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Saints Row reboot still looks wacky, even if it’s formulaic

The Saints Row series is making its grand return after seven years. The Saints Row universe fully reset at the end of the Saints Row IV DLC Gat Out of Hell, so Volition’s next game is a full-on reboot of the series. After the underwhelming Agents of Mayhem, this reboot allowed the developer to redefine what a Saints Row game could be without the constraints of classic characters or settings. Unfortunately, that new vision is much more plain than I’d hoped despite the series’ expected madcap tone.

While the results of this reimagining have the enjoyable and wacky Saints Row flair that one would expect, I was left quite underwhelmed by a recent hands-off preview of several missions, combat, and the open world in Saints Row. This upcoming game is set in a new Southwestern city of Santo Ileso and features a new cast of Saints characters, so Volition has an opportunity to go big and bold here. Ultimately, it’s looking formulaic for a series that’s known for being off-kilter and wildly creative.

SAINTS ROW – Game Awards Gameplay Trailer

Grounded absurdism 

During my hands-off preview, I got to see the new team of Saints in a variety of missions. These include a loan agency robbery gone wrong that results in a big car chase, a raid of a car-loving Panteros gang’s headquarters in a helicopter, and a rescue mission for one of the player-character’s friends after he’s kidnapped by a bunch of Deadmau5-looking crooks from a gang called the Idols.

The new cast of Saints seems likable enough, but the “angry but endearingly funny millennial” tone of each character’s writing has yet to be nearly as endearing as classic Saints Row characters like Johnny Gat or Kinzie Kensington. The “try-hard lulz” writing that the series was known for isn’t as funny now as it was in 2015 when the last Saints Row game was released. It’s hard to tell from this early look if Volition’s writers will succumb to the same unfunny writing problems that plagued 2019’s Borderlands 3.

Neenah swings on a chain in Saints Row.

Also, because it’s an entirely new cast of characters that have yet to prove themselves to fans, there isn’t any nostalgia factor that can help make up for subpar jokes. Currently, Volition’s strategy is to give the narrative a sense of “groundedness” despite its kooky aspects to make players care about this character and that narrative.

“Absurdism for the sake of absurdism, that’s where everything feels fluffy, and it doesn’t feel like anything really means anything,” lead writer Jeremy Bernstein said at the preview event. “We worked very hard to avoid that, so there’s a groundedness, even to the most absurd things that you do in the game.” It remains to be seen if this new, more grounded approach successfully introduces a new cast and setting for Saints Row or just leaves me yearning for the classic Saints and city of Steelport.

Absurdly generic 

While each mission that I described earlier does have the Saints Row series’ trademark quirk, they aren’t exactly pushing the boundaries of what to expect from a third-person, open-world game so far. While I only saw a few side missions, like one where players had to ride shotgun and fend off cops for a jewelry thief, our look at the map and missions suggest that Saints Row may be a fairly boilerplate open-world game.

The main character of Saints Row glides in a wingsuit.

In a worst-case scenario, I’m afraid Saints Row will feel more like I’m working my way through a checklist of objectives rather than discovering the seedy nooks and crannies of a vast Santo Ileso. Despite the new setting, cast of characters, and zany tone, I’ve yet to see this new Saints Row offer much that Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV didn’t almost a decade ago. That plainness of design feels at odds with how offbeat the series advertises itself as.

Some features are new to the series, like buying and selling businesses that open up new missions or opportunities. Still, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in previous Saints Row games, Grand Theft Auto games, or countless open-world games from the past decade. Even if it often leans into absurdity, Saints Row looks like it will be another checklist-driven open-world adventure, which is a harder sell in the wake of games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Elden Ring

Traditionally absurd

Where Saints Row does manage to stand out is with those absurdist flourishes. Its immensely detailed character, cars, and weapon customization systems look like they’ll allow players to tweak and customize almost every aspect of everything they’ll control in-game. Players can even customize certain perks and fighting skills that enable some over-the-top attacks and finishers.

Co-op Saints Row players shoot at enemies.
Saints Row will feature online co-op, which should help lighten up some of the game’s duller moments.

Players can also perform wild stunts like rolling on top of cars to shoot enemies from up there, gliding in a wingsuit and bouncing off people’s heads to maintain momentum with it, or bashing cop cars off the road to create glorious explosions in car combat. There’s nothing as ridiculous as the superpowers in Saints Row IV, but it still looks like an over-the-top action romp that’ll be fun to play moment to moment.

That’s why it’s unfortunate that Volition doesn’t seem to be taking more risks with level or world design, as I don’t get the sense the game is nearly as unpredictable as it wants you to think it is so far. Hopefully, some more exciting missions that match the heights of Saints Row: The Third’s skydive opening will surprise us when Saints Row launches, but right now, it seems safe to assume that this will be a traditional open-world Saints Row experience despite the long gap between games. 

It still looks like it will contain the fun, wacky thrills that the Saints Row series is known for and be perfectly fun to play, but I’m no longer expecting this game to revolutionize the series.

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