Commentary: The series makes a mediocre return.
Saints Row always lived in the shadow of the mighty Grand Theft Auto, and the 2022 reboot of the franchise won’t help the open-world crime game escape that image. This entry, which hit PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC on Aug. 23, tries to give the Saints a new lease on life, but it just falls flat on its face.
The new characters, settings and other changes don’t have the effect developer Volition might’ve been hoping for. Instead, we’re given an unremarkable experience with plenty of glitches thrown on top.
Saints Row takes place in Santo Ileso, a fictional city loosely based on Las Vegas. Players start on the desolated outskirts of the city and step into the role of “The Boss,” the leader of a group of friends who have ties to the city’s other criminal organizations. They quit those groups and form the Saints.
Like in previous games, players have to build their own criminal empire, starting with tasks like dealing drugs from food trucks, stealing cars and disposing of toxic waste. As the game progresses, The Boss and his crew take the fight to the other criminal orgs, including the Los Panteros street gang, the Idols — who answer the question, What if Burning Man started its own mafia? — and private military corporation Marshall Defense Industries.
Sound exciting? Well, it’s not.
The Boss and his crew — Eli, the nerd who wants to make money; Neenah, the getaway driver; and Kevin, who DJs while never wearing a shirt — come off as homicidal social media influencers. That’s been the tone of the franchise’s characters since 2011’s Saints Row 3, and it feels played out now. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when the characters constantly portrayed themselves as amazing killers who need to let their social media followers know they’re about to gun down a gang of criminals. It didn’t take long for me to stop caring about the characters, even during missions clearly designed to make them more compelling, like Neenah’s quests revolving around a car she’s been restoring.
A wingsuit gives you a way to quickly travel around Santo Ileso. Volition/Deep Silver
As for the gameplay and storyline, Saints Row is about as average as it gets. Missions have the sense of wackiness the series is known for, like destroying a rave campground with a car that’s dragging around a portable toilet with a person inside. Unfortunately, none of this feels new — it just reminds me of back in the ’00s when every game company was trying to make its own GTA clone with shooting and driving mechanics in an open world. What I wanted was something interesting and refreshing, and I couldn’t find a lot of that with this reboot.
I will say that the unlockable skills were the element that did feel “new.” The Boss levels up and gains violent special moves, from shoving a grenade into an enemy’s pants and then flinging them into a group of enemies, to throwing a flaming punch that does significant damage. These skills add a bit of spice to the otherwise bland gun-toting action.
Stop killing my flow
What really ruined my experience were the interruptions to the game’s flow.
I played the game on my Xbox Series X, which is designed to have little to no loading times with its SSD drive, and there were still loading screens right in the middle of missions. They occurred at pivotal moments, like a Boss enemy showing up or going from a shooting sequence to a driving segment. It was jarring and took me out of the excitement. It may seem like not a big deal, but when this happens multiple times in one mission, it becomes increasingly frustrating.
The game’s physics contributed to the problem as well. During chases in a mission, I like to give enemy vehicles a nudge into oncoming traffic to create a fantastic crash. Instead, cars just rammed through other cars without a hint of resistance. I tested this lack of physics with a motorcycle and was able to push vehicles out of the way as if they were cardboard left in the street.
Takedowns — unique combat moves to knock out enemies in an elaborate and humorous fashion — also made the game grind to a halt. When executed, The Boss goes through this several-second routine while enemies just stand and watch. Enemies, in general, will simply stand around on occasion as their AI seemingly doesn’t kick in to get them to start fighting.
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Audio was another flow killer. The banter between the characters can sound normal at times, but at other moments in a mission, I could barely hear my companion even though The Boss’ voice was loud and clear. Some missions also attempt a needle drop, where a certain song gets turned up to create this exciting moment, like in one instance where I was doing a prison break when the Vines’ Get Free began playing. Thing is, for whatever reason, the track can cut completely during these moments, leaving me to finish the mission without any background music.
There was also a wealth of glitches in the review build provided by Volition: Character animations regularly went out of sync, cars would literally bounce like a beach ball, my character would take random damage from exiting a vehicle, apps on the phone that acts as an in-game menu froze or refused to pull up. And that’s just naming a few. The game crashed multiple times during play, for various reasons. Volition does have a Day 1 patch ready to go to fix many problems, but it’s hard to say if it’ll address everything.
As for how Saints Row looks? Also mediocre. Character models had no particularly unique or realistic details and reminded me of Fortnite characters. Saint Ileso didn’t strike me as some visual spectacle, even though it’s based on Las Vegas. The starting area is particularly desolate, but the parts of the city where the casinos are located don’t offer much eye candy either. GTA 5, a game that’s almost a decade old, had a much bigger world, with more interesting destinations and better fidelity.
Saints Row simply doesn’t do enough to set itself apart in an era when the genre is already tired. I could deal with just mediocre action, boring characters or subpar audio and visuals — but not all three. Maybe die-hard Saints Row fans will find enough to chew on, but most players will likely give up in frustration long before they become the new crime boss of Santo Ileso.