When the trailer to this reboot of the long-running gangster adventure series arrived last year, gaming’s gutter world of gatekeeping nerd misanthropes swung straight into action – and by that I mean a lot of angry boys whined online about Saints Row going “woke”. The game’s archetypal white male protagonist had been sacked and replaced by a diverse gang of twentysomethings seeking to build an underworld empire while sharing a flat, cruising social media and getting into polyamorous relationships. If you wanted to know what would happen if Grand Theft Auto was handed to the writers of Riverdale, here you are. You’re welcome.
And that’s the thing. You are welcome. Because Saints Row has dropped the dudebro “anything goes as long as it celebrates the patriarchy” shtick of the previous title, with its giant dildo baseball bats and sex pest humour. Now, everyone is in on the joke – and the joke is about trying to exist as a young person in the post-capitalist hellzone of the 21st century.
As ever, your job is to expand the Saints gang’s territory across the city, destroying rival cartels and setting up businesses as fronts for your underworld activities. You play a wisecracking ex-private military employee named The Boss, and you’re abetted by brainiac businessman Eli, petrolhead Neenah and pansexual playboy Kevin, who all trade smart quips and pop culture references whenever they can catch a break from murdering armies of SMG-toting criminals. The game gently parodies as well as celebrates the TikTok culture it has embraced. When the Saints want to find out what a rival group is planning, they don’t send in a spy, they check the gang’s official social media feed. When preparing for a major robbery, they don’t lay down their plans in a smoky war room, they go on a team-building day in a DayGlo motorhome.
The structure of the game is deadeningly familiar. Set in the county of Santo Ileso, a homogenised take on the American south-west, the map is separated into territories, each one filled with side quests and discovery tasks. You earn cash by taking on missions and use it to open new bases, buy guns and customise the vehicles you steal, and everything is managed through a smartphone interface. If you’ve played Grand Theft Auto, Spider-Man or the Assassin’s Creed games you will have so many flashes of deja vu you’ll think you’re trapped in a new Christopher Nolan movie.
The game also has myriad technical issues. The menu system, especially when it comes to managing your Skills and Perks options, is horrible. The HUD map display has icons that obscure a lot of the detail (which is especially frustrating in a firefight), while many of the mission and quest objectives are ambiguous or downright bewildering. The visuals are also distinctly last-gen a lot of the time, with stuttering animation and blocky landscape detail. There are bugs everywhere. I witnessed characters getting stuck in the scenery, cars getting stuck in the scenery, even scenery getting stuck in the scenery … there were missions I had a nightmare finishing because an enemy character got trapped somewhere inaccessible and I couldn’t trigger the end point, or they just suddenly became bullet-proof.
It works because Volition has thrown everything at the game – meaty guns, crazed muscle cars, ridiculous characters and some imaginative locations – and just begs you to get out there and mess about. And even though you know you’ve done these train robberies, prison breakouts and revenge assassinations many times before in other games, you do them again here because every face-off is so daft and unpredictable. Gunplay is erratic but also varied and intense, with an array of rifles, rocket launchers and melee weapons to buy and customise. You can just wander the map, getting into fights, testing the technical boundaries and knowing that you’re not going to run into any of the foghorn satire or braying misogyny of the GTA series. It’s essentially a vast interactive B-movie, with wonky sets, dodgy cameras and bizarre plotlines. There are going to be a lot of Saints Row clips on TikTok and YouTube. In its fun-to-glitch ratio, it’s basically Skate 3 for Gen Z.
Indeed, while Saints Row is messy, buggy, silly and often derivative, it also recalls a time in the early 2000s when the open world genre was a haphazard, joyful space with none of the codified, dopamine-fracking precision of modern titles. There are, in this frisky reboot, the ghosts of titles such as True Crime: Streets of LA, State of Emergency, The Getaway and Runabout – patchy, imperfect but gripping experiments in player agency that didn’t quite understand the conventions, but had a bash anyway. To me that is a far more interesting set of stablemates than the last couple of Saints Row titles. To me, this is a preposterously fun video game, despite its many faults, or more accurately, because of them.