The Saints Row franchise is one that evokes a very particular type of reaction from the gaming community. Generally, players will respond with a lively anecdote of some crazy thing they got up to in Saints Row IV or when they first made acquaintance with certain purple paraphernalia in Saints Row the Third. Mostly, the impression you’d get from gamers is that the franchise has consistently provided for some of the zaniest gaming moments of all time.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive outlook towards the franchise by the gaming community at large, the franchise hasn’t really had that much of a cultural footprint within the games industry. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed a couple of games in the series, with Saints Row IV being a particular favourite – but I still struggle to remember major chunks of the game. Sadly, despite the amount of fun I’ve had at the moment getting up to increasingly absurd alien shenanigans, I haven’t had many lasting memories with these games.
The Saints Row franchise has always been a curious collection of titles. These games don’t necessarily have the budget of, say, a GTA or major PlayStation Studios title – but they’re not quite as small-budgeted as a Just Cause title. The franchise falls somewhere in between the two.
The franchise now makes a return as a Deep Silver Volition attempts to recapture the magic of the original 4 games and go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to make this kind of game relevant again. Saints Row goes back down to Earth and ditches the galactic scale of its predecessor in an attempt to recapture some of the old spark and hopefully provide a building block for the future of the franchise.
Saints Row – Not Quite the Return to the Big Stage
One of the things that have always intrigued me about Saints Row is the sheer scope of its story and how unbothered it is by concepts such as realism or even science. The strength, at least to me, of this franchise, comes from its complete abandonment of any sense of groundedness and instead, the pursuit of the ridiculous.
So when I learned the franchise was returning to its roots as an occasionally realistic, more grounded story akin to the likes of Saints Row 2, I was sceptical. Mostly because that would mean the franchise would be letting go of precisely what makes it so unique, and in turn, the game would simply slot its way into the grey sludge of mid-budget open-world AAA games that follow a very predictable formula.
The first 15 minutes of the game do a great job at illustrating the slightly more grounded approach to storytelling but at the same time, it reassures players that the game is just as ridiculous as you’d want a Saints Row game to be. Despite the odd clever joke here and there, the story of Saints Row is a pretty standard, cookie-cutter affair.
Now, stop me if you’ve heard this before – but Saints Row follows the story of a group of unique, quirky, individuals that decide that they will no longer play by the rules and take control of their lives by building their own criminal empire. Now, you can swap some of those variables out for others, and you pretty much have the formula to build your very own standard Ubisoft open-world action-adventure title.
Despite a couple of surprises here and there, there is very little about Saints Row’s story that is fresh or wholly original. It also doesn’t help that the writing for the game feels painfully unfunny at times – especially when it is trying its best to appeal to the young gaming crowd by fitting in references or attempting to craft an elaborate combination of swear words.
There is always the odd joke that will catch you off-guard, such as the one about microtransactions during a mission where you LARP with Eli. To its credit, all 3 NPC characters in your crew are sufficiently distinct and aren’t just reskins of a single trope (I’m looking at you, Far Cry 6). Although, the game does have the tendency to run its one joke into the ground by repeatedly going back to the same gag in a progressively unfunny manner.
Towards the halfway point of the story, I found it extremely hard to push myself forward as I felt like there was nothing that the game could throw my way that could drastically change my opinion. Despite the game’s best efforts, I pushed on and discovered I was correct in my assumption.
In an era where open-world games have come to recognize that players need more than just the “hardened criminal with a heart of gold” trope, Saints Row fails to recognize that the value of the franchise came from abandoning and ridiculing the cliches it has embraced yet again.
Combat and Gameplay
While the gameplay is really not what I come to this franchise for, Saints Row managed to surprise me quite a bit in this particular department. The Dualsense integration seemed a bit wonky at first as the game doesn’t quite utilize the Adaptive Triggers as some other PS5 titles, but surprisingly, I found that to be a plus.
The game is at its best when you’re taking on hoards of enemies and mowing down rival gang members using a pretty impressive variety of weapons. What really adds to this chaos and commotion of the situation is the amazingly well-crafted destructible environments. While the environment is not fully destructible, there are plenty of things to blow up in Saints Row and your bullets do quite a bit of damage.
The combat comes at you fast, but not exactly furious. There isn’t really a significant level of challenge to affairs in Saints Row but it is quite satisfying. While the missions lack in variety, it is always fun to blow stuff up and execute stylish, well-crafted executions during firefights.
One of the smartest decisions the dev team made with regard to combat was the removal of the cover system. The cover system has become increasingly common in third-person shooters, but you have to stop and really think about whether it is servicing the game or is it just there because the player expects it to be. Saints Row’s action relies on the player creating massive spectacles in a rapid manner, and that would require them to keep moving and stay nimble.
Cowering into a chest-high wall every 5 seconds kills the momentum in a big way and Saints Row has recognized it quite smartly. Instead of relying on covers, the game expects you to don your best Doomguy hat and mow down enemies aggressively while rolling and dodging away from gunfire and executing enemies to win back some health.
This creates a far more effective and rewarding combat system as the player is never forced to slow down or move away. This pace-and-momentum style of gameplay is brought over to the vehicular combat as well, as the vehicles in the game are essentially cannonballs on wheels that control like the most nimble F1 car you’ve ever seen.
Car chases are made far more exciting when you see sparks flying out of light poles as you send cars crashing into them and the sheer level of explosiveness in the environment is a major plus point in my books. The game rewards you for the most basic of activities and that creates a pretty nice loop of you trying to spice up regular activities by engaging in tricks and manoeuvres you wouldn’t normally do.
However, what really kills the vibe here is that the progression isn’t really as deep as you might expect. It would appear that the team really put all their eggs in the cosmetic customization basket as the game makes quite the show of its incredibly deep and hilarious customization suite.
There really isn’t much to the game’s progression as you can simply just buy better weapons along the way to spice things up. Progression in the game is limited to gaining skills and perks. Speaking of Skills, there are some in the game that simply does not work. For the entire duration of my time in the game, I still haven’t been able to once use the Pineapple Express skill successfully.
Saints Row has seldom focused on the visual presentation of the game outside the outstanding destructible environments I mentioned. This stands true in this game as well as the visual presentation of the game is a constant reminder of the game’s smaller budget as compared to other major titles such as Far Cry and Red Dead Redemption 2.
In terms of graphical quality, the game is pretty sweet to look at, but it isn’t quite as next-gen as you’d expect from a game in 2022. For the most part, the game looks pretty similar to Saints Row The Third Remastered, which was released in 2021 for next-gen consoles. While these games aren’t really known for their visual presentation, it is still disappointing to see lighting and character models closer to a 2015 game than now.
The game looks pretty good when you’re in the desert during sunset or when you’re driving through Downtown at the nighttime, but it isn’t anything to write home about. The saving grace, here, of course, is how the game handles environmental destruction as that continues to be my favourite aspect of the game’s visual presentation.
Sonically, the game does a good job of making each gun sound extremely punchy and the haptic feedback on the Dualsense accentuates those qualities. A real let-down was the surprisingly drab Radio Stations that, save for a few great tracks here and there, didn’t really do anything for me.
Although, great news for those with 1440p displays, the game supports 1440p displays at two presets – Quality and Frame Rate. As the name suggests, the game looks dramatically better when playing on the Quality presets as it turns on Ray Tracing, which is still pretty mind-blowing on consoles.
While Ray Tracing certainly goes a long way in making the game look pretty good, the Frame Rate preset is where I feel the most positively about the game. For one, it focuses the players’ attention on the game’s best qualities – the frantic nature of the combat and takes away the weird doll-like quality of the character models’ faces. For a game released in 2022, Saints Row feels like a remnant of the past, and not necessarily in a good way.
Exploration and the Open World of Saints Row
One of the things that caught me by surprise about Saints Row was the absolutely humongous map, and I’m not quite sure that’s a good thing. At this point, I have personally grown tired of massive open-world maps as they do very little to focus the action and consistently work on providing padding for the game.
Santo Ileso is positively large and is packed with all sorts of cool details and a disappointingly cluttered mini-map. While sure, you can choose to turn off certain markers on the map – a large chunk of the activities on screen are pretty surface-level and don’t add much to the game.
For the most part, you’ll simply be either cleaning out enemies from certain areas or doing your allies a favour by again, killing enemies or occasionally driving cars for them. The level of variety on display when it comes to activities is pretty disappointing and makes for a rather bland map, but one that might have potential.
A big part of my optimism towards Saints Row’s future is my banking on the game’s co-op campaign. This seems like the perfect alternative to games like GTA Online which have just about run their course. Playing with friends across this gigantic map and taking on ridiculous quests could just be what the game needs to find solid footing in the overcrowded open-world market.
Until co-op has fully evolved and Volition introduces interesting elements in future updates, Saints Row’s Santo Ileso is a decent map that has the potential for being a solid playground.
Final Thoughts, Saints Row
My excitement for the game fizzled out quickly after the first 3 missions as I realized the rest of the game is going to be following the standard open-world action-adventure formula but the game still won some points with its surprisingly effective combat system. One of the major reasons I can see myself returning to the game at a later date is if Volition manages to fully realize the potential of the co-op campaign. The co-op could be a real game-changer for Saints Row, but as it stands, I did not get much time in the game mode to get an idea of how these pieces could connect.
Sadly, Saints Row comes at a time when open-world fatigue is at its highest and players are starting to realize the formulaic nature of 80 per cent of today’s open-world games. For a franchise that has found success as an alternative to formulaic adventure, it is disappointing to see it become just as formulaic as most other open-world games in the market.
The latest reboot isn’t quite the return to the big stage that fans had been hoping for, but there is still a core gameplay loop here that can be iterated on and packaged in a much more over-the-top game to better stand out from the crowd. Saints Row does very little to break the mold but still manages to do what it does with a decent amount of flair but fails to make a bold statement.
Review copy provided by Deep Silver.
Value for Money5.0/10
What Is Good?
- Interesting Cast of Characters
- Punchy and Responsive Combat
- Consistent Performance
- Extremely In-Depth Customisation.
What Is Bad?
- Lacking in Mission Variety
- Shallow Progression System
- Cookie-Cutter Story
- Inconsistent Writing