Saints Row is a series predicated on one existential question: What if you just didn’t give a fuck anymore?
Your job sucks? Fire an RPG into your old office and become a crime lord. Jerkwad ex won’t leave your friend alone? Wingsuit onto his patio by leaping off a nearby building to tackle him from 60 feet up. Suburban nouveau-riche snob using a piece of valuable modern art as a drying rack? Pull up in a golf cart made of lava, slap a tow cable on that bad boy, and drive it home through rush hour traffic.
There are probably reasonable human solutions to these problems, but the reboot of Saints Row is a game about telling reasonable to go fuck itself. The Boss of the newly formed Saints solves every problem that comes their way in a straight-line fashion: There’s you, there’s the goal, and in most cases, all that’s left of anything in between those two points is a trail of smoking, bleeding, or radioactively green glowing debris.
In terms of scale, this new incarnation of the series isn’t quite as bonkers as its immediate predecessors — after all, in the first couple hours of Saints Row 4, they blow up the Earth. Rather, it exists at the midpoint between the slightly more straight-laced Saints Row 2 and the left-field slapstick turn of Saints Row: The Third. Thus, while there’s nothing as wild as a gun that fires weaponized dubstep, you can still skin your grenade launcher so that it fires beer cans instead (and that’s one of the tamer options).
At the core, it would be fair to call the new Saints Row an evolution more than a reboot; the setting and characters are new, but the core gameplay elements haven’t changed. You slowly take over the city from its existing power structures, largely by killing lots of people or performing Jackass episode-level sabotage activities. (You ever left a Yelp review so harsh that a murder-hungry crowd of anarchist hipsters rushed out with shotguns to retaliate?) Even the factions feel vaguely familiar; said anarchist hipsters, the Idols, echo Saints Row: The Third’s emo hacker Deckers, for example, but updated for 2022.
None of this is particularly problematic. The familiar trappings of the series really did need an update in the nine years since Saints Row 4 happened (we don’t talk about Gat Out of Hell in this household). Our world has changed since then. While the old and new Bosses have some core things in common — casual disregard for the lives of strangers, inhuman toughness, being super good at murder — their contexts are very different.
The Boss of SR3 and 4 was a crime boss who rose from very humble beginnings in the first Saints Row. The Boss of this new version is a frustrated Millennial/Gen Z hybrid with student loans to pay off, living with three roommates in a too-small apartment that costs far too much money. The opening hours of the game see them lose their job at the cartoonishly evil Marshall Defense Industries for not toeing the line like a good wage slave (well, and losing a priceless artifact in a gang shootout that levels a museum, but whatever), and the game that results is really a consequence of the Boss and their roommates being out of fucks to give. System keeping you in debt and under its thumb? Feeling like your potential is wasted shoveling dirt for someone with half your ability but four times your annual income? Fuck ’em.
The resulting entrepreneurial bent (“Be your own boss” is the game’s slightly meta motto) flavors the core gameplay. Once the Saints begin in earnest, you take over the city by building “criminal ventures” at various vacant lots across Santo Ileso. These law-breaking money machines each come with a set of activities that grow the business; completing each set of activities secures Saints control over the neighborhood where the venture was placed.
Some of these are typical Saints Row fare: The Shady Oaks clinic is an insurance fraud front, and you can earn money for it by literally walking into traffic and ragdolling the Boss off of oncoming cars. Building an arms smuggling emporium opens up the classic “Mayhem” activity where you demonstrate the merchandise by spectacularly blowing shit up. Others are new, including a toxic-waste dump that requires carefully driving trucks full of radioactive goo across the city, or a vaporwave haute couture atelier where the designer gives you her dream journal and tells you to photograph things in the city that mirror what she saw. There are also “side hustles,” which can net you extra money to reinvest into your criminal empire, but don’t necessarily contribute to overall progress.
As your empire grows, the main story accompanies the Saints as they encounter increasingly bonkers set-pieces where you murder your way through anyone in your path. It’s the context of these murders that varies, though. Sometimes it’s expected action movie situations (a train robbery, rescuing a kidnapped friend) and sometimes it’s absolutely not. A few of them are memorably wacky in the best way. One involves one of the local gang powers stealing a popular kids meal toy from a local fast food franchise and you chasing them around the city to get them back. Another is a city-wide post-apocalyptic LARP where your weapons are replaced with foam guns and your takedown becomes a pantomime of ripping someone’s heart out.
The city of Santo Ileso itself, much like Stilwater and Steelport before it, is a character in its own right. Where the previous games’ settings had an upper-Midwest, Rust Belt aesthetic to them, Santo Ileso is a fusion of media portrayals of the U.S. Southwest. Going solely by places I’ve been to, it’s a sort of melange of San Antonio, rural Arizona, Reno, and even a bit of Southern California, depending on the neighborhood. The city’s east side is working class industrial crowned by a gentrified arts district, while the west side is a corporate high-rise midtown that slowly transitions into a strip of casinos and red light district-y shops. Unlike previous Saints Row games, the city proper is surrounded by extensive scrubland wilderness, with abandoned mining towns and roadside attractions (Santo Ileso is on Route 66) peppered among rocky cliff sides, canyons, ponds, and dirt roads.
As much as I like Santo Ileso, which has all the quirks and details that really define the best cities found in games like Saints Row or Grand Theft Auto, I feel very aware that I am a white person from the northeast who’s never lived farther south than southern Ohio. Many of the touches that sold Santo Ileso as a particularly southwestern U.S. city to me — including two Spanish-language radio stations, complete with Spanish readings of the intermittent in-game news broadcasts — may read very different to natives of the region, and I’ll be looking for the reads of others once the game is out. Saints Row — especially Saints Row: The Third — has a messy history with race because of its invoking of fictionalized visions of (note skeptical quotation marks) “gang culture.” I think Volition is aware of this, and steadily working to improve it, but the new SR doesn’t always hit the mark; Los Panteros as a machismo-driven gang of brutes led by a vindictive misogynist feels kinda bad from a race politics standpoint, especially since the rival Idols gang is mostly rich white raver kids from the nice part of town.
While I largely enjoyed my time in Santo Ileso, the game definitely has its frustrations — many of which are holdovers from earlier entries. Many, many activities involve vehicles, especially with “get X to Y across the city without it blowing up” objectives, but the default difficulty can make said vehicles feel a little too fragile. Similarly, many combat-oriented activities are a “horde mode” situation, but the Boss feels a little too fragile for how many baseball bat-wielding weirdos are out there trying to fuck you over. The result was often a series of try-again-from-checkpoint deaths that got on my nerves pretty fast.
On the flip side, however, Volition now presents a strong set of difficulty options; the selectable difficulties aren’t concrete categories but are instead presets with different sliders at a specific number. You’re free to tweak those sliders yourself and change individual bits of the experience to suit your tastes. I found the situations I just described to be less annoying when I turned down the “Vehicle Combat” slider a bit, for example, giving friendly vehicles more base durability.
The “Should you buy this game?” part of this review is easy: If you enjoyed previous Saints Row games, you will probably like this one, and if you’ve never played one, this is a decent onboarding point. If you were a fan of Saints Row 2 but found the later entries in the series to be a little too aggressively bonkers, you should give the new Saints Row a try. It’s still got that comedic series edge, but it doesn’t break the knob off.
It’s worth noting, however, that even though the game sometimes frustrated me, and the core gameplay loop wasn’t especially new or innovative, Saints Row is the first game I’ve reviewed in years where I finished it, wrote the review, then went back in and started playing just for myself. There were so many incidental things that made me laugh or smile that I didn’t get to expound on here; the NPC I overheard shouting “SPEAK! TO! A! REPRESENTATIVE!” doppler back at me as I drove past, or the mariachi street band that — while I was watching them play — stopped mid-song, threw down their guitars in disgust, and literally walked off. I have a folder of numerous screenshots I cannot wait to tweet when the embargo is up, both of bonkers customization options and incredible lines of snappy dialogue. I just kept finding things that made me crack up, or that I really wanted to share with others. When it comes to endorsements for a game, I don’t think you can find a better one than that.
Saints Row will be released on Aug. 23 on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Google Stadia. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Deep Silver. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.