The Saints Row series emerged in the Xbox 360 era as a cheeky, irreverent response to the likes of Grand Theft Auto. By its fourth game, however, the open-world series’ cars, heists, sex-toys-as-weapons gimmick, and explosive gunfights had seemingly run out of new directions to go.
Previews suggested that this week’s new series reboot, simply titled Saints Row, might wipe the slate clean to provide a fresh perspective on the crime-spree genre. Instead, this game simply wipes the slate clean—and leaves it that way.
Saints Row (2022) is the rare open-world game that makes an average Ubisoft open-world game of the past five years seem refreshing by comparison. Describing this game as a regression to the Xbox 360 era would be an insult to the late 2000s’ best open-world adventures. It can’t touch the adventurous exploration, satisfying mechanics, and supercharged bombast of 2007’s Crackdown, while its hole-filled plot and cookie-cutter characters aren’t fun to laugh at, let alone with.
Worst of all, should you ignore this advice because you’re eager for mindless chaos, steel yourself for a technical and mechanical nightmare. This game’s ratio is roughly nine agonizing technical hiccups and annoyances for every chuckle-worthy explosion or glitchy physics mishap.
A counterfeit cosplay knockoff of Master Chief
The trouble begins as you attempt to make sense of what’s going on in this game, which structurally resembles any GTA-like game of the past 15 years. As a professional criminal, you take on gigs to raise your notoriety, either through linear campaign levels or various takes dotted around an open-world map. The game opens with you hanging out with three housemates, each with their own hustles and enterprises on the side, and these characters’ voice acting and camaraderie are solid enough. Too bad you barely spend time with them. Instead, you’ll waste the campaign’s first five hours working for some kind of American black ops organization, all while dressing like a counterfeit cosplay knockoff of Master Chief.
Are you dismantling criminal rings? Battling terrorists? Doing dirty work for a government that needs secrets buried? It’s all unclear because the dialogue in these missions mostly focuses on your character bickering with their commanding officer in repetitive, unfunny fashion. These missions take place on largely linear paths and offer few creative or amusingly over-the-top paths to success. Run forward, shoot basic pistols and machine guns, and repeat, with an occasional crudely animated cutscene suggesting that these missions are more exciting than they really are.
Why are these linear levels not overcharged with, say, a full arsenal of shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, a tank driving on top of another tank, or other ridiculousness that matches the irreverence of the series’ past 15 years? Is it because the writers at Volition want me to care about a whiny commanding officer who otherwise doesn’t exist in the course of normal gameplay? If this portion of the game is supposed to be fun or funny, I sure didn’t get it.
This series of missions ends abruptly, with little clarity about why your black-ops workload has vanished. Instead, your roommates run into trouble with local gangs in this game’s fictional version of Las Vegas, dubbed Santo Ileso, and your response is to start your own gang. There’s more plot at this point about each regional gang’s interests conflicting with each other, but without any memorable kingpin characters in each territory, the conceit falls flat. Your roommates are the game’s best characters, at least, but they’re underutilized, and their chatter is relegated to moments when gunfire breaks out, making whatever they’re talking about indiscernible. (Upon completing one mission, one roommate, who works as a DJ between crime sprees, speaks his own social media posts out loud, saying “hashtag blessed” without any sense of irony.)