Saints Row review

Luke Albigés - August 22nd 2022

Saints Row returns this week, and despite Volition's latest slice of over-the-top open world gang warfare having its share of bugs and issues, it's still a lot of fun. Luke took a quick city break to Santo Ileso to check it out...

"You have some nice clothes!" yells an NPC onlooker as they see my Saints Row character run by. Technically, they're not wrong — our wardrobe is stacked with impressive outfits by this point, after all — but the comment still feels a little out of place on this occasion. You see, today, the boss of the Saints has apparently elected to head out into Santo Ileso wearing nothing but a unicorn mask and a pair of cowboy boots. When you're running the hottest new crime syndicate in town, it's all about making a statement... not that I could tell you what this particular one was supposed to be saying. If anything, it says more about the crime-wracked city itself than about our cheeky new start-up — the locals no longer bat an eyelid at folks running round butt naked or at vehicles randomly exploding in the streets, so desensitised are they to this city's rampant gang culture and daily mayhem. So one little new gang couldn't possibly hurt too much, right?

Saints Row gameplay

Volition's new entry in the Saints Row series serves as a reboot, taking us back to the formation of the Saints. This time, our custom character falls in with three friends who, between them, have dealings with each of Santo Ileso's main gangs, soon choosing to fly their own flag and leverage their knowledge and experience to form their own crew. The idea of starting a criminal organisation and hitting a payday loan place in order to make rent does sound daft in a bubble, which is why it was mocked when the first trailers for the game dropped. But there's more to it than that in the context of the full game, with a world where organised crime is apparently just a part of everyday life. The crew's previous connections come out in force once it's clear that our new gang is making waves, leading to some interesting interactions between factions and giving each of the crew their time in the spotlight — Kev as the former runner for the nihilistic Idols, Neenah as the expert mechanic who outgrew Los Panteros, our custom boss as a short-term member of private military company Marshall, and Eli, the brains of the operation based on business smarts rather than street smarts. There's a neat dynamic to the group in that everyone brings something different to the table, and even if you don't click with them, the game itself offers more than enough beyond their individual arcs so it shouldn't be a dealbreaker after the story-heavy opening.

Early doors, Saints Row can feel a little basic, but it doesn't take long for the training wheels to come off. Driving is a perfect case study — vehicles initially feel quite clunky, but then you realise just how much extra depth a few arcade racer-inspired systems add into the mix. The 'drift' button takes some getting used to, as does hitting X while steering to initiate a sideswipe, but couple these with extremely strong air control and a bunch of unlockable extras including boosts and jumps and you'll be throwing cars around like a pro in no time. It all also gels crazy well with the wingsuit you get pretty early, offering great potential for movement chains that go from air to ground and back to air to get around the map with ease. You'll need that, too, since fast travel is surprisingly limited. Santo Ileso is by no means small, but there are only a handful of fast travel points — your base(s) and the few spots you manage to find in the wild, which isn't even one per region. This can make mopping up endgame stuff a little frustrating, and can be made worse depending on where you place key buildings later on, but once you accept that getting somewhere will almost always require a little effort, it's not too bad. You can also get access to a helicopter relatively early, so make sure that's on hand when accepting a mission, just in case it ends up sending you to the other side of the map.


Before the Saints arrive on the scene, four factions are vying for control of Santo Ileso — some fairly typical street muscle (Los Panteros), an anarchic neon cult (The Idols), an overly ambitious security firm (Marshall), and the poor cops stuck in the middle of all that mess. Each has a distinct feel in terms of how combat against them plays out, so while Idols play more of a safety in numbers game and hide behind a shielded specialist while others recruit new allies, Los Panteros instead act far more aggressively, for instance. Between them, they make for a great showcase of the different kinds of ranged, melee, and ability-based options on offer, and fortunately, you have all of that in your pocket as well with which to fight back. Gunplay is suitably solid, with a host of custom options in the menu so you can tweak things like aim assist and zoom snap to make a system that works for you. Ammo counts feel quite low given the crazy and chaotic nature of the game — it's the kind of game where you wouldn't balk at the idea that you could head into a fight with millions of bullets at your disposal, so it's quite surprising that it sends you into what can be all-out gang warfare with a rifle and just a handful of clips. That said, it does at least force you to mix things up a little more than you otherwise might, and since you can carry one of each weapon type, running out of everything is hardly going to be a concern. Melee is... well, not as good, with standard close combat attacks and weapons not being all that satisfying or responsive (with one notable entertaining exception), but this is made up for somewhat with some of the close-range abilities on offer via the Flow system.

Each time you level up, you unlock special abilities that are fuelled by your Flow guage, and you can have up to four equipped at a time. Some of these moves are pretty potent — even the first one you get, Pineapple Express, will serve you well long into the game, instantly taking at least one enemy out of the fight by stashing a grenade on them and tossing them away, so potentially doing some good extra damage to a group if you chuck them the right way. These encourage you to mix up how you play and give you some decent hand-to-hand options, although you also have Takedowns to help you on that front. These flashy finishers charge up over time, building up faster as you score kills. Not only do these over-the-top canned animations also instantly kill an opponent (stronger foes must be weakened first), but they're also a fundamental part of the game's health system. Your segmented health bar can only recover up to the current block during combat, so each time you take damage that goes into a new section, you're effectively losing a portion of max health for the rest of the encounter. However, landing a finisher will actually give you a chunk of health back, rewarding aggressive play in order to keep yourself topped up. It works well as a system, with the only drawback being that it shares a button with getting into a vehicle, so you might sometimes find yourself trying to get in a car when you wanted to brutally kill an enemy for a vital health refill, which can be an occasional frustration.


As your criminal empire grows, you'll start to invest in a bunch of different businesses, each of which comes with its own particular style of missions. Shady Oaks, for example, unlocks the ever-entertaining Insurance Fraud mode where you hurl yourself into traffic in a Burnout Crash mode-style score attack affair, while the Let's Pretend fancy dress shop serves as a front for a series of disguised heists. You get to build and place these new investments yourself, and while position on the map rarely makes any practical difference, it does still at least feel like you're that much more in control of how your empire expands. Each new venture brings in even more regular revenue, and you can boost profits by taking out nearby threats from other gangs and by progressing the business' respective mission chain. Each new tier unlocks even more expensive but even more lucrative opportunities, and it isn't long before these become your only meaningful form of income, beating out mission rewards and random finds by a huge amount. This leads to a late-game where you find yourself waiting around for money to come in so you can buy the final few businesses, and while there's loads to do to keep you busy during that time, it's still a little disheartening to only be getting chump change from all but this one source of income (and a couple of story missions).

While it's clear from the revenue that these ventures should be your main priority in terms of splashing cash, that doesn't stop there from being tons of other things in Santo Ileso that want your wallet as well. Stores are decked out with fancy clothes and accessories that will test your resolve, while weapon shops house an ever-growing arsenal of better gear, not only through new purchases but through paid upgrades and modifications as well. Similarly, any vehicle you own has a dizzying amount of customisation options, some of which come with real practical benefits such as performance boosts or additional tools like nitrous boosts and two cables. Thankfully, both weapons and vehicles can also be improved a little without spending, as each has a special perk that can be unlocked by meeting certain criteria. These are often worth going out of your way to try and get, which is another thing you can be doing to avoid getting suckered into doing a commerce when you've almost saved up enough for your next big project, and as things ramp up, you do eventually reach the point where minor expenditure barely adds seconds to the wait time on the next major build. Then, once you've built it all, there's nothing left to spend it on anyway, so you can throw as much money as you like at silly costumes and ridiculous weapons as an endgame treat.


Saints Row is not a game without its share of issues, however. While seeing vehicles and pedestrians hurl themselves off bridges when they see your tank coming can be amusing, that same kind of mass hysteria just becomes a pain if it kicks off during a mission where you're trying to get from A to B with minimal damage and everyone on the road is apparently blind drunk. Most weird bugs and glitches can be hand-waved by the chaotic nature of the game and world, but some of the bigger issues aren't so easy to ignore. On multiple occasions, side missions failed to load critical objects or triggers, forcing a reset to get them to work properly; the weapon wheel can glitch out after missions that use a forced loadout, causing guns to either disappear or work weirdly; vehicle camera angles can get confused, which in the case of flying vehicles leads to them being impossible to control; I saw a good few hard crashes, including several back-to-back when starting the same side mission which worried me that it might just be busted; performance on Series S leaves a lot to be desired, especially when taking a faster car through a more detailed area, making some mission types harder than they should be. Even some of the in-game challenges don't seem to track properly, although there are more than enough of these to get the completion without ticking off every last one of these.

Speaking of the Saints Row achievements, it's a decent list that will require pretty much 100% completion and a fair bit of extra stuff that doesn't seem to count towards the percentage (such as some collectibles). It'll be a fairly long completion due to just how much stuff there is crammed into Santo Ileso (and how grindy some of the challenges can be), if not a particularly taxing one, especially since nothing is difficulty-related so you can always just drop to Tourist mode and walk it should you wish. There's only one online achievement and it's a simple task (I wasn't able to try out co-op during my time with the game, sadly), so the main sticking points are likely to be full completion of all 15 districts for All Mine — hidden collectibles in the larger areas can be a pig to find — and Jack of All Trades, since you need to complete loads of specific challenges to grab all of the perks.


Summary

Saints Row seems to have its critics based on pre-release footage, but it's still a Saints Row game through and through. It feels like it slots in neatly between the second and third games in terms of tone — the craziness of later games feels toned down to a degree, although that's not to say it doesn't still go off the rails from time to time. There's a wonderful sense of variety to Santo Ileso and its many opportunities, and while some activities fall well short of others in terms of both how interesting they are and how much you're expected to do them, it's an entertaining open world adventure that will keep you busy for a good while before some aspects begin to grate. The extended nature of the game does, however, give its technical issues more chances to rear their ugly heads, and the same odd bugs and glitches that can be hilarious in general play can be intensely annoying if they happen at the wrong time. Saints Row doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, but it doesn't need to — it's a solid open-world adventure with loads going on, and one that is really only a good helping of polish away from sitting among the genre's better games.

Track My Progress in Saints Row

Ethics Statement

Luke played around 50 hours of Saints Row, unlocking 46 of 50 achievements in the process. A review copy was provided by the publisher, and played on Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S.