Ever since Volition announced it would be rebooting Saints Row, the big open question among fans has been which game in the series this new version would most closely resemble. Would it shoot for the relatively grounded take of Saints Row 2? The balls-to-the-wall silliness of Saints Row IV? The middle ground between the two that was Saints Row: The Third?
Well, after spending a week with the game, I have my own surprising answer to that question. As it turns out, the game that the 2022 Saints Row most reminds me of is the 2006 original. Like the first Saints Row, this reboot feels like an obvious riff on another series of games, with some minor improvements to gameplay but very little in the way of original ideas or personality. The difference is, whereas the ’06 Saints Row cribbed heavily from 3D-era Grand Theft Auto, the ’22 Saints Row feels like a pale imitation of the original Saints Row games.
To be clear, I’m not saying those earlier Saints Row games would be better to play today. I haven’t touched any of them since they originally launched, so I can’t speak to how they’ve aged, but I know I enjoyed them enough at the time they were released, in the context of where open-world games were at that moment.
I can’t say the same about this reboot. To give credit where it’s due, Volition has done a fine job of giving some modern polish to much of the core gameplay—namely shooting guns, driving cars, and, uh, shooting guns from the top of moving cars, I guess. And the game’s open world, the Southwestern city of Santo Ileso and the surrounding desert, is handily the best in the series—brimming with fun little details and personality. But all these positive elements exist in service of open-world game design that feels quite dated and a story you’ll have a hard time investing in.
I don’t know how much time I actually need to spend explaining the basics of gameplay, because if you’ve played any open-world crime game in the past decade and a half, you probably already get it. There’s a city to explore, cars to hijack, stores to shop at, and a mix of story missions, side content, and collectibles. The only things that Saints Row really adds to the mix to stand apart are a wingsuit, which isn’t actually that novel anymore and proves only situationally useful, and the ability to construct your “Criminal Ventures” at one of a few preselected lots on the open world map. At first this sounds like a neat idea, that you can reshape the city as you progress through the game. But the only actual impact it has, apart from the location of a few buildings, is that on some of the side missions you’ll be finishing at a slightly different location.
Besides, whatever value the Criminal Ventures system adds to the game is undone by the way it’s implemented into story progression. At a few points, the game gates off the next main mission until you’ve built and completed a certain number of Ventures, which means you’re often either saving up cash to build them—frequently a matter of just being patient, since your existing businesses bring in revenue while you play—or finishing off Venture side mission chains that are usually the exact same thing over and over in a different location. Picking up a truck full of hazardous waste and driving carefully to a dump site isn’t really much fun, but having to do it more than 10 times is a whole new level of hell. The most brazen example is a mission chain that’s literally just driving around waiting for a particular model of truck to spawn, and then driving it back to your business—12 times.
Also egregious are the challenges you need to finish to unlock new perks. For many of these challenges, the requirements are ludicrously high and not the sort of thing that you’d be working toward during normal gameplay. No one’s going to get three full minutes of airtime in a firetruck, garbage truck, and bus during a normal playthrough—and that’s three minutes apiece, for one single challenge. Who’s going to melee kill 12 enemies with each of three different cosmetic variants of the same weapon? Not all the challenges are that bad, but there are so many perks to unlock that you’re not going to get them all without grinding out at least a few of the really annoying ones. Plus, the challenges unlock gradually throughout the game, with no clear indication of how many perks you have left, so you’re motivated to grind whatever annoying ones you do have to progress your character. There’s so much in the game that just feels like busywork designed to pad out your playtime without bothering to be fun.
It’s not just the side content, either. Everything in Saints Row gets repetitive after a while. In addition to those challenge-based perks, you unlock special abilities as you gain XP, and of course a wider variety of weapons, but it’s hard to want to experiment much when firefights are easy to conquer with the same basic tactics. One of the early abilities lets you temporarily give yourself a secondary health bar by spending some of the “Flow” you earn during combat. But there’s no cooldown other than waiting until that health is depleted, and it’s pretty much given that you’ll earn back the Flow you spent by the time that happens, so you essentially have an endless supply of health as long as you pay the slightest attention. Once you realize that, the whole game is just slight variations on the same firefight or chase sequence with minimal challenge.
Even the main story missions, where you’d expect most of the budget to go, don’t mix things up as much as you might hope. There are more cutscenes, sure, but rarely does the gameplay extend beyond what you’ve already done. Sometimes you’re watching cool things happen, but you’re rarely in control when they do.
All that would probably be excusable, to some degree, if I were at least engaged by the story, but I struggled with Saints Row there too. The truth is, almost nothing actually happens in terms of plot or character development across the story missions, and the climax and the motivation of the game’s ultimate villain are so rushed that it almost feels like a parody of how bad game narratives can be.
The new Saints aren’t unlikeable, but you don’t spend very long with them, and they’re not cartoonish enough to make a big impression in the limited screen time they do get. Broadly speaking, Kevin likes cooking and being shirtless, Neenah likes art and cars, Eli likes business, and the Boss likes murder. Other than that, all you really get is that they’re young and struggling with student loan debt, which is pretty relatable, but it’s a concern that basically evaporates two missions in, and the only relatability on offer after that is that, I don’t know, they’re a group of friends? And if you want to know how well they pulled off young millennial/elder Zoomer authenticity, there’s an entire early mission that’s just you driving while listening to voicemails from your friends. Sure, voicemails. That’s a thing young people love.
The humor, another potential saving grace, is very hit or miss. That’s been true of Saints Row games for a while, sure, but I always had a sense that Volition had at least figured out a core identity for the series. I’m not sure what vibe this new Saints Row is going for. It cleans up some of the most brainless and puerile humor from the original, sort of: The auto shop is now JimRob’s, not Rim Jobs, and the fast food restaurant Freckle Bitches is now just F.B.’s. Then again, there’s a fair amount of toilet humor, some literal. The weapons don’t really match the ridiculousness of the old series’ weirdest, like the Dubstep Gun. But there is a gun that shoots explosive piñatas, and a football you can throw at enemies to send them flying with thrusters. It’s kind of actually just the exact same philosophy, only less frequently employed with less imagination.
But let’s put all that aside for now and get to the other element of 2022’s Saints Row that kept reminding me of the 2006’s Saints Row: This game is just so buggy.
The most vivid memory I have of the original Saints Row isn’t actually of playing it (I do have a vague sense I rented it at Blockbuster, which makes me feel very old) but of a YouTube video the game spawned, a compilation of glitch footage accompanied by original showtunes called “Buggy Saints Row: The Musical.” I think it might be the perfect occasion for creator Cabel Sasser to get cracking on a sequel, because my experience playing 2022’s Saints Row was essentially an endless stream of bugs.
At the start, I saved clips of every new glitch I encountered, just to have a record, but at some point I had to stop because it was impeding my progress. What’s truly remarkable is that I’d rarely see the same bug twice—like there was some intentional effort to surprise me with the sheer variety of things that might possibly go wrong while playing.
There were, of course, the classics: T-posing enemies, disappearing cars, swimming through the air, running through the air, getting behind the wheel of a car only for my Boss to stand up with her torso jutting out of the roof.
There were bugs that were amusing but fairly innocuous, like the smoke from my car tires shooting out ahead of me whenever I used nitrous, or the gentle spurt from a fountain I found that did damage and eventually killed me. Once, I discovered I had a guns permanently fused to my hands like I was Daniel Radcliffe or something. Oh, and special shoutout to the time my game decided that, rather than getting into a helicopter, my boss would instead sit down on the ground beside it, a bug that stuck around until I reloaded an earlier save. I couldn’t actually fly the helicopter if I tried to get in (and therefore sat down) on the left side of the helicopter, but I could if I tried it from the right side, which is a nice added layer of insanity.
Then there were minor frustrations, like when clothes I’d customized changed their colors without any input from me, or when I was looking for a car to hijack downtown only to realize that absolutely no cars were spawning anywhere around me for several minutes. And there were bigger annoyances, like the multiple occasions when the game decided to stop registering inputs from certain buttons on the controller, or the persistent tendency of helicopters to spontaneously explode when I disembarked, without any warning they were taking damage, forcing me to cross the entire map again to get a new one. A couple of the challenges seem to be completely broken at the moment, refusing to track your progress even when you do the thing they’re asking you to.
But the thing that I really can’t laugh off, in terms of bugginess, is just how much Saints Row crashed on me. I’ve been goofing off in the world a bit as I write this review, and the game has crashed out to the Xbox dashboard five times, usually when I’m flying in the VTOL jet or wingsuiting. But it’s not just a matter of going too quickly for the game to keep up. I’ve encountered crashes in all manner of situations. Yesterday, I left the game idling while doing other work, and the game kept crashing while I was standing still, doing absolutely nothing.
What’s worse is that there’s no timing-based autosave, so if you haven’t done anything that does trigger a save or manually made one yourself, you’re going to lose progress. I’ve been working to knock off the last few absurd challenges—things like wingsuiting for 100 kilometers on a map that’s only about 7 kilometers wide—and since the game doesn’t even trigger a save when you fast travel, I’ve lost close to an hour’s worth of cash and progress toward challenges due to crashes. More than once. That’s just not okay.
It’s worth noting that, by necessity, I’m playing without the day one patch installed. But Deep Silver provided a list of known issues as part of the review guide, and nothing I’ve mentioned is on the list. Besides, if a single patch can fix even half of the bugs I encountered, it’ll be such a miracle that the programmers at Volition should be eligible for actual sainthood.
Before I wrap this up, I should note that I can’t speak to the game’s co-op features at all—because I couldn’t get them to work. I spent about an hour trying to join a friend and having him try to join me, to no avail. I also tried multiple times to use the matchmaking feature, but no one in the limited pool of online players ever accepted my request to join. In theory, I think it might be a lot of fun to goof off in the sandbox with someone else, maybe even more fun than anything else in Saints Row.
But I can’t review a game theoretically, can I? I can’t factor in my suspicion that co-op would probably be fun if I could get it to work or the fact that the worst bugs will likely be patched out in the months ahead. I can only judge what’s in front of me. And the Saints Row I played? Not very boss at all.
Saints Row pairs a great open-world city and respectable gameplay fundamentals with repetitive, dated mission design, a story that never finds its footing, and too many bugs to count. Depending on what you prioritize in a game, you may get some enjoyment out of it, but at best you’re looking at a diamond in a whole lot of rough.
Deep Silver Volition
M - Mature
|Saints Row is available on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC. Primary version played was for Xbox Series X. Product was provided by Deep Silver for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|