Rebooting Saints Row was always going to be divisive. Playing 2015’s Gat out of Hell, the series’ previous instalment, it was clear that developer Volition had run out of road, not only in terms of how to expand its open world formula but also where to go with its characters and setting. Saints Row had gotten further and further away from its street gang roots with far less of a focus on players building their own criminal empire. Volition’s long-awaited Saints Row reboot feels a little more like those original games, at least to begin with.
Gat and the old Saints pack are gone as we leave Steelport City behind for the completely new stomping ground of Santo Ileso. Influenced by the American southwest, as well as Las Vegas, its off-road desert and tumbleweed towns stand in stark contrast to Steelport’s New York-inspired sandbox.
But what about the new cast of characters? Love them or hate them, the old Saints cast resonated with fans, making them a tough act to follow. Volition takes full advantage of this clean slate, creating a tight-knit group of protagonists to give us an inside look into Santo Ileso’s warring factions. They’re roommates, looking to make ends meet by running jobs for crew such as The Idols, Panteros, and Marshall’s peacekeepers, though they quickly realise their combined talents could be put to better use…
Your quest to become kingpin will have you throwing down against the rival factions, pulling off heists, and seizing territory. Missions are often packed with explosive set pieces and parodical gags certain to get a cheap laugh as the Saints gang slowly grow on you. Not every joke will land, and there’s some weak character dialogue at times, but there’s also some great story highlights, including the game’s LARP-inspired questline.
As in previous Saints Row titles, there’s a massive emphasis on player customisation, and we’re not just talking about the millions of ways to tweak your own Boss. Vehicles, weapons, and the Saints gang headquarters all present a myriad of options to add your own personal twist to your Saints Row experience. By hopping into the Style app on your in-game smartphone, you can instantly change the appearance of your character on-the-fly, cycling through Bosses you’ve previously made, with the ability to download and share community creations.
Third person shooting remains core to the Saints Row experience and Volition has spruced up combat to keep firefights fresh and entertaining. As you play, new skills and perks will become available, allowing you to tailor your playstyle with combat feeling more dynamic and energised as a whole. Shunning a Gears of War style cover system, you’re encouraged to take risks, earning Flow that powers the active skills in your loadout such as explosive projectiles, smokescreens, and whacky moves such as a flame punch. Flashy “gun fu” finishers can also be used to restore health.
While fun, combat is pretty straightforward. Your Boss will gain new powers and weapons to play with, but enemies don’t evolve or change up their tactics in a meaningful way, either bum-rushing players or standing still, soaking up damage. When it wants to dial up the challenge, Volition simply extends the health bar of your foes with armour, throwing in the occasional mini-boss.
Of course, there’s plenty of driving too. Vehicle handling has a light, arcade feel that’s perfect for long drifts while being precise enough for weaving traffic and performing stunts. It feels good whether going off-road or hitting the streets of Santo Ileso. Buying garage upgrades will let you supercharge cars with handy tools such as a nitrous boost and towing cable, unlocked by completing vehicle-specific challenges. You’ll also find there are other ways of getting around Saints Row, the wingsuit being a particular highlight. You probably won’t find yourself jumping from many tall buildings though it’s just as effective when leaping from the rooftops of cars, launching yourself into the air in a way that looks very Just Cause-y before booping off pedestrians to propel yourself back into the sky – something that’s hampered a bit by the draw distance.
Having fun gameplay systems is only one part of the equation: what’s just as important is the virtual playground in which they’re unleashed. Thankfully, Volition is no stranger when it comes to populating supersized sandboxes with plenty of things to see and do when not out on a mission. There’s a wealth of optional activities and challenges to partake in as well as items and bonuses to collect. There’s a real sense that you’re gradually building a criminal empire, extending your territory by establishing businesses such as a waste disposal site, fashion boutique, or medical clinic. Naturally, these enterprises each have a less than savoury side hustle to help bring in some extra cash.
No matter where you are or what you’re doing in Satno Ileso, you can bring a partner along for the ride. Whether blitzing through story missions, expanding your territory via side hustles, or simply seeking some open world mayhem, online co-op is implemented well, allowing for private invites or a random search via matchmaking.
The weakest part of Saints Row is without doubt the opening mission. It’s a bland mix of by-the-numbers corridor shooting and unengaging cutscenes, the presentation let down by rather basic looking effects and animation, not to mention the generic shouty dialogue. Truthfully, it took us several hours to really warm to the reboot and its new setting. Driving into Santo Ileso for the first time did little to excite us, though it hides a visual feast for the eyes, especially as you explore the city and its suburbs by night. With Volition serving two generations of home console, character models aren’t all that detailed and seem to be spun from the same set of creation tools available to players. At the same time, this allows for whackier, more stylised NPCs, especially those belonging to the three main gangs.