The Saints are back in this reboot/prequel, of the over-the-top open-world crime series simply titled Saints Row.
Back in 2006 my Xbox 360 was seriously lacking any Grand Theft Auto fun, right up until the release of the original Saints Row. Whilst it was a solid game, Volition, the Saints Row developer wasn’t able to replicate Rockstar’s subtle, tongue-in-cheek humour. Rather than be pigeonholed as a GTA clone, the Saints Row series veered off into the realm of the absurd. Lacking the satire and grittiness of the Grand Theft Auto games, for me, the Saints Row series became childish and, well, stupid.
With 2013’s Saints Row IV dealing with an alien invasion and the 2015 Gat Out of Hell standalone expansion literally going to Hell, the series had backed itself into a corner. New hardware and some breathing space made for the perfect time for a reboot.
The 2020 Saints Row is pitched as a reboot, but it’s not really. It’s more of a prequel.
Whilst I was expecting the third-person shooter to have better controls, overhauled gameplay, and a plot that is a little more grounded, the game seems cut using the same tools as before. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. Volition had the perfect opportunity to create a next-gen Saints Row that built upon previous iterations, instead, I felt, we had more of the same.
It was only after playing the game for a few hours that the friction between what I was expecting and what I was playing started to ease, revealing Saints Row to be a lot of fun. Yes, it’s very much in the same vein as its predecessors, but being an origin tale of sorts, players are starting from scratch, bringing things down a peg or two.
Players start out as a nobody employed by security/mercenary Marshall Defense Industries. The game does an excruciatingly poor job of introducing players to the game via an extended on-rails shooting sequence and an overly intricate character customisation setup.
The developers pride themselves on the character editor, which allows you to customise the in-game avatar to your precise requirements. It’s another aspect of the game which may appeal to some but betrays the developers being unable to move on from the previous games. Nevertheless, I chose a character that I’m familiar with: a potty-mouthed British woman; her posh accent is authenticated by the use of impressively genuine UK dialogue (ie. saying “lorries” instead of “trucks”).
With the intro out of the way, players are dumped into the city of Santo Ileso, a mashup of Las Vegas and a Mexican border town. The setting offers a variety of locations from poorer desert settlements to the neon of the downtown area. There are also plenty of roads for chases and general vehicular mayhem.
The plot soon has the player’s character out of work and, with the assistance of their friends Neenah (the driver), the shirtless Kevin (the planner), and Eli (the brains), forming their own criminal gang, The Saints.
As with previous iterations, the game is mission-based, with the main quest line moving the story on, but loads of side-missions and activities to break things up. Saints Row takes a leaf out of the Ubisoft book of side activities, with the map quickly becoming covered in things to do. The game has you so busy that it’s very easy to get side-tracked for an entire session.
The map reveals contraband drops that need collecting as well as side-hustles (the odd robbery etc.) and tasks that need to be carried out to expand The Saints’ criminal network. As well as visiting locations on the map for things to do, players have a mobile phone with a variety of apps including one for selecting unlocked missions, and hit-jobs on wanted people.
Near the beginning of the game, as The Saints embark on their criminal career, the criminal enterprise table unlocks giving access to vacant lots upon which new business ventures can be located. These have a series of tasks that need to be fulfilled on top of clearing out the existing gang members in the surrounding neighbourhood.
The Saints share Santo Ileso with other gang factions. Accidently (or deliberately) injuring a rival gang will cause them to retaliate. Gang members can call or back up, meaning things can escalate very quickly. Players will find themselves going up against operatives of the private military contractor, The Marshalls, anarchistic ravers, The Idols, and the full-on urban gangsters of Los Panteros.
Combat is a bit of a mess. There’s no cover system, but you can duck behind objects. Aiming is a bit haphazard and triggering special attacks a bit clumsy. Shootouts end up being just a spread of bullets with no incentive for strategy. To be honest, though, this is exactly the same as the Saints Row games have always been. The fun of combat is had by unleashing the power of some of the more exotic weaponry.
It’s not just about running around shooting. There are vehicles to collect, all of which can be used to dispatch enemies. The car handling, whilst not Grand Turismo, is good, offering up some nice opportunities for handbrake turns as well as a dedicated button combo of devastating side-swipes.
If you have a friend with the game, you can invite them to play with you. There’s also the opportunity to host or join online multiplayer campaign games.
A had a few bugs with the camera and the HUD getting positioned off-screen. The HDR, as well, failed to work as expected in fullscreen mode. Mildly annoying, but not dealbreakers.
The game looks quite nice and has a polished presentation. The lighting and environmental effects are a step up from previous games. The game’s world is just rich enough not to look like an assembly of cookie-cutter buildings, but at the same time could do with a bit more detail.
As you’d expect, the game ran solidly on the Intel i9-13900/Nvidia RTX 3090 review rig with a high frame rate. The game has options for DirectX 121, DirectX 11, and Vulcan renderers. The inclusion of Nvidia DLSS gives the game a performance boost that’ll help players with older systems to still get the most out of the game.
Despite my initial misgivings, Saints Row grew on me. It is a good game. Yes, it could be better, but there are lots to do and, in the end, I had fun with the game.
There’s no getting over that it’s a bit of a missed opportunity, but If the goofy design of the last few games in the series is what you are after, this new Saints Row offers nigh-on the same thing with a bit more polish and graphical flair.