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Saints Row doesn’t evolve the series, but it never needed to

The first thing that comes to mind when Saints Row is mentioned is The Penetrator, the floppy purple pleasure device synonymous with the third game in the series. I don’t imagine I’m alone there. It’s a strange legacy for a franchise that reaches back 16 years, but a fitting one. Saints Row has never been about breaking the mold in terms of gameplay — it was a derivative series from the start. What it has always been about is over-the-top action, ridiculous encounters, and a heavy dash of crude humor.

Saints Row, the 2022 reboot, doesn’t break the mold either. It takes sparse influences from more recent open-world sandboxes, but still focuses on the core of the series: a cast of cartoonish characters, blockbuster action, and an open world that just begs for you to cause mayhem within it. Saints Row doesn’t evolve the series, but after spending four hours with the game at a preview event, I realize it never needed to.

Not an evolution

The Boss shooting at police in Saints Row.

If you’re looking for cutting-edge open-world gameplay, you won’t find it in Saints Row. The reboot doesn’t do anything new — it simply gives you a list of objectives of varying severity to tackle across the wide map of Santo Illeso.

I went through about 10 main missions, spending some of my time tackling side objectives and exploring as well. These missions are mostly linear in the beginning, taking you to locations you can’t explore in the open world and punishing you for getting sidetracked (a bit like Red Dead Redemption 2).

Outside of the 25 main missions, you have 10 side missions, several Side Hustles, and dozens of points of interest that unlock collectibles, skins, money, and fast travel points. I was able to experience a bit of each, but what surprised me is how much I didn’t see. In the four hours I had with the game, I didn’t touch Criminal Ventures like Insurance Fraud, and my demo ended right as I was placing my first collectible in The Saints hideout.

There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, but there’s a lot of it. Immediately after my demo, I wanted to dive back in to check off points on the map, customize my hideout, and start building my criminal enterprise. There’s a lot to do in Santo Illeso, even if there isn’t a ton to explore (more on that later).

Where the game does see some evolution is combat. You now have access to a finisher move that will give you back some health. Your finish meter builds up over time, but you can speed up the process by killing some enemies. The result: Saints Row encourages you to play more aggressively and ramps up the difficulty, resulting in combat that’s closer to Control than a traditional cover shooter.

You have a selection of perks and skills now, too. Perks are passive buffs you unlock for completing certain challenges, while skills give you different combat abilities you can assign to one of four slots. I like perks incentivizing completing challenges, but the skills aren’t too enticing. They follow a linear upgrade path as you level up, so you aren’t able to invest in certain areas or follow a path on a skill tree.

Bringing Saints Row into back down to earth

The Saints outside of a convenience store.

A quick look back at Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV show just how dated they are. Shock value sold the third entry in the series, but the shock lost its value with the fourth. Fighting with giant sex toys and venturing into VR worlds to fight aliens is fun when it’s new; when it’s regurgitated, it’s obnoxious. Saints Row grounds the series.

Gone is the international media brand that is the Saints. The world of Santo Illeso is occupied by three main factions: The private military group Marshall Defense Industries, the anarchist and EDM-ridden cult known as The Idols, and the power-hungry, carjacking street gang Los Paneros. You begin the game as a new hire at Marshall, living in a small apartment with three others.

Needless to say, things are going great for our group of friends, who find themselves founding their own criminal organization called The Saints out of disparate pieces of the other factions. I reached this point at the tail end of my four-hour demo, which illustrates just how much buildup this reboot has. The new cast is a bit underbaked, but I loved my Boss almost immediately. Volition did magic with the voice acting, and the same lines play wildly different depending on which of the eight voices you choose.

Although Saint Row still has the action movie set pieces the series is known for, it’s far removed from the wacky scenarios you’ll encounter in the later games. Volition has said it wanted to cross Saints Row 2 and 3 in the reboot, and that translates.

Empty buildings, vast landscapes

A landscape in Saints Row (2022).

The world of Santo Illeso is vibrant, varied, and detailed, and I loved exploring it during my demo. Modeled after the Southeastern U.S., you’ll find details inspired by everything from the Las Vegas Strip to The Alamo, and Volition blends them together seamlessly.

This isn’t a city teeming with life, though. Buildings are mostly locked down, city blocks are almost always occupied by only a few pedestrians, and cars seem like a scarcity (especially given how many cops are littered among the streets). The vast majority of what you can explore in Santo Illeso shows up as a map icon.

That doesn’t mean Santo Illeso is lifeless. Each of the nine districts are varied and lively, from trailers and tents out deep in the desert, to shopping districts lined with shoppers, to sparse suburban communities with folks sitting on the porch or grilling in the backyard. In the last area, I caught a line from a nearby NPC that almost made me fall out of my chair laughing: “Yeah, I just can’t stop my son from committing arson.”

Volition clearly went with quality over quantity, but it’s important to recognize that it’s a trade-off. The streets of Santo Illeso are mostly empty, but the environments and NPCs that are in it are fantastic.

Getting back to fun

A tank running through the streets in Saints Row.

I could write down a list of all of the things wrong with Saints Row compared to the best open-world games today, and it would be lengthy. But I still want to play more. I had a blast barreling through Santo Illeso over the course of a few hours, and I’m eager to jump back in on August 23.

I don’t think the game is too big — I was able to get through a decent chunk of the story in just four hours — but the endless customization for weapons, vehicles, your Boss, and your hideout promises dozens of hours of ridiculous, crime-fueled fun. The story seems set up for a promising payoff, too, even if it’s wrapped in a cast of admittedly cliché characters.

Saints Row as a franchise is all about having fun, and I had a lot of fun with the reboot. It doesn’t push the envelope and it doesn’t evolve the series, but it never needed to.

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Jacob Roach
Senior Staff Writer, Computing
Jacob Roach is a writer covering computing and gaming at Digital Trends. After realizing Crysis wouldn't run on a laptop, he…
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