Typically I’d spend as little time as possible fussing with the character creator in a modern role-playing game. I played Cyberpunk 2077 for more than 100 hours and can’t even remember how I styled V apart from selecting her gender. But historically Saints Row swears by the comic relief in its customization, and I wanted to create a character who can hang.
The first few menus let you select from eight voice actors for your character; I went with Erica Lindbeck, who also plays the spunky sidekick Jessie Rasberry in Final Fantasy VII Remake. This isn’t the most sophisticated character creator I’ve encountered in recent years, but it was good enough to let me design a protagonist with a decent resemblance to Amy Schumer. I gave her Ray-Bans at the start, and once I’d done enough gigs and looted the corpses of enough gangbangers to bankroll a shopping spree at the Buckaroo Leggin’s clothing store, I outfitted her with a tan leather duster, denim shorts, roper boots, a cowboy hat with floral embroidery, and a tacky turquoise bangle. Now dressed to kill, I’d stand outside a hostile establishment—a gym run by a local gang, for instance—and I’d whip out my smartphone and leave a two-star review of the place, thus immediately provoking a massive shootout with the staff and clientele in the parking lot. Los Panteros now live in fear of Amy Schumer.
This is Saints Row, a reboot of the open-world, third-person shooter series developed by the studio Volition since 2006. It’s long been positioned as the scrappy runner-up to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto, a franchise that’s produced the second-best-selling video game of all time with its latest entry, Grand Theft Auto V. Compared to the inner-city melodrama of Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row is a much sillier series, a parody of a parody of urban American culture. For example, 2013’s Saints Row IV sees the player-character elected U.S. president, with his fellow 3rd Street Saints gang members filling out the Cabinet, before fighting off an alien invasion from inside a computer simulation. With the reboot, Volition pledged to bring the series back down to Earth. The company also controversially teased a softer sense of humor; the first two games’ fast-food chain Freckle Bitch’s, with its half-naked mascot and naughty slogan (“You can’t beat our meat!”), goes by FB’s in the new Saints Row. No more pool noodle dildos! Still, Volition assured players that the essence of the originals would still remain. “We are not backing down on this,” the company tweeted in response to one fan in distress upon watching the announcement trailer.
Volition isn’t alone in its struggles to reconcile the competing sensibilities within its fan base. Rockstar, with its shock jock style in Grand Theft Auto and its beleaguered workforce in the developer’s Manhattan headquarters, recently pledged to become a “kinder, gentler” company, as Bloomberg described it, with less “punch[ing] down” in the writing for the forthcoming Grand Theft Auto VI. With its lower profile and earlier release date, Saints Row is a canary in the culture war.
Amy’s no keyboard warrior, though she is the sort of 20-something caricature only a millennial or zoomer could love. She’s already called “the Boss” in the character creator, but it’s a bit weird to call her “the Boss” before she has indeed become the boss. So for now, we’ll keep calling her Amy. She lives in the dusty southwestern metropolis of Santo Ileso, with three roommates in a crummy walk-up. They’re each luckless young adults with massive student loan debt and conflicting allegiances to rival organizations. There’s the aforementioned Los Panteros, a street gang of beefy gearheads aligned with Amy’s roommate, Neenah; the Idols, a cult of anti-capitalist EDM weirdos, including Amy’s roommate, Kevin; and Amy’s own employer, Marshall Defense Industries, the high-tech megacorp that patrols the city with armored trucks and laser weapons. (The fourth roommate, Eli, is unaligned.)
Amy begins Saints Row working for Marshall as a lowly recruit, raiding a local saloon to apprehend a mysterious, old-school gunslinger known as the Nahualli. The allegiances that pay the rent and utilities in this modest household quickly prove unsustainable; Amy, Neenah, and Kevin fall out with Marshall, Los Panteros, and the Idols, respectively. Disillusioned with the treacherous factions of Santo Ileso, Amy and her roommates resolve to launch a criminal empire of their own. They set up headquarters in a condemned church at the Old Town Shoreline. The Saints—and the Boss—are born.
Now you’re in business: recruiting goons, stockpiling weapons, stealing vehicles, and turning the church into party central. The map divides Santo Ileso into 15 districts, each contested by the major gangs. You give the Saints a foothold in Santo Ileso by seizing vacant lots, launching shady businesses—a laundromat, an urgent care center, a food truck dispatch—and fending off rival factions that could potentially cut into your profits. These criminal fronts are a tedious business. Each location saddles you with a checklist of several similar errands—the laundromat requires you to sneak vehicles around police checkpoints and dispose of them in a variety of ways, for instance—and even the checklists themselves, from business to business, feel a bit too similar. It’s work, all right. And you’re required to complete the objectives for at least a couple of businesses, since the expansion into new territory is pivotal to the Saints becoming the talk of the town and the subject of various retaliations in the main story.
(These missions are also where I encountered a severe glitch that other critics have also reported in their pre-release playthroughs. In one of the laundromat runs, I lost control of my character; I could still move her around, but she could no longer take actions, like entering a vehicle. Rebooting the game a few times and restarting the mission resolved the issue. While other reviews list several technical hiccups with Saints Row, this was the only notable bug in my playthrough on PC.)
You navigate the wide streets of Santo Ileso in getaway cars, monster trucks, armed speedboats, attack helicopters, and more, in a variety of main missions and side gigs. Sometimes, a fast food drive-through turns into a six-car pileup. A doughnut run escalates into a massacre. But really, each of these situations is a similar script: You fight a few waves of enemies on foot, in traffic, and occasionally in the air. The police might intervene and turn the shootout into a three-way engagement, in which case you can step back and play the other two sides against each other. But it’s easy enough to just kill everyone yourself. You can upgrade your guns and unlock their unique abilities, and you can do roughly the same for your vehicles. You can learn special moves, such as a flaming right hook or a trick grenade toss, to augment your gunplay and your speciality takedown. So while you’re always outnumbered in Saints Row, you’re rarely, if ever, overpowered. In fact, the best set pieces in Saints Row make you feel invincible and unstoppable. Blow up a train! Demolish a mall! Shoot first, and save your stupid, sensible questions for Neil Druckmann next month when you’re playing The Last of Us Part I.
Life is cheap in Santo Ileso. In a single mission you might slaughter a hundred goons with juicy headshots, wild hipfire, and a flying corkscrew to the solar plexus (one of several randomized animations for the Boss’s charged takedown). The combat in Saints Row—the finishing moves, in particular—is a bit like the dynamic in kung fu movies when the henchmen converge on the hero, only to fight him one by one, inevitably losing to the hero’s superior technique. You risk few real setbacks in this game. Death is, essentially, a director yelling, “Cut!” and letting you take the scene again from a generous checkpoint. The empowerment fantasy is pure. The violence in Saints Row is frictionless and, dare I say, adorable. Your dweeby roommate, Eli, the one without previous ties to the criminal underworld of Santo Ileso, eventually recruits you into his secret hobby: a citywide, pseudo-medieval, postapocalyptic live action role playing group with its own subfactions, non-lethal weaponry, cardboard costumes, martial arts pantomime, and the cutesy pew-pew-pew ad lib in lieu of “real” gunshots. This, for better or worse, is the tone of the new game altogether. It’s millennials writing zoomers. It’s a little cute and a little cringe. Ultimately, Saints Row is a serial murder simulator about the power of friendship.
The agonizing about the specter of wokeness in this game sounds preposterous in retrospect, and I imagine we’ll be saying the same any day now about Grand Theft Auto VI. The anarchist posturing of the Idols in Saints Row is ridiculous and really not that deep. Los Panteros are scarcely more interesting than Goombas, as far as basic opponents go. There’s a great deal of corporate intrigue regarding Marshall and its eccentric patriarch, Atticus, but even this plotline degrades into broad comedy and unresolved tensions. The founding Saints are the deepest characterizations in the game, and even the tragic backstories for a couple of them can do only so much to enrich the base archetypes. Kevin is a shirtless DJ with a heart of gold. Eli is a bougie nerd who loves boring podcasts. Neenah is a headstrong auto mechanic striving for self-determination and demanding respect. And Amy Schumer is a wise-cracking, joy-riding killer. You’re basically playing cops and robbers in a Southwestern-themed sandbox.
But when Saints Row is good, it’s pretty solidly good. It’s smaller than Grand Theft Auto V and less intricate than Cyberpunk 2077—for better or worse—but Saints Row is a nice little joyride indeed. I turned Amy Schumer into the Punisher. I wasn’t much of a mob boss, I’m afraid. I’m my best self in Saints Row when I’m sideswiping jeeps off the highway at random and shooting people for no reason. Such is the enduring power of the big, dumb sandbox shooter.