The Saints Row series has always been viewed as the crazy cousin of Grand Theft Auto. By 2015, there were five games in the series and each one provided a weirder storyline than the last. Grand Theft Auto was about money and status, while Saints Row soon turned to comedy and aliens. But with the release of the first Saints Row game in seven years, a refresh for the series, the franchise has gone back to the roots of crime and raising an empire to feel much more grounded than where it left off. Humour remains, though this is more to the relationships of your main character (fully customisable) and some of the high-octane missions – make no mistake, Saints Row is serious about its revival.
Your character and (in my case, her) three friends live in Santo IIeso – an American sandbox city surrounded by desert. After getting fired from a rookie role with Marshall, a police-type outfit, you start from the bottom with no money or status in society. There are warring factions across the city, and the plan is to rise up by building an empire. This includes all the staples of becoming a kingpin: finding a base, networking, shooting up anything in sight to increase reputation and taking down the competition. It is a crime storyline with more heart than was expected, with long cutscenes to make you care about the missions. There are hits and misses, but it is clear what the developers are trying to achieve – a rethink of the brand.
The game begins with a tutorial section full of gunplay action to demonstrate mechanics. Shooting and moving is like most other third-person action games, with skill moves providing a mini-RPG element for taking on foes. There is nothing that breaks new ground, but there is nostalgia in the way the controls work. It is comfortable, and that is generally a positive for controls. All guns feel and shoot differently, and all cars drive uniquely. Trying out all the options is a joy – some cars feel brilliant and drift around corners with ease, and others move with the mobility of a barn. The simplicity is key, ensuring that what is happening on screen remains your focus.
The soundtrack has dozens of tracks that fit within themed radio stations (rock, western, rap etc.). You can build your own playlist from all the available tunes, and it does hit the spot when driving through the cityscape to a favourite track as the sun sets and the lights fill the sky. One downside is that the graphics don’t always keep up with the movement as you take in these views – visuals are not spectacular, and the art style goes for a less-than-realistic (or exaggerated) focus. This is more of a distraction at the start of the game, as the choice in style becomes less noticeable with all that is happening in the thriving city.
The mobile phone app in-game is where all the options are available. It is here that you can select missions, assign skills, check out the large map, call for back-up, take out contracts and sort out all your hard-earned cash. More apps and features are added as the game progresses, including a collectibles app that requires you to go around the city finding certain items that can be added into your base as decorations. There is a lot to do here – all clothing shops have different apparel, gun shops are unique, rating a store with a low number of stars on your app starts an angry turf war. The map fills up with a Ubisoft-style checklist, but it never feels tiresome as the content is enjoyable. Likewise with the crime table map full of ‘businesses’ that can be purchased across Santo Ileso to build your empire, each with specific tasks to take over the region and become the dominant force (such as buying a fast-food store and knocking out all other food trucks to eliminate the competition).
Saints Row has its flaws, but what it offers is chaos, nostalgia and enough content to keep you going for a very long time. The map is full of secrets, the characters progress a crime-drama narrative, and cruising down a road with your set playlist provides a break from all the anarchy (in-game, and in reality). While graphics and art style may not appeal immediately, and repetition can exist, it does not stop a game with all the trimmings from putting its brand in the spotlight again.
The gaming industry is a better place when Saints Row is building its empire.
Reviewd on PlayStation 5 with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.
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