I remember the first time I played the Saints Row series. The third game was coming out, and it looked so insane I had to pick up the double pack for the Xbox 360 that was available to see what I was missing. While the first game was a lot of fun, even if you could see the DNA of another open world crime game behind it, the second one is what sucked me in. I was the boss, I was wronged, I had to build up my crew in Stilwater into the leaders of the community. Since then, the series has been on a tear of trying to one up itself, getting crazier and crazier with battles against aliens and trips into hell. Most Saints fans were happy to get something out of Volition with previous entries, but I’m sure many would tell you the same thing, “It’s just too much”.
With the newest iteration of the franchise, dubbed “Saints Row”, the team has rebooted the series. Going back to the original name gives you the impression they want to get back to basics, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. In the twenty or so hours I’ve spent in Saints Row, everything feels much more grounded, although they still get those bombastic moments in where they can. The Saints are back, baby, and just like you remember them… for better and for worse.
The game starts in a way that reminds me of the premise of Saints Row the Third. There’s a party at the Saints HQ, a guy with a briefcase, and suddenly you, the boss, getting dumped into a hole and buried alive. Thankfully, this is just the ole’ movie that starts close to the end only to jump back in time to show you how we got there. Where this one is a bit different is there isn’t that moment where you feel like you’re starting over. You and several friends are a bunch of degenerates sharing an apartment. Crime is certainly not taboo in this house, it’s actually encouraged. That’s at least the vibe you get, with your character joining a corrupt military corporation that runs the city of Santo Ileso, two of your roomies (Kevin and Neenah) are in rival gangs, and to pay the rent you have to rob a cash advance place with them and other roommate (Eli) at the start of the game. It all sounds really over the top, and even with a “calmer” setting, the Saints manage to be ridiculous in the ways you enjoy watching and playing.
The story isn’t anything to write home about, but it is a lot of fun to watch unfold. You’re a bunch of zeros to the organizations around you, barely scraping by. Even when things start looking up, there’s a big kerfuffle that leads to both your firing, Eli getting shot, and your other two friends on the outs with their gangs. It’s time to start your own organization, and the ensuing hijinks are comical, never taking themselves too seriously even when the last half of the game gets that way. While none of the story is going to make your jaw drop, it is one you’ll enjoy sinking your time into. There is one mission that is outrageous in the best possible way – a train heist that you’ll have to see to believe.
I do find one of the unexplained things a bit weird. I’m not sure why I’m friends with Eli, Kevin, and Neenah, and even with extensive companion missions you really never find out. Given how well your friends are written (and superbly voice acted), it’s a real shame you never get to uncover those original interactions.
As for the gameplay, it’s a true Saints Row affair. The weapon wheel is there, you’ll be hijacking cars and helicopters; anyone who’s played a Saints Row game isn’t going to be surprised at the core of how this plays. Honestly, I was a little bit disappointed in things feeling a bit too familiar, because there’s a lot less nostalgia at play here and more things being the same as they were. That being said, the shooting and driving are the best they’ve ever been, with those systems tuned to being nearly perfect, along with a large arsenal of weapons and vehicles to enjoy.
One area the game has changed is in the perks and skills, and while not revolutionary is something different to Saints Row. You have four different perks you can equip at a time, earned through progression in the game, and these can be as simple as throwing a grenade, or as insane as a virtual panel that allows you to see and shoot people through walls. You activate these through building a meter, and though it takes some getting used to it’s a nice addition. The skills are similar, earned through finishing challenges (like driving into oncoming traffic, or doing takedowns), and these are passive boosts like moving faster when your health is low. These as a whole don’t overhaul the experience, but are a nice bonus you can use to your advantage.
Exploring the open world and enjoying the side stuff is certainly the pinnacle of Saints Row. It’s been a while since I’ve played a game where I started playing at say 2pm, was on for ten minutes, and suddenly it was 5:34pm. That’s a joke of course, but we’ve all been there, and it speaks volumes of how much fun Volition has made this game. Santo Ileso is humongous, but also varied, with rolling desert hills, big city skyscrapers, factories and warehouses, and even a small town area. It gives it the feeling of being alive, which we’ve seen in games like the previous Saints ones and ones that rhyme with Jam Heft Claw Toe. Santo Ileso is also enjoyable to traverse, with plenty of back alley routes to take, and a GPS which is pretty good at getting you where you need to go. We don’t give enough credit to the people who design the map systems, so here’s to the person at Volition who put that together.
On the map you’ll have a lot to discover, and Santo Ileso is packed with both main and side missions alike. You’ll be able to finish the main story in about 10-12 hours, but trust me when I say it’s a small piece of the pie. While Saints Row can rely a bit on quantity over quality, there’s a lot of things to do on the map. Some things are as easy as searching a dumpster or taking a photo of a landmark (of which a few unlock your fast travel points), but where things get more complex is the empire you’re looking to build.
Expansion of your empire is accomplished at the table upstairs in Saints HQ, and where the game gives you familiar missions to complete, along with some new ones. You’re going to need to put money into Ventures to get started, businesses as fronts for your illegal activities. One we all remember is Mayhem, where you’re tasked with causing as much destruction to your surroundings as possible in a time limit, with a score based on the monetary damage you’re dealing. This is tied to an army surplus store you’ve installed, all a front for your arms dealing out the back. The more of the missions you finish, the better your business does, and the more money you pocket. Having a passive income in this game is nice, and it’s taken a step further with each section of the city having a plot to build on, along with several opposing cells of enemies you have to knock out in order to earn the maximum amount. They’re also replayable for a bit of cash, but your business level isn’t going to go up if you repeat them.
Repetition does have a place in Saints Row, and unfortunately it does struggle with issues that plague other open world games, namely padding. The Laundry business you build is a prime example of this. You’re helping a team that cleans crime scenes by getting rid of a body when they run into an issue. The problems arise in that you open the mission by driving all the way to the mission icon on your map to find out you’re enjoying some social function or eating, only to get interrupted by the cleaners. After this you have to jump in the car, speed over, jump into another car with said body, and then drive to another location while avoiding police cars identified on your mini-map. Not only is all of the driving extremely monotonous, but there’s also a hidden time limit you’re completely unaware of beyond your character saying they need to hurry up. It’s a frustrating design, and while not every one of the side missions or ventures has this problem, it’s still annoying to still have in-game tasks with this level of padding.
Another area where the driving falls apart is stealing a car for Jim Robs, an auto shop that operates as another front. The second you pick up a car, the police will be hot on your tale with a vengeance. They’ll literally kill themselves in fiery explosions to try to stop you from taking the equivalent of a Honda Civic, and what’s worse, they are nearly impossible to outrun without nitrous. If that wasn’t bad enough, they also respawn behind you rather visibly, and infinitely. Your job is to get to the purple dot at the auto shop, and cops will destroy all of Santo Ileso to stop you. It smacks of not having a strong enough AI to do it properly, and it’s unfortunate.
There are several ventures I really enjoyed though, with the LARP-themed Castle Kraken and Eurekabator my top ones. The latter involves you testing crazier products, like a hoverboard or a rocket football you can attach to enemies for a laugh. Best of all, you get to keep the things you test, adding more exaggerated items to your arsenal and garage. The LARP venture is one of my favorite things that’s been added to Saints Row, with foam weapons, cardboard armor, fake dying by opponents, and a hilarious narrative that ties into your companion missions with Eli. These are perfect examples as to how easily Saints Row can suck you in for hours, with unique ideas that change up your experience without going overboard. Now to just earn enough money to buy that dojo business…
Graphically, Saints Row feels like it straddles the space in between generations. The customization in the game is absolutely bonkers; you can try it out for yourself via the Saints Row Boss Factory, and it will give you a taste of the game looking its very best. Getting into the game proper, however, you’ll see a blend of highly detailed character models and somewhat bland environments. Still, there’s something to be said for the gangs. Each of the criminal organizations in Saints Row have a theme, just like previous games, and here they embrace it to the hilt. The Idols are neon-soaked helmet-wearing crazies who use spinning glow sticks as defense mechanisms. The Los Panteros are buff and sporting matching orange gang jackets, with cars to match. Marshall (your boss’s former boss) shows up to the party decked out with high-tech weapons and enough armor to stop all but your strongest weapons. A lot of thought and effort went into these characters, and it shows. I just wish the environment lived up to the same standard.
One thing I don’t think we covered nearly enough or gave Saints Row credit for in our review-in-progress was the extreme amount of customization available. Yes, there is a lot of it, but it’s intricate and allows you to do just about whatever you could want. Your boss can be in their underwear, have a jacket on over the shirt you picked out, have metallic orange skin, the works! If you want to make your boss look like Shrek or Peter Griffin, this is the game to do it in. Even better, the game allows you to swap who your boss is on the fly, meaning you don’t have to start a new game to have fun. Beyond this, the vehicles and guns also have an incredible wealth of customization options for you to choose from. If you want to make something your own, Saints Row gives you all the tools you need to personalize it.
We do need to take a beat and talk about the bugs in Saints Row, and there’s plenty of them to go around. My gun flipped around and wouldn’t fire while facing the wrong direction. The car physics are more springy than a Super Bouncy Ball. Running over a fire hydrant will shoot a tank-sized vehicle upwards and onto a nearby roof with little effort. Vehicles disappear and reappear. I even had a moment during a mini-boss where Eli went down, and once resurrected stood there doing nothing repeating his lines for being downed. That and the boss wouldn’t get to his cooldown for me to damage him, and for whatever reason I wasn’t taking any damage. And none of that addresses the current state of cooperative play.
With the co-op, it’s hard for me to tell you how it works, because after trying for two weeks and one major patch we still can’t connect. We’ve had maybe one time where we’ve even seen each other on screen, and that was my seeing our EIC in the opening mission we weren’t supposed to even be in together (co-op is available after the second mission). Beyond that, we make it into the co-op game for a matter of seconds, look around for each other, and then get an internal error message. It could be the game, it could be Epic, but either way, it’s busted as heck and that’s just unacceptable.
Every time Saints Row does something that reminds me how much I love the series, it follows it up with an issue that makes me frustrated with it. As much as I enjoy the gameplay and getting lost in Santo Ileso, the structural problems, both in open world game design and under the hood, make this a tough one to stick with. There are highlights, like losing track of time in how much fun a Saints Row game can be, but it’s lost under a pile of bugs and glitches.
- Fun as heck to play
- Phenomenal customization
- Story and some ventures are a blast
- Open world issues
- Bugs & glitches
- Busted co-op