Before playing the Saints Row reboot I asked myself: what does an open-world crime game look like in 2022? After playing the Saints Row reboot I have an answer: it looks a lot like an open-world crime game from 2012.
Release date: August 23, 2022
Platform(s): PS5, Xbox Series X, PS4, Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Deep Silver
Don't get me wrong - developer Volition has made obvious and commendable adjustments to the Saints Row formula to help contemporize it and ensure we don't play a game with the same ideologies as one made during the pre-TikTok, pre-COVID, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump era. The new Saints are young, diverse, and openly queer. They struggle with student loans and a lack of adequate stemware (hence their frequent "mugmosas"). This is a younger Saints Row in vibe, tone, and theme, but much of it plays like a Saints Row of yesteryear.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Saints Row's city of Santo Ileso is gorgeous and a blast to traverse, and the car combat is zippy and fun. The variety between side-missions and some bombastic main missions make for an enjoyable experience that can easily suck up a few dozen hours of your time. There's stuff to like in Saints Row - and also plenty to constructively criticize.
The many saints of Santo
Your mission, should you choose to accept it (and, as an in-game audio tape says, reject the contemporary capitalist dogma that requires you work for $15 an hour when, in fact, you're selling your labor for $15 an hour), is to become the biggest, baddest gang in the city of Santo Ileso. A hodgepodge of Western US cities, Santo Ileso has all the excess of Las Vegas and all the income inequality of the rural Midwest. This city has everything: a giant statue of a cactus wearing a sombrero, an RV that's really a mobile meth lab, a tattoo shop called Rusty Needles that will give you some absolutely horrid tribal tattoos, and, of course, crime.
Santo Ileso is beautiful. I spend much of the first hour or so after the game opens up just aimlessly driving around, flipping through the very good radio stations and staring up, mouth agape, at the incredible bridge that spans Lake Sabastian, or squinting at the glittery excess of El Dorado. The slightly stylized realism of Saints Row makes Santo Ileso all the more enticing, like a light fantasy world gently wrapped around an IRL city. It's one of the coolest-looking cities I've ever wandered through in an open-world game - and at times, it makes up for character models and graphics that feel incredibly dated.
Initially, you and your roommates are all members of rival Santo Ileso gangs: Los Panteros, the Idols, and Marshall. But soon enough, your crew becomes even more disenfranchised by the ways of Santo Ileso, and whereas I might pick up a new hobby or consider moving apartments, your crew decides to start its own gang. From this point forward, it's all about establishing yourselves as the gang to beat in Santo Ileso. Loyalty missions give you a chance to increase your roommates' firepower, criminal ventures let you establish shady businesses that are merely fronts for your illegal extracurriculars, and beating up rival gang members helps you clear out their influence across the city's zones.
I'm especially fond of the "laundromat" missions that task you with showing up at the scene of a murder, taking the deceased's car, and outrunning the police in order to destroy evidence. The main campaign missions are quite varied and enjoyable, and they help you establish even more of a rapport with your crew - a crew unlike any we've seen in a Saints game yet.
Your Boss is a struggling twentysomething with three roommates and a ginger cat named Snickerdoodle, and you can make them however you'd like to thanks to an extensive and impressive customization system. Your roommates are Kevin, a perpetually shirtless, openly bisexual gym bro; Neenah, a Mexican immigrant with an art degree and a love of vintage cars; and Eli, a first-generation Nigerian-American hell-bent on being a business mogul. While these three characters feel a little forced at first, the more time you spend with them, the more they grow into fully-realized people.
I find myself enjoying the game most whenever I can spend time with my gang and listen to their interactions or watch their friendship play out in front of me. Watching the Saints playfully rib Kevin for his refusal to wear a shirt or groan at Eli's obsession with TED-talk-style audiotapes feels like you're hanging out amongst friends - this is what the franchise has always been good at.
And there is an earnestness here that is incredibly refreshing in the open-world crime genre, one often defined by a fatigued jadedness that can quickly get grating. Don't get me wrong, Saints Row still takes the time to jab at student loans, gentrification, and Big Oil's disregard for the environment, but there are disarmingly genuine moments. With this, however, comes some cognitive dissonance.
The Saints Row franchise is known for its brash, tongue-in-cheek humor that includes dildo bats and alien abductions. Without that, there are attempts at humor that feel a bit too much like a Boomer writing for Gen-Z - you can only hear so many brunch and karaoke comments, ya know? And Saints Row repeatedly and frustratingly approaches the precipice of making declarative social commentary just to back away from it. The first major open-world crime game since the 2020 protests flirts with outright saying "defund the police" but never does it - and it's in those moments that the franchise's former brashness is missed.
When the saints come marching in
The dissonance can sometimes extend into Saints Row's gameplay, which oscillates between feeling like a mid-aughts open-world title and an updated version of that formula. Many of the missions follow the tried-and-true "drive here, shoot them" method that is employed by nearly every game in the genre. But when you focus on the various Criminal Ventures at your disposal, you can unearth a lovely little buffet of variety, whether it's stealing food trucks or getting beamed by oncoming traffic to make money off of insurance companies. An extensive LARP-ing side quest is an absolute gem, so keep an eye out for it.
As far as combat goes, there's a variety of guns and melee at your disposal - you can unlock more for your at-home arsenal through completing challenges, or head to a gun store and arm up. The gun wheel is quick and easy to access, and the ability to snap to enemies while aiming-down-sight works more often than not - but when it doesn't work it shines a spotlight on the heftier, slower aspects of the game's combat.
There's also a variety of takedown animations you can deploy after filling up a meter at the bottom of your screen. These takedowns are predictably absurd, and they refill a good chunk of your health bar when you pull one off. A Flow meter above your health bar builds up during firefights and lets you unleash skills that you unlock like shoving a grenade down an enemy's pants or throwing an anti-gravity device that will send enemies and vehicles shooting up into the air. You can unlock perk slots with cash and slot in a ton of different perks. All of these mechanics allow you to customize your Boss' fighting style, adding some nice variety to combat, which helps offset the fact that the combat feels, well, a bit old.
Car combat is also a ton of fun in Saints Row. Each vehicle handles differently and has a unique special move you can unlock over time, and the ability to sideswipe cars with reckless abandon is exhilarating. When riding shotgun you can jump out and lie on the hood of the car to rain down bullets on enemy vehicles - this is a great way to add more depth and variety to car combat, which can so often feel heavy and clunky when it's just you shooting out the window of a moving vehicle.
The patron saint of bugs
Unfortunately, there were moments of my Saints Row experience that were clouded by an array of bugs. About halfway through my gameplay, all of my takedown animations and my grenade-in-the-pants skill became permanently bugged, with my character performing a takedown solo and the enemy floating halfway through the ground a few feet away, or a grenade-laden enemy getting thrown directly behind and exploding under my feet.
A main campaign mission, Idol Threat, required me to reload and restart it five times in order to get through it. At first, my entire game crashed two-thirds of the way through the mission, then I couldn't take out any weapons, then my wingsuit refused to deploy. With every glitch I encountered, reloading old saves and/or closing and rebooting fixed the problem, but dealing with it took a chunk out of my playtime and made the experience occasionally very unfun (it's important to note that Volition has confirmed there is a day one Saints Row patch, although we aren't sure what that will entail).
My Saints Row experience was enjoyable and more than occasionally frustrating: at times it feels like Volition is on the cusp of a breakthrough in both social commentary and open-world game mechanics, while at other times it feels like it's upholding the status quo. I love the new cast of characters and what they represent to marginalized community members who will play this game, and the story is compelling enough that I persevered in the face of some irritating bugs. There's a solid game here, and plenty of fun to be had with the new Saints Row, but I find myself wishing the team had taken the concept and ran with it to the bank - before robbing said bank, of course.
Reviewed on Xbox Series S with code provided by the publisher.