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Saints Row seems like a tentative reboot caught between past and present

For better and for worse

After four hours with Saints Row, it's funny being back in the present. I have a gaming PC! Bills to pay! A smartphone that recognises my face! Grey hairs! I say all this because Saints Row - not to be confused with Saints Row yet also to be confused with Saints Row - whisked me back to the early 2000s, when I was but a naïve teenager whose life largely pivoted around their Xbox 360. A time when Saints Row and Saints Row 2 were lighthearted Grand Theft Auto alternatives, then Saints Row: The Third came along and cranked up the silliness, and then Saints Row 4 grabbed the lever and cranked it so hard it snapped. So, yes, this year's Saints Row reboot is technically Saints Row 5, except it’s more of a careful reboot. Where does it really sit on the timeline? At both ends, I reckon.

After four hours with the game's early sections, I was surprised by how Saints Row felt. For whatever reason, I expected there to be a next-gen veneer coating it all, perhaps an all-new weightiness to character movement or an unexpected flourish here and there, like Volition had pushed the titular Row in an exciting new direction. From what I played, though, I found it drew heavily from the past - both to its credit and its detriment.

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The game ditches triple A energy in favour of double A batteries, juiced by both the original Saints Row and its more bombastic brethren in an attempt to strike a balance between the two. This is evident right from the get-go, where you're thrust into an intro mission that's largely just shooting dudes as you run through a Wild West-themed set. At one point you lie down on a jetfighter and shoot some more dudes as they periodically pop out of caves and conveniently position themselves next to explosive barrels. It’s a comforting and silly throwback to simpler times, but also an obvious indication that the game’s paralysed in fear, opting to nudge the series with its foot, rather than punt it into the stratosphere and trust that the reboot will thrive as a result.

Many of the missions I played followed a similar formula: pull up to a location, shoot some dudes, then things escalate and you shoot them in better ways, like from the roof of a truck using an RPG or with a mini-gun. At least early on, the game makes it clear that it's comfortable sticking to an old script. Except it's one that falls short of Saints Row: The Third's opening missions, which saw you plummet to earth dodging plane debris and shooting agents in free-fall. At one point you parachuted into a rooftop party while Kanye West's Power blared over the speakers. The Third owned its over-the-top attitude and it culminated in silly missions and weapons and scenarios that oozed confidence. Here, the new Saints Row seems like it's being held back by IV's step too far into outer space.

Neenah gives the player a lift in a jetbike in Saints Row.
It took me a while to warm up to the cast: Neenah (the no-nonsense mechanic), Kevin (DJ bro), and Eli (nerdy hacker), but they seem like a colourful, lighthearted bunch who you'll warm to over many car rides.

Maybe the game's zaniness grows as time goes by, or mixes things up as the Saints start regaining a foothold over Santo Ileso. It’s a city made up of nine districts and controlled by three rival gangs: Los Panteros, beefcakes who I'm convinced would warm to Louis Theroux as he stood there watching them fix up muscle cars; the Idols, violent spawn of a TikTok content house; and Marshall, a cowboy security force that wield laser guns and... do crime?

I only saw a smidgen of what's on offer, spending most of my time riling up the Idols and Panteros in your typical American southwest digs, a dusty place filled with sandy ramps and cacti. But it was a great playground for speedy car chases, stunts, and sightseeing. At one point, I drove a limousine down a freeway at night and was taken aback by how pretty the lights of the city in the distance were. And even just the empty lots with their gas stations and warped fences and graffiti gave Santo Ileso a lived-in feel.

And as you'd expect, driving is a lot of fun, hitting that mid-ground between simulation and silliness. You're encouraged to drift around turns and shunt rivals Burnout-style with a quick button press, exploding them if you bash their bumpers in just right. A garage lets you customise your ride with preset skins and in-depth bits if you want too, while there's a fair number of different vehicles to hijack and make yours.

Good thing the driving is solid, as it's one of the main ways you'll navigate the urban sprawl. Just like Saints games of the past, you'll access the map through an app on your phone, which brings up Santo Ileso and its many map markers. Many of them are side hustles separate from the story, letting you make a quick buck in all manner of ludicrous ways, some a bit boring, some truly brilliant. One saw me help a telecom company 'challenge' its competitors by blowing up their masts with C4 and wingsuiting between them like a budget Batman - a bit dull. Another saw me track down some drug pallets and collect them for cash - meh. I left a one-star review at this donut stand and a horde of angry punters appeared, so I fought them off and earned some EXP – bleh.

It's a reboot that's shed the extremes of its past but also some of its confidence in the process.

But another side activity captured that early 2000s magic and exploited what Saints Row has always done well: explosions. There's this bounty board app that lets you track down targets for money, and one chase ended up with me piloting a monster truck and crushing muscle cars into metal pancakes. The story missions picked up a bit too, as I frightened a hostage in the backseat of a car by catching air and dodging oncoming vehicles at high speeds. One saw me jump into a huge digger and clatter through building sites, purposefully smashing down porter loos and scaffolding, before flinging cop cars with its massive yellow arm.

Technically, there isn’t a huge distinction between the activities I liked and those I didn’t, but if I look closer, I realise that it’s the smashing and crashing that makes the difference. When the game tries something a bit different - like the wingsuiting or donut stand stuff - it doesn’t commit fully to what makes Saints Row, Saints Row. It’s either too nuanced or not fully formed. Either give me C4 strapped to a car and tell me to bash it into things, or leave off. Either make that donut stand transform into a rideable mechanical cock ring called Throbatron, or don't. You can tell this Saints Row is unsure how to push the boundaries and make this an explosive new beginning, but without going too far.

The combat loses its lustre once you hope out of your vehicle, which doesn’t help. As you level up, you're able to unlock new skills and assign them to a radial menu. They're all fine, basically coming down to things like chucking mines and grenades or getting a burst of health and melee damage. Later, you get the equivalent of Deadeye from Red Dead Redemption. You can use these abilities when your energy meter is full, or alternatively, you can perform flashy melee finishers on enemies to recover health. Perhaps the heavy lifting is done with wackier weapons later on, but the skills certainly didn't elevate the samey "shoot some dudes" missions to "I really do love to shoot these dudes" celebrations.

I might sound down on Saints Row and that's because I am, a bit. As Alice Bee said in her hands-off preview, there's some definite tension between the old and the new. I'm hoping that, as the story develops and the open world expands it'll loosen its self-imposed leash, because what I played signalled a reboot that's shed the extremes of its past but also some of its confidence in the process. It wants to carve a new path for the series, but doesn't want to go bonkers or lose sight of the Saints row formula, so borrows from what worked well over a decade ago.

And yet, despite my misgivings, I think Saints Row is an unabashedly good time. In borrowing from the past, the preview quenched that thirst for a double A experience. It seems perfect for lying down on the sofa and chuckling at occasionally, requiring only a bag of Doritos and minimal emotional investment. Santo Ileso could well plug the current urban playground gap in games, even if it's a time capsule to one from the early noughties.

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