Another lease on life
Volition was kind of between a rock and a hard place with Saints Row by the time Gat out of Hell came out. At that point, they had gone so far down the well of absurdity that it was impossible to climb back out. So when they revealed they were rebooting the series seven years later, it made perfect sense.
The decision to marry both new and old-school Saints Row concepts is a little bolder. That strategy isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but there’s plenty of wackiness to find in the open world.
Saints Row (PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X [reviewed])
Publisher: Deep Silver
Released: August 23, 2022
Although it has a mostly comedic tone (and maintains the series’ signature over-the-top nature mostly by means of gameplay), the new Saints Row does attempt to ground the story foundationally. In what I would call a mix of Saints Row 2 and 3, there’s a push and pull with dramatic cutscenes that ingratiate the audience to the team of heroes through hardship — and scenes where you drive a property manager around in a car in a silly fashion (and hit sick jumps) until he coughs up a deed. It runs the risk of alienating portions of both audiences, but for me, it mostly worked because of the way said silliness is worked into the core of the game.
The meat of Saints Row involves the rags-to-riches story of the “boss” (that’s you), and how the titular gang was started. Working as a henchman for a private military contractor, you quickly attempt to rise in the ranks and meet an abrupt end at the company. From there a mini-mystery is concocted for the boss, but the focus mostly zips into you and your gang’s personal struggle and humble origins.
Compared to your fully customizable boss with multiple voice options, the core crew is static each run, and can often sink into the background. There are clear roles for each of them, and they’ll mostly work within the confines of that archetype. Like a situational comedy, you’re going to like some characters more than others, but “background noise” is how I’d classify some of them at worst.
That classic Saints Row absurdity is present nearly everywhere, including bits of the campaign (though I wish those portions were presented in a less “on-rails” fashion). Fighting droves of enemies by yourself does still feel fun, as do the [returning] ragdoll bonus games that involve insurance fraud. It’s still possible to shoot a rocket launcher at a car and watch it fly 100 feet into the air, or use a piece of construction equipment to destroy buildings. And most of this can be accomplished simply by roaming around and enjoying the open world.
As a shooter, Saints Row plays it safe, and it pays off. On Xbox Series X aiming felt smooth, and the tried-and-true weapon wheel mechanic hasn’t failed me yet. You won’t really think about the cracks during open-world combat (which is a plus), but some of the mission layouts, coupled with the lack of weapon variety, can lead to some low-impact shootouts. There’s still a good amount of “endless goons spawn through door” scenes, alongside the classic “multi-level-shootout” arenas.
Extra unlockable abilities (like smoke bombs) and more weapons lead down the path of customizable builds and options. Through challenge completion — which is usually attainable stuff like “[X] near misses” while driving — you’ll earn more perks, or buy more perk slots with cash. Money can be earned over time through missions or the in-game Cash App, which provides a flow of income based on progression. It’s a cascade of upgrading, but it comes swiftly and easily.
The open world is where I spent most of my time with Saints Row, because Volition clearly put a lot of work into it. Even seemingly random locations can have backstories by way of the in-game lore tidbits, and every major zone (which includes shades of rural, town, and city areas) has something unique to offer. The way the open world naturally progresses is nice, too. Instead of being bombarded with icons, you’ll discover some through doing activities on the map. It eases you into collecting pins on a map without forcing you into it. I wasn’t able to test out co-op, but the idea of it involving drop-in and drop-out play makes returning to these open-world sprees more enticing.
The free-roaming portion of Saints Row is where it’ll speak to a lot of its audience. At one point when going from mission to mission, I noticed a vehicle signature ability unlock pop up on screen. From there I started finishing out challenges, earning abilities (powers of sorts that each vehicle has), and customizing my current garage of available rides. A few hours had passed, and I was basically just driving around testing out new cars and motorcycles. The driving mechanics won’t gel with everyone, especially with a small early stable of vehicles, but like most things Saints Row, they get the job done. I didn’t have much trouble finessing through traffic like I was Nic Cage on an Xbox Series X controller, and sensitivity options are available.
While doing that, I found some points of interest, all with their own lore. Then I started becoming more invested in seeing them again, and picked up on how to get around without using a map. Where it really hit me was in the history segments. When finishing up an early mission, I noticed a bit of history conveyed through a poster on a wall about how the region was founded. It’s a tertiary sort of story, where you can completely pass it by, or ignore it. But a few hours later I stumbled upon an old fort, and was introduced to the history submissions. Similar to the Assassin’s Creed discovery tours (but less strictly educational), they’re key activities that ask players to investigate historical monuments through plaques or information boards. Those, just like the more arcadey side stories, reward XP and cash.
An open world that lets you waste time in it for fun feels like a lost art, especially in a post-GTAV world mostly barren of games like GTA. I didn’t really know how I felt about Saints Row until I hit the open-world segment, and this current team showed me what it is capable of. The campaign likely isn’t going to strike a chord with a lot of people, but the muck-about nature of the world map kept me playing longer than I expected. A sequel that leads into its biggest strengths has a lot of potential.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]