What does a criminal empire need? The question is posed in Saints Row, by a posse of ne’er-do-wells who decide to go into business for themselves. There are four of them in total: Eli, who looks roughly seventeen and sports a bow tie; Neenah, who is described as “the best goddamn driver in the business”; the topless Kev, whose torso is inked with tattoos; and you, a fully customisable killing machine. They call themselves the Saints. They claim a dilapidated church as their headquarters. And they take, as their insignia, a fleur-de-lis. “OK. So we got the name. We got the home base. We got the logo,” says Eli. All that is left, he says, is for them to “make connections” and “secure capital.” To me, this sounded less like a meeting of criminal minds than of publishers, free of inspiration and hungry for a hit.
Indeed, there remains about Saints Row the air of a slightly desperate brainstorming session. We have an unremarkable open world: a parched parody of the American Southwest, called Santo Ileso. (Think Mad Max or Rage 2, minus the calm and contented mood.) We get dull and chewy third-person shooting, with slow-chipping health bars. There is a slew of optional missions, cringingly called Side Hustles. A wingsuit, cribbed from Just Cause. Skills and upgrades to unlock. There are laser guns and hoverbikes. And there is even a plot, though the figures that blow through it leave you cold, especially the protagonist. My heart always sinks when I’m encouraged to mould a character myself. The trouble with playing plastic surgeon is that the result always seems plastic, and in narrative terms a bespoke hero often bespeaks a blur.
How did we get here? The series began in 2006, with another Saints Row. The thuggish crew of that game, cleaving to Eli’s plan, shares the name, the home base, and the logo of the new one, and, given that the developer, Volition, faithfully ripped off the template laid forth by Grand Theft Auto III and its follow-ups, the connections came ready-made. But the result was hardly an empire. The sequels (including Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row: Gat out of Hell) grew increasingly zany, as if to shake off the influence of Rockstar’s series and shock themselves into originality. Now, Volition is scaling things back. Note the sawn-off title, hinting that the thrills here, though inexpensive, come at the cost of some of the old kookiness. Not that this is an exercise in restraint. You will sprawl atop the roof of a racing car, spraying your enemies with gunfire. You will thieve cargo with a helicopter, heaving it through the skies with a magnetised winch. And you will glide between buildings like Batman, exploding satellite dishes.
While playing the new adventure, I returned to the original—which is backwards compatible on Xbox Series X—out of sheer curiosity. It was set in a Detroit-ish burg called Stilwater, and, though its action didn’t exactly run deep, nor was it stagnant. You could fell your enemies with one or two shots; the objectives were grim but not a grind; and a chorus of voices, including those of Michael Rapaport and Keith David, helped kick the story along. What’s more, within five minutes it made me laugh. The reboot contains only feeble satirical barbs and idle profanity. “What even is real in a late-stage capitalist digital economy? Boom. Mind blown,” someone says. And later, as our hero slogs to the front of a freight train to steal a tank, we hear, “I’m calling this Plan F. F for ‘Fuck it.’”
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You need only go to Grand Theft Auto V, which came out almost a decade ago, to get a fresher dose of derision. Think of the ceaseless and rabid chatter on the radio, making wisecracks at anything that fell into its crosshairs. Or, if you’re wondering what is real in our late-stage capitalist digital economy, think of Franklin shooting a pharmaceutical CEO in the head with a rifle, the better to manipulate the stock market. Boom. Mind Blown. The problem with the new Saints Row is not just that the characters are boring, or that the combat is by-the-numbers and benumbed by unempowering perks, but that the brief snatches of fun—the wingsuit deployed from a high rise, the hand-brake turn through a curtain of tyre smoke—are nothing new, and are done better in other games.
All of which leaves us with the sad fact that Volition, a talented studio with a fine history, has hedged its bets. This is the same studio that gave us The Punisher, spattered in gore and filled with spent lives; that gave us Red Faction: Guerrilla, and took a swing at breaking with open-world convention; and that offered up the madcap antics of the previous Saints Row entries. If Volition had gone all the way and pared things back to the downbeat level of the first game, that would have been something. We won’t have another Grand Theft Auto for some time yet, and imitators are always welcome. Failing that, why not dial things up to unprecedented levels of wacko? Sometimes, you have to go for Plan F.
Publisher: Deep Silver
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: August 23, 2022
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