Volition's decision to reboot their long-running Saints Row franchise has had us intrigued, excited even, ever since this brand new entry was officially announced back in 2021. A ground-up reworking seemed like a great opportunity for the developer, a chance to make a clean break, to refresh and reset a series that was struggling somewhat having gone to increasingly ridiculous lengths to entertain with each and every new addition. Here was a chance to pull things back from the brink, to step away from the dildo bats, dubstep guns and fart jar grenades, to drag their rough and ready street gang into the here and now.
It's a shame, then, that what we've actually got here is one of the worst urban open world games we've played in recent memory. Yep, it's that bad. Over the course of the roughly 20 or so hours we spent with this one, we've been genuinely gobsmacked at just how rough, how janky and how bizarrely old-fashioned this failed attempt at a reboot really is. There's barely a single gameplay system in Saints Row that works as it ought to, barely a single scene's worth of dialogue that didn't make us wince, and it results in an action-adventure game that we had to just grit our teeth and plough through, one miserable cookie cutter mission at a time.
Things get off to an immediately bad start, with a cringe-inducing opening sequence that culminates in the game's title arriving on your screen just as your customised character - the new leader of the titular Saints - screams a string of obscenities from his vehicle whilst blasting down the freeway. Somewhere, somebody must have thought this was edgy, cool, a good first impression to strike at the beginning of a fresh franchise reset, but in reality it just comes across as desperately lame, a needlessly infantile start to proceedings that will surely only appeal to folk who think that profanity alone is comedy gold.
It's not a good introduction, and things honestly never really improve. Once you've created your in-game avatar - in the admittedly rather flexible character creation suite - you'll be let loose in Santo Ileso, a south-west American city that's a rough mashing together of the likes of Reno and Vegas, where three rival gangs, the Panteros, the Idols and Marshall Defense Industries are engaged in a struggle for supremacy. It's here we're introduced to the all-new Saints, a terminally dull bunch of worriers who're struggling to pay their student loans - almost as much as we're struggling to remember their names - and need to pull their various criminal skills together in order to make some serious money.
Yep, where the likes of GTA and, to a lesser extent, Watch Dogs, tend to at least attempt to set their protagonists up with somewhat intriguing motivations for their spiral into a life of crime and violence, here you do it because hey, we gots to pay dem bills. It's not like we're not asking for an overly complex narrative, we're not expecting the Saints to explain away every death they cause as they rampage across the world map, but a little more depth sure would have helped give us something to cling to as we ploughed through the repetitive missions on offer here.
Soon after arriving in Santo Ileso for the first time, you and your crew decide to make a go of it and set up your very own criminal organisation, at which point you quickly check available local property, find a big old church with the Saints Row logo emblazoned on its floor and then name your new gang after one of the very first things you happen to see upon entering the building. What an inspired origin story. From here things kick off properly and you're thrown into the game's core loop of dull campaign missions and endless side activities that've been cribbed from every other urban open world game that you've ever played - except here they don't work as good.
You'll hunt down assassination targets and kill them for cash, steal cars to sell at a chop shop, take to the skies in helicopters to nick armoured vehicles, rock up onto rival turf for street fights, find tourist sights to take photos of for XP, dumpster dive for prizes, leave bad ratings at businesses in order to kick off wave defence sequences against your foes and so on and so forth. All of this stuff is as uninspired and bland as can be and 90% of your time is spent driving somewhere, getting into a fight, then rinsing and repeating. It's a tired and uninspired gameplay loop that's made even worse by the fact the game is so rough and unpolished.
There are bugs and mechanical issues aplenty here, one of the most egregious of which being an issue where we repeatedly lost control of our protagonist during missions, the game suddenly refusing to respond to our button presses, with the only resolution being to quit the game entirely and reload, causing us to lose great big chunks of progress in the process. One mission in particular, The Forge, bugged out on us a total of eight times before we got through it and each of these times we had to go right back to the start and go again. In the end we think we resolved the issue by refraining from using our combat flow skills (more on these in a bit), which seemed to be the root cause of the problem in this instance. This is a bug that stayed with for the duration of the game too, so we stepped into every mission concerned that it'd rear its ugly head.
Another early mission calls on you to take out a bunch of cops before making your getaway. However, these cops are positioned on a highway that's directly above your current position. You can't get up to the highway because you'll leave the tight mission boundary and fail, but you also can't get a shot on target because, well, you can't see the cops in question. The game ended up coming to the rescue here by having our targets either die or disappear, we're not sure which, but we ended up free to go without having to take out a single police officer.
Beyond these very specific examples, we've also had a recurring issue where our weapons bugged out, resulting in them being held at a funny angle and refusing to shoot or reload as well as vehicles that brush gently against scenery during car chases then fly off into the air in an exaggerated manner. We've encountered broken finishing animations that see you execute a special move in the empty space beside the enemy you're meant to be taking down, dialogue that abruptly cuts off never to return, teammates who die repeatedly because they like to run headlong into heavy enemy fire, resulting in an instant mission fail, enemies who spawn out of nowhere...we could go on.
In fact, let's go on. The cop mechanics in this game are on a level with pre-patch Cyberpunk 2077, you know the drill, they just materialise out of nowhere and savage you en masse, there's zero finesse to it. Jump in your car to get away and endless police cars will appear to bash you around. There's no comprehensible wanted system, you just keep driving, use the game's bash mechanic to side swipe them so they blow up and keep on keeping on until the mission decides it's over, at which point all enemies will either simply disappear into the ether or stop chasing you. This jank occurs during wave defence side activities too, you'll find yourself surrounded, really up against it and maybe even starting to enjoy the challenge momentarily, before the game decides you've killed enough and the gang that's got you cornered will disappear or suddenly disengage and walk away.
Set-piece campaign missions, such as a big train robbery that we really though might inject some much-needed fun into proceedings, end up being hugely disappointing efforts that see you simply charge from carriage to carriage, shooting at dumbass enemies who stand around in the open and simply materialise into the action when they feel like it. Not that you'll have any option but to stand in the open yourself at times during firefights given there's no actual cover system at work here, the best you can do is crouch behind something - you'll still got shot doing this - and there are lots of times where shootouts take place at close quarters in small rooms with zero cover opportunities at all. You just gotta roll around on the floor in front of your foes to dodge and then shoot when you get a chance. It's 2022.
Guns are bad across the board, we ended up preferring the default pistol to every other weapon in the game as it at least shoots in a straight line, and even stalwarts such as the shotgun feel borked, doing random amounts of damage and failing to finish off foes in good time, even when you walk right into their faces and shoot them directly in the kisser. You can't pick up enemy weapons as you kill them, instead these fall to the floor and disappear, so there's no opportunity to lightly strategize, no moment where you'll rush to take down a heavy machine-gunner so you can grab his big gun and turn it on the baying mob. It's just naff, janky, half-assed combat that throws you into the same boring fights against the same dumb enemies time and time again.
Then there's that flow system we mentioned. Your flow, apparently, builds up as you kill and damage enemies in combat and then allows you to strike out with a bunch of special skills that you'll unlock as the game progresses. The most useful one of these skills by far is a move that sees you grab an enemy, put a grenade down their pants then fling them back at their buddies, it's also one of the first skills you unlock and the only one we ended up using with any regularity during our run through the game. The real problem with these flow skills is there's zero rhyme or reason as to when you'll get to use them. Sometimes we were allowed to pull off three or four in a row during a scrap, sometimes they were locked off and never opened up, no matter how many people we killed. It's just more jank in a sea of jank, game mechanics that should be fun but are implemented in such a way that they can't be relied upon.
There are some fun mechanics and toys in the mix here, don't get us wrong, and later in the game you will, as expected, get some slightly more outlandish vehicles and gear to play around with, not to mention that from the off you've got a nifty wingsuit to muck about in. You can ride around on the roof of a car to shoot at your enemies - heck you can even wingsuit onto a car and then jump from vehicle to vehicle. All of this stuff should really be great fun, on paper it's exactly the kind of daft mechanics we want to see in this game, but in actual practice it's just dull, drained of most of its potential because it all feels so badly implemented and rough around the edges, a bunch of decent ideas stuffed into boring, badly designed missions.
Moving on to the world itself and Santa Ileso...well, honestly, it's just a bland, uninspired and surprisingly small map to muck about on with absolutely nothing to make it stand out from any of the other games in this overstuffed genre. The neighbourhoods that make up this open world don't feel engaging or unique in any way, and thinking back the only places we can really remember without straining are the gang's base of operations and a Las Vegas strip-style area.
The whole thing is just so old-fashioned and creaky, it feels - and very often looks - like an open world game from another era entirely. The city and surrounding wildernesses here are a bland mix of generic areas that do a poor job of creating the illusion of a world that's actually alive or lived in, pop-in is quite noticeable as you drive around, the water effects look smudgy and weird, there's barely any traffic (and what traffic there is can be seen materialising in front of you) and NPCs walk around in circles repeating lines of dialogue and dancing in the streets to music that isn't there. Make a comparison to Rockstar's last GTA outing, the now nine year-old GTA V, and this brand new, hot-off-the-press Saints Row reboot comes off looking spectacularly amateurish.
If all of this wasn't bad enough - and it is - once you've done a few story missions you'll gain access to the game's all-new criminal ventures through a city map in your base. Here you plonk down various businesses that are actually fronts for your illegal activities and opening them up gives you access to even more tired side activities to indulge in. These ventures cost quite a lot of money, an annoying amount in fact, and so now you're gonna have to get out there, into the monotonous brown world, and grind, baby. It's the last thing this game needed, forcing you to engage with its worst aspects as you claw together cash to move forward.
We could keep going really, there's so much we didn't like about our time with this one, but needless to say this is not the reboot we were hoping for. Saints Row feels like a project that's had serious issues during development, it feels like a game that lost its way somewhere along the line and just never managed to recover or refocus. All it needed was a decent story, something to hook you in, and gameplay that gave you something - anything - new or original to do. It's got zero personality, zero charm, zero tricks up its sleeve, and is then further weighed down by inexcusable bugs and glitches. We haven't even mentioned the fact it doesn't run smoothly in either its 4K graphical mode or at 1440p/high quality, with some pretty noticeable stuttering as you careen around the map.
But look, let's try to be positive for a moment. We've got no doubt there are some folk, super fans of this particular genre, who'll still, somehow, get some enjoyment out of blasting around this game's open world, and to this end there's an exhaustive character customisation suite, plenty of silly costumes to unlock and lots of decent music included in the soundtrack for them to enjoy. Furthermore, if Volition manage to iron out all of the bugs, well, we guess the combat could potentially be rescued somewhat. If things get smoothed out and patched up to a reasonable degree you could end up with a game that just about does the job, that gives you an excuse to blaze around mindlessly, hoovering up unlockable bits and bobs and shooting baddies until you're the kings of Santa Ileso.
However, back in the here and now, it's just impossible to recommend anyone play Saints Row as things currently stand. Beyond being an almost total failure in terms of its narrative, this reboot is just a janky, bland, old-fashioned mess of a game that's surely one of the biggest let-downs of 2022 so far and easily one of the very worst big name titles we've played this year.
Saints Row is one of the worst urban open world games we've played in recent memory, a bland, janky, old-fashioned mess of a game that fails to deliver on the promise held by a reboot of this zany franchise. Whether it's the buggy combat, boring missions, cringe-inducing dialogue or cookie-cutter side activities, there's always something to feel let down by here. If you're a huge fan of the genre you may well still find something to pass the time in Santa Ileso, there's decent character customisation, a strong soundtrack and plenty of baddies to kill and cars to wreck, but for everyone else this is one game that's virtually impossible to recommend and one of the biggest let-downs of 2022 so far.