Saints Row Impressions: Four Hours Hands-On With the Reboot

The Saints are back with a brand-new invention.

When Volition announced that the new Saints Row would be a reboot, I was apprehensive. On the one hand, where do you go after a game like Saints Row IV? That game blew up the Earth, took the Saints to space, and dumped them into a Matrix-type simulation which they had to escape to fight an alien overlord. On the other hand, reboots and origin stories are everywhere right now. And after four hours hands-on with the new Saints Row, during which I played through the first ten story missions as well as some side content, all I can say is that I’m still apprehensive about the game.

First Day

You begin Saints Row as a new member of Marshall Defense Industries, a militarized private security force. After some lengthy cutscenes, you’re dropped into your first day on the job, where you’re tasked with extracting a wanted criminal from an Old West-themed amusement park. Almost immediately, you’re hit with gags about how your character needs to pay rent and student loans. The game leans on “that darn capitalism” jokes throughout, and they start to wear thin pretty quick.

The action in this early section feels adequate but dated. You’re given a few weapons to shoot your way through the scenario, but the aiming feels kind of off. There are plenty of options to adjust the controls in the full game which might ameliorate this, but the game seems aware of its own floatiness, letting you snap your aim to the nearest explosive barrel with the press of a button.

Saints Row

In addition to a couple of firearms, you can punch and kick your foes, or use takedowns to bring them down with a canned animation. You can’t use these at will, though — you have to charge up a meter by defeating other enemies first. I only saw a few of these animations throughout my time with Saints Row, and they started to get a little tiresome by the time I was a few hours in. Amusingly, enemies will simply stand there, guns pointed at you, as you execute a complex move on their friend over the course of a long takedown.

After finishing the first mission, you get access to the open world and meet the supporting cast of the game. In Saints Row, the Boss has three roommates — Neenah, the car expert; Kevin, the perpetually-shirtless cook/DJ; and Eli, the money guy. Historically, the supporting cast has been a huge part of Saints Row games. Characters like Johnny Gat, Shaundi, and that other guy, I think his name started with a P, were fixtures whom players came to know and love. Hopping into a car and having your pals sing an out-of-town “Just a Friend” with you ruled. So how do these new characters stack up?

Honestly, I’m not sure. In my time with Saints Row, they each felt a little flat, a little one-note. It doesn’t help that the game, as I mentioned before, leans into this kind of socially conscious angle where the characters are constantly complaining that they have no money for rent, no health insurance, and so on. That stuff provides an impetus for them to start their own criminal enterprise, but it also makes everything feel a little less, well, fun.

Saints Row

Be Your Own Boss

Let’s talk about the tone of Saints Row a little. Volition has backed away from the full-on wackiness of Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV, and also seems keenly aware of how much has changed socially over the years since the last entry in the series. And so, gone is the trademark dildo bat, gone are the superpowers, gone is a lot of the risqué content.

That’s fine if that’s the direction Volition wants to go in, but I do miss some of this style, which helped Saints Row stand out from other open-world crime games. With regards to the sex stuff, I always thought that the series weirdly treated it better than most other games, and I liked how the “romance button” mechanic in the fourth title skewered the dominant approach to romance in the prestige narrative releases of the era.

So no, you can’t have sex with a robot or jump over a skyscraper. That isn’t to say that the game is “realistic,” though. Saints Row‘s opening mission has you use an APC as a makeshift anchor to tie down an escaping jet, there are side missions where you use a “wing suit” to glide through the air, and there’s all manner of action movie nonsense. It’s chaotic and silly, just a little more reined in than the past couple of games in the series.

That said, it would be natural to ask — if Saints Row is responding to social trends, how is it dealing with changing trends in game design? The answer is, unfortunately not much at all, really. Running around the open world of Santo Ileso feels like running around an open world from a decade ago. There’s a lot of driving back and forth between missions, and it’s rare that you encounter any kind of interesting emergent events on these trips. Pedestrians walk around, playing out the same few animations and voice lines. You can drive straight into a cop and they’ll keep on going past you. You can’t enter most buildings, meaning a great deal of the city’s real estate is closed off to you. In a post-Breath of the Wild world, Saints Row‘s open world design just feels dated.

Saints Row

What’s New is Old Again

Saints Row feels old more than anything else. The visuals aren’t going to blow anyone away, and a lot of the mechanics seem straight out of 2010s quicktime event-heavy western game design. An early mission where you’re taking down a convoy, for example, is a great idea for a setpiece — it has you jumping from car to car to advance up the line. The problem is that in practice, this mostly involves shooting some guys on a roof, then pressing a button to play out a quick cutscene of your character making the next jump.

There are some neat mechanical ideas here. I like the dedicated sideswipe attack while in a vehicle, which sends your car jolting to the side and makes vehicular combat more engaging. Some of the “flow skills” you obtain by leveling up are fun too, like the first one you get, where instead of simply throwing a grenade, you drop one down a nearby enemy’s pants and then toss them into a crowd. The fact that the Boss Factory will let you make an asymmetrical face is great, and the tool’s already been used to make some wild creations, though there are features from past games (accessories, layers, etc.) that seem conspicuously absent in it.

Overall, my time with Saints Row kind of just made me want to replay Saints Row: The Third and IV. Reboots and origin stories are hard, and I want to give Volition the benefit of the doubt. But there were moments in the demo that made my eyes roll, like when the characters uncover the Saints fleur-de-lis icon on the floor of the abandoned church they’ve just taken over and the Boss gets a little twinkle in their eye, saying that the name of their new gang will be, of course, the Saints. Corny narrative moments like these coupled with the out-of-date mechanics don’t feel like a promising combination, but maybe the final release will win me over. Saints Row releases August 23 on the Epic Games Store, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and Google Stadia.

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