Grand Theft Auto III released over twenty years ago, but its shockwaves can still be felt to this day. In the two decades since, we’ve seen a number of odious ripoffs, some great new takes on the formula and a lot of in-betweeners. Then again, such is the case whenever something new, unique and well liked hits the market, because success means money and gaming is a business. Simply put, even though GTA games are rarely released anymore, the open world sandbox genre it spawned is still going strong.
Along with Square Enix’s resurrected masterpiece, Sleeping Dogs, Volition’s Saints Row series has been one of the best at taking the basics of Grand Theft Auto III (and its sequels) and running with it. With each release, Saints Row became a better and more polished product; at least until Gat Out of Hell came out. Let’s forget that even exists, shall we?
After four really solid to very, very good installments, Saints Row hit a snag and briefly ‘died’ following the release of Gat Out of Hell. Then again, it seemed like the developers may have run out of ideas and/or needed a break. While it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, said break lasted from 2015 through until this very month, when Volition brought the Saints back with gusto. However, as you very likely know, this new take on the colourful and somewhat offensive open world series takes things in a new direction. In fact, it’s a reboot as opposed to a sequel or anything that continues the story of the original cast, Johnny Gat included.
This reboot begins as a man carrying a briefcase full of money exits a lavish vehicle and goes inside of an updated old church. He’s there to see the leader of the Saints, and he’s got a proposition for them. However, the proverbial shit quickly his the fan and, while we don’t get to see much at first, the Saints’ boss ends up being buried alive. Why? By who? You’ll have to play to find out.
Following this opening cutscene, which takes place during a massive party, things go back in time a few months. It’s there where we find the Boss – our created character, whom we designed just before they ended up six feet underground – trying to make end’s meet by working for a private military company called Marshall. In fact, our very first mission involves shooting our way through an old Wild West town, in search of a certain armed target. This means lots of gunplay, some physical combat and quite a few explosions, alongside some special moves only a leader of the Saints could ever pull off.
Not long after this, we get to meet the crew, which consists of a nerdy, gun hating, computer expert named Eli, a car loving member of a Mexican gang named Neena and a buff dude who won’t wear a shirt named Kevin. Together, with our created anti-hero, these three NPCs reside in a run down apartment in the desert city of Santo Ileso, which is basically a mix of Las Vegas, small town Nevada and the deserts that surround it all. They’re really struggling to pay their bills, though, including oppressive student loans and rent. Thus, we had to get creative and joined Marshall. Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to last as you’ll find out later.
Repeated failures, and feeling beat down, leads to this odd group of four coming together and deciding to form their own gang. This, in turn, begins the saga of a new and rebooted group of Saints, who still use the Fleurs de Lise logo from time to time. Thus, the player gets to start from the ground up once again, and attempt to work their way up to the top within a very dangerous city. A place where two other gangs vie for control of territory, drugs, money and more, with those being the aforementioned Los Panteros (of which Neena is a member) and the technology loving Idol Collective, which employs shirtless Kevin.
Things begin slowly, with the Boss taking on odd jobs for others, including riding shotgun during robberies, being a getaway driver, stealing things using a tow winch and giving local businesses poor reviews. If you’re wondering how the latter activity leads to interesting gameplay, here’s how: When you go to the business and select its clapboard advertising, you’ll be given the chance to rate it between 1 and 5 stars. If you don’t give it a great review, the business will send gang members after you and you’ll need to battle against waves of them in order to survive. The worse the review, the harder the challenge is, which I didn’t realize at first. After dying twice, I was quietly cursing the game for being shockingly difficult early on. Then I actually read the activity description, realized what was going on, and bettered myself. My one star reviews never changed, but I was more prepared.
Later on, these side hustles are joined by others, as well as criminal ventures. These ventures begin when the Boss joins forces with a former ally and helps him create a garage, which he or she then becomes part owner of before being tasked with going out and stealing certain cars for its chop shop. Later on, a large map of Santo Ileso is placed on a table inside of the Saints’ church, and the player is told to use it to add to their empire. This is accomplished by going to the table, clicking on the map and selecting which nefarious business to place on which open plot. You’ll start off with things like a fast food joint that doubles as a drug dealing operation, a toxic waste depot and a medical centre that doubles as an insurance fraud generator. Then, as you progress, a number of other, much more expensive, businesses will become available, along with the activities you can do to help them run, including a laundromat that doubles as a crime scene cleaning service.
My advice to anyone reading this review is to complete a couple of these ventures, in full, early on. I say this because I got to a point near the end of the game where I couldn’t progress until I’d done just that. I’d only dabbled in them here and there before that, and had planned to maybe do more once I’d finished the campaign and all of its side missions. However, I had to take a break from the missions and really focus on fully completing two ventures. I chose two of the better ones: the insurance fraud mini-game, which has always been my favourite, and a venture that involved some Fallout 3-inspired LARPING with Eli and the other Saints. I also dabbled in some toxic waste disposal, by way of picking up trucks carrying loose barrels and trying to get them to the depot before they all leaked or fell off the back.
Of course, this game also offers tons of customization, including of its weapons, vehicles and the Saints’ church. You can find and unlock different materials to use when customizing vehicles and weapons, and will find a pretty wide variety of both as you explore the city by land, water and air, using the Boss’ trusty wingsuit. I’m not much for spending a lot of time customizing things, but I certainly appreciated all of the options that were made available to me, and did a bit of personalizing from time to time.
As I said, my plan was to focus more on building the empire after the campaign, but it seems like I may not be doing that. Why? Well, the table is currently inaccessible. I can walk up to it and press Y, but the map won’t open. This means I can’t open any more businesses, and cannot complete the post-game missions which task you with filling all of the open plots with ventures and completing them all.
Unfortunately, this was just one of many bugs I encountered within this reboot. It’s not exactly broken, and it’s not unplayable, but it’s frustrating and happens to be one of the buggiest games I’ve ever played. That’s been disappointing for sure, given that Saints Row is one of my all-time favourite series and how much I was looking forward to this game, which is merely decent. It’ll never usurp Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row 4 as my favourites, that’s for sure. The original is also firmly cemented in third. Saints Row 2 is one I have trouble ranking or evaluating, because I made the mistake of playing it after I originally reviewed Saints Row: The Third, and ended up finding it (Saints Row 2) very dated and buggy in comparison. I know that most fans of the series adore it, though, and respect that.
During my twelve to fifteen hours spent playing this game, I encountered a surprising amount of bugs and glitches. The first one caused my Boss to hold her guns backwards, rendering them unusable. Then, the second one made it so that I couldn’t shoot or jump, and forced me to melee my way through lots of gun-toting enemies. Others made me restart missions or reload checkpoints, because things didn’t load or progress properly. For instance, cops who were supposed to chase me stopped on an overpass, got out of their cars and shot at me. I couldn’t hit them, and if I went to them the mission would’ve restarted because I’d left its main area. This cop glitch happened more than once, but not during the same mission.
The other two major glitches I encountered pertained to an enemy I had to duel and the Playlist app. The enemy flashed to the side and then disappeared before my character fired, and the Playlist app was almost never available. In fact, it ‘froze’ my Boss’ phone, meaning I had to close the phone after almost every attempt at opening it. Truth be told, it only worked a few times.
Getting back to the actual gameplay, it’s important to note that Saints Row is – like its predecessors – a third-person shooter mixed with sandbox elements. The core mechanics are still very much the same, even if things have been toned down slightly. Gone are the dildos, gimps, super powers and crazy cat antics. In their place is a slightly subdued reboot, which is still quite over the top regardless of what was said before release. After all, it still retains much of its former humour, and allows players to create characters who run around naked, with their boobs on display. The Boss creator is actually pretty in-depth, and there are lots of clothing options to find, so it’s interesting to go through the Boss menus and see what others have made. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t buy and download a few of them.
Combat generally consists of third-person shooting, using pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers and a few special weapons. However, you can also opt to go with fisticuffs or a chosen melee weapon. It’s all as expected, but not as good as it could’ve been, because there’s something off with the aiming. Even though I’ve played lots of these types of games, I found myself missing enemies while firing at or close to them, and got a bit annoyed. I later discovered that Saints Row 2022 has snap aiming like Call of Duty, and that using it is the only surefire way to make sure that you won’t miss a lot of shots. Aiming manually led to a lot of misses, because the reticule, recoil and general aiming mechanics are mediocre, along with the gunplay itself.
There are no health packs to be found within this surprisingly short game, so you’ll have to get used to doing special takedowns to regain health, which reminded me of DOOM Eternal’s chainsaw. If you find your screen is getting really red, you’ll want to go up to an enemy and press Y to engage in such a takedown, provided that said enemy is glowing purple. If he’s not it’s due to one of two reasons: First is the fact that heavy enemies must be damaged close to death before they’ll glow purple. Secondly, there’s an indicator (which is poorly placed, near the bottom middle of the screen) which tells you if you can do a takedown. If it’s not showing a Fleurs de Lise, it’s not ready. A percentage counter will need to get to 100% before the ability will become available.
Needless to say, it’s all a bit cumbersome. I didn’t particularly love the combat mechanics found in this new Saints Row, but I got used to them as time went on. They served their purposes, but never stood out and won’t be memorable.
A lot of the game is handled through the Boss’ phone and its ever-increasing list of apps. You’ll use its missions app to track objectives and challenges, can open its Share app to do work on your created character and his or her clothing (or download someone else’s), and can go to the Contacts app to call an ally for assistance. In addition to these important ones, you’ll also find a Cash app (which lets you transfer your earnings out of your criminal ventures), a Perks app (which lets you buy and equip different perks once they’ve been unlocked), an Abilities app (where you’ll be able to slot four different special abilities into slots based on the four face buttons — A, B, Y and X), a Map app, a Wanted app (which gives you special targets to go after, including people making meth in an RV) and a Collectibles app (which, in combination with the phone’s camera, allows you to take pictures of special items then use them to decorate your church.) Those aforementioned abilities can include thrown grenades, a chance to regain health by damaging enemies, and the option to plant a bomb in an enemy before throwing him at others. A few of them were helpful, but others were pretty forgettable.
In all honesty, I get the impression that the developers thought players would get sucked into the criminal ventures more than they maybe are. Although I took my time with Saints Row’s campaign, and did a pretty thorough play through (leaving no missions incomplete prior to finishing the story), I found it to be pretty short. The main story missions are lacking in numbers and length, and it won’t take people all that long to complete them. Each additional member of the Saints has maybe two or three loyalty missions, but there’s also not a ton by way of side missions. It’s surprising how short it all is, given that Volition has apparently been crafting this game for several years. Then again, so is the number of bugs.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Saints Row is a decent reboot, but it doesn’t stand up to those that came before it, apart from Gat Out of Hell which it is definitely better than. This is a fine, pretty fun and relatively immersive game which truly did suck me in for a few days, but it never truly hooked me or made me fall in love with it like most of the previous titles in this series. I still fondly remember the first times I played through Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row 4, as well as buying Saints Row on its day of release after staring at its neat-looking ad in an Xbox Magazine for months. Playing that for the first time was also a memorable blast. This game, on the other hand, won’t be something I’ll look back on nearly as fondly or wish to play again because it’s just so damned fun. I enjoyed most of my time with it, but I don’t feel it calling me to return, or feel that same urge to complete it 100%. Of course, I can’t do so right now because of a glitch that is literally preventing me from progressing my Saints’ operations. Maybe it’ll be patched in the future, though.
I also never truly clicked with the new roster of characters. Sure, there were times where I liked and identified with Kev, Eli, Neena and the Boss, but they never stood out like Pierce, Shaundi, Gat and Kensie. They’re just not that original, memorable or creative. Despite this, they fill the roles, do the job and are certainly better than serviceable, albeit slightly.
On the presentation side of things, this ‘long’-awaited reboot is also a very mixed bag. It looks pretty nice at times, and has some impressive art direction, including neon art, unique sculptures and a map that is part Las Vegas, part dusty small town and part desert. I also appreciated the diverse enemy character models, although I was surprised by how few pedestrians I saw on the sidewalks. That said, everything was oddly blurry, even after I turned off the horrible motion blur effect. Much of the game also looked, played and controlled in a dated fashion, with a small amount of slowdown and some odd visual abnormalities.
The audio is better, because the sound effects are solid, the voice acting is pretty good (including several solid voice options for the Boss) and everything generally sounds as it should. However, I was disappointed by what turned out to be a rather mediocre-at-best soundtrack, despite it featuring numerous different radio stations. There were some songs I really liked, such as In Flames’ Cloud Connected, but I wasn’t able to truly pick and choose tracks like I used to due to the Playlist app not working. Even when it did, it never seemed to function properly, or like the app in The Third. Whenever I play that game, I pick about eight or ten different songs and have them loop on a custom playlist. That’s what I wanted to do here, though I would’ve been fine if Cloud Connected had just played on repeat. I love that song.
With all that being said, I must admit that I’m having trouble thinking up a score for Saints Row. I must do so, and will soon, but it’s hard to weigh my love of the series and the fun I did have with this reboot, with its shocking number of bugs, the mediocre new cast and the disappointment of this game not coming close to most of its predecessors. At the end of the day, though, I do believe that I enjoyed this thing more than a lot of people, because it does feel like Saints Row and I’ve always adored the series. If I was a newcomer, I maybe wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. Regardless, I do feel that some have been way too harsh on it, and that it’s worth checking out, though I’d recommend that most wait for a sale.
I sincerely hope that this won’t mark the end of the series, because I’d miss it.
This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game. We were given a launch key by its publisher.
- More Saints Row
- Quite a bit to do
- A new, interesting city
- Quite buggy
- The campaign is surprisingly short
- Feels dated and unoriginal