Saints Row - Wholesome Murder and Mayhem
The Saints are back but things are different. Gone are the old faces of Shaundi, Pierce and Johnny Gat. Gone are the endorsement deals and action figures. Gone are the superpowers and alien invaders. In their place is a new breed of Saint. A young, go-getter breed that has had enough of their lot in life. They are determined, capable and willing to do what needs to be done to break out of the banality of their lives. This crew of Saints represent modern lifestyles, multiple cultures and a gamut of experiences. They are fresh-faced, full of fire and ready to take on the City of Santo Ileso. But most of all, these four feisty, killing machine gangsters are filled with camaraderie and a deep caring love for each other that makes this new group of Saints something special. Welcome to the juxtaposition of the new Saints Row, where murdering your way through three gangs can somehow be both wholesome and joyous.
That absurd combination of wanton destruction and genuine caring is really what makes this new Saints Row such a memorable experience. The four main characters, the fiery Neenah, the ace DJ Kevin, the smart and nerdy Eli and of course, your character the Boss share such a wonderful connection, a deep abiding friendship that permeates through the whole game. These are four people that would go to the ends of the earth and shoot god in the face with a guitar case rocket launcher for each other. It is something that I can’t recall ever seeing in a video game and the fact that it appeared in a Saints Row game of all places is nothing short of astounding.
This is all made possible through the world-class writing on display. Conversations are a delight and feel so natural. The scenarios the team find themselves in are serious, yet at the same time hilarious. The simple act of walking through the city produces more than a few laughs. This is a masterpiece of both comedic (especially by the standards set by video games) and conversational writing that would have more than one big wig Hollywood writer gnawing at their liver with jealousy. None of this would matter however if the voice performances were bad, but I can assure you they are top class. All of the voice actors (including the eight different voices you can choose for your Boss character) give top-notch, believable performances, selling the absurd and the touching with aplomb. It is also worth noting (and congratulating) the humour on display. It never punches down, never crosses the line and never courts controversy, yet it is always genuinely funny. It is laughing with people not at them and that is a significant step forward for the franchise.
The city of Santo Illeso is much more vibrant and alive than in previous Saint’s games. In previous games, you could pretty much only drive on the streets, but here, as long as your car fits, you can drive there. That simple change opens up things in a significant way, not only for exploration but for cop chases and vehicle-based combat. Speaking of vehicles, driving around Santo Ileso is a joy, mainly thanks to the game’s utter refusal to follow the rules of physics by including a drift button. It takes a little to get used to, but once you have the hang of it, sliding around corners as you race through the city becomes second nature and brings real enjoyment to the simple act of getting from point A to point B. This can all be done in a huge range of cars, bikes, boats and aircraft, all of which feel unique and will keep players entertained throughout the entire game.
Like previous Saints titles, there are a host of side activities to keep you busy while cruising the city. Some are simple, like becoming a hitman or delivering toxic waste to the dumping facility. Some are crazy, like cleaning up crime scenes or riding on the rooftop of a car while a jilted wife steals from her councilman husband. Some are even returning favourites like the ever-fresh insurance fraud (throwing yourself into oncoming traffic never gets old.) But most importantly they are all fun and they all serve a purpose in-game. That purpose is to expand the Saints’ grip on the city, boost profits and open up even further opportunities for hilarious mayhem.
The real star of the game is the main story missions. It is these missions where things get really crazy, where the writers have let their imagination run wild and most importantly, players get to spend time with their Saints family. For example, in the first third of the game there is a string of LARP missions where Eli convinces you to help him with the big LARP tournament. From here the entire Saints family gets pulled in, finding themselves fully committing to the LARP game and spending some quality time together. The game sells the LARP world wonderfully, from the cardboard props to the Nerf weaponry and while the only narrative purpose of these missions is so that players can spend time with their crew, that is more than enough. I know I have used the word a lot, but it is just joyful and wholesome. A genuine string of feel-good moments that Hallmark would die for.
Sadly, there are a few minor problems worth mentioning, problems that stop Saints Row from being the perfect game. Firstly the graphics. This Saints Row really feels restrained by the need to appear on last gen consoles. I reviewed it on a high-end PC and found it to be slightly muddy and lacking in detail for the most part. There is also a fair bit of graphical pop-in and glitches that show up from time to time. I feel like graphical flourishes had to suffer because the team was covering underpowered systems. Hopefully, things improve (especially the glitchy stuff) with patches soon after release. There is nothing here that sours the experience, but it certainly occurs more than I would like.
The other thing that is a little annoying is the fast travel system. In the game, fast travel points have to be discovered and photographed before they can be used. This ties into the photography collectables throughout the game, but in the instance of fast travel, it just added an irritant. Why I couldn’t fast-travel to businesses I owned is beyond me and I can’t really fathom why the developers went down the path they did. Speaking of collectables, there are tonnes of them, from drug caches to history lessons to items that can be recreated to customise your home base. They are not the sort of thing I usually go out of my way for, but I must admit if I saw one on my travels, I always picked them up.
In the lead-up to release, much has been said about Saints Row’s customisation options and I can tell you, the hype was not oversold. The ability to create your own character, car, gun or home is second-to-none, with more options than even the best character creators that sports games have to offer. This is really the game for you to cosplay as whomever you choose. Did you want to be a drag queen with a prosthetic leg? Go for it. Did you want to try an recreate John McClane, no worries. Do you simply want to make a virtual version of yourself? You can do that too. Saints Row lets you be you, no matter what that version of you is and the tools it gives you to allow that are honestly awe-inspiring. I can’t wait to see what the community comes up with once the game has been out for a while.
If you were to boil down Saints Row to its core components it would be easy to say that the game is simply an upgraded version of what we have played before. That is entirely true. There is nothing here, gameplay-wise, that the Saints haven’t done before, it has simply been honed and improved. But at the same time, this Saints Row is so much more than that. It is a wholesome examination of genuine friendship, it is an absurd comedy in the vein of Hot Shots and it is a deep and engaging gangster tale steeped in corruption and greed. This Saints Row is truly some of the most fun I have had with a video game in a long time, spending time in this world is just an act of joy and despite its few minor issues, I just want be in this world with my three friends, causing chaos and having a good time. I have always loved the Saints Row games, but this is easily the franchise’s crowning achievement. Well done Volition, well done.
Saints Row was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by Plaion Australia