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'Saints Row' takes players on a GTA-style spree that's goofy, sincere — and glitchy

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

This year's reboot of Saints Row presents a sunny sandbox bursting with heists, hijinks, and witty banter. While the series has always stood in the shadow of Grand Theft Auto, it shines when it does what it's always done best: trading GTA's cynicism for gonzo humor and earnest character portraits. While never as rich or mechanically satisfying as GTA 5, the new Saints Row more than makes up for it with a pitch-perfect balance of comedy and compelling storytelling. That is, if you can actually play it without game-breaking bugs (more on this later).

Back to basics

The last few times we visited the gang, Saints Row took its goofiness to the extreme, as your player character became the President of the United States battling aliens in The Matrix spoof of Saints Row IV. The series then went from interstellar to metaphysical as you mowed down demons in Saints Row: Gat out of Hell.

The new reboot feels grounded in comparison, relocating its action to the fictional southwestern city of Santo Ileso. It's hard not to compare it to the deserts of GTA 5's Los Santos, although to criticize Saints Row for having Santo in its city's name feels unfair. In this new, Las Vegas-esque environment, you battle other gangs, from the western-sheriff Marshalls, the car-crazed Los Panteros, and my personal favorite, the rave-and-class-warfare-obsessed Idols.

Rival gang and rave-obsessed anarchists, the Idols.
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Rival gang and rave-obsessed anarchists, the Idols.

You begin the game as the Boss of the titular Saints, a gang you created with your down-and-out roommates, Kev, Eli and Neenah. All three are diverse, delightfully written and fun to hang out with. While Saints Row returns with trademark over-the-top combat, it can quickly pivot to moments of sincerity and companionship. It is clear the Boss loves two things: mayhem and friendship, and their world revolves around being the best at both.

Family First

See, for all its similarity to Grand Theft Auto, this focus on the gang as family has always set Saints Row apart. I love GTA, but its core comedy relies on apathy. The characters you play may have loyalties, but are often reluctant, rife with bitterness and selfishness. The supporting cast tends towards shallowness. You have spoiled brats, hyper-conservatives, and idiot hippies — all mocked with equal disdain. GTA rarely embraces characters who care about the world they live in.

Saints Row gives you not just things to care about, but people to save. Your characters resemble the burnt-out, gig-economy millennials GTA 5 loves to ridicule. They pin a pride flag to the wall and celebrate coming home from your first day as a mercenary with brunch. When you must make rent, you rob a payday loan place, excited for post-crime karaoke. Your crew is genuinely heartbroken when former allies betray them, and, true to form, your Boss responds by blowing the problem away with a rocket launcher.

Roommate and self-help enthusiast, Eli.
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Roommate and self-help enthusiast, Eli.

This approach provides more avenues for storytelling than GTA has chosen to use. By eschewing the 'everyone is either brainless or nihilistic' formula, Saints Row can achieve clear, specific parody. The rival gang, the Idols, are a great example: they talk a big game about anti-capitalism and tearing down the 'the Man', but it doesn't take long to see that they're just fame-seeking anarchists. Their hypocrisy contrasts with your Saints, who also fight the establishment, but in the name of building a community of their own, however goofy it may be.

Good story, glitchy gameplay

It's a compelling revision of the typical mobster arc, and it works because the violence is campy and (usually) carefree. But it's weighed down by gameplay that's either uninspired or — at worst — completely unfunctional.

Here's how critical missions played out on Normal difficulty: an AI teammate never fires a shot. They may or may not take damage, so you may or may not have to revive them. Enemies may suddenly all have heavy armor. You might be locked into throwing grenades, unable to do anything else. The timer for teammate revival continues during unskippable specials, causing you to fail instantly when the animation ends.

I even encountered a persistent, baffling issue in which my Boss could only move and kick. I could lift my guns to aim but couldn't shoot, and I couldn't use the weapon wheel interface. Restarting the mission or aborting it didn't fix it; I had to reload the save entirely, sending me back to before the mission began.

I ended up attempting one crucial (and amazingly written) mission fourteen times. Around the tenth I swapped to the easiest difficulty to rush to the end. Sure enough, the glitch came up, but I made progress by slowly kicking my way through combat, only to get to a point that required me to interact with objects by other means than a foot to the chest. You couldn't expect the average player, or even a dedicated fan, to do this for four missions in a row like I did at one point.

More vehicular madness in <em>Saints Row</em>.
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More vehicular madness in Saints Row.

Even without errors, the base gameplay loop and mechanics of Saints Row fall flat. The game's tone hearkens back to somewhere between Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third, and the gunplay is similarly dated. The gorgeous graphics and strong narrative make it more obvious how much the side quests, mini-games and interface can't compare favorably to GTA 5 — and that game came out nearly a decade ago!

Yet for all its flaws, I hope to return to Saints Row, because the intentional chaos of the narrative shines through the unintentional chaos of its glitches. A promised Day One patch may address the issues I faced, though I suspect it will take more than that to fix all the bugs. But if you're looking for a crime caper without GTA's caustic cynicism, Saints Row should be right up your alley.

Danny Lore is a Black sci-fi/fantasy writer of prose and comics. They hail from Harlem and the Bronx.

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Danny Lore