The sandbox genre has been a genre in need of innovation for a long time now, and 'Saints Row' is the latest game to fall victim to the trap of overthinking something that should be simple.
In the build-up to launch, we revisited the franchise that started life as a 'Grand Theft Auto' knock-off that went on to forge its own identity, but the franchise has been dormant since 2013's 'Saints Row IV'.
'Saints Row IV' was a final blowout for the franchise, taking its silliness to the nth degree by making players a superpowered American president, so a back-to-basics reboot is just what the doctor ordered.
The time was right for a 'Saints Row' reboot that took the franchise back to basics, and it succeeds on those merits.
When the 2022 version of 'Saints Row' focuses on the smaller character moments and wrestles with prevalent themes such as the gig economy, private military contractors, and living pay slip to pay slip, the game comes close to saying something profound about the genre it exists in.
When 'Saints Row' brings in the flying bikes, jets and rocket launchers, all this is lost.
'Saints Row' cannot pick a lane, because when it is a 'Breaking Bad' or 'Ozark' style story about making ends meet it hooks the player with clever writing and strong character work, but when the game becomes, well, a 'Saints Row' game, it becomes indistinguishable from every other sandbox game on the market.
Reviewing a game like 'Saints Row' is the most frustrating game to review because it isn't quite bad enough to warrant a trashing, but it has enough ideas to be a great game with a bit more focus.
Patience Of A Saint
The main note with 'Saints Row' is the game is an overbearing and overthought mess.
The game received a delay in late 2021 to receive one last bit of polish, and we fear the game may be a bit too well-polished, to the point of eroding the traditional 'Saints Row' spirit.
Previous 'Saints Row' games weren't exactly Valve standard in being incredibly proficient technical masterpieces, but they were never Bethesda-style disasters.
'Saints Row' has had the charm sandblasted away in order to make it like every other sandbox game on the market.
Indeed, when the game zeroes in on smaller character moments between themself and their crew, the game is a strong and engaging experience, with flawed, multi-faceted characters expressing their hopes, dreams and desires.
If the game wasn't called 'Saints Row' and was a brand-new game trying to start a franchise, we would be kinder to it, but 'Saints Row' invites the comparison to previous games.
The iconography of the previous games are there, as well as references to other games developed by Volition such as 'Red Faction' and 'Agents Of Mayhem', which somewhat undermines the core premise of striking out on your own and forging your own identity.
'Saints Row' is a game with an identity crisis, as its gameplay is derivative of most sandbox games on the market.
'Far Cry' style "clear the district" side quests populate the map, a wingsuit is lifted straight from the 'Just Cause' games, the core character group is lifted straight from 'Watch Dogs 2', and most damningly, the game plays like a 'Grand Theft Auto' clone.
In the moment-to-moment gameplay, the game has a bizarre obsession with leveling up and stats, which feels very out of place in a sandbox game.
In our review for 'Forza Horizon 5', we complemented the game for always pushing the players to achieve and push for more with counters on the screen, but 'Saints Row' takes it to the logical extreme, and at times the interface looks like an Excel sheet having a nightmare.
There is a lot to be said for the minimalist interface of 'Grand Theft Auto 5', and after a while, you just want 'Saints Row' to sit down and take a deep breath.
When you do hit the open road, 'Saints Row' is a strange paradox; it is a large open world with little to do.
Yes, there are plenty of side activities and missions to take part in, but in simply wondering around there is scant to do.
In sandbox games, the game lives or dies on being able to mess around in a fun open-world environment, and 'Saints Row' doesn't really succeed on those merits.
The World Is Yours
A major part of 'Saints Row' is building your criminal empire from the ground up, which seems like a neat idea, but in practice the gameplay is identical to the business set-up missions from 'Grand Theft Auto Online' but transplanted to a single-player setting.
This may be enough to get people on board, and indeed it is nice to play a game where you're able to build a criminal empire without a multiplayer component that is swamped with microtransactions.
When 'Saints Row' focuses on the nitty-gritty of crime and building your empire up from nothing, the game flirts with being interesting, and we are giving the game a recommendation off the back of a surprisingly deep and involved story.
The game, to its credit, does manage to stay just grounded enough to make the experience worthwhile.
In the first 20 minutes of the game, we see exactly why your character is an unstoppable killing machine, and the game reckons with this.
An interesting part of the story is exploring the commodification your skills and talents in pursuit of a pay slip, and this involving story makes the game worth picking up.
When the game indulges the sillier parts of old 'Saints Row' games, the game goes into a spiral.
There have been plenty of quality-of-life improvements, with the most notable being a deep character customisation suite.
You no longer need to drive halfway across town to change how your character looks, and you can change your character on the fly thanks to your phone, so it is possible to play one mission as a Matthew McConaughey-style cowboy with a farmers tan, and the next mission as a statue-esque businesswoman with a British accent.
The level of character customisation is the true star of the show, and while the community features were unavailable in our press build, we're looking forward to seeing what the player base comes up with (that and we tried to create a Kendall Roy avatar and it didn't turn out great!)
Ultimately, 'Saints Row' is a frustrating experience, because when the game is good, it is a confident step forward into the next console generation, but it has too much baggage attached and is weighed down by trying to be something it's not.
There are glimpses of potential, and we would be very much interested in seeing what path the story takes next, but a franchise reboot like this needs to hit the ground running.
As for the bottom line, unless you sleep in 'Saints Row' pyjamas or named your children Johnny Gat, we'd hold out until the game goes on sale.