There are people among us who think the golden age of video games was 2008-2013. This five year span was when the PS3 and Xbox 360 were in full swing, but before The Last of Us came along and changed everything. Gaming in the modern era is focussed on ballooning size, realistic graphics, and emotional, cinematic storytelling. Around a decade ago though, games were all about fun, silliness, and methodically clearing areas of an open world map so you could turn it the right colour. Saints Row (2022) is a throwback to those days of wine and roses, and all I can say is be careful what you wish for.
Let’s say a few more things anyway, just for kicks. The attempt to reboot the story is a massive whiff. The new Boss has the same attitude and charisma as before, but everything else suffers. Kinzie Kensington is gone, and everything is worse now. I’m not sure what the point of this idea is. It’s an origin story, but it’s set in the future disconnected way from the stories we’re all familiar with, so what’s that about? The three new characters work enough in isolation – Eli had the most criticism during the marketing, but is the most likeable in practice – but lack any sort of dynamic or purpose. They’re all tropes dressed up in purple, and impossible to care about.
The game uses these characters in such a manipulative way, too. During one mission, a character drops in that they were an orphan, then it never comes up again. Another bluntly brings up their mother has cancer, a plot point which again, does not return. This puts Saints Row level with The Room for narrative ability then. There’s a Pride flag in their apartment, but a character mentions being poly once in what amounts to a joke. It doesn’t punch down, but it’s very lazy and has nothing to say, which suits Saints Row’s whole approach to the big picture.
Rimjobs is now called Jim Robs. Freckle Bitches is now called FBs. This is typical of Saints Row’s presentation. Features removed aren’t replaced with anything new or fresh, but with something watered down. It’s not a question of the series going ‘woke’ (it’s always been female led, sex positive, and diverse in its cast), but of the series turning boring. It’s just a little dull. All the parts of Saints Row are there, but we’re missing something.
A major issue are the Venture Quests at the game’s centre. Since it’s all about building your empire, a focus of the game is buying up businesses. There’s a criminal edge to it to keep things cool, of course. You buy a food truck, but it deals drugs! How devious! Your progress is routinely blockaded by demands to buy more businesses and complete more side quests for them, to the point where buying upgrades for cars, guns, or outfits must be avoided in order to save funds for a laundromat. Let’s Pretend and Planet Saints, two of the most popular stores in the series, both unlock in the endgame and cost $1.6 million each. When I finished the game, I had around $300k in my pocket. Mainstays fans will likely be expecting are locked away, tied to a progression system that ultimately means nothing and doesn’t feel satisfying.
There are some non-Venture side quests that you get very early on, but they’re quite dull. The wingsuit one is fine, but only because flying itself is enjoyable and near-impossible for the rest of the game. The others just annoyed me that the classics had been removed. Deep into the Venture Quest storyline, I unlocked both Insurance Fraud and Mayhem, but they now happen on a pass-fail metric rather than medals. I’m yet to unlock all of them despite finishing the game (due to their prohibitive cost), but I don’t think from what I have left that Genki Bowl makes an appearance. No Genki Bowl, no Fight Club, but there is one mission that offers a facsimile of them. That’s Saints Row’s whole deal. It’s taking something popular from the series, making it worse, then wedging it back in. Original thoughts are few and far between.
It’s trying to shake off the silliness of Saints Row’s history, while simultaneously embracing it and trying to make it mean more. It feels like somebody who loves Saints Row: The Third has been forced to make Saints Row 2, and is deeply resentful of the fact. It also tries to be relatable, with an emphasis on ‘tries’. It doesn’t feel like it’s a bunch of Millennials discussing what they care about, it feels like it’s a bunch of Gen Xers trying to guess what Millennials care about. They need to pay rent! That’s a thing kids need these days! They also hit up payday loan companies rather than banks, and one side quest involves leaving bad reviews online, which gets a little less funny every time. There are also telltale references to things like speed dating which betray the ages of the writing team.
The three gangs are supposed to represent Wealth, Fame, and Muscle, but in practice it’s a bit all over the place. Wealth is the Marshalls, who represent the military-industrial complex. There’s some minor satire in here, undercut by the fact you used to work for them and several members of the Marshalls are depicted as likeable and relatable. Fame is the Idols, and I have no idea what’s going on here. They’re fame hungry Gen Z influencers, except they’re also anarchist-socialists, except it’s all a front, except their image is all about fame so in what sense are they projecting? This might be a misguided metaphor about online justice crusaders who take no real life action, but it misses the mark wildly. The Muscle comes from the Panteros, who are Mexican and like cars. That’s about it.
On a pure gameplay level, the shooting is fine but the inability to improve your arsenal makes a major dent in your enjoyment. Quests help you unlock enough to get by, and the special weapons include an excellent football rocket launcher thrown like a Hail Mary pass, but it doesn’t try anything remotely different to what Saints Row has always done, except it’s less silly. No Shark-O-Matics or anything like them, at least not if you want to buy the waste disposal plant you’ll need to make any progress. The skills add a little bit of texture, like giving enemies a wedgie and shoving a grenade in their crack, but enemies phone for help almost instantly, meaning small skirmishes are dragged out until they just aren’t fun anymore. That Y (or your console’s equivalent) is responsible for several actions including special attacks, and get in car, and get on top of car, and get out of car, is just one of many irritable ways in which Saints Row is put together.
Shooting is fine, driving is fine, jokes are fine, missions are fine, map is fine, everything is fine. The character creator is the only great thing here, and it always was. I just wanted a bit more, and the more I played, the more I had to save money to unlock fairly flat side quests, the more annoyed I became with everything wrong with the game. You can probably play it and have fun if you never compare it to the rest of the series or think too much about anything else. Sure you can, but why would you want to? Saints Row doesn’t even want you to. It raises issues and tries to pull at your heartstrings, but fumbles every time.
For all my issues with Saints Row, I keep telling myself 'at least it's fun, and the reason people play these games is not for the characters, or the story, or the weak social viewpoint the game puts forward, but the fun'. It's become a mantra. Like a little train going up a mountain: At least it's fun. at least it's fun, at least it's fun. The further I got through the game, the less I felt that was true.
Score: 3/5. An Xbox Series S review code was provided by the publisher for this review.
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