Saints Row Review
The 2022 reboot of the open world crime series fails to stake its claim
After Grand Theft Auto III revolutionized the gaming industry with its approach to open world, action gameplay, many others tried to follow in its footsteps. One such franchise that managed to find success and longevity was Saints Row, a similar but much more whacky and lighthearted take on running an underworld criminal empire. This third-person shooter series produced four sequels over a span of a decade, but with each game getting increasingly over-the-top to the point that it became a parody of the superhero genre, perhaps it was time for a new start. Saints Row, the 2022 reboot of the franchise, attempts to bring the franchise back down to Earth and re-introduce it to a new generation of players.
True to its confusing but inevitable name re-use of the 2006 original, the 2022 Saints Row begins anew, with no prior knowledge of the series required. Players assume the role of the Boss, a customizable character that works for a security corporation and lives in an apartment with a few of his good friends. After a few unfortunate events, the entire group find themselves without a crew, so they decide to start their own – called The Saints. Making an abandoned church their base, they start to build up a reputation and gain more recruits. Over time, through their various enterprises, they begin to take over the city district by district, eventually clashing heads with their previous crews and others in the city.
A reboot is always a challenging venture. You have to start over, while also keeping true to the original. And surprisingly, the new Saints Row manages to do so with moderate success. It's obviously not anything ground breaking, but watching The Saints progress from their beginnings to a large criminal empire is fairly engaging. There are still issues, particularly with pacing and initially whacky locales that outstay their welcome, but overall it's a rather decent narrative for an open-world game. The story is helped along by its cast. Saints Row does what Watch Dogs 2 could not, and creates a group of young, brash, aloof characters that fit in the world, cracking jokes one minute and shooting up robberies the next. It's goofy slapstick humor that works more often than not, and doesn't lean into cultural references beyond subtle nods. The Boss is a likable enough knucklehead that is good at shooting, Eli is the pacifist planner, Neenah is a skilled driver, and Kevin is the heart of the group. The crew gels quite well, and though again the dialogue can be very hit or miss, it's charming enough that you don't mind spending time with these oddballs.
With any reboot, you'd expect the story and characters to struggle to adapt, while the gameplay and presentation are at least up to modern standards. Unfortunately, for Saints Row 2022 it's the opposite result. The new narrative delivers without too much trouble - but everything else feels very outdated. As a third-person shooter, the gunplay feels absolutely atrocious, especially on PC. With a mouse, you expect bullets to go where you aim, but that's just not the case here. The aim of all weapons is wildly inaccurate and features tons of random recoil, so you waste clip after clip and miss more than you hit. None of the weapons – a typical arrangement of rifles, SMGs, pistols, snipers, rocket launchers – feel good to use. And given the fact that you are expected to do a lot of shooting, it really drags the overall impression down. In fact, just to avoid having to do more shooting, you may find yourself resorting to alternatives – such as using vehicles to run over enemies for quicker conflict resolution.
The enemy AI is extremely basic. They occasionally dodge and take terrible cover, but for the most part they just stand or run around and take potshots at you. You will face both ranged and melee enemies, and occasional mini-bosses with a ton of health that have a unique ability or two depending on their faction. Your own options, beyond the awkward shooting, are to crouch, dodge or kick, and thankfully there is no stamina meter to worry about. There's also an instant takedown move on a single target, that has a minute-long cooldown, and feels like an afterthought. Friendly AI is equally poor – but for the most part they are not a liability, and can hold their own in combat. You can also call your friends for backup during open world excursions if you feel the need for extra firepower – and the weapons they carry improve as you do their main missions. When things get bad is during missions where the designers decided your friends will drive, while the Boss is a passenger. These on-rails sequences often need to be restarted a few times as the AI can't keep the car on the road, gets stuck, or takes too much damage and there's little you can do about it.
The campaign is based in a fictional city of Santo Ileso, that takes some inspiration from Las Vegas. There are a few suburbs, downtown, entertainment districts, and desert areas on the outskirts. There are a few bodies of water, and a handy prompt pops up to return to shore if you find yourself in the middle of the lake. It's not an overly large game world, but it works. Interestingly, many of the story missions actually take place in standalone custom levels, instead of in-world. The world itself is decently lively, though there is often a lack of pedestrians when you are driving around, but walking around seems OK. Over the course of the game, players will be able to build business ventures in each district of the city. These ventures unlock new activities, as well as passive income. Each district can be fully owned by the Saints – and bring you maximum income – when you complete each activity within it. Taking over a district also makes no difference to the feel of the area, as other gangs don't attack you during free-roam anyway. It's fairly typical open world design, but the lack of variety in activities is what makes it feel like a grind.
There are usually a few story missions available to undertake, so you can switch around between main story progress and growing the relationship with your other crew members. Some of the missions have pre-requisites, so it gives you something else to work towards, such as growing your empire in the open world. Later in the game, the requirements for the next story mission start growing, which means much of the pacing is lost as you must resort to grinding the empire expansion meta. It takes quite a bit of cash to place new ventures, which means you also have to grind the smaller side objectives for some more cash. Cash is indeed king, and you don't make a lot of it, even over time.
Open world activities mostly feel like errands. Activities are split into a variety of types, and are tied into liberating each district. After placing a venture – such as a clinic, fast food restaurant, waste recycling facility, and others – you can undertake mini missions. For a waste facility, you find trucks around the city and carefully drive them to the depot. For the clinic, you play a whacky minigame where you try to get run over as much as possible within a certain time limit, for maximum insurance payout. All of these activities are fairly basic, and are the same no matter which one of the same venture type you choose. To complete a district takeover, you also have to buy something from a local shop, and eliminate threats – which just means killing a group of enemies, sometimes featuring a boss, sometimes just having to survive waves of enemies until timer expires. Lastly, you have to complete side gigs – which are again mini-missions, such as riding around on a roof of a car fighting off pursuers, or stealing cash trucks via a helicopter magnet.
All of this busywork improves your passive income, which you can manually transfer into your personal account. You can then spend your hard earned cash to buy more visual customization items for the Boss, or weapons. Weapons can also be upgraded to improve their damage, and can be visually customized with a variety of paints and patterns. Vehicles are unlocked over the course of the story, as well as by completing missions for your crew's garage. Cars can also be customized visually, though sadly no improvements can be made to the driving. The handling is very arcade and over the top, with the player's car given preferential treatment. You can t-bone others and send them high into the air, even possibly making them explode, and the handling is very loose – even worse when offroad, where the game prompts you to get an offroad-type vehicle. Eventually, access to helicopters and hover bikes makes things even more interesting. Cars can also have special abilities, such as dragging something behind them as a wrecking ball, or doing flips.
Elsewhere, the map is littered with collectibles. Some are somewhat useful like the lost cargo drops and golden dumpsters that give you a little extra cash; others are just optional, such as photo spots. Some photo locations unlock fast travel, though it can't be used once you start a mission. As is often the case, you start a mission, find that it's on the opposite side of the map, cancel it out, fast travel there, and then start it again. Some collectibles you can even bring back to the church and set them up on display, if you're into that sort of thing. You can also bring up the Wanted app to do some contract hitman work.
Everything you do earns some cash and experience points. With enough experience, you level up, which automatically unlocks new perks and skills. Skills are unlocked in a linear fashion and up to four can be equipped. Using skills requires a Flow meter, which is basically like a special attack that charges over time. As you level up, the meter grows so you can perform a number of skills back to back. The skills include being able to throw a grenade or mine, refill health by doing damage, and so on. It adds a bit of extra depth to the shooting and can save you in a bind, but it's not a gamechanger. Perks, meanwhile, also unlock over the course of the game, and you can only equip a few of them. The five slots for the passive perks must also be first unlocked with cash, which isn't overly cheap. The perks include generating less notoriety when doing crimes, picking up ammo from further away, and so on. These are basic RPG elements that feel a bit shoehorned into the experience.
While the progression design is decent, another big problem area for 2022 Saints Row is the technical performance. The game is unfortunately in a fairly rough state overall – from general glitches and issues with the over-the-top physics, to occasional scripting problems and being unable to interact with items in the open world. A couple of crashes to desktop and even a BSOD were also encountered. Sometimes your weapons all get unequipped after a mission, and you have to go to the base to get them again. Camera would often glitch out when piloting a helicopter. There's also the odd design choice of instantly clearing your wanted levels and all enemies as soon as you complete an open world activity/mission, which makes it easy to just cheese the game and go straight for the targets, often ignoring enemies entirely. The NPCs in the world even behave poorly and can barely drive and walk properly - it becomes a problem when, for example, you need steady traffic for the insurance minigame, and none spawns.
With the gameplay feeling dated, unfortunately so does the presentation. Even at its maximum settings, the title looks very dated and low budget. Character textures are okay, but the environments are often poor, lacking detail and resolution. Special effects such as fog and lighting are dreadful, as is the draw distance. Animations are basic and are often skipped entirely – you and AI often simply teleport in and out of cars. Cutscenes and lipsync are also on a clearly limited budget. The audio design and effects are often very uneven in volume, and the gunfire/explosions sound underwhelming at best. Even transitions between gameplay and cutscenes are often rushed and seem unfinished. One positive is that the radio stations and DJs are well produced, and props for the DJs actually speaking in Spanish on their own station, instead of the usual English with an accent.
On PC, the framerate is steady at maximum settings on a higher end CPU and GPU. There are even options to launch in DX11, DX12, and Vulkan, but it seems pointless given how the game looks. The keyboard and mouse, and controller are supported and work fine, though the in-game prompts are quite unresponsive when using the mouse, for example when controlling your cellphone that acts as the game's main menu.
Like Halo and Crackdown, one of the main selling points of Saints Row has usually been its co-op support. And indeed the new game can be completed with a friend - but once again you will be faced with a number of technical challenges. Just getting into a game together requires quite a bit of setup time - making sure both players are online, have reached a certain point of the story, and one person has to host and not do anything else until their friend joins. It was quite a headache to get someone into the same save. If you do manage to get together, it's a crapshoot on how soon you will be faced with a connection error. Exploring the world and tackling activities and missions with another person is silly fun as expected, and there is even a pranks system that lets you alter some gameplay modifiers for extra amusement. But again, getting there is a lot of technical trouble.
The 2022 Saints Row reboot is an interesting case. It turns out to be the opposite of expectations – the story and characters actually manage to be passable and occasionally entertaining, but the gameplay and presentation are stuck in the past. The gunplay is simply unenjoyable, and the visuals leave a lot to be desired. The amount of glitches and bugs work against the already somewhat questionable design choices. It did the hard part – create a decent foundation for a narrative reboot of a franchise – but then fumbled the expectations of a basic modern gaming experience. The game could have used another year or so for polish, better assets, and more diversity in gameplay. And while it's not a full-priced title, that's hardly a saving grace.