It almost feels like the initial, divided reaction to the new Saints Row title was for an entirely different game considering how similarly it plays to past entries. We recently had the chance to play the latest open worlder for a whole four hours, and we can report this is the same Saints Row you know and — quite possibly — love. It's dumb. It's fun. It's Saints Row.
Our hands on session was all about the opening act, taking our custom character from the bottom of their dingy flat to the beginnings of a criminal empire. And the very first mission confirms it: Saints Row is not interested in taking itself seriously. As an army of soldiers fights its way through a movie set dressed up like the cowboys and Indians era, your protagonist jokes about their wages rather than issuing orders. The action reinforces this, no matter whether you are controlling it or not.
Cutscenes are over the top, throwing your character about with explosion after explosion that would comfortably kill any unassuming human after the first blast. And then there are the set pieces dotted throughout combat; hanging off the side of a jet, you'll blow the brains out of bad guys on the ground before dealing with the pilot. Your heroics see you signed up for another set of ludicrous missions, only for things to fall apart around you. It's here where the true Saints Row story begins: on the back foot, it's time to lead a criminal underworld.
Your mobile phone will be key to accomplishing this. From the handheld device, you'll be accepting main missions, side activities, scanning the map, styling your outfit and taking selfies, and unlocking skills and perks. It's a vital tool for all parts of progression in the game, especially when you're not back at home base with access to your weapon cache, garage, and wardrobe full of threads. A long list of challenges is also stored on your smartphone, which essentially ensures you're always working towards something even if you don't know it.
Whether it's racking up headshots and triple kills or driving on the wrong side of the road, you're constantly earning XP to unlock more abilities. With a Wanted app providing you targets to kill for cash — all for some comical reason — the game provides you with a good basis for improving your character and getting rich quick.
It's in the open world itself where Saints Row continues to feel lacking, however. As we mentioned in our preview a few months back, this reboot feels like open world 101. Icons quickly fill up the map — some will be for shops to source outfits and guns from, while others will be side activities rewarding further bonus experience and opportunities to increase your bank balance. Basic tasks such as taking photos of landmarks, drug pallet collectathons, and dumpster diving litter Santo Ileso as well, but there are more involved side quests to break them up. One early mission tasked us with escorting a package to a specific spot on the map while avoiding the cops, and further activities involving helicopters and a wingsuit unlocked as we progressed.
We suppose there's only so much you can really do with an open world — especially when you don't have a budget like Rockstar — but this newest effort doesn't seem to be a day older than 2013's Saints Row IV. The streets of Santo Ileso were desolate, with only a handful of pedestrians wandering the sidewalks and cars riding the highway.
Rather than feeling like a living, breathing place, it's an environment designed around you. Nothing really happens in the trips to and from missions unless you make it so, and all you can really do is go on a murdering spree outside of the aforementioned activities. And even then the police force was far too easy to get away from.
As far as the opening hours go, though, everything does come together to provide enjoyable action. The main missions remain engaging with a decent variety of objectives and suitably chaotic cutscenes to work through. The demo left us in a place where we could begin to build our illegal kingdom, teasing us with new jobs and ways to get back at the figurehead from the narrative who wronged us. It seems safe to assume Saints Row will retain that comedic awareness and extravagant action right the way through. It's just a shame, then, there appears to be a fairly significant dip in quality once you leave the story-focused, curated content behind.
We finish in a bit of a sour spot, then, because while Saints Row appears to have taken strides forward with more in-depth gameplay systems and a good structure to build your own criminal empire upon, what holds those features together doesn't seem to have been brought up to speed. In the mould of Ubisoft titles and other typical open world experiences, the game will be a perfect pallet cleanser or something you can shut your brain off for to mow down tons of bad guys.
A lot of people enjoy exactly that, though, and so Saints Row will find an audience. With more bombastic and generally better gameplay, just don't go in expecting it to be anything that it's not. As we said: it's really dumb, but really fun.
Are you looking forward to playing Saints Row next month on PS5, PS4? Let us know in the comments below.