Previews for the upcoming Saints Row reboot have arrived, and the consensus is rather positive. Our own editor-in-chief Stacey Henley said it channeled the energy of Saints Row The Third brilliantly, while also building upon the existing formula with a greater focus on customisation and tongue-in-cheek destruction. So far, so very Saints Row.
But it seems familiar beyond Saints Row, with much of the writing, exploration, and moment-to-moment gameplay feeling like it could have been pulled out of an open world game from ten years ago. Other outlets shared this sentiment, with many praising Volition for returning to the series’ roots while also wishing it pushed itself even further. I can understand this criticism, but after the lukewarm reception to Gat out of Hell, the failure of Agents of Mayhem, and our occasional unwillingness to embrace new properties, we shouldn’t be too surprised when studios decide to play it safe.
Saints Row hasn’t changed a huge amount since its inception as an Xbox 360 launch title. Its sequels would iterate upon mechanics and characters while securing a zanier sense of humour, but the open world gameplay has remained largely untouched. Obviously we’d soon adopt a protagonist in the White House, giant purple dildo bats, and superpowers, but you were still recruiting homies, completing missions, and causing trouble in a way that rivals like Grand Theft Auto weren’t always willing to accommodate. It carved out a section of the genre and did so many cool things with it, but like many franchises, there came a time for Volition to move on and try its hand at something new. That failed, and here we are.
When this reboot was first revealed criticism was immediately thrown at the characters and writing for being “too woke” with detractors failing to recognise that the games have always been progressive in their themes and narrative – they were just too ignorant to see it. Volition is piecing together a new version of Saints Row that reflects modern society while never leaving behind the series’ roots, and that means a younger cast of characters fighting back against myriad corrupt systems, and partly why so much of the tone and atmosphere reminds me of Watch Dogs 2. It’s a similar thing, but with weirder technology and even more potential for causing chaos. That’s the game I’ve been waiting for, even if it reminds me of things I’ve played before time and time again.
Open world games are in a strange place right now. Titles like Horizon Forbidden West and Ghost of Tsushima are rather predictable in their design, providing us with massive spaces to explore alongside maps littered with icons for us to chase down and uncover. The focus is often on quantity over quality, while rival titles like Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild seek to push the medium forward with bold, experimental ideas. Saints Row feels like an outlier in the modern landscape, and we’ve already started labelling it as an archaic retread that won’t bring enough new ideas to the table. Even if it doesn’t, I don’t really care.
It has been almost a decade since the last game in the series, and to be honest I’d be more than happy for it to make a return without changing much. I want to create my own leader of the Saints and have them look, speak, and behave in a way that is true to my interpretation of the character. Having a familiar open world that is malleable to my every whim is part of that, which means murdering civilians, blowing up cars, and causing trouble without consequences because I’m The Boss. I’m the baddest motherfucker this city has ever seen, and I’m going to make my mark. Saints Row has always focused on that power fantasy while managing to tell a surprisingly compelling story with sharp writing and even sharper humour. I don’t think that’s the sort of series you can reimagine into something entirely new without losing so much of the original spirit.
Sometimes it’s okay not to look forward when a game like Saints Row comes along. We can remain in the moment and enjoy a game that reminds us so much of the past yet has enough modern sheen and worthwhile content to keep us enthralled. I need that sort of experience right now, and if Volition offers it, who am I to complain?
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