When asked to name an open world game with gangs, guns and cars, most people will think of the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series since it’s the OG (original gangster).
Saints Row, which offers a similar experience, has been dubbed a GTA clone and is a less known and more underrated series. What makes Saints Row stand out is the ability to design your own character and take part in inane, hilarious and over-the-top missions as a boss of a gang.
The original Saints Row was released in 2006 for Xbox 360. It spawned three more wildly fun and successful sequels, although I found the previous title, Saints Row IV, a little too fantastical, where you play as the President of the United States with superpowers in a simulation.
With the new modern-day Saints Row reboot, you are brought back to the beginnings of the Saints gang. You get insight on how the name and the fleur-de-lis emblem came about. I played Saints Row on PC on Epic Games, on which the PC version is currently available exclusively.
Saints and sinners
Saints Row is set in fictional Santo Ileso, an arid desert terrain with strong Mexican influences which offers plenty of opportunities for off-road driving, running down cacti and soaring through mesas in a wingsuit.
There is also the populated city of El Dorado that resembles Las Vegas in real life, complete with glitzy casinos, sports cars and well-heeled folks. It offers many interesting places to explore.
Wrestling for control in Santo Ileso are several different rival factions. These are the Los Panteros, who are burly brawlers in love with their cars; Idols who are decked out in flamboyant, cyberpunk-ish hot pink garb; and Marshall, who are mercenaries armed to the teeth with high-tech offensive weapons and gadgets.
Other enemies include the hilarious Dustlanders, who are members of enemy clans in the live action role-playing (LARP) game.
These gamers are dressed in cardboard armour, create their own “pew pew pew” shooting sound effects and fake die in the most theatrical way. Although these bunch aren’t really serious gang members, they do exert control over their little fantasy domains.
The game starts with your boss character sharing an apartment with three roommates with different gang affiliations and specialties.
They are Neenah, a car whiz who is part of the Los Panteros gang; Kev, a perpetually shirtless social media influencer with a culinary flair and a member of the Idols gang, and Eli, a geeky, financially-savvy LARP gamer.
Eventually, after a series of high jinks, the three friends join forces with your boss character to form a new gang known as the Saints.
No surprises that the main objective is for the Saints to take over Santo Ileso, not just by mowing down members of the rival gangs, but also strategically investing in criminal ventures, earning plenty of money and recruiting members.
Saints Row also has some throwbacks to previous titles, such as enemies in animal mascot suits, as well as characters dressed as in beer bottles and hot dogs, and you can even acquire them in your boss character’s wardrobe – if you are so inclined.
I did find this Saints Row reboot tamer than the previous titles, and certain (objectionable?) aspects toned down – where are the pole dancers and the leather catsuits with whips?
Hustle and flow
The main story missions for Saints Row are fun, but some can be a pretty long drawn out affair, with different stages and checkpoints in between.
These involve lots of shooting, driving, and occasionally stealth. But what is an open-world game without its multitudes of side quests and collectibles?
Saints Row has a dizzying array of side hustles and gigs, with some new ideas as well as familiar favourites.
These include using the “Wanted” app to perform crowdfunded assassinations, riding shotgun and shooting from a moving vehicle, using a wingsuit to destroy antennas and enemies in timed missions, as well as leaving a bad review and facing the wrath of the local gangs. And these are only the tip of the iceberg!
Saints Row controls the game’s pacing by unlocking certain side missions only after you invest in a criminal venture, as well as skills that need to be unlocked as you proceed in the game.
These criminal enterprises include a laundromat for crime scene cleanups, a hospital for insurance scams, a technology incubator for testing stolen technologies, a chop shop for dumping stolen vehicles and a tow shop for repossessing items by brute force, among others.
I am glad that my favourite insurance scam mini-game is featured in the reboot. This is where you have to run into traffic and score as many injuries as possible via chained combos to rack up insurance claims.
Apart from just making money, some of the criminal ventures are also critical in gaining new weapons and vehicles.
The Eurekabator venture, which is a tech incubator for you to test stolen Marshall technology, rewards you with a hoverboard, abilities to shoot through barriers and even sticky bombs that can carry your foes away.
While building your criminal empire can be fun, some business ventures that require repetitive and frustrating missions can become a slog.
For example, the toxic waste disposal criminal venture requires you to drive 13 unwieldy and fragile vehicles laden with toxic and volatile chemicals to the disposal site in order to be fully unlocked, which makes it extremely exasperating.
Another one of my peeves are the food truck missions, where you need to steal and drive food trucks belonging to rival gangs to a drop-off area. They are often destroyed by gang members giving chase before reaching the checkpoint.
With so much to do, the “Collectibles” type of quests are at the bottom of my list. Saints Row uses the phone’s camera to collect photos of landmarks, items to decorate the Saints’ HQ and fast travel points.
There are also “hidden items” to find, such as lucrative drug pallets and a series of touristy audio guides that offers more history of Santo Ileso and rewards you with cosmetic items.
Having 115 collectibles that range from small to large objects as well as wall-sized murals and signs for decorating the Saints HQ is just too much effort for the less motivated completist.
I got tired of these “collect ‘em all” quests after doing a few, and I didn’t bother to seek them out deliberately, even though my Completist itch was bothering me.
Another great perk to unlock is the ability to call on your mates Neenah, Kev and Eli and even regular gang members to assist in a fight. But this ability is ridiculously buggy and fails quite often, leaving me to deal with hordes of hostile rival gang members on my own.
Saints Row also has a Flow meter that is filled during combat when you hurt your enemies. Flow lets you use special skills that include tossing grenades, increasing melee prowess, using a super sniper mode, leeching enemy health to boost your own, and more. These special skills are unlocked as your character progresses in the game, and can really help in a pinch.
Wheels and deals
Saints Row has a wide variety of vehicles to collect and drive. Apart from your regular sedans, there are a good selection of motorcycles, jeeps and even monster trucks that are great for driving in Santo Ileso’s desert terrain.
There are also speedboats, helicopters and even a super fun hoverboard that can be unlocked later in the game – this is useful for evading enemies giving chase.
Vehicles can be upgraded and customised, with special abilities that can be unlocked if you perform certain stunts or clock achievements.
But apart from changing the body paints, most of the customisations and upgrades can cost a pretty sum, so make sure your criminal ventures are fully invested and optimised before splurging on your toys!
Just like vehicles, weapons can also be upgraded and customised, with special abilities to unlock. Saints Row offers the usual gamut of melee weapons and firearms, such as pistols, rifles, shotguns and submachine guns, as well as large weapons like rocket launchers and specialty weapons like the sniper rifle.
On top of that, you can acquire unique weapons from completing certain quests, such as my personal favourite Pugnus Sanctus Dei, which is a pair of retractable boxing gloves that can be fired off like pistols and requires no ammo.
Unlike GTA where you play a fixed character, one of Saints Row’s biggest differentiators is letting you design and customise your character just the way you like it. Your character can be as inclusive or as exclusive as you want.
Detailed character building that goes down to the level of prosthetics, scars and even genitalia. Like Cyberpunk 2077, the character you design is free to have male and female anatomy and characteristics, complete with beards and high pitch voice.
Want to play as a tough but petite Asian lady sporting a prosthetic limb, cat scratches and a full purple beard? Saints Row lets you do that.
Saints Row offers plenty of shops to purchase cosmetic items, such as tattoo parlours, clothing shops and roadside stalls that offer new wearables, accessories and tattoos to jazz up your appearance.
Best of all, all of them can be customised so that you can create a colour theme for your boss character, in my case, all in purple with lilac trimmings.
Changing your character’s appearance is much more convenient, and can be done through the mobile phone.
For instance, once you have purchased some tattoos, wearables and clothes, you can alter your character’s appearance anywhere by accessing the mobile phone’s Style app. You can even change facial features, body structure and anatomy on a whim anytime, anywhere!
Beauty and the bugs
Saints Row’s graphics are pretty enough for buildings, cars and character models, but the level of detail isn’t the best compared to many modern open world games.
For instance, there is no wetness being shown after your character swims in water, and night scenes of the city skyline look very low-resolution and blocky.
I did notice that there are few repetitions for buildings and some are quite unique, which help to build a believable scenery rather than some sprawling cut-and-paste cityscape common in some other games (*cough* Cyberpunk 2077 *cough*).
The world of Santo Ileso offers a nice day and night cycle, although there isn’t an adherence to time – neither on the phone nor the shop’s opening hours. Everything is open 24/7!
There are also some interesting weather conditions, such as misty mornings and sandstorms, but the complete lack of rain makes Santo Ileso the world feel very dry. More in tune with the desert theme perhaps?
Even the screens that show up post-death are charming with Mexican “day of the dead” type motifs, such as the calavera, which are beautifully decorated skulls, a skeletal cat sadly strumming a guitar or a band of skeletons looking mournful and shaking their heads at you.
They make dying in the game a lot less tragic when you are rewarded with such lovely artwork.
What I really miss in the game is a proper camera mode for taking nice photographs of my character in the game. The phone’s camera doesn’t allow for selfies, and the limitations of camera angles and modes of screen captures in Saints Row means that getting a beautiful desert sunset shot with my character doing cute poses is impossible.
It’s a shame since there are quite a few scenic spots in Santos Ileso that are Instragrammable, as long as you aren’t too obsessed with night scenes.
I would have enjoyed the game a lot more if Saints Row wasn’t so buggy. There are some minor graphical glitches, like vehicles and characters getting stuck in walls, strange NPC reactions, subtitles not synced correctly with the audio, and goals for missions not displaying correctly
But there are also game breaking bugs and crashes to desktop that force the game to restart and mission progress to be lost, as well as devastating NPC bugs that thwarted mission completions.
For instance, I failed to complete a mission as Neenah, who was the NPC companion in a story mission, suddenly refused to move and the timer to complete the mission ran out, causing the mission to fail.
Also, calling gang member NPCs to show up is generally unreliable – they say they are on their way to back you up but never show up, and this happens too frequently to be a minor glitch.
I also encountered a bug where hidden items in the form of drug stashes cannot be collected, and still show up on the map despite having interacted with them.
Saints Row offers great open world fun with a good variety of story missions, plenty of side hustles and lots to explore. But serious bugs and multitudes of repetitive and frustrating missions kill the fun.
Saints Row is both a completists’ nightmare and dream, depending on how tolerant one is to tedious “find-the-object” type of chores.
For fans of the series, be prepared for a much tamer and somewhat frustrating experience compared to the over-the-top antics of the previous two games.
And for those who are waiting for GTA 6 to be released and itching for something to play in the meantime, I recommend giving Saints Row a go. That said, I feel that this current reboot pales in comparison to the earlier titles.
With its gratuitous and occasionally comedic violence, gang themes and nudity, Saints Row is clearly for mature adults and not for kids.
- In-depth character customisation
- Detailed world to explore
- Loads to do and collect!
- Frustrating and repetitive side missions
- Game breaking bugs
- Tamer action than previous titles