Saints Row sends gamers on a silly, honest, and glitchy GTA-style spree.

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Volition

Saints Row's trademark over-the-top action.

Volition

Saints Row's trademark over-the-top action.

The Saints Row reboot from this year offers a bright sandbox brimming with heists, capers, and funny dialogue. The series has always been overshadowed by Grand Theft Auto, but when it does what it does best—exchanging GTA’s cynicism for outrageous humor and heartfelt character studies—it shines. The new Saints Row more than makes up for GTA 5’s lack of richness and mechanical satisfaction with a masterful balancing act of humour and gripping plot. If you can play it without encountering any game-breaking problems, that is (more on this later).

RETURN TO BASIC The past few times we played with the crew, Saints Row IV took its silliness to the limit by having the player character fight aliens as President of the United States in a Matrix-inspired setting. As you killed demons in Saints Row: Gat out of Hell, the franchise transitioned from being interplanetary to being metaphysical.

In contrast, the latest version, which sets the action in the fictitious city of Santo Ileso in the southwest, feels more grounded. Although it seems unjust to attack Saints Row for having Santo in the name of its city, it’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons to the deserts of GTA 5’s Los Santos. You fight various gangs in this novel, Las Vegas-like setting, such as the car-obsessed Los Panteros, the rave- and class-warfare-obsessed Idols, and the western-style Sheriff Marshalls.

The Idols are a rival group and rave-obsessed anarchists. hide caption for volition
switch to caption Transition

The Idols are a rival group and rave-obsessed anarchists.

Volition As the Boss of the titular Saints, a group you founded with your impoverished housemates Kev, Eli, and Neenah, you start the game. All three are interesting, beautifully written, and enjoyable company. While Saints Row makes a comeback with its signature outrageous combat, it can swiftly shift to genuine and comradery moments. The universe of the Boss centers around being the best at two things, mayhem and friendship, which are obvious loves of theirs.

FAMILY CENTRAL See, despite its resemblance to Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row has always stood out due to its emphasis on the group as a family. I adore GTA, but its central comedy depends on indifference. Even though the characters you portray frequently exhibit reluctance, hostility, and selfishness, they may have loyalties. The supporting cast has a tendency to be uninteresting. You mock spoilt brats, extreme conservatives, and dumb hippies with the same contempt. Characters that care about the planet they live in are rarely embraced in GTA.

Saints Row provides you with both objects and people to save. Your characters are like the gig-economy, burnt-out millennials that GTA 5 loves to mock. When you return from your first day as a mercenary, they decorate the wall with a pride flag and serve brunch. When you need to pay your rent, you rob a payday loan establishment in anticipation of post-crime karaoke. When erstwhile comrades betray them, your staff is devastated. However, as is customary, your boss replies by using a rocket launcher to solve the issue.

Eli, my roommate and a big fan of self-help. hide caption for volition
switch to caption Eli, roommate and proponent of self-help, Volition

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Volition This strategy offers more opportunities for storytelling than GTA has employed. Saints Row can create a clear, targeted satire by abandoning the axiom that “everyone is either brainless or nihilistic.” The opposing gang, the Idols, is an excellent example because they make a big deal out of being anti-capitalist and destroying “the Man,” but it doesn’t take long to realize that they are only anarchists out for notoriety. Their hypocrisy contrasts with that of your Saints, who likewise oppose the status quo but do so in the purpose of creating a unique community, as absurd it may be.

GRAPHIC GAMEPLAY AND A GOOD STORY The violence is campy and (usually) casual, making it a captivating reinterpretation of the conventional mafia storyline. However, the gameplay drags it down, being at best unimaginative and at worst wholly unusable.

Here is how crucial missions on the No AI teammate ever fires a shot on the normal difficulty setting. You might or might not need to resuscitate them because they might or might not sustain damage. All enemies could at once have thick armor. You could be powerless to do anything but throw explosives. During unskippable specials, the timeframe for teammate revival keeps running, and you fail right away after the animation is over.

Even worse, I ran into a frustrating problem where my Boss could only move and kick. I was unable to use the weapon wheel interface and could only lift my firearms to aim. It wasn’t fixed by canceling or restarting the mission; I had to completely reload the save, which took me back to the beginning of the mission.

I ended up making fourteen attempts at one extremely important (and brilliantly crafted) task. I switched to the least difficulty around the tenth level in order to finish quickly. As expected, the issue appeared, but I continued to advance by cautiously kicking my way through combat until I reached a place where I had to interact with objects other than by kicking them in the chest. The typical player, or even a devoted fan, could not be expected to perform this action for four consecutive missions, as I once did.

More maniacal driving in Saints Row. hide caption for volition
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More maniacal driving in Saints Row.

Volition The fundamental gameplay loop and mechanics of Saints Row are flawed even when perfect. The tone of the game is identical to that of Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third, and the gunplay is also archaic. The stunning visuals and compelling story make it further clearer how inferior the side quests, mini-games, and user interface are to GTA 5, and that game was released almost ten years ago!

I hope to play Saints Row again despite all of its issues because the story’s deliberate anarchy shines through the problems’ unintentional mess. The anticipated Day One patch might fix the problems I had, but I believe there are still more flaws that need to be fixed. However, Saints Row should be right up your alley if you’re seeking for a crime caper without GTA’s corrosive cynicism.

Black sci-fi and fantasy author Danny Lore creates both prose and comics. They are Bronx and Harlem natives.

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