Saints Row Is a Little of Arcade Chaos and Modern Anxiety
Saints Row 2022 might have a fresh face and a very modern set of anxieties driving its narrative, but its open-world arcade chaos and penchant for outrageous set pieces feels unmistakably like the Saints games of old. It doesn’t break any new ground, but the new Saints Row feels like a delightful return to the form of 3 and 4, following Volition’s misstep with Agents of Mayhem.
A short way into my four hour hands-on, my customised Boss character – a bright purple woman with lizard eyes, a fauxhawk, and a deep southern accent – is in trouble. Sprawled out on a bridge and surrounded by cops, she glances into the distance and smirks as her ride-or-die buddy Neenah comes roaring down the road in a bright yellow muscle car. What follows is a stunt so gloriously silly that it makes Fast & Furious look realistic – but, in true Saints Row style, it works like a charm.
“You said you didn’t want to risk your car,” chirps my character as she hops into the passenger seat. “I said I didn’t want to risk it for rent,” Neenah replies with a grin, “I’d risk anything for you dummies.” It’s a moment that encapsulates the reboot’s new cast perfectly – an over-the-top, modern-day millennial crew whose love for one another is immediate and inarguable, but who are also a group grappling with the mundane anxieties of contemporary adult life.
Stepping away from the beloved faces of Saints Row’s past isn’t something the team at Volition is taking lightly. “Over five games there are a lot of things that wouldn’t have allowed us to do what we wanted to do,” says principal designer Damien Allen of their decision to reboot the series. “This group of Saints is different, and they have their own story to tell.”
It’s certainly the game’s boldest departure from previous entries. Your crew consists of entrepreneurial Eli, driver and mechanic extraordinaire Neenah, shirtless socialite Kevin, and your custom character, who assumes the role of the gang’s Boss. They’re a bunch of criminal sweethearts, who love each other to bits.
Saints Row 2022 – the crew: Neenah, Kevin, and Eli
You can put any qualms about the new crew being ‘too nice’ to one side, too, because they certainly don’t shy away from wanton murder and destruction for even a second. “They are definitely going to interact with the world in a way that I would never do,” says Allen with a laugh, “doing things that are well above my bar of what is acceptable!”
In true millennial fashion, the new Saints have an astonishing focus on the stress of living costs. I genuinely lost count of how many times during the opening hours the group frets about how they are going to make rent. Everyone’s hustling to make a few bucks, and when things don’t work out they have to turn to other, more extreme means.
The vast open world – stretching beyond the city limits into the rocky, badlands-inspired wilderness – is packed with all manner of ways to earn that money. You can go from stealing vehicles with a magnetic cargo chopper to bounty hunting within just a few minutes.Drug pick-ups, photo opportunities, skydiving missions, getaway driver gigs, race events – there are a lot of ways to kill time in Santo Ileso.
The gameplay is a lot more restrained than the last Saints Row game – instead this is closer to Saints Row The Third. Gone are the full-tilt superpowers of SR4, but you’ll still be diving feet-first through windshields and free-falling from skyscrapers around Santo Ileso in a way that’s so recognisable it immediately took me back to my memories of the 2011 game. And you know what? I loved it.
It might be more stripped back compared to Saints Row 4, but it’s anything but low-key. In my few short hours, I spent a sizeable chunk of time surfing on the roof of cars, grappling onto VTOL jets, blasting my way through the walls of fancy art exhibits, flinging portaloos into the sky with a bulldozer, and leaping between the carriages of multiple moving trains. And just about everything had exploded by the time I was done.
Saints Row 2022 – a cannon fires, denonating a museum’s internal wall in a massive explosion
Reflecting on the lukewarm reception to Agents of Mayhem, Allen admits that this new game is an exercise in returning to “a focus on what we do well.” So far, it feels like they’ve succeeded in making something that perfectly captures those arcadey hijinks of classic Saints Row, but in a way that’s just about grounded enough to make it feel truly absurd. If anything, parts of it are almost too familiar – one of the first major mission set-pieces feels like it must be paying intentional homage to the third game’s opening with just how similar it is.
There’s plenty of delightfully silly touches, of course. One of the first ‘focus skills’ you unlock has you popping a grenade into the nearest enemy’s pants before hurling them into their pals. Meanwhile, driving over a fire hydrant will cause the resulting jet of water to fling your vehicle high into the sky. Once again, it’s the same brand of tricks that the series was pulling all those years ago – but with a shiny, modern polish to the whole thing.
Saints Row 2022 ultimately plays it safe, then. But, after almost a decade since the last entry, a fresh coat of paint can be all that you need to remind you why you fell in love with something in the first place. So far, as a long-time fan of the series, I’m along for the ride.