It’s safe to say that for the cast of the previous Saints Row games, things got a little out of hand.
Starting out as mere criminals, they eventually became celebrities. After that, the boss became the president of the United States, leading the gang having to face off against an extra-terrestrial threat. The icing on the cake was fan-favourite cool guy Johnny Gat fighting his way out of hell in a standalone expansion. Needless to say, it was time for a reboot, and that’s exactly what Volition has served up. Only, Saints Row might not exactly be what you expect.
With its new cast of characters and setting, many have expressed their concerns about Saints Row‘s new “direction”. The truth is, this is a Saints Row game through and through. It’s clear as soon as you hit the game’s introductory mission, where for a second you might wonder if you’ve booted up the wrong game. Fighting your way through what seems like the Wild West clad in futuristic gear, it’s a million miles away from what we’ve seen of the game before. And just when you think things couldn’t get any crazier, they sure as hell do.
After that, Saints Row wastes no time in getting you settled in. Within a handful of missions you’ve gone from being an employed killing machine to a self-employed one: your new profession being criminality. Not long after that you’re on the top of the world, with your new gang, The Saints, being a force to be reckoned with. But the problem is, for most, the lightning-fast rise to supremacy won’t feel earned.
You see, while in previous Saints Row games your criminal activities have been shoe-horned into the main story, here they feel very extraneous for the most part. Some won’t mind – they might prefer it, in fact – but simply head through the story missions without engaging in side content along the way, and the story feels even sillier than it already is. And it really is silly.
Ultimately, Saints Row feels like a game of two halves. There’s the abridged story of The Saints, and the long process of building a criminal empire. Both are somewhat fun in their own right, but it would have been better if they felt more intrinsic to each other As it is, you only have to touch a fraction of the many ventures on offer to see the credits roll.
Reach a particular point in the game and a map allows you to plan out your domination of Santa Ileso, letting you build ventures in numerous places around the city. But there’s a catch: it costs money. A significant amount, even. Initially it will cost you $30,000 a pop to open up new ventures, placing new activities on the map for you to complete. The next batch cost $100,000 a pop. And the ones after that $400,000. As you can imagine, it becomes a bit of a grind.
Perhaps a tiresome one, too, as while there are many side hustles and other fun activities to engage in throughout the city, the ventures are the ones that really count, and you’ll be stuck completing their many instances until you can open up new ones to provide more variety. There are some fan favourites here, such as Insurance Fraud, but also some new ones, such as dumping toxic waste, that aren’t as fun as they sound. Still, if you’re willing to dig into Saints Row, there’s plenty for you to do.
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Thankfully, with a bit of work, money becomes something that’s much more easily acquired, too. As you build ventures your passive income will increase, and you can raise it even further by disposing of resource-draining threats in each area as well as progressing your ventures to make them more lucrative. By the end of the game, purchases that seemed frivolous in the beginning will be mere pocket change. You’ll pull up to a clothes shop, and buy its entire range, just so that it makes it easier for you to customise your character in the future.
All this is to say, then, that the more you put into Saints Row, the more you’ll get out of it. Plough through the main story and you might be left a little disappointed, but plug away at its side content and activities along the way, and you’re likely to have much more fun. It’s just a shame that with changes to the way you upgrade and develop your character, all the additional stuff just feels less relevant.
There’s still a levelling system, but now all it leads to are a number of skills and some passive health and Flow upgrades along the way. Four of these Flow-powered skills can be equipped at any one time, allowing you to create your own distinct palette of abilities. But having only four seems limiting. Being able to throw a grenade is a skill, for example, while another allows you to drain health from your enemies for a short while. Some of the more outlandish ones allow you to pull out additional weapons for powerful attacks. You’ll certainly want to try them all to see what works for you.
Alongside skills are perks, which are unlocked by completing challenges. Again, only a limited number of these can be equipped, with slots having to be purchased. They cover things like increasing your movement speed when crouching and aiming, and get more useful from there. With a full set of skills and perks you can be quite a force to be reckoned with, and your weapons can also be upgraded by visiting a Friendly Fire. But on the whole, character growth here just doesn’t quite feel as rewarding as it does in some of the previous entries.
Gameplay-wise, while there are some improvements, Saints Row doesn’t feel like it has moved with the times. The third-person shooter action is fun but doesn’t have the fluidity found in other titles, and enemies are bullet sponges. Thankfully, fully-customisable difficulty options allow you to fix the latter if you wish, as well as change a whole host of other parameters. What’s perhaps most disappointing is that new features such as being able to eject yourself from a vehicle before making use of a wingsuit or attach objects to the back of a vehicle with a cable are underused. These features feel rife for a bit of creativity when tackling missions, but Saints Row has little room for you employing such tactics.
Playing the PS5 version of Saints Row for review, we’re glad to report that it has a range of graphical presets to allow you to to find your personal balance between eye-candy and performance. Settings range from 1080p Ultra Quality, which reduces the resolution to maintain a smooth framerate while also providing things like ray-traced ambient occlusion, to a full 4K offering that looks sharp but isn’t anywhere near as smooth. We settled for the 1440p High Quality mode that strikes a balance between visual quality, settings and performance.
Whatever your choice, though, Saints Row is a visually inconsistent game: sometimes it looks sublime, other times it looks sub-par. There are some wonderful lighting and atmospheric effects here, for example, but sometimes shadows can betray story scenes by appearing overly jagged. It’s not free of technical issues, either. We’ve encountered crashes and a range of other bugs during our time with the game. Some might be fixed by the time you go hands-on with it, but they also might not.
While much of this review may seem negative, there’s a lot to like about Saints Row. Its cast quickly grows on you, it has some entertaining set-pieces, and there’s explosive fun around every corner. Customisation is also a high-point: if you like creating zany characters, you’ll be in your element. But while in many ways this this the best Saints Row game to date, there are also multiple design decisions that pull it down. For a game all about building a crime syndicate, the fact that engaging in such activities feels so optional on the main path is a crime itself. It also won’t come as much surprise to Saints Row fans that this is just as scrappy as ever before. Still, it’s ridiculously enjoyable nonetheless.