I’m just going to come out with it, and I don’t care what anyone thinks: I like Saints Row games better than Grand Theft Auto games. I’ve never beaten a GTA title, but I’ve beaten every Saints Row game. Oh sure, I enjoy GTA games, and I put a lot of hours into them, but nothing compels me to see them through. But Saints Row games? I take over every district in the entire city, every time. I do every side mission. I recruit a huge posse and deck them all out in purple outfits. I build a fleet of purple vehicles, with white interiors and violet underglow, and tear through the city like a vehicular wrecking ball. I love Saints Row games.
The good news for fans like me is that the new rebooted Saints Row is indeed a Saints Row game. Yes, the team at Volition has steered away from the long road of increasing goofiness onto which the franchise wandered during the waning years of its last iteration. But for those that enjoyed the previous Saints series – particularly the earlier, slightly more grounded versions, there is a ton of fun to be had here. Things still go boom really well, and the more restrained tone makes it that much more rewarding when the game does decide to go big.
And yes, the Saints still go big.
There is something about a Saints game that appeals to the builder in me. As the boss of a new, upstart criminal empire, I am building something. Sure, it might be predicated on selling drugs out of taco trucks and being “really good at murder”, but my video game friends and I are creating an empire, and it feels fantastic. The fact that we are doing it in one of the most amazingly realized video game worlds this time makes that experience all the richer.
Gone are the Crackdown-style superpowers, the purple dildo bats, and many of the other, wackier aspects the franchise became known for. But in their place you will find a great origin story filled with fun characters, tight gunplay, and a renewed focus on driving mechanics. Saints Row 4 (and the Johnny Gat in Hell follow-up) did away almost entirely with driving (and car customization, which is one of the franchise’s greatest pleasures). Sure, a giant legacy system involving cars and customization was still in the game, but why bother when you can just leap out the window and fly away like Superman?
But the way the new Saints Row focuses on vehicles and vehicular mayhem makes me realize how much I missed this aspect of the game in its later iterations. I love tracking down rare cars, driving them back to my garage, and then pimping them out to the point where they look ridiculous. For anyone that feels that maybe the new Saints are a little too realistic, take heart, the driving is tuned in a way that turns any car you are driving into a veritable wrecking ball. Your boss can sideswipe a garbage truck off the road in the game’s equivalent of a Geo. You also have to mess up pretty severely to get knocked off a motorcycle – the boss is glued to that thing with the Kragle.
I didn't actually steal or drive this van, I just thought the paint job was funny.
But more importantly, the driving is fun. I never got sad when a mission had me drive across town, because threading the needle through traffic and drifting around corners in an RV is a blast. Driving also allows the player to take in the sights and sounds of Santo Ileso, which is possibly the best video game city of all time.
I cannot lavish enough high praise in the direction of Volition’s graphic designers, 3D modelers, map designers and all of the other positions that I’m not hip to, who created the grounded wonderland that is Santo Ileso. There are tiny, weird details everywhere you look. It seems that every city block has some weird little touch that makes it special and unique. There are so many fake corporate logos, tiny easter eggs, and beautiful details that make the world feel weird, but lived in and real.
You know how when you’re driving down the highway and you see a giant 30-foot cowboy by the side of the road, and you feel the need to point it out to everyone in the car? Santo Ileso is a city constructed by people that love 30-foot cowboys. And giant snake statues. And huge anthropomorphized dishes of ice cream. And street armadillos. And a million other works of art and strangeness dotting the landscape; somehow just enough to keep Santo Ileso interesting without devolving into Disneyworld. The balancing act between real world mundane and video game freakshow is striking.
It took me a while to realize it, but suddenly it clicked when I won a t-shirt that said “Keep it strange, Santo Ileso”. This is Austin, Texas cranked up to 25, with an extra dollop of weirdness slipping in from another dimension. There is so much to see in Santo Ileso that there are three separate game mechanics based around finding cool stuff and taking pictures of it, and a fourth mechanic that has you touring areas of interest and pressing buttons to learn more. Santo Ileso is gorgeous and wonderful, and I’ve been spending every spare moment I can wandering its streets and goofing off.
And there is a ton of stuff to goof off with; far too much to cover in a single review. There are activities and hidden goodies and dumpsters to dig through for treasure. It’s a lot. The game opens with a few story missions and then introduces “side hustles” (or maybe it’s “side gigs”), which are fun activities that allow the player to make a little bit of money before things really kick off. I was at least 20 hours into Saints Row, happily working my way through the map and checking things off the list, when I thought to myself that I should maybe check out some of the story missions. This led to me unlocking the real game mechanics, which made me realize my mistake in dithering about. Good lord, when this game opens up, it opens up big. Shoulda got the hell out of the Santo Ileso Hinterlands much earlier.
In addition to the many rollicking story missions, the player is again presented with the franchise-defining opportunity to take over the city. But instead of the time-honored process of weakening each district by attacking outposts and then staging one big assault on a center, Saints Row takes a completely different tact.
There are three primary enemy factions, not including the cops.
There are maybe 15-20 districts on the Santo Ileso map. The player is tasked with placing side businesses in each of these districts. Develop these businesses, and you win the district. The creativity that has gone into these side businesses is jaw-dropping. They range from arms dealing to toxic waste dumping, from crime scene cleanup and body disposal to vehicular repossessions. The thing is, after placing each of the businesses, the player is presented with between five and fourteen (fourteen!) missions that must be completed to solidify the business and take over the district. And each of the many businesses has its own mission mechanics, none of which are the same.
The toxic waste disposal business, for example, has players finding and transporting truck full of unstable waste-filled barrels for miles through the heinously unpredictable Santo Ileso traffic. One business has players running around town and finding inspirational images for their eccentric clothing designer. The crime scene cleanup entails a series of frantic races through town, trying to avoid police check points. These are all fun, and the variety does a nice job of breaking up the “go to this place and shoot all these dudes” gameplay that a lot of the game’s missions fall into.
And – you gotta take the bad with the good - that’s where this business-based city takeover falls apart, just a little bit. In order to get the full profits from your new business, you have to clean up five trouble spots in each district, missions which are strictly of the “shoot all these dudes” variety. It’s a shame, because in a game so brimming with creativity, these missions feel a lot like filler experiences, and they are brain-meltingly repetitive – and you’ve got to do them to keep that sweet, sweet passive income rolling in, so you have to do them. There are only so many times you can take down the same enemies before the combat wears out its welcome, even in the best of games.
A sandstorm is a particularly bad time to haul toxic waste through an unpredictable city.
Offsetting that unfortunate bit of boredom are the story missions, which are hysterically original and fun. This new central cast of Saints is very well-drawn, and the player has several one-on-one missions with each of them to get to know them better. The three primary partners (a fourth gets kinda added later in the game...kinda) are each associated with one of the city’s primary gangs, which give the player the chance to usurp those organizations in fun and relatively organic ways.
My favorite set of missions (expect to see this called out a lot in reviews) involved tech-nerd Eli and his insanely dedicated hobbies. I don’t want to go into much detail for fear of spoilers, but this series of quests allows players to see the Saints in a lighter context, using their skills honed by crime and violence in a way that promotes fun instead of bloody carnage.
You can still find a ton of interesting outfits to wear. Feel free to geek out. No one is judging you.
Of course, bloody carnage is all part of the fantasy of being a crime boss, so if players are uncomfortable with gun violence – even though it is pretty cartoonish in this case – the Saints might not be the organization for them to join. Over the course of the game, I mowed down thousands of gang members and cops, and a fair number of innocents were cheerfully dispatched in the crossfire. The Saints are funny, attractive, and completely bloodthirsty antiheroes, which does cause a bit of discordant consternation in the context of our modern culture.
I’m pretty chill about this sort of thing, but even I cringe a little bit these days when a car I’m driving in a game goes plowing through a crowd of people at a street market. But – I suppose if you want a Saints Row game, you just have to go for it and accept the nature of the beast, and in this case that nature entails lots and lots of violence. And to the devs’ credit, people do seem to dive out of the way a little more than they used to.
For the tech-minded, there are a few different options to choose from graphically – this game goes beyond “Performance” and “Detailed”. Players can select from several different resolutions and then choose whether to focus on framerate or visual fidelity. I played on a PS5 and went for the 4K resolution, framerate be damned. Things got a little choppy on occasion, particularly when I was hotdogging through town in a lightning-fast sports car, but hey, these are my choices to make. I was fine trading a few frames of animation to see Santo Ileso in its full 4K glory.
Sure, there are a few bugs in the game, but most of them are kinda funny.
I did experience a few bugs here and there throughout my playthrough, including a few side quests that didn’t register completion and a couple of hard crashes. On occasion, my character would stand beside my motorcycle while roaring down the street, which was more amusing than irritating. A day one patch is expected, which will likely clean up many of these issues. Really, for a game of this size and complexity, Saints Row offers a clean experience compared to other similar games at release.
Saints Row is the best possible outcome for a game that no one expected to exist. Pulling back on the excesses of the franchise and regrounding things was absolutely the correct move. The world thought that this franchise was dead and gone, and to see it reborn in such a burst of color and life feels like a renewal of sorts. Yes, it is just a game – and a bloody, profane explosion of a game at that – but in many ways playing Saints Row feels like coming home to a franchise that was well-worn, but sorely missed.
The Saints and I don't have control of the entire city yet, but don't worry. We'll get there.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Howdy. My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids. During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories. I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection. I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.
My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then. I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep. Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan. While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.
When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host Spielberg Chronologically, where we review every Spielberg film in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.
Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here.View Profile