Saints Row hands-on: Could be the post-GTA 5 crime game you've been craving

Saints Row
(Image credit: Deep Silver)

My Saints Row hands-on has moments of bold brilliance and clear conflict. That shouldn't come as a surprise – after all, Volition's newest entry is attempting to reboot a franchise best known for a brand of silliness that's virtually extinct in contemporary games. The Saints Row reboot has no dildo bats or dubstep guns, and it features a new cast of young millennials/Gen Z-ers desperate to become crime lords without increasing their carbon footprint, but there's still a ton of fun to be had. 

The Saints Row reboot is updating its values while still refusing to take itself too seriously. Admittedly, this creates a few pain points, but not enough to make my hands-on time with Saints Row any less enjoyable. Saints Row seems like an excellent option for those of you desperate to do some open-world crime – for some it may be just a brash and bold holdover for GTA 6, but for others, it's a great way to jump into an iconic series that's looking to show off its brand-new facelift.

Boss games 

Saints Row

The Saints Row reboot offers absurd takedowns, cool car combat, and wingsuits (Image credit: Deep Silver)

Saints Row

(Image credit: Volition)

Want to know why Volition wanted to start from scratch with the new Saints Row? The studio tells us that a reboot was necessary to "keep moving forward with the times."

Volition unveiled Saints Row in 2021 and the team has spoken frequently about its intentions for this long-awaited reboot, but how does it play? Given that it's been almost a decade since the release of Saints Row 4 – a stretch of time that saw the introduction of two new hardware generations, as well as countless iterations to the look and feel of the open-world action genre –  it's difficult to know where the best point of comparison is. Perhaps GTA 5 is the most apt, given that it has continued to evolve over the decade, and remains Saints Row's biggest competition. 

For me, Volition's venture feels a helluva lot smoother. It's easy to jump in and out of moving cars, mantling up and over ledges feels relatively effortless, and combat has some fun variations that make for exciting firefights. Even the car combat feels new and interesting: you can sideswipe enemy vehicles, clamber out of a window and onto the roof to get a better shot, and yes, the cars handle brilliantly.

I'm especially fond of a move that lets you grab an enemy, shove a grenade down their pants, and throw them back towards their allies, and a melee maneuver that lets you kick a bad guy in their genitals and slap them in the face a few times after they fall to their knees. I came to enjoy the breezy, quick gunplay of Saints Row. It's not gonna rival today's top shooters – and it's not supposed to. This is an action game that at times plays similarly to modern superhero games like Marvel's Avengers or Spider-Man, with simple and solid gunplay complementing hand-to-hand combat and blockbuster finishing moves. 

There are some great quality of life features that make the experience more enjoyable when compared to something like GTA 5, like bright purple arrows hovering over the streets to lead you to marked points of interest, and an easy-to-read map with clear, bright icons. It's also super easy to cycle through music stations while toying around in whatever car you've just boosted, as a wheel lets you flip through the channels and preview what song is on each one. Speaking of, the music in Saints Row is absolutely stacked, offering beats from Rosalia, TLC, Busta Rhymes, and more. I was shocked to hear a song from Idles during my playthrough, and grinned with glee as I sideswiped cop cars to Joe Talbot's scratchy, angry vocals. 

Campaign management

Saints Row

Our Saints Row hands-on preview let us tool around in dune buggies, dirt bikes, street racers, and much more. (Image credit: Deep Silver)

Admittedly, for as much fun as I had tooling around in a section of the open world, the first structured story mission I was able to play did raise some concerns that all of the game's set pieces will feel the same way. You're chasing a bad guy through a town that looks like the set of a Disney Western, blowing up explosives to take out his henchmen and ultimately dangling from the jet he's trying to escape on. It's absurd and ridiculous, but spends a lot of time on rails and doesn't look all that great – some characters don't look fully rendered, and at times the animations and lighting feel more reminiscent of the last gen of consoles, rather than the current. I'm relieved when it's over and I can freely roam around Santo Ileso.

Thankfully, a later mission brings redemption, as you fight the neon-clad Idols on a dancefloor bathed in both warm and cool lighting (which at one point trippily swaps to a disorienting black-light-style scene). It looks good and feels better thanks to new abilities and weapons, and the freedom to roam about the battle space without being tethered to anything. I can easily bring up my weapon wheel to cycle through my options (during this mission I've got a pistol, an assault rifle, a shotgun, and a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire), which means I can fire off a few rounds to take down a special enemy's shields before running in and meleeing them to death. 

Saints Row

Santo Ileso is the new Saints Row sandbox, replacing Stilwater and Steelport from the prior games. (Image credit: Deep Silver)

And through XP gained from driving on the wrong side of the road, getting airtime with vehicles, and beating down baddies, I have a few extra moves I can trigger after filling a meter that make me a veritable monster on the battlefield. One is the aforementioned grenade-in-pants trick, while another temporarily boosts my health and makes me virtually impervious to enemy gunfire.

Since Volition gave us free rein for the first several hours of Saints Row gameplay with absolutely no direction, it isn't until my hands-on nears its end that I realize how much I've missed. In getting distracted by a handful of side missions, I've somehow managed to avoid obtaining the wingsuit, which lets you jump off of weather towers around Santo Ileso and glide around the city, dive-bombing innocent bystanders or landing on top of cars in order to hijack them. I've also barely made a dent in the campaign and was just starting my own criminal venture as we're ushered away from our desktops. Instead, I spent most of my time doing a variety of silly side missions that were as satisfying as they were entertaining, from hopping in an off-road vehicle to deliver very illegal packages to helping Jim Rob set up his car shop so I can trick out my ride.

New Saints, new problems 

Saints Row

You want to take Santo Ileso from three gangs: Los Panteros, the Idols, and Marshall military organization. (Image credit: Deep Silver)

Just like in the early Saints Row titles, you play a crime boss trying to establish ownership over a city by doing a lot of very illegal activities. But unlike other Saints Row titles, this reboot features a newer, younger cast with student loans, an affinity for karaoke, and a solid moral compass despite all the stealing and killing. It's a notable tonal shift, but one that Volition believes is still able to speak to the heart of a series that is on the cusp of celebrating its 16th anniversary. 

"Saints has always been a game about interpersonal relationships between the Boss and their lieutenants. But this is really a game about found family, and the friendships that are cultivated as the people build up this empire together," says UI artist Danielle Benthien. When I mention that I too have considered a life of crime to pay off my student debt, she agrees. "It's just like the millennial fantasy of your parents apologizing," she points out, laughing.

"Saints has always been a game about interpersonal relationships between the Boss and their lieutenants. But this is really a game about found family."

UI artist Danielle Benthien

You and your friends (who are also your roommates) have grown disillusioned working for the three core gangs of Santo Ileso – the new sandbox Saints Row takes place in, replacing Stilwater and Steelport from the prior games. There's the Los Panteros jocks, the rave-head Idols, and the private military corporation Marshall Defense Industries. You decide to cut ties and start your own illegal operation, with your customized character at the helm. You're free to customize your boss in a variety of wild and gender-non-conforming ways – "nothing is locked by gender," asserts Benthien – which results in me making an impossibly buff but femme gang leader who could crush your head like a grape, and look utterly fabulous while doing it.

The moment my gang argues over which car to boost based on its carbon footprint as KRS-One's 'Sound of Da Police' blasts through the speakers, it's crystal clear that this is a Saints Row for a new generation of identities, beliefs, and financial problems. "Self-expression has become so huge with people who are younger now," Benthien continues, "of course, they want games to let them be their most authentic self. Sometimes you can't do that in real life."

A cultural shift 

Saints Row

Saints Row is shifting its tone to better reflect the times, which means brunch jokes and student loans.  (Image credit: Deep Silver)

GTA 5 new

(Image credit: Rockstar)

While you wait for the new Saints Row to release, why not check out some of the best games like GTA that you can play right now

Even with a change in tone more reflective of how the culture has shifted during its near-ten-year hiatus, there are still traces of Saints Row's iconic and biting satire in this reboot. A side mission tasks you with leaving bad reviews at local businesses and then "surviving the outrage" as superfans rush to the business in question to beat the shit out of you. Another asks you to try to clean up an RV park by towing away what is ostensibly the Breaking Bad meth lab, then blowing it up off-site after using it as a battering ram just like that absurd Fast Five vault scene. And yes, there's still Insurance Fraud, which gives you the option to get repeatedly struck by cars to collect a hefty insurance check. 

At times, the juxtaposition of old Saints' ridiculousness and new Saints' appeal to the contemporary zeitgeist feel at odds with each other. There's a cringiness to the new core crew that wears off after a few hours of gameplay, but may be tough to shake for some players. One member has a tattoo sleeve that's breakfast-themed and he won't stop talking about brunch in a very heavy-handed "How do you do, fellow kids" kind of manner. The dialogue sometimes seems like it was written by a middle-aged person trying to appeal to Gen Z, but once I got past the opening mission, it did feel as if Saints Row (and its characters) started to warm up – making your crew feel less like archetypes and more like people. 

In a world where GTA 6 feels incredibly far away, Saint Row is poised to slot into a unique position as the only contemporary open-world crime game for current-gen consoles. And with a newer younger cast, it's easy to see how it can appeal to players who have never played a Saints game before. There is clearly a ton of play-time hours promised with this gigantic open world – hell, I missed some of the coolest content available in the hands-on because I got distracted by side missions. And with two-player drop-in/drop-out co-op set to be available at launch, the chance to explore with a friend tees up Saint Row to be the open-world crime game you've been looking for. 

Saints Row is one of the most anticipated new games of 2022, and it's set to launch on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, and Xbox on August 23.

Alyssa Mercante

Alyssa Mercante is an editor and features writer at GamesRadar based out of Brooklyn, NY. Prior to entering the industry, she got her Masters's degree in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Newcastle University with a dissertation focusing on contemporary indie games. She spends most of her time playing competitive shooters and in-depth RPGs and was recently on a PAX Panel about the best bars in video games. In her spare time Alyssa rescues cats, practices her Italian, and plays soccer.