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Saints Row Review: Stripped-back shooter-focused sandbox feels aimless outside of super set-pieces

Found the 3rd Street Saints all over again in the new city of Santo Ileso

The corporate military is muscling in on my turf.

I’ve got a nice little racket going where I hurl myself in front of traffic, get fired 50 feet up in the air and rake it in from multiple bogus insurance claims, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them steal my innovative idea.

So as I gun it over to where they’re set up in my pearlescent lambo, I need to select the perfect piece of equipment to show them who’s boss. The uzi will do nicely.

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It doesn’t take long and with the still-hot uzi holstered, it’s back to launching myself under the nearest semi-truck – only six more runs until I can afford a tuxedo.

Saints Row has always been the dream game for people both 13 and 13-at-heart, but this one is a soft-reboot of the sandbox series that started life as a more straight-laced GTA clone that progressively got sillier and sillier until its boots didn’t have laces anymore, just half a can of Silly String and spaghetti where they used to be.

Where things inflated to a super-powered degree with Saints Row 4, this instalment doubles down on the gun-toting, action movie-quipping jumble of fun that Saints Row earned its gurning reputation with in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s.

But while some of its storytelling and expansiveness has evolved with the times, a few of its core ideas feel like a holdover from that very specific era of open-world gaming.

Saints Row is at its best during showpiece missions.

This is where it can make the most explosive use of its shiny environments, the tightest use of its solid, kinetic action, and the most joyous use of its goofy script.

The Saints Row series has always low-key had top-tier voice work – like in Saints Row 4 how Keith David basically played the same character as he does in Rick and Morty, just years earlier – and it’s no different here. Everyone in the booth is obviously having a blast and it shows.

It’s also where you get the best combat encounters, because there’s more design, direction and context than out in the open-world of Santo Ileso – the brand-new city that the Saints now call home.

From the tighter camera angle to the easy-trigger explosions – where you just have to press a button for your character to snap and shoot flammable barrels and the like – everything seems geared to making the shooting more intense and engaging, since it’s now the main focus for your powered-down character.

Whether you’re rescuing your buddies, storming cardboard castles in a city-wide LARP, or firing dynamite from a cannon to stop a museum heist, there’s loads of memorable, moreish, and mad-cap mischief to get lost in. And with a handful of fully voiced character personalities to choose from, it all feels very personal to you.

That’s as well as the rightly-lauded Boss Factory character creator, which gives you some good old-fashioned sliders to mess about with to give your character a unique look, with everything from more normal hairstyles to more outlandish metal skin to choose from.

The Boss rides an orange buggy over a jump in Saints Row
There are a huge amount of customizable cars and other vehicles to collect in Saints Row

The design of the other characters and factions feels more pedestrian though. It seems very inspired by Ubisoft open-world games, with that corporate-mandated neon-pink punk vibe that feels very familiar and like what we’ve seen already in the likes of Watch Dogs 2, Rage 2, Dying Light 2, and most similarly, Far Cry 6.

It’s great to see different kinds of characters represented too, but it feels a little shallow, particularly next to the stereotypical portrayal of the Latin American gang, Los Panteros.

Pre-release, a lot was made of this being a more “grounded” entry in the series that had spiralled out of control, but I feel like this Saints Row is maybe even looser than Saints Row 4. There you had the central conceit of being in a simulation that gave you superpowers, but now there isn’t a similar peg that holds things together.

Yes, you’re building your criminal empire by founding different crooked enterprises, but the main way you interact with them is still through icons on the map, dotted around the city, that teleport you to where you need to be.

This, coupled with cueing main missions up from your in-game phone, can make you feel quite disconnected from your surroundings. So although the music and atmosphere is really good inside of the missions, small activities and moving around the open world can feel flat and abrupt.

One example I can think of for this is the chop shop side missions where you steal a rare car and race it back to your garage to sell for parts. After the ride back, which functions like a GTA-style police chase with different levels of aggro, you drive into a glowing circle outside of your destination and everything stops dead.

It’s quite low-stakes and arcadey, which is good if you like ticking off boxes and watching your income number go up – which I do – but it’s definitely not the grounded, more believable role-play that some people might be expecting.

Members of the Los Panteros gang wait in an alley in Saints Row
In Saints Row you establish your gang and take on the other factions throughout the city

Another issue is that you can feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over. While there are a lot of different Side Hustles and activity types, there are a lot of instances of the same activity all over the map and your businesses require around 7-ish repetitions of the same kind of mission to max out.

Again, because you’re mainly interacting with them as icons on a world map and the city is so big, the discovery factor is quite low and the temptation is to just slog and grind through all of one business type because there’s not a lot of impetus to drive to something different.

It’s a very hard balance to strike between giving the player freedom of choice as well as lots of variety, but Saints Row slips slightly into aimlessness when you’re scanning the map for your next diversion.

With that said though, in 4K on PS5 the world looks good with a huge sense of scale and decent density once it gets going – even if the frame rate can suffer when the going gets tough.

There’s a lot to like and a lot to laugh at in Saints Row as you raise hell around Santo Ileso with your unique boss. Collecting clothes and cars as you scale up your network of businesses is compelling as you accumulate wealth and solidify your spot at the top. But outside of the super set-piece main missions, it’s easy to bounce off the more repetitive elements of the open-world.

Saints Row drops on August 23, 2022, on PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, and Google Stadia. Tested on PS5, code provided by publisher.

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