Saints Row is a reboot that doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
Marketed as developer Volition’s triumphant return to its flagship franchise, Saints Row is instead a resounding disappointment. From a design that flatly refuses to iterate on decade-old ideas and visuals that feel dated from the jump, it is a game happy to coast on the successes of its predecessors.
Taken down a peg
The story of Saints Row begins in typical video game fashion: you are the leader of a gang on top of the world. Your hideout is magnificent, your parties are a bacchanal, your colours are respected, and your dominance is absolute. And then it all goes wrong: a proverbial cat is set loose among the pigeons and, before you know it, your gang is in tatters. Cast down to the bottom of the gangland pile, you’re living in a crappy apartment with three friends, trying to make a living as a mercenary for a private military company.
Your goal is to rebuild your power base, your gang. and take your grievances directly to those who would quite like to be rid of you. Along the way, your relentlessly sarcastic character interacts with a world so cartoonishly weird that it feels like everyone might have mercury poisoning.
Here’s the problem: we’ve done all of this before. It’s a mirror of previous games in the series. It does this not as a self-referential parody, but in a way that makes you wonder if Volition simply had no new ideas.
I’ve been here before
From a design perspective, it’s as though the last decade hadn’t happened. Saints Row plays like something that would have been a AA curiosity on the Xbox 360 toward the end of its life. Missions on its golden path are based on movies from 2015 or earlier, like Mad Max: Fury Road or Fast 5. Its map is a city that vaguely resembles Las Vegas and its surrounds, and though sprawling, feels thrown together, with sections that feel bolted on or underdeveloped. Outside of main missions, activities are few and far between. Of the handful of activities on offer, you can take photos of landmark objects, or leave a bad Yelp review on specific businesses to start a pitched street battle. None of these extra-curricular tasks has any effect on your gang, its status, or even your character beyond giving you some extra money and progress toward skill points.
Earlier Saints Row games made side missions important because they helped you seize territory from rival gangs to take control of the map.
Saints Row doesn’t even have that. Even its options for purchasing clothes and accessories for your character, a big part of previous games, feel bloodless here.
Can I still get into ridiculous open-world fights with crazy weapons like a dildo baton? Yes, that’s still an option. But again, we’ve seen all this before. What do they add to the experience that is entirely new?
Open world fundamentals
The game’s two primary verbs are shooting and driving, and neither feels particularly good. Pulling the left trigger while shooting automatically snaps the reticule to an enemy’s head, and pulling the right trigger will melt their health down to nothing in seconds. You’ve got access to an assault rifle from the jump, and it means you can tear through most enemies with ease. This gun was so powerful that, even with successive upgrades and skills, I never felt the need to use any of my supplemental moves. Just roll and shoot, and the rest takes care of itself.
Driving also feels fairly unsatisfying, thanks largely to the game’s strange relationship to physics. Cars are heavy enough to plough through trees and signs and fences and even other cars but don’t carry enough force to knock a person off a motorcycle in full flight. Running over a fire hydrant causes a spout of water to rise from the street, raising your car into the air like it weighs nothing at all. Speaking of running over things, cars don’t even sustain damage in ways you expect. Saints Row The Third had a better vehicle damage model than this reboot.
This is to say nothing of the traffic AI, which behaves in ways I haven’t seen since GTA 3. There is little as infuriating as flying over a long, straight bridge only to have a car, with nothing ahead of it, abruptly change lanes as you approach. I’m travelling at nine-tenths lightspeed. I cannot avoid you, random car. Now we’re both flaming wreckage.
I don’t like the look of you
And then there are the visuals, which run the gamut from concerningly average to occasionally kind of nice. The instances where it looks nice seemed to have more to do with the game’s use of HDR colour than the PS5’s raw graphical grunt.
Characters are animated in ways that betray the disconnect between recorded dialogue and separate motion capture. Every character has the smooth, waxy skin and rolling eyes of a theme park animatronic.
Even the way the game handles its UI and menus is the same as in previous Saints Row games. I don’t think the end-of-mission wrap-up sequence has changed at all since Saints Row 4.
Then what the hell are we doing here?
If the promise of Saints Row was to reboot the franchise for a new era, then Volition has let itself down. The goal of a reboot is to approach familiar material from a new perspective. Reboots are supposed to be a chance to correct the record, to use the benefit of hindsight to avoid traps you may have fallen into previously. But to do that requires a certain amount of bravery. Saints Row is content to lazily retread the exact same ground as the four previous entries in the series. It’s a shame to see Volition fail to back itself like this. I had hoped it would be brave.
The Saints Row series deserves better than the shabby treatment it has received here. That Saints Row is being released in this state is truly surprising to me. I wish I could be nicer to it, but at every turn it left me shaking my head in disbelief. A strong contender for the biggest let-down of the year.
Saints Row is out now on PlayStation and Xbox platforms, and Windows PC.
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