Saints Row Review: Dated, Buggy, Yet Chaotically Fun

Saints Row is a reboot of the beloved crime franchise and while its initial unveiling had many worried that this was going to be something that they didn't feel was true to the brand, that's not the case at all. This game blends the tones of Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third quite well, creating a story with a variety of bombastic set pieces that feel right at home for this series. That's not to say it doesn't have problems, because it has plenty, but this game feels in line with the IP it is rebooting. As is tradition, you play as an unnamed character typically referred to as The Boss who is down on their luck working for a group of mercenaries at the start of the game. Eventually, The Boss and their three roommates – who all work for various crime families – have enough of working for crappy bosses and decide to make their own business: a criminal empire known as The Saints.

It's not a game about people not wanting to work, it's about people who want to be properly rewarded for their work and they do so by taking matters into their own hands. It's up to you to build something from the ground up, become leaders of the Las Vegas-esque city known as Santo Ileso, and more. In some ways, it's meant to be empowering, in other ways, it's a cautionary tale of power and greed. 

The actual story of Saints Row isn't very remarkable. It took hours of playing before I started to become even mildly interested in what was going on. Broadly, it took longer than I had hoped to get into the meat and potatoes of building a criminal empire. Once it actually kicks into gear, the game feels like it ends not too long after. It feels like Saints Row is missing its entire second or third act as the Saints have one of their first true victories and then it jumps to an unearned finale. Nothing about the ending lands because it feels like it's missing hours of build-up and it's rather jarring. There are roughly 20 or so main missions required to get to the ending with some worthy side missions that can pad out the runtime, but ultimately, it doesn't help the narrative feel better paced. By the end, Saints Row is asking you to really care about these characters and it doesn't feel like the game has given you a reason to.

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(Photo: Deep Silver)

While some characters shine more than others, no one comes close to the levels of Johnny Gat and Shaundi from the original series. Maybe that's an unfair comparison given players are already very familiar with them, but even when the game tries to create a few tender moments with some of the new characters, it falls flat and comes across as forced. These characters aren't bad, in fact, they're actually quite funny, but beyond that, they feel cookie-cutter and like vehicles for things to happen, but without any of the weight necessary to make you care.

If it weren't for the fact that the game's missions are outrageous, varied, and fun, the story would probably be pretty dull. However, throughout the game, you can participate in an absurd LARP war that is lightly inspired by Mad Max and Game of Thrones, break into a prison, and fling a porta potty around town with a tow cable to interrogate someone. It's a blast to play and is constantly introducing new set pieces that keep things fresh and on par with what you expect from a series as grandiose as Saints Row.

When it comes to actual gameplay, Saints Row feels like it's still stuck in the late 2000s in some areas. Gunplay is stiff and only feels enjoyable when you abuse the auto-aim to snap between people's bodies and lightly flick the stick to move the reticle to their head. After many years of sitting back and watching other open-world games spend some time in the spotlight, you'd think Volition might take some cues from the shooting styles of beloved games like Grand Theft Auto V, Mafia 3, or Watch Dogs 2. Some of those games are better than others, but they feel modern and pack an oomph with their gunplay. 

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(Photo: Deep Silver)

Saints Row's guns lack the power one wants when building a criminal empire. Sure, some of them can kill an enemy in one to two shots, but they don't feel good to use. From sound design to the relatively uninteresting array of weapons, it feels a step behind other games. Saints Row can still be fun, though. There are a lot of strategies and ways to spice up combat. Once you've charged up a special meter enough, you can do a finishing move on unarmored enemies, instantly killing them in a flashy way that also recharges your health. You also have the ability to use four different perks which can be as simple as lobbing a grenade or as fantastical as using a flaming fist to send someone flying. 

Combining all of these different things while in combat can make it engaging, but if you stick to mostly shooting people and doing the occasional takedown, it will likely become dry really quickly. If you chain together a bunch of moves and try to plan your attacks, you're bound to have fun. During a side mission, I shot open a fire hydrant, causing a volcano of water to spurt out of the ground in a thick, steady stream. I then tossed a grenade at an enemy and the explosion pushed him into the fire hydrant's water, which then blasted him into the night sky. After several seconds, his body came hurtling back down to the ground where it made its final resting place.

The other major gameplay component of Saints Row is driving and although vehicles handle a bit more like RC cars or Hot Wheels than real cars, they are a blast to use. Almost every car can drift around corners like it's straight out of the film Bullit. They kick up tons of smoke, the engines roar loudly, and the variety of cars ensures you will always drive in style. As one may expect, you can shoot out of your window to take out any pursuers, but there's also a side-swiping mechanic that allows you to slam your car into others. If timed just right, it will send the other car over a hill, into a wall, oncoming traffic, or some other hazard that culminates in a fiery death.

It can not be overstated how amazing the explosions are in this game. They are almost Michael Bay levels of overdone because it doesn't take much to make a car combust, but it is always totally hysterical. It's wildly over the top, but when a bunch of cars explode because a cop drove into one of its allies, it's enough to make you cry laughing.

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(Photo: Deep Silver)

These kinds of things are what help Saints Row feel so fun. It's the most outlandish yet enticing virtual playground of 2022. It turns certain elements up to 11 and lets absurdity become the reality of this world. You can make your character look like Tom Cruise, dress him up in a giant ice cream cone costume and then pile drive a cop, set off a domino chain of exploding cars, or wingsuit around the city. It's the kind of mayhem you'd hope for from the Saints Row series.

Despite the story feeling a bit short, the game makes up for it by having a ton of side content that let you continue to cause chaos. Saints Row allows you to essentially monopolize the city of Santo Ileso by buying 14 different businesses such as clothing stores, fast food establishments, and more. All of these businesses generate passive income for you and the Saints and offer new missions to help bolster your assets. This can range from repossessing cars, disposing of bodies as part of a crime scene clean-up crew, and of course, the return of the insurance fraud missions.

One of the more surprising things about Saints Row's open world is that you can't rob stores. In previous games, you could mug clerks and have them open a safe and then bolt out of the store with the ill-gotten gains. There's nothing like that in this game, in fact, if you draw a gun in a store, no one cares. You can't kill the employee and you can't break open the register. Overall, it's a bit bizarre. 

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(Photo: Deep Silver)

I figured this may be because the game is trying to make the Saints more about rising up against corporations and other gangs rather than terrorizing the common people, but there are armored trucks to rob. Unfortunately, this still doesn't scratch the itch and only makes the game feel more dated. To steal the money from the truck, you have to blow it up and some money will magically appear on the ground. It would be far more interesting if you had to open the back of the truck, grab the money by hand, and then make a getaway or even steal the truck from the security guards and drive it to a safe location for your crew to strip it. Instead, you have to vaporize the truck to get the money out of it. This would've made sense in 2006, but it feels strange in a premium AAA game in 2022.

The most significant drawback of Saints Row is its level of polish. Despite the fun I had with it, it's very buggy and at times, ugly. When playing in the game's 1080p and 1440p performance modes, I could see vehicles and pedestrians popping in at the end of the street. The game's character models look worse than Saints Row IV and maybe even Saints Row: The Third. Their mouths sometimes move like marionette dolls and their eyes stare blankly into your soul. During a cutscene with the final boss of the game, my character's eyes were closed, sucking all of the drama out of the moment. This not only highlighted how bizarre the characters can look in the game but also how buggy it is. Some bugs are to be expected when playing an open-world game before its day one patch, but the ones present here were extreme and annoying.

There were numerous times when I had to completely close Saints Row and restart it to fix a bug. The most common one was that all inputs besides walking would suddenly stop working. I could no longer shoot, change weapons, enter a vehicle, or even access any of the game's menus. Even if I found a way to forcefully die to restart a checkpoint, it didn't fix the problem. Other bugs included a helicopter randomly crashing and killing me during a heavily scripted sequence where this probably shouldn't have been possible, the game zooming in to a bunch of blurry textures when entering an air vehicle with no way to zoom back out, and those are only a handful of some of the issues I experienced. Ideally, a patch can clean up some of these bugs, but they're still worth mentioning.

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(Photo: Deep Silver)

Ultimately, Saints Row may not be the grand return to the franchise that fans were hoping for, but that doesn't mean it's not worth giving a look. Despite a poorly-paced story with average characters, it still has a ton of content and a sandbox that is ripe for hours of co-op fun. Even if you're playing solo, building a criminal empire is empowering and elevates Saints Row beyond being yet another open-world crime game. If it didn't take some steps back or feel buggy and dated, this game would get a more glowing recommendation, but unfortunately, it doesn't hit all of its marks.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Saints Row releases for Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, PS5, Google Stadia, and PC on August 23rd, 2022. A PS5 review copy was provided by the publisher.