Saints Row isn’t entirely devoid of merit. The vehicular gameplay is awesome. The visuals are splendid. The narrative is infinitely more grounded compared to its immediate predecessors. But for all of its strengths, the experience is brought down exponentially by tiresome side content and a mediocre cast who fail to recapture the magic of the legacy Saints crew.
The campaign’s success will hinge on the player’s attachment to the newer characters. In past games, the wildly bombastic stories would ratchet up the entertainment value to a point where having to connect with individual companions was no longer a significant factor in the narrative’s success. This time around, the plot shifts focus to the bond between the Saints and their gang’s creation. It is a reboot in every sense of the word. Franchise favourite characters aren’t present. Impactful storylines like Gat’s journey to hell or Kilbane’s fall in the third game haven’t occurred in this timeline. It’s a blank slate and that comes with the distinct advantage of more legitimate stakes. A common complaint among players of the previous games is that due to the increasing lunacy of the storylines, significant events lose their impact, including character deaths (without spoilers, let’s just say there’s been a resurrection or two throughout the years). Thankfully, that has been largely resolved here since despite the comedic tone remaining intact, the events of the story establish the character’s vulnerabilities, allowing players to feel real tension when their companions are in danger.
But what about the characters themselves? Are they worthy replacements to the original Saints? Absolutely. Not. Excluding the player character, the new Saints are nowhere near as funny or likeable. Instead, they are portrayed as relatable friends with none of the roguish charm that made the old crew so memorable. Their attempts at humour fall flat. They are rookie criminals. To a degree, this makes them somewhat sympathetic and does tie in with the idea that this is a pure reboot meant to showcase the origin of their gang. But it also ensures the characters don’t come across as entertaining or memorable as they could have been. None of the exchanges here measure up to Johnny Gat’s argument with the judge in Saints Row 2 or any conversation featuring Zimos in the third game. Legacy Saints like Pierce and Johnny were caricatures but proved themselves invaluable to the franchise’s identity, through the continued hilarity their presence brought to each game. I appreciate the sentiment of designing these new characters to be vulnerable and relatable, however, that coming at the expense of their fun factor is quite disappointing.
That being said, the campaign is still enjoyable to play, thanks to some brilliant level design. The main levels are all unique and don’t overstay their welcome, leading to each of them feeling like short but momentous events. There were also countless points where the variation and pacing of the missions impressed me immensely, along with the overall creativity that went into their design. You will do things that range from waiting in line at a donut shop to playing live action role playing games and of course, traditional felonies like straight up robbing people. This creativity first came to my attention in the story mission ‘Observe and Report’, fairly early on in the game. It involves you chasing a convoy into a sandstorm, while you jump from car to car to get closer toward it. It was a spectacular experience and made me reminisce about a similarly thrilling scene in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Speaking of Mad Max, the single best part of Saints Row is the vehicles. Handling feels responsive and you can smash through practically anything on the road, from cacti to mailboxes and even other cars. The AI is similarly destructive and will chase you down ruthlessly if you build up your notoriety to anger them. Unfortunately for them, crashing into enemy vehicles and watching them explode is the most satisfying thing that can be done in Saints Row, so chances are they will be angry quite frequently in your playthrough. If that’s not enough, there’s even a towing cable upgrade that allows you to attach things to your car, which you can then take onto the road and utilise like a wrecking ball. How does it feel to speed around the streets, while towing another car that demolishes everything in your immediate surroundings? Suffice to say, it’s pretty fun.
On the other hand, the shooting gameplay and open world are only of passable quality. Gunplay is fine, hit detection is accurate and there are plenty of traditional weapons and customization options to allow for experimentation with different loadouts. What is disappointing is the removal of the wackier weapons from previous games. Seeing the Cyber Buster or the SA-3 Airstrike launcher as late-game unlocks would have been incredibly gratifying and added some much-needed flair to the gunplay, which starts becoming a little tiresome in the third act. The aim assist is also extremely strong, so turning up the difficulty from the default option is advisable. The open world is enormous and possesses a strong layout with a variety of areas offered. The setting of Santa Ileso is based on the American southwest, which means there’s plenty of desert and offroad environments to wreak havoc in, alongside more traditional metropolitan areas.
My main issue with the open world lies in its side activities. Regions of the map can be conquered by placing a business in the respective region, then completing the activities that are offered by that business to claim the area. It’s a concept that sounds promising but ultimately, due to the strong mission design in the campaign levels not extending to these activities, they become tiresome rather quickly. This side content is even required to progress the main story at certain points, which stops you from playing the superior main missions, in order to complete what are essentially chores. In addition, while there is a respectable amount of detail in the objects and buildings that make up the open world of Santa Ileso, it would have benefitted from having more meaningful things to discover, like vehicle upgrade parts or unique weapons, which would have elevated my desire to explore the map exponentially.
Saints Row certainly looks the part, with the aforementioned detail in its world, judicious use of colour and satisfying physics-based destruction. During the daytime, the desert sections of the map offer a number of outstanding vistas, which in tandem with the long draw distance boasts some gorgeous results. The only clear visual downfall was the shadowing, which was marred by noticeable aliasing during certain gameplay sections and cutscenes. The PS5 version of the game contains multiple technical presets. The two that are worth considering are the 4K/30fps and 1440P/60fps modes. The latter is a nice option for those who demand the higher framerate but the gameplay is more than enjoyable on the former and the extra resolution does wonders for image quality if you own a UHD display. It’s worth considering the strong aim assist and responsive car handling when deciding between the two, as those two factors reduce the potential gameplay impact of playing at a lower framerate.
Unfortunately, I did encounter one particular bug at least eight times throughout the campaign. For the first six instances, the build-up to the bug was practically identical. The ‘Style’ menu, which in and of itself is a fantastic character editor, allowing for granular changes to practically anything about your character, from their eyelashes to their voice and beyond, was the unfortunate cause of these issues. What would transpire is if I opened the menu during a mission, it would either lock me into the menus permanently without being able to exit them or it would lock the player character in a state where they could no longer use their weapons. The only solution to this was closing and restarting the game. The final two instances occurred during regular combat, where again, I could no longer shoot, reload or switch weapons. As this is a pre-release build, it is possible that these issues could be ironed out before or within a couple weeks of launch but their presence remains a concerning sign for the overall stability of the game.
Summary: Saints Row’s dynamic mission design and chaotic vehicular gameplay do wonders for an otherwise mundane open world experience, one that is sorely missing the iconic characters who brought the previous games to life.