Believe it or not, it's been nine whole years since Saints Row IV, and to be honest, not much has changed (minus the superpowers and alien invaders, obviously). The simply titled Saints Row is a reboot of the series, sporting an entirely new setting, new characters, and a fresh story — but the gameplay structure that the property has been peddling since day one remains. At its core, it's a mission-based, third-person shooter with a sandbox setting — but this is a sandbox that feels like it's flew straight in from the PS3 era of open world design.
The map becomes increasingly coated in activity icons as you progress through the main narrative, to the point where the map screen actually stops displaying certain types of markers, and moves them to their own separate tab. Here in 2022, it comes across as overkill — the kind of bloat that would make even a Ubisoft title blush. But through its consistently over-the-top gameplay and penchant for stupidity, Saints Row just about manages to get away with its brazen content padding.
Saints Row is still at its best when utter chaos is unfolding. Whether it's during a particularly explosive main mission, or you're just trying to survive against a dozen SWAT teams, there's nothing quite like it in terms of tone. It's dumb jokes and ultraviolence from start to finish, like a cartoon version of Grand Theft Auto.
It all kicks off with the game's robust character creator. You're free to make any kind of murderous antihero you want, and you're also free to adjust their appearance at any time during gameplay. Whoever or whatever you decide to be, your creation is the star of the show. In typical franchise fashion, your 'Boss' is bigged up to be a born killer — a comically violent force of nature who blasts their way through the criminal underworld to establish their own gang, the Saints, within the opening hours.
You're joined by three best buddies on your conquest of Santo Ileso: numbers guy Eli, dangerous driver Neenah, and shirtless muscle Kevin. As far as Saints Row characters go, they're relatively grounded, and, it could be argued, a bit boring. Their more serious streaks don't really gel with the rampant murder and unapologetically daft plotlines, but they do allow your Boss, in all of their potential absurdity, to stand out.
The story's got some genuinely great moments, but it feels like everything moves a touch too fast. The main missions themselves make up roughly a third of the game's 25-ish hour campaign, and as a result, it struggles to properly document the Saints' rise to power. Most key plot points drop without much warning, and you're quickly ushered from one narrative beat to the next via snappy cutscenes. Ultimately it does work — we were left feeling fairly satisfied as the credits rolled — but there was definitely room for a more elaborate rags to riches storyline here.
But our hunger for more story missions is indicative of the game's wavering quality when it comes to side activities. This is the most feature-rich Saints Row yet — paired with the series' biggest map by some distance — but a lot of the activities just feel like busywork, plain and simple. Returning excursions like Insurance Fraud, where you hurl yourself into oncoming traffic to make big bucks, are still great fun — but they completely overshadow jobs where you're tasked with driving toxic waste-bearing trucks very slowly across the map, or 'Choplifter' missions in which you ferry containers between locations. Wowzer.
It wouldn't be so bad if there were just a few of these tasks dotted about the city, but as we wrote earlier, the map is covered in icons. Granted, you don't have to do them, but Criminal Ventures, as the game calls them, are by far your biggest source of income — and you need that money to build more businesses and subsequently unlock the next story missions. And to be clear, don't go into Saints Row expecting in-depth business management. You get to decide what fronts go where, but that's about it.
Thankfully, the busywork is made (mostly) bearable through the title's punchy gun-based combat and arcade-y driving mechanics. It just feels good to play; a DOOM-esque system, where you regain health by performing brutal takedown attacks, gives each battle an enjoyable flow, and as you level up, you gain access to various special abilities that can turn the tide of a tricky encounter. A welcome evolution of the Saints Row gameplay formula in just about every way.
It's worth mentioning that there are loads of accessibility options, too, which exist alongside your standard difficulty settings. You can tweak incoming damage, the severity of time limits, autoaim, and more to suit your needs, while controller inputs can be remapped entirely.
And you know what's also worth a mention? Co-op, because it's especially well implemented here. You can team up with another player online and play through the whole game together if you want, main missions and all. As you'd expect, having another human to clown around with gives Saints Row an additional comedic edge, despite bouts of co-op-specific bugginess. Any progress that you make with a friend carries back to your single-player campaign, and vice versa, which can help alleviate the grind of ticking off tedious side jobs.
Meanwhile, on the visuals front, Saints Row is distinctly last-gen. Not at all ugly, but certainly not a looker either. Character models are pretty basic — generic NPCs are especially bland — and the game's graphics options leave quite a lot to be desired. Favouring performance on PS5, you can choose between a locked 60 frames-per-second at a super muddy 1080p, or you can go for 1440p with a frame rate that targets 60, but does have a bad habit of dipping. At 30fps you can pump the resolution right up to 4K, but for a title that can be so action-heavy, the halved frame rate is a turn off. But hey, those desert sunsets look lovely — dramatic lighting is definitely one of the game's graphical strengths.
Saints Row is a largely successful reboot, even if it sometimes feels dangerously outdated in terms of open world design. Its story and characters can be hit and miss, but the experience is carried by fun gameplay and an endearingly dumb sense of humour. Despite the new faces, Saints Row is definitely still Saints Row — just bigger and probably better.