Within the first few hours of playing Saints Row on PlayStation 5, many thoughts crossed my mind. Namely, how developer Volition has consistently said throughout its marketing process that the rebooted action-adventure is more grounded than the games that came before it and yet, while that may ring true in comparison to its outlandish predecessors, the tone says otherwise.
No longer a 'superhero' of sorts, Saints Row still has players stealing tanks, blowing up everything in sight, wingsuiting off buildings and mowing down hundreds upon hundreds of enemies. It's just the four lead characters that are spearheading this crusade come across as four people that would struggle to put up a shelf, nevermind run a criminal empire.
In some ways, the first new entry in the Saints Row series for seven years goes back to the roots of the original, building off the most recent Grand Theft Auto of the time. Although its look, mechanics and characters arguably resemble something out of Fortnite, minus the battle royale aspect. In fact, Saints Row's biggest issue is its identity which creates a lacklustre mindless experience that fails to move the series forward in any meaningful way.
Saints Row review: price and release date
- What is it? An action-adventure single-player/online co-op reboot of the Saints Row series
- Release date? August 23, 2022
- What platforms can I play it on? PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One and PC
- Price? $59.99 / £49.99 / AU$59.95
Saints Row review: What is it?
Saints Row is an action-adventure set within the sandbox open world of Santo Ileso, a fictional city based in the Southwest of the US that takes inspiration from the likes of Nevada. While roaming the land as you please is always an option, the majority of time will be spent in missions on behalf of the "The Saints", either taking down rival gangs or trying to expand their presence via Criminal Ventures (which we'll come onto).
Playing as "The Boss" – a customisable protagonist that can be moulded into any gorgeous or ghastly specimen that your twisted mind can think of – the narrative sees you team with three former gang members to form a new one in search of power and riches. It's a story that has been done to death and is as B-tier as it sounds, thanks to the cliched bunch of unlikable leads and its inconsistent tone.
Let's start with the protagonist. I spent a good 40 minutes designing my character, opting for the default look used on all the posters except for tailoring it a bit more to my preference: cool blue hair, bomber jacket, few scars, you get the picture. It's truly extensive how deep customisation is, leaving no restrictions – even gender is completely neutral meaning, in theory, everyone should be accounted for. That's great! More of this, please.
The issue with customisation is one that I find with every game that leaves the protagonist design up to the player, and that's a lack of personality. I much prefer being given a fleshed-out character, be that male, female, non-binary or otherwise, than having half-baked traits that can be applied to any appearance. Mass Effect is a great example of this, finding the balance of customisation but having a character like Commander Shepard that's beloved by all.
Next to this, the group is made up of getaway driver, Neenah, strategist, Eli and rainmaker, Kevin. All four characters are, sadly, pretty unlikeable due to their cliched conversations and often arrogant thinking, especially with their encouragement of "The Boss" increasingly murdering more people as the game goes on. Seriously these people are psychotic! This would work if the city of Santo Ileso matched it – think daylight muggings, explosions around every corner and a general sense of chaos. But no. It's just a traditional city plagued by horrendous gang violence.
That further dampens the open world as no random events occurred during my time exploring the urban streets and rural areas. No cool secrets to discover, no "oh I wonder what's over that hill" – Breath of the Wild this most certainly isn't. It's an empty land that feels a generation behind where the current standard is. No real substance or variety when it comes to missions either; usually following the same cycle of driving to a location, shooting all enemies, grabbing or destroying a MacGuffin and repeating.
The one exception is a sequence of Larping levels where you take over fellow larpers' strongholds non-violently, which the NPCs lean into in hilarious fashion. It was the clear standout, as Eliah introduced the apprehensive player only to quickly get invested in the fantasy role-playing aspect. Neenah and Kevin then followed suit in the subsequent levels until the group was fully engulfed by the activity, terminology and all. Fleeting fun in an otherwise mediocre set of levels.
Saints Row review: How does it play?
Nearly every mission in Saints Row requires heavy use of weaponry, giving the player access to a Melee, Pistol, SMG, Rifle, Shotgun, Big Gun (RPG or grenade launcher) and Special, all of which can be personalised. Combat is very basic, gunning down what can sometimes feel like endless droves of enemies out for your head.
A set of special moves help change things up a little whenever enough kills are accumulated, such as an attack bonus, immunity, or my personal favourite, attaching a grenade to an enemy and tossing them away into another group like a bowling ball striking down pins. A new dodge roll has been added too, however, it's the lack of a dedicated cover option that hurts it most. The game doesn't want you to hide, it wants you to charge into battle without a second thought. It's extremely monotonous.
Driving is the second biggest form of combat encountered throughout, used to chase down goons or take part in outlandish heists. One of which has you recover a shipping container full of car parts and hook it to the back à la Fast Five. It's reasonably fun, never requiring that much level of thought.
A new Sideswipe mechanic that lets cars jut to the side in quick succession and smash vehicles into oblivion is pretty cool for what it is. The same can be said for being able to climb on top of a car's roof and fire shots at enemies in pursuit, helping create a better cinematic scale. It never ups the ante from here, though, quickly becoming tedious the second, third, fourth, and every other time the manoeuvre is pulled out.
Further forms of traversal include: vans, buggies, bikes, jets, helicopters, tanks, hoverboards, hoverbikes, as well as the heavily-publicised, wingsuit. None of them do anything out of the ordinary, even feeling quite slow on occasion when it comes to the more futuristic vehicles. Jumping off a building into a wingsuit before bouncing off cars is pretty exhilarating but criminally underutilised, seemingly there specifically for playing online with others. Speaking of which...
Co-op play is pretty impressive. It allows two online players to progress through the entire story together with progression and collectibles all carried over to each one's profile, regardless of it being an early or late-game mission. Freedom is untethered in the open world and tethered in missions offering cross-gen functionality (not cross-platform, so Xbox and PlayStation can't play together). An absence of couch co-op is a shame, still.
Players can also prank one another as a reward for completing challenges by transforming their competitor into an inanimate object that remains during cutscenes. Watching a trashcan talk about being betrayed by their friends is quite a thing to behold.
As the Saints look to grow their operation, Criminal Ventures are unlocked. Found at the group's base, known as The Church, this feature has you building businesses that act as a front for shady dealings and is undoubtedly the most interesting new addition. I particularly enjoyed running into traffic to commit Insurance Fraud on behalf of Shady Oaks Medical Clinic alongside building my own fort for the Larping community. Everything else felt forgettable in comparison, reduced to fetch quests with some killing throw-in for good measure.
Side-missions suffer the same fate. Yes, there are collectibles scattered across the map and yes, there are rival gang's territories to takeover but it's all very pedestrian. Content for the sake of content.
Developer Volition fails to take advantage of the DualSense controller's capabilities on PS5 outside of the odd rumble. Little things like tension on the adaptive triggers for shooting, or something creative with the music via the integrated speaker could go a long way. I'd say out of all the titles I've reviewed this year using a DualSense, Saints Row does the least with it.
Potentially this is a bug as the game does suffer from quite a few, from enemies turning invisible and spawning outside of boundaries to NPCs not functioning correctly and the odd crash that forced me to restart a complete mission all over again... twice. A random black bar draped across the bottom of the screen for my first hour, while the Style Menu suffers from a consistent crash bug if too much time was spent in the app. I feel this proves Saints Row needed another few months at least to iron these issues out.
Saints Row review: How does it look and sound?
Santo Ileso is a fine-looking place, made up of 15 districts such as the sand-drenched Rojas Desert, casino-laden El Dorado and the water shores of Marina Del Lago. Graphically, the game is capable of up to 2160p UHD 4K resolution, something I started with but quickly switched to the max framerate option (1080p) due to early issues... oddly in cutscenes. I never went back and found this did service to the city best, finding it never egregious nor memorable.
While I just listed off a few areas, none of them truly feel that distinct outside of metropolises, small-towns and badlands. I'd drive through only to receive a message onscreen informing me that this was my first visit to the district, completely unaware as they all become so synonymous with one another. Another thing that was missing was any weather change, only encountering sun-drenched days and moonlight nights. No rain. No storms. No nothing outside of a one-off sandstorm as part of a story mission.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, musically Saints Row is quite disappointing. Not the licensed tracks – that belt out KRS-One, Slayer, The 1975 and lots more from the world of hip-hop, rock and indie-pop in tremendous rip-roaring style (very GTA) – specifically, the sounds (or lack of) that make up the world. The dearth of individual flavour in each district is deafening with campaign levels equalling suffering from any personality. Voice acting similarly felt dry. It was clear someone was in a recording booth, therefore, I found it difficult to be immersed in what was unfolding onscreen.
Saints Row review: How long to beat?
Saints Row's campaign took me approximately 15 hours to roll credits on, while Plaion (formerly Koch Media) advises that it should take 30 hours in total to complete everything. This includes all side-missions, Criminal Ventures and pretty much all extras needed to get the Platinum trophy (if like me you're playing on PS5).
As the city of Santo Ileso has little else to offer apart from its core objectives and optional side content, it's hard to see it as a world that anyone would want to revisit or explore for the sake of it. Those opting to play in co-op may see their playtime extended slightly if the pranking feature or Criminal Ventures end-game takes your liking.
Torn between two identities, Saints Row is a misjudged attempt at reinventing the series, instead ushering in a lack of mission variety and a tired narrative that fails to light up what could have been a genuine competitor in the absence of a new Grand Theft Auto. Those even looking for mindless fun will struggle to find anything here, even if Criminal Ventures and co-op play offer glimpses at what could have been. Back to the drawing board.
At over 165 million sales, there's a good chance you will have already experienced the blockbuster defining Grand Theft Auto V, a game as popular as it was when it launched almost a decade ago. With Rockstar now releasing its next-gen version on PS5 and Xbox Series X/S earlier this year, it's the perfect time to revisit Los Santos or explore the open world for the very first time. Alternatively, the Just Cause series is pretty wild, providing a mad but entertaining experience.