Saints Row is reborn in 2022, does it prove to be a true Saint of old or a desperate sinner? The Finger Guns Review:
The Saints are back, at last. A series that initially started as a GTA competitor in 2006 morphed into something wholly whacky, weird and mostly wonderful. 2011’s Saints Row 3 flipped the switch from grounded open world to perusing a city naked, drop-kicking into vehicles and smacking pedestrians with big purple dildos. If you’ve never played Saints Row 3, then I’m sorry for creating that mental image for you. After the over-zealous Saints Row 4 (complete with superpowers) and the smaller spin off Gat Out Of Hell, the series was seemingly put on ice, with audiences having tired of its brand of craziness.
Now however, it’s 2022 and the Saints have risen from the ashes with a whole new reimagining. It’s hard not to draw a parallel with the story of Jesus’ rising from the dead with how this reboot has attempted to bring the series back into the modern age. Bearing an entirely new world in Santo Ileso to wreak havoc in and a new cast of unsaintly characters, the promise was for a fresh take on a franchise which had leaned a bit too heavily into its silliness and maybe lost its way.
The hope for this soft reset had a clear intent to keep the arcadey, Michael Bay type action gameplay from the originals but merging it into a new era with a more focused narrative and grounded world. A Saints Row 2.5, if you will. Balancing two different styles for a series now notorious for its ridiculous nature is a tough ask, so Volition had a big job on their hands to reinvent the Saints.
Can this new cast of renegade criminals and plucky underdogs bask in the glory of Heaven? Or will they succumb to the trappings of their forefathers and waste away in eternal damnation?
Let’s start with the new crew. Out is the legendary Johnny Gat, technological genius Kinzie and your president-elect, saviour of world hunger/cancer, uber cool and master of all things awesome protagonist from 3 and 4. In come a ragtag trio of Eli, Kevin and Neenah. It’s a typical rag-to-riches story, with your custom boss leading their group of buddies into the criminal underworld of Santo Ileso.
Each member of the team has their own quirks – Eli is the brains who’s into self-help tapes but comically freaks around violence. Kev is a meathead who loves a good sitcom and never wears a shirt, because he’s cool, okay? Neenah rounds out the group and she’s both brains and brawn, with an endearing sassy attitude and probably has the best writing of the ensemble cast. The team cracks jokes incessantly, as you might expect, and no situation is too dire to not be cause for banter.
Everybody has their own allegiances to other factions when you first embark on your adventure to pay your rent, as well as a bit of backstory that gets uncovered in their own missions, but it’s all a little too light to be meaningful. Kev and Eli in particular can come across a bit one-note, while your Saints leader will vary depending on what personality (read: voice) you selected in the customiser. My dude was a typical and generic action-hero type. He sounded suspiciously close to Ryan Reynolds, but the kind of knock-off 99p Morrisons own brand kind of Ryan Reynolds.
As the team deal with dissatisfaction with their lot under the boot of Santo Ileso’s head honchos, they’ll set out to establish their own empire spanning the land. Along the way, you’ll go toe-to-toe with the leaders of the various nefarious factions around the place, though none of them are especially interesting to overcome. They’re perfectly fine for a game which is more focused on fun and slapstick action, but they don’t have the menace or memorability that makes a good story villain.
Occasionally, the story will delve into themes of loyalty and the power of f-r-i-e-n-d-s but it’s superficial. When the writing is on point it’ll give you a few laughs and I did come to care more than I expected for this new team of anti-heroes, but I did miss some of the eccentricities of the old crew. Neenah is awesome though, be more like Neenah. In fact, just make her the protagonist for the next one.
Where Steelport was a concrete jungle full of opportunities for mayhem, Santo Ileso is a more spacious, open landscape. Some of that spaciousness is due to the world struggling to load itself in, but we’ll get to that. This new entry has gone big with its world, serving up the biggest map the series has ever had. You know what they say about lots of space and nothing to fill it? Like a donut that’s had an enema, the filling is no good if it’s all been washed away with emptiness.
No Saints Row game would be whole without neon, purple and explosions, which Santo Ileso serves up in spades… in places. The majority of the map is desert, water or roads, with a handful of settlements dotted about the place to visit. In the south is an exciting and flamboyant recreation of Las Vegas’ strip which feels right at home in a Saints title, but the problem is the rest of the world feels a bit flat.
Buildings, while having some personal details like riffs on popular real-life businesses, are mostly non-descript and you enter very few, making them feel more like placeholders than an area where people actually exist. Desert areas are great for offering side-mission races and scattering collectible Discoveries to uncover, but after the initial googly-eyed awe of the sunrise over the sands, it’s just sand and mountainous alcoves. I hate sand (Anakin Skywalker, 2002). Emo-jedi joke aside, a lot of the landmass is empty space used to dot random pieces of content around.
On balance, this is actually alright. Steelport was never particularly memorable and for most open world games, the space is there to serve as a backdrop and provide immersion for gameplay, which Santo Ileso largely achieves.
That is, until your eyesight surpasses that of a goldfish. Pop-in is rampant over the entire map. Whether driving across a bridge and seeing cars manifest 10 metres ahead (sometimes in groups and then chaotically floating into space together due to the collision) or getting in a helicopter to see all vegetation, trees, people and cars mysteriously vanish from existence. It’s so pervasive that I could never really unsee it during all my hours in the game. In car chases vehicles will just quantum construct themselves behind you, textures and details will be non-existent until you’re within smelling distance and no matter what I did in the settings nothing could improve the performance of pop-in.
I wasn’t expecting a world on par with something like Horizon: Forbidden West, but the vast swathes of empty space requiring longer travelling and the invasive pop-in does break a lot of the immersion of Santo Ileso’s world, which is a shame, because some parts of it look fantastic.
Be Your Own Boss
A big part of the reason that I think Saints Row struggles with pop-in and the world is sheer amount of awesome customisation there is available to you. The slogan of be who you want to be gets thrown around a lot in most games nowadays, but Saints Row actually delivers on the promise, and then some.
First off, you’ll create your wise-cracking, probably-too-chilled out Saints boss at the start (if you’re stupid like me and didn’t use the Boss Factory in advance). The options are endless, to the point of almost being paralysing. You know how people spend the first hour of a Souls game crafting their perfect avatar to then put on a helmet and never see that work again? This is that, times a thousand.
Want a massively oversized package wielding smurf dwarf with a mohawk and boots? Go for it. Fancy an entirely prosthetic body with teenage instagram cringe tattoos? Got ya covered. Hairstyles, shirts, jackets, accessories, socks, shoes, genitalia filters, underwear, you name it, Saints Row will let you screw around with it however you see fit. In terms of creating a character that does (or in my character’s dick size, doesn’t) represent you, it’s probably the most in-depth and inclusive offering I’ve seen in a game. The aforementioned prosthetic options and even choices for vitiligo to be represented mean this is the probably the best create-a-hero you can get. Massive kudos to Volition for the effort they put into making this a reality.
Me? I went with a douche-bag haircut, blue-tipped hair, giant USA flag embroided boots and a T-shirt that had cute Brachiosaurus’. What a time to be alive.
Customisation doesn’t even stop there, incredibly. You can change up the colours, patterns, materials and parts for every weapon, vehicle and item you come across. As you build up the Saints as a powerhouse you can equip the NPCs with various outfits, rides for them to come to your rescue in and even have Eli, Neenah or Kev stay in your cosmetic of choice for them. The selection is bloody massive, so if you really want to recreate Peely from Fortnite or the goddamn Terminator you absolutely can.
The level of customisation does come at a cost though – character’s faces have a weird blurry haze around them in cutscenes and texture clipping is an obvious, yet slightly understandable issue. Of course, if you deck your Boss out with a taco for a head then it’ll slightly undermine the more dramatic story moments, but hey, who the Hell plays Saints Row to be a by-the-book loser?
Shoot The Shit… If You Can Aim At It
Once you’re done admiring your abomination of a boss you’ve smelted together like Frankenstein, you’ll actually have to shoot some people and rebuild the Saints. Interestingly, gunplay and game design are where Saints Row deviate the least from the previous entries. So much so, in fact, I actually started to wonder how much of a reboot or reimagining this instalment really is.
But let’s talk basics. Saints Row has always been 3rd person shooter action with slapstick violence and a more arcade-like approach instead of realism. Gone are the flamboyant and awesome Dubstep gun or heralded purple dildo melee weapon and entering are your usual varieties of pistols, SMGs, assault rifles, shotguns and specials. Later in the game you’ll unlock some quirky weapon varieties, but they come a bit too late (do the Eurekabator ventures ASAP) and can be slightly gimmicky, though they are undeniably fun and hilarious to use for a bit.
Shooting and combat have never felt especially smooth in the series, but in this new version it feels straight up like you’re a newbie mercenary who turned up at the wrong summer camp, while also being drunk on 3 bottles of Smirnoff and having suffered one of the pinnacles of shaky hand syndrome. Aiming feels really loose, which is accounted for by extremely strong aim-assist snapping. Weapons lack that punchy feeling that give satisfaction and even using explosive environmental objects is reduced to a quick-time button press instead of you manually choosing and aiming to use it.
It kinda feels like gameplay on autopilot. Sure, firing rockets at a tank and blasting off mini-missiles from a pistol are cool, but it’s underwhelming and it never really develops any more depth over the dozens of hours of its runtime. Guns can be purchased and upgraded from various stores but each feels the same to utilise so you’ll likely stick with your preferred option than having a fun suite of cool stuff you’d usually mix-and-match. I don’t think this is a patch issue either, it’s a fundamental core gameplay deficiency which is why I think they implemented high aim assist and auto-targeting objects.
I liked the way health regenerates outside of combat or when you’re in cover for a good amount of time, or by filling up a Saints meter which allows you to pull off an execution to regain a block of health. It creates a risk-reward dynamic that even on Normal difficulty will have you thinking frantically on how best to handle this group of thugs slugging the crap out of you. Plus, as you gain XP you’ll gain access to new skills (like hurling an enemy around after attaching a grenade to them) and perks you can equip.
The various factions you fight each have their own varieties of grunts to eliminate, some of which are better than others. The Idols for example have a baton-spinning specialist who is invulnerable to ranged damage when spinning their… sticks (ahem), which is more an infuriating waste of time than a good battle challenge. There’s not a lot too special about each faction and their hierarchies of enemies, but they offer enough to be decent and in high group numbers they can quickly fell you if you’re not attentive.
Empire Of Saints Strikes Back
Of course, shooting and gunplay are just a side dish to the whole meal served up by Saints Row. Growing your empire means growing your business, completing main and side missions, finding collectibles, clearing out rivals and becoming money-maker extraordinaire.
As you complete virtually anything, you’ll be rewarded with money and XP generously. Money goes into expanding your operations by purchasing new criminal enterprises on the Empire Board and then completing their assigned side-content Ventures. Some are great, like testing out new weapons you then get to keep or being given free-reign in a tank to destroy $7m worth of property in combo.
Also, Insurance Fraud returns and nothing is better than throwing your flailing carcass at trucks to gain financial benefits. If only real life worked like that? Others however, have you drive a truck across the map back to a depot, 14 TIMES. Or, they require you to repossess vehicles by driving there, grabbing them, and driving back. It’s tedious busywork and those felt like filler missions to me than valuable content additions.
Side-hustles are side mission minigames for riding shotgun and taking out pursuers or practicing your wingsuit skills by dropping onto buildings and blowing up satellites. Again, some are more fun than others but they’re good additions and help make the world a little bit more filled with things to do. If you want to get to 100% completion, you’ll need to complete each district by fully accomplishing all ventures, collectible discoveries, threats, shops and side-hustles. I can tell you first hand, you’re looking at a minimum of 30 hours to do so.
Of course, expanding across Santo Ileso becomes more financially taxing, so moving up the empire tiers requires inordinate amounts of money. Your businesses bring in passive income as you play but it creates certain bottlenecks – to progress certain story missions you need more criminal ventures, so you’re disincentivised from “wasting” money on things like cosmetics, vehicles or weapons so you can save and plot down your next one. It may just be a me thing, in fairness, and you earn money pretty efficiently throughout until the last couple of Empire tiers.
Side-content is rounded out with Wanted tasks (kill X person on the map) and collectibles like Golden Dumpsters to search or historical sites to visit (which are the absolute worst). Like I said, doing everything will take a long time, making this a worthy bang-for-your-buck purchase, but a lot of the extra stuff is map markers and filler quests. It’s akin to the new Ubisoft template of having lots of things to do, but not all of it is going to be a rip-roaring time.
Now, we gotta get in to some of the quirks from this new Saints Row. I’ll reel them off: your main character having a strange hazy aura, wonky physics where a lamp decides to take an acid trip after getting stuck in your car, an NPC glitching out refusing to speak to continue a mission, screen-tearing when out in the world, the revolver skill giving me a superpowered pistol but no ammo so I would meekly stand there unable to fire until the ability ran out (we’ve all had a meek weapon in our time, eh?), my helicopter being unusable as the camera zoomed in instead of out when entering it so I could see the inner polygons of the environment.
My favourite, however, was the floor disbanding underneath Saints HQ, meaning I fell through the map and could look up at the world I was supposed to be occupying. It was strangely pretty, I gotta say. There’s also gotta be a joke in there about a criminal empire called the Saints descending into the underworld, I’m sure.
I’ll be honest, none of these issues truly bothered me, even the crash or falling through the map. A quick autosave load and I was back in again with no progress lost, but there is a lack of polish on show here that’s a little surprising given how long this game was delayed. Some of the quirkiness actually worked in it’s favour like the wonky physics and car AI going beserk for no discernable reason, creating hilarious moments of carnage.
What I did hate however, was anything involving car chases or vehicle “combat”. By the end, I was sick to death of having any mission that involved driving and being timed. Pursuers are awfully rubber-banded to you, meaning when their AI inevitably drives into a wall it’ll just overtly respawn them behind you. Your side-swipe maneuver is more a risk to yourself than them, as if the game decides you didn’t do it to within the inch it wants it’ll spin you out instead of them. Enemy vehicles are straight up boosted to catch up with you and on stealth orientated side-missions getting caught by them doesn’t even have any discernable impact on the mission, so why bother telling you you have to avoid them?
Saints Row is genuinely a very, very fun game to play. However, it is also riddled with these kinds of inconsistencies that do make for a frustrating experience at times. Like an especially pricked slice of swiss cheese, it has holes galore and not all of which add to its appeal.
A Saintly Return… Mostly
I’ve got to say, I was skeptical about this new iteration of a franchise I’d come to love for its exuberant stupidity. While 2022’s version of the Saints isn’t quite as creative and enjoyably silly as say 3 or 4, it has a lot of good fun woven into its offering. I do believe that it’s struggled slightly to carve out its own identity in terms of gameplay, relying largely on the same formulas from 10 years ago and I would have liked to see it commit more to either its more realistic world or slapstick nature of its gameplay.
It feels a little like an awkward love child of both the first two games in the series and the latter two, struggling to come to terms with what it wants to be. When I was tearing up a musuem with a minigun, using a digger to flip vehicles from a construction site or was hammering X to “get the f*&^ out of bed” in story missions there was a real glee that exuded from playing it. But then I’d have to deliver another truck or drive 3000m to the start of a mission because it would disable fast travel for no discernable reason.
The actual game that you’ll play will feel very early 2010s – looser combat mechanics, floaty animations and an emphasis on spectacle than substance. I was mostly pretty good with this – it’s fun, it’s silly, it’s chaotic and it’s wild. There are a lot of elements I would like to see improved for the future, particularly with tightening up gunplay and sorting out the mess of vehicle stuff, but I can’t deny I had a good time bringing the Saints back to their former glory once again.
Santo Ileso is a great reintroduction that brings the Saints into the modern age. It trips, stumbles and goes head-first into the floor on more than one occasion (when the floor is actually there), but then what would better define a game that has you purposely launch yourself off buildings, into oncoming traffic or gives you an infinite RPG to go nuts with? If you like the open world formula of lots to do and plenty to fill your time, you’ll find yourself embraced by Saints Row, it’s just a bit prickly with all its issues. Like a big, friendly, cuddly cactus. Which funnily enough, you can make your protagonist be. Huzzah.
The Saints have come marching in once again and while Santo Ileso offers a fun playground for these reborn renegades, it’s somewhat marred by a wealth of graphical issues, some underwhelming gunplay and a predictable narrative. Having said all that, you can customise your character into an orange, hurl yourself into traffic to make money and throw a self-propelled football at enemies to send them into space. It’s Saints Row as you remember, for better or worse, with a new coat of paint and refurbished for modern times.
Saints Row is launching on PS5 (Review version), PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC via EPIC Game Store.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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