relevant, but the characters in your crew are too flat to provide the texture. Convictions and meaningful biographies are replaced by personality quirks and quick-fire banter, and sadly the script is largely a dud – a catalogue of jokey references to millennial culture that feel targeted rather than heartfelt. The boss, meanwhile, is no more than a happy-go-lucky psychopath, and that’s never explained either.
The most interesting observation Saints Row nearly makes is about the pressure young people feel nowadays to monetise everything they do, turning hobbies and social activities into side hustles or business opportunities. Once you start building your criminal empire, instead of frittering away cash on outlandish footwear, you have to invest in new ‘ventures’ such as the returning Insurance Fraud, prototype weapon tests, or toxic waste delivery. The problem here, however, is that none of these are especially enjoyable in themselves – even Insurance Fraud is a bland shadow of its former self – and that the game’s joys rely on unfettered power fantasy, not tying you into an economic grind.
Nor does it help that even a few post-release patches down the line, Saints Row is bothered by invasive glitches and game-stopping bugs. You may get stuck in the clothing menu, for instance, while some of the game’s ‘challenges’, which reward you for completing various milestones (head-shotting 30 enemies, say), may simply not register as you play. You can add to that numerous occasions when execution animations detach from their targets, or cars boost into the air inexplicably, or mission objectives fail to appear, which can only be forgiven in the context of knockabout fun so many times.
Through the sheer weight of stuff to do that unlocks as you advance, Saints Row does sustain a kind of baseline hum of fun. The boss is acceptable as a sweary slapstick cartoon character, and the city is a welcome host to her reckless violence if you keep hopping between activities before they get cold. Yet it’s hard to get excited in 2022 about a game that too often merely heaves itself over such a low bar of achievement. At best, the fun it offers is the same stuff you had 20 years ago outrunning wanted ratings in GTA III. At worst, this is a blundering and unsexy reboot that hardly justifies its existence. No matter how big the comedy cowboy boots, there’s only so much that wackiness can substitute for inspired design.
Your ability to ride on the roofs of vehicles is one of Saints Row’s few inspired features, especially when combined with a wingsuit. Hop atop a passing car and it will gather speed until you can boost off and glide away, then land on another car to repeat the trick, traversing the city in style.