August 23, 2022
The Saints Row franchise has a pretty storied history. What began as a fairly blatant aping of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas evolved over almost a decade into a fairly blatant aping of Crackdown, and yet there was a charm to it all that elevated it above a simple copycat franchise. It has always been funny, it has always been irreverent, and there has always been far more quality and pathos in a lot of the dialogue than there has any right to be. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of a series, having spent its lifespan cherry-picking ideas and concepts from other games and somehow folding them into its own gelatinous mass as though they’d always been there. Above all Saints Row has always been capable of expansion and, if not maturation, then at least growth.
Which makes it all the more surprising that, in the 9 years since Saints Row IV, the franchise hasn’t budged a smegging inch. SRIV switched up the gameplay to such a degree that no one knew where the franchise could possibly go next. An alien invasion, a Matrix-style simulation, the Boss having actual superpowers, and the Saints running the USA from the highest seats of Congress. By achieving such dizzying heights of ridiculous fun and over-the-top catharsis, Volition only left themselves one direction to go in: backwards.
Saints Row 2022 is a bewildering game. It doesn’t even seem to exist in the right place in the lifespan of its own series. It feels and plays like a game from ten years ago, but what’s worse is that it carries itself with such a self-assured swagger. Volition seem to believe they’re bringing the people what they’ve been waiting for, but the cold hard truth is that you’ve played this game before, many times, a decade ago.
Relocating from Stillwater or Steelport to the city of Santo Ileso achieves nothing but a barely noticeable aesthetic change. The broad strokes of the world are the same as they have always been: gangs have limitless members and operate like corporate organisations, with little to no explanation as to why.
The story of Saints Row 2022 seems to be aiming for outrageous, but actually just comes across as tone-deaf and nonsensical. Your Boss is a down and out post-graduate waster with three roommates, two of whom happen to be members of Santo Ileso’s biggest gangs. Neenah is in the brutal Panteros, while Kevin is part of the psychedelic Idols Collective. The story begins with your first day working for Marshall, a Private Military Company that runs security for most of Santo Ileso. Apparently this requires no training or experience: you’re just given a gun and a uniform and sent on a mission to capture a crime lord. The opening mission is an awful mess of confused level design (for some reason the crime lord is holed up in a Wild West town), cringeworthy dialogue, and shoddy, cumbersome animation. And it only gets worse from here.
By day two, you’re head of Marshall Security, and by day three you’re fired and decide to start your own gang. There’s nothing organic about any of it. It all just happens, story beats slamming down with the grace and precision of a rain of frogs. After the very first mission you get access to your phone, where you can use apps to change your style or skills, access the GPS map, and select missions. Often missions appear in your phone without telling you they’re available, so every time you open it there are new ones. From clumsy wingsuit missions to the age-old insurance claim missions where you hurl yourself into traffic, everything you’d expect from a Saints Row game is here. The problem is, there’s nothing new mixed in with it.
It constantly loses sight of its own themes. One moment you’re struggling to make rent, next you’re spending $25000 on clothes. You take on hundreds of gang members in the middle of the street with zero consequences, but can clip an NPC car and have the police on you in moments. The plot is a confusing, meandering belch of random violence peppered with occasional, incongruous smatterings of well-written dialogue that never feels truly engaging.
Like the gameplay, the AI also feels ten years old. If you stop your car in the road, people will simply drive into it and each other to push it out of the way. Reaching a mission target causes all pursuers you’ve picked up to instantly give up and drive away. During gunfights everyone just stands in the open firing at one another. Occasionally an enemy will crouch behind cover, but there’s little point. With no cover mechanic for you, all you can do is strafe through gunfights until everyone is dead.
One saving grace is the Flow system, which allows you to build up a meter and unleash a one-shot takedown on any unshielded enemy. Some of the animations for these are pretty cool, but the physics and collision detection for them are as bad as they are everywhere else.
Sometimes, for example, you clip a car and it explodes instantly; sometimes you hit a curb and spin into the air; sometimes people collapse when you hit them like ragdolls in a stiff breeze, other times they catapult into the stratosphere. You even take damage if the car door clips your shoulder as you step out. These bugs may be nothing new to the system, but after 9 years Volition should have a handle on some of them by now. It’s shocking to even consider that Saints Row was quality tested at all, because it’s riddled with bugs and glitches. A lot of these can be excused in an open world game of this size; even GTA5 and Cyberpunk 2077 struggled under the weight of their worlds. But Saints Row rarely strings two lines of code together without a bug in-between.
On the plus side, Santo Ileso is a huge playground full of things to find, side missions to get involved in, and points of interest to photograph. Snapping landmarks with your phone will open fast-travel points to get around quicker (though you can’t use them during missions so good luck if you pick a mission you’re on the opposite side of the city to). Also, for some reason taking a picture of a decorative object allows you to instantly place a copy of it in your headquarters. The problem with Santo Ileso is that there’s nothing that makes you want to explore it. There is nothing here that you haven’t already seen, nothing surprising or exciting to stumble upon. Even the soundtrack when driving is lacklustre, offering repetitive, mostly C-tier songs.
As you grow your empire and buy up properties around the city, you’ll gain access to new side hustles and associates, as well as a growing gang of hoodlums who will help you in fights and drop off vehicles at your request. You can also unlock skills and perks as you level up, with bizarre abilities like a flaming dragon punch that the game doesn’t even try to contextualise.
A lot of fuss has been made about the game’s perceived “wokeness”, but it has been characteristically overblown. Yes, two of the four main characters are people of colour, one is bisexual, one is an intellectual, and the Boss is canonically a black woman, but if that level of diversity is enough to have you crying about wokeness I’d advise you not to watch any TV from the last 5 to 10 years lest you be truly offended by the sheer audacity of societal advancement.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is that Saints Row 2022 had so much potential. Volition have been doing this for years, the series has pedigree. But this iteration falls at the first hurdle. Actually that’s inaccurate. The first hurdle was over a decade ago; this is like falling at the final hurdle having been fucking helicoptered to it.
If you turn off your critical brain and dive in, there’s fun to be had in the chaos. The humour does land sometimes, and the Boss is written with the same likeable rogue attitude as always, but you really have to embrace the bad to find the good. It’s a game that feels uncomfortably out of its time, like someone’s drunk uncle at an 18th birthday party who runs around in his shorts making gang signs and waggling his tongue before face-planting through the patio door.
Unfortunately, open world games have moved on since 2013, and Saints Row hasn’t. Maybe you could consider it a love letter to a bygone time when games were less concerned with quality and more with being fun, but that doesn’t explain why it feels so archaic and unwieldy. From the cumbersome menus and the bizarre jump animation when you throw a grenade, to the sluggish vehicle controls and imprecise, scrappy shooting, Saints Row is a disappointing callback to an era that open world games have worked hard to leave behind.
Lots to do
Solid voice work
Clumsy driving and shooting
Feels outdated and unoriginal
You could consider Saints Row a love letter to a time when games worried less over quality and more about fun, but that doesn't excuse its faults.