One of the original major competitors to the Grand Theft Auto juggernaut in the 2000s was Saints Row, developed by Volition. While the first two chapters were your run-of-the-mill open-world action-adventure crime games, Volition made a risky but overall successful decision with the series with its third chapter. The scope of the game was changed from being a serious experience to one driven by over-the-top characters, parodies, and other content that, frankly, was eccentric and out there… going as far as offering weapons such as ‘The Penetrator’ (a giant dildo-shaped baseball bat) to a literal dubstep gun. Both Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV deserved the accolades they got, welcoming in new fans and leaving the competition against arguably the most prolific game series on the market. But with the fourth instalment following a similar plot to The Matrix and having aliens destroy Earth, the question lingered… where too from here? A fifth chapter would not have been practical without some very creative writing or retconning. Turns out their solution would be to bid farewell to iconic characters like The Boss, Pierce Washington, Shaundi and Johnny Gat – and reboot the whole franchise.
This time, players fill the shoes of a new “Boss” player character, along with three of their roommate friends each associated with a different gang in the locale of Santo Ileso. Initially scraping by with odd jobs and petty thefts to pay the bills, a turn of events sees them abandoned by their gangs – and forming the Third Street Saints in response. None of the original characters featured in this reboot, instead focusing on the quartet of cliche personalities – the cocky yet skilled “Boss”, the nerd-of-the-group Eli, the self-absorbed socialite Kevin and the skilled, street-smart Neenah. Starting the story in a new setting and with new characters has allowed the writing team to start fresh, and they certainly took advantage of that. However, they needed to decide whether they wanted to deliver a more serious experience or another outlandish game inspired by Saints Row: The Third. Instead, what we receive is something of a middle-ground, where you can tell they have some incredibly fun ideas, but instead, deliver just a few narrative highlights among many dull and forgettable missions. Compared to Saints Row IV which I recently played through in pretty much one sitting, every hour or so I found myself wanting to take a break or move on to other games.
Although much weaker on the licensed music front this time, Saints Row’s reboot once again delivers a great level of character customisation, vehicle customisation and world design – especially on more modern hardware where you can up the visual quality. Creating your custom “Boss” is once again in-depth, this time with the luxury of choosing a fun emoji to cover you up when naked, and eight different boss voices. Unfortunately, none of the previous voice actors returned to voice The Boss, including Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Robin Atkin Downes or Nolan North who I have previously used in my playthroughs. However, the options you have available to you are still pretty good, featuring the likes of Max Mittelman, Erica Lindbeck, Catero Colbert, Bryce Charles, Anthony Del Rio, Emily O’Brien, Adam Michael Gold and Rachel Butera all lending their voices as options for your character. Oh, and the vocal car honking option… quite frankly the best voice-over work of any game at any time.
Let’s address the rabbit in the room, Version 1.0 of Saints Row is very difficult to play, with many bugs from disappearing mission givers to voiceovers cutting out and visual quirks that I would argue greatly hinder the gaming experience. So please be sure to update the game as soon as you can to the latest version. At its core, gameplay is pretty much comparable to the series’ outings on past generations of gaming, clearly aiming to deliver more approachable third-person shooter gameplay to being a truly authentic experience – with decent combat, decent vehicular control and an overall decent albeit repetitive assortment of side-missions and activities. But without something like a strong narrative to complement the gameplay, the exceptional content is far and few between, while others are only worth a playthrough or two. At least you can rest easy knowing that the Insurance Fraud challenges are just as fun as Saints Row IV.
The reboot of Saints Row does one thing right: giving players the autonomy to tailor the experience to their liking. Freedom to explore the sandbox open world with minimal restraints, and many ways of making their protagonist, weapons and vehicles to their liking, all work in Saints Row’s favour. However, with a narrative that feels uncertain about what direction it wants to go in, gameplay systems that are decent but haven’t made major leaps compared to SRIV in 2013, and so much filler side-content sees results in a reboot struggling to compare to its predecessors.
Developed by Volition and published by Deep Silver, Saints Row is now available to purchase on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC and Google Stadia platforms natively.