The superpowers have been scrapped and the sex toys have been safely stowed back in the sock drawer – the new Saints Row has shed its shark-jumping silliness and smutty tendencies in favour of a return to its open-world gangland roots. However, this back-to-basics approach has borne out a fairly primitive kind of crime spree, and stripping the series of its more outlandish elements has laid this reboot’s design and technical inadequacies bare – with no pixelated modesty censor big enough to hide its junk. While there’s a decent amount of fun to be had chasing collectibles and causing chaos, outdated mechanics and repetitive mission design meant that by the end of my time with the new Saints Row I was desperate for something that could genuinely surprise me like a slap to the face from a 40-inch dildo.
That’s not to say I wasn’t entertained for significant stretches at a time, and while the rags-to-riches story of the new Saints gang in the sandswept city of Santo Ileso is anything but original it at least facilitates a handful of B-grade action scenes that do an admirable impersonation of Uncharted, with a car-hopping convoy chase and an explosive train robbery among the more dazzling high points along the way to the campaign’s somewhat underwhelming end. But in between these peaks is a relentless rinse-and-repeat cycle of wave-based shootouts against a handful of rival gangs that are uniformly bullet spongy and largely indistinguishable from one another. The only ones that really stand out are the garish, neon-soaked Idols who appear to have grown restless waiting for Ubisoft to announce a new Watch Dogs.
The combat itself is snappy and serviceable, and in the absence of a proper cover system is heavy on circle-strafing and pulling off occasional execution moves in order to replenish your health mid-fight. It doesn’t exactly create a propulsive ballet of ballistics to rival Doom Eternal, but it’s a neatly streamlined setup that allows you to recover from damage without having to scramble for dropped medkits or fumble with a consumables menu. In addition, there’s a recharging skills system that allows you to bind special abilities to four hotkeys. By the time I had fully leveled up my character I had access to everything from flaming punches to the ability to shoot through walls, but rarely did I feel the need to use them in favour of the more traditional skills like throwing grenades and activating temporary armour which made for a mostly conventional brand of firefights.
It’s also fairly conventional in its approach to driving. Though there are a handful of aircraft and boats to discover, most of my time in Santo Ileso was spent behind the wheel of a healthy fleet of land vehicles, from motorbikes to monster trucks and everything in between. The floaty and largely homogenized handling meant that I never really grew to favour any one vehicle over the other (aside from the glorious hoverbike unlocked late in the story), but the ability to drift and sideswipe other cars at the tap of a button does give chase sequences a welcome burst of Burnout-style gratification. The fact that you can scramble onto the roof at speed and launch into a wingsuit glide (a move straight out of Just Cause) also makes for some spectacular getaways, although it seems like an oversight that you can’t do the same thing from a motorbike’s saddle.
Joining your created boss character, who is a self-described “walking murder party”, are three other foundational members of the new Saints who accompany you as AI partners on certain missions and provide some consistently cringe-inducing banter in the cutscenes in between. They can also be summoned via your phone’s contacts to fight alongside you in the streets, which comes in handy later on when you’re trying to clear out rival gangs from your turf and you want to get the repetitive fights over with in a slightly speedier fashion.
None of these partners in crime have particularly interesting personalities, but the one I warmed to the most by far was the brainy pacifist, Eli, mainly because his side story missions involved donning some cardboard armour and swapping my assault rifle for a Nerf gun in a series of live-action role-playing battles. The actual combat experience in these sections remained fundamentally the same as every other shooting gallery sequence, but it was funny to hear the characters make the gunshot sounds with their mouths and perform pretend executions, or to come upon enemies who would stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that you shot them instead of lying down and playing dead. It reminded me of the sticks-and-stones-style warfare of South Park: The Stick of Truth, and provided an enjoyable shift in tone from the more murderous mayhem found elsewhere.
I’d have preferred to have Eli with me on more missions, but you can’t change who you’re stuck with. However, you can certainly change yourself, and Saints Row’s impressive character customisation tool can be accessed at any time via the in-game phone, allowing you to completely alter your appearance either by crafting it yourself or importing one of the growing number of community creations. I’m a fairly simple man with simple tastes, and so I basically bought the mariachi outfit, equipped the Three Amigos pelvic thrust salute emote, and kept them for the 30 hours I spent playing. But you really can let your imagination run wild if you want to get creative, especially in tandem with the numerous clothing options to unlock, whether you want high-end fashion or perhaps merely a taco hat and tissue boxes on your feet.
This robust cosmetic customisation extends to your weapons arsenal and garage, and even the Saints’ HQ, which is an abandoned church that evolves and expands over course of the journey and can be augmented with dozens of decorations found hidden across Santo Ileso, from abstract art to hulking pieces of Americana like giant football helmets and cowboy boots. It’s a nice way to organically display Saints Row’s collectibles, and finally answers the question of what would Animal Crossing be like if its residents were 100 percent more homicidal?
As you progress through Saints Row’s story and strengthen your gang’s stranglehold on the streets of Santo Ileso, an increasing number of criminal ventures become available to purchase. Buying one of these businesses and completing its associated set of missions boosts the Saints’ hourly revenue, giving you access to a slowly swelling pool of cash to spend on more weapons and clothing. You don’t need to acquire all of the dozen ventures in order to complete Saints Row’s campaign, but buying up roughly half of them is mandatory in order to unlock its final story missions. Which is a shame, because precious few of them are actually any good.
Admittedly, it will always be goofy good fun to bounce your hapless anti-hero hundreds of feet in the air off a series of exploding cars in the returning Insurance Fraud challenges that come parceled with the Shady Oaks Medical Center. I also found that tracking down and photographing specific materials throughout the map for the Cutting Edge Fashion Designer was a fairly novel way of unlocking new customisation options for your clothing.
However, the majority of ventures are forgettable and unevenly weighted, with the lower-quality tasks seemingly higher in quantity. The Eurekabator, a start-up incubator for gadgets that allows you test hoverboards and rocket-propelled sticky bombs that latch onto enemies and send them spiraling through the sky like ruptured gas tanks, is a disappointingly short-lived blast since it’s limited to just three missions. And then you compare those to the Bright Future venture, which forces you to haul the same sluggish truck full of toxic waste barrels across the city a grueling total of 13 trips before the venture is completed, the latter feels like a genuinely toxic waste of time.
Completing the setup for these shady businesses is also rarely as fun as it sounds on paper. I thought that the opportunity to open up a Cobra Kai-inspired karate dojo would be worth the grind required to raise the $1.6 million asking price, but my reward for doing so was a mere handful of wonky beat ‘em up sections that handled like the yuckiest form of Yakuza’s street fights. Then when I finally unlocked the late-game heist missions, I was crushed to find out that you don’t get to perform the actual robberies. Instead, you complete the setup phase by taking surveillance photos of security cameras and entrances at the target facility, only to be forced to wait in the car while the rest of your gang straps on the ex-Presidents masks and goes inside to commit the crime. It’s like Point Break minus the whole entire point, and although I was the designated getaway driver it honestly felt like I was the one being robbed.
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It’s just hugely disappointing to find that in almost every instance these venture-based missions are just the same objectives copied and pasted over and over again. Want to run a food truck business? Steal a bunch of food trucks. Want to run an automotive chop shop? Steal a bunch of cars. Want to run a clothing empire? Steal a bunch of delivery trucks. And if you want to increase the amount of money you earn from each business? Then complete the same repeated handful of mindless enemy-clearing protection racket jobs in each district. There’s no real challenge to any of this other than an enormous test of your endurance. Who knew that being the boss of a criminal empire would involve this amount of busywork?
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Repetitive sandbox mission structure is just one of the many ways the new Saints Row feels burdened by design decisions that should have died along with the power supply on your PlayStation 2. There are aggravating instant-fail stealth sections, nagging prompts for you to return to a mission should you move even slightly away from the vicinity of your enemies, and absolutely no nuance to the notoriety system. Should you find yourself with an escalating wanted level, you don’t need to indulge in an exciting game of cat and mouse in order to break the line of sight – you can just drive in a straight line for a few blocks and the Santo Ileso police will just give up, making them seem less like super cops and more like Super Troopers.
There’s also a noticeable lack of interactivity from what we’ve come to expect from modern open worlds, particularly post-Grand Theft Auto V. You can’t play the arcade game cabinets or withdraw cash from the ATMs, bicycles can be knocked out of bike stands but never ridden, and a sizable chunk of Santo Ileso is taken up by a strip of gigantic casinos that you’re forbidden from entering, let alone gambling in. It’s possible that some of this functionality will be added in the form of DLC, but for now pretty much your only interactions with the world around you is to shoot at it, jump off it, or smash it to bits. Santo Ileso provided a pretty canvas for my carnage, but it didn’t feel like a world I could truly immerse myself in.
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I did appreciate a lot of the environmental design, however, like the imposing rock formation shaped like a panther that looms over the landscape in the city’s northeast, or the street art that injects vibrant splashes of colour to the otherwise ochre alleyways. Locals letting of backyard fireworks in the evenings always stopped me in my tracks, as did the occasional sandstorm – although that was mainly because I couldn’t see my way forward through the oppressive orange haze that made me feel like I’d momentarily stepped out of Saints Row 2022 and into Blade Runner 2049.
Sadly, the sandy surrounds of Santo Ileso aren’t the only rough edges to be found in the new Saints Row. There were regular bugs that I encountered in the PC version (and my IGN colleagues saw similar issues on consoles), whether it was taking damage every time I got out of a car, or accidentally smashing the window and firing my gun every time I got in. Certain button prompts, such as activating a GPS route or picking up a hidden drug package, were regularly unresponsive, while at other times I’d ride motorbikes with my character just floating alongside the bike in a standing position. Occasionally missions would just break – like during a heist mission where my gang just never emerged from the bank and I had to force a restart because I couldn’t trigger the getaway – and the tense final showdown against Saints Row’s main villain turned into a farce when he snapped into a T-pose and started stretching and flailing around like one of those wacky used car yard tube men. Ironically, this was as close to the ridiculousness of the series of old that this new Saints Row ever got – it’s just a shame it was entirely by accident.
The AI isn’t the only thing prone to misbehaving, and indeed Saints Row’s two-player co-op allows you to play silly pranks on your partner by completing certain challenges – like racking up a set number of melee kills or vehicle drifts. The effect of a prank is random, yet while temporarily transforming your partner into a toilet or a vending machine may cause a few modest laughs at first, the novelty quickly wears off and I basically ignored the pranking system from very early on. Otherwise my experience with co-op has been rife with connection problems with my partner regularly dropping out mid-mission and resulting in failure, and even when it works having a second player in tow does little to elevate Saints Row’s more menial tasks. Still, at least I had someone to wait in the car with me during the heists.