Bursting onto the scene in 2006 on the Xbox 360, many wrote off Saints Row as little more than a Grand Theft Auto clone. In the years that followed The Row franchise carved out a niche for itself by leaning into the absurd, the wacky, and the nonsensical.
Although this worked well for Saints Row 2 and 3, it would also be responsible for the major criticism levelled at Saints Row 4.
With the 5th mainline Saints game on the horizon, it feels like the right time to look back at the franchise as a whole, and what 5 has in store!
So let's dive in, and head back to where it all began!
The year is 2003 and one of the biggest console games on the market is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a follow up to the critically successful Grand Theft Auto 3.
Up until the release of GTA 3 the series had looked quite different. An overhead view, clunky mechanics, and a distinctive but unimpressive look had been a staple of the series to that point.
GTA 3 changed the game by dropping the player into a fully 3D open world where they could do practically anything they wanted. Unless they wanted to swim, fly an aeroplane, or drive a boat that is; those features were still a little way off.
Vice City built on its predecessor very successfully. It told the story of Tommy Vercetti’s rise to power in 80’s Florida, adding new features, better graphics, and a more vibrant location to explore.
Somewhere in Illinois, developers Volition were paying attention.
New Gang on the Row
Beginning life as a PS2 game called ‘Bling Bling’, Volition’s original idea for Saints Row was a ‘Gang Simulator’.
Pitched as a first-person shooter, at some point in its 4 years of development things changed, with production jumping to the Xbox 360 in the process.
By the time Saints Row hit the shelves, it was obvious Grand Theft Auto’s manic success had played a part in shaping its direction.
Saints Row took established mechanics and features from GTA, but also introduced ideas that became mainstays of the genre.
The 3rd person view, ability to jack vehicles, licensed music, and the freedom to complete main or side missions at will were all there.
But things like the main character having a mobile phone as the hub for tracking missions and contacting NPCs came from Saints Row. Having ‘Homies’ with different traits join you and the ability to customise cars and weapons is also attributed to the Saints games.
The game starts with the protagonist, a mostly silent character known as ‘Playa’ (clever, right?) quite literally getting caught in the crossfire of a three-way gang war.
Rescued by The Saints, you become their latest initiate, setting out on a journey to take back The Row, and then take over the city of Stillwater.
It’s clear looking back now that Saints Row didn’t have its own identity at this point. Everything in the first game plays quite seriously, with next to none of the humour the series has become known for. This seemed to be the main criticism from reviewers, who were otherwise complimentary. Some even went as far as to claim it actually improved on certain aspects of the GTA games.
It’s fun, it has a great story (not so much a great ending, but I won’t spoil it) and it reviewed well. But it was undoubtedly helped by the fact it was the first game of its type on a new generation of consoles.
By 2008’s release of Saints Row 2, Volition had paid attention to feedback and started to move away from the gritty seriousness of the first game. Instead, they went with a much more satirical take on gang lifestyle. More humour, and established characters important to the series.
The likes of Johnny Gat (the only returning member of The Saints) and Shaundi became series mainstays. As did comedy weapon types and side-missions like 'insurance scams' and 'destruction'.
It feels like Volition went back to the drawing board and made the game they wished they made the first time around.
With the Saints disbanded, ‘Playa’ wakes from a 5-year coma having required extensive plastic surgery, which is a brilliant touch. It explains why he may look different (or even have changed gender - as this is the first in the series that offers the option of a female protagonist) and it gets mentioned... a lot.
Upon breaking out of prison, he or she sets out to ‘put the band back together’, and reclaim Stillwater from the new gangs that have risen to power.
The Vice Kings, Los Carnales and Westside Rollerz are now The Brotherhood, The Ronin, and the Sons of Samedi.
The concept stays the same though; a different member of the Saints 'takes care' of each gang, and Playa goes to them to start missions on that questline.
There is now a ‘respect’ system to give more meaning to side-missions and activities. But the most noticeable change is how much bigger Stillwater is. They explain this with another big change; Ultor.
Ultor is a corporation who have spent millions to redevelop the city. Again, another great in-game explanation for the improvements. Obviously though, being a huge corporation… they are also corrupt.
Ultor serves as another ‘gang’ for The Saints to take down, albeit with far more resources at their disposal.
Almost every element of the first game saw improvements in the sequel. More licensed music, better controls, a bigger story, larger environments and, of course, more ways to cause mayhem.
While some prefer the next entry into the series, Saints Row 2 is, in my opinion, the most well-rounded game in the franchise.
Going All Out
In the 5 years that have passed since Saints Row 2, The Saints and Ultor have merged together to become one of the hottest media properties on the planet. Famous around the world, The Saints are treated like celebrities everywhere they go.
Given The Saints start out on top, I'd forgive you for thinking that Volition had gone in a different direction… but you’d be wrong.
While attempting to rob a bank in neighbouring Steelport as part of a publicity stunt, ‘Playa’, Shaundi and Gat get captured by ‘The Syndicate’. They escape in dramatic fashion and decide to take over Steelport as well by - you guessed it - taking down the three main gangs in the area.
Sure, it’s formulaic, but working to the philosophy ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ allowed the developers to go all-in with the other aspects of the game.
The Dubstep Gun and the Mollusc Launcher are two prime examples of the surreal vibe Saints Row The Third was going for. Being offered as pre-order incentives put them in the limelight, with some equally outlandish content in the full game.
"The Penetrator" made its debut in Saints Row The Third, and made quite a stir in doing so (please don't google it.) It became a symbol of how wild the developers went with this instalment, but there were definitely stranger things included in there.
The Apoco-Fists for example. Giant fists that explode anything they hit. Be it humans, cars, or even tanks.
There was even a vehicle-mounted cannon that could suck up pedestrians and use them as ammo. It's this level of absurdity that set the series apart from the gritty realism GTA 4 had come up with.
Many missions and side-quests were way over the top too. None more so than Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax, which puts the player in a death-maze of traps and enemies. It was then down to them to wipe everyone out and escape, all for the entertainment of the masses watching on.
Saints Row The Third received criticism for trying to do TOO much all at once, but overall it reviewed well.
It also received a remaster in 2020 that you can upgrade for free on PS5 and Xbox Series X/S.
The final mission deserves a mention too. A 10/10 on the epic scale. It presents the player with a moral dilemma, backed by Bonnie Tyler's 'I need a Hero' on loop to really ramp up the intensity.
A Step Too Far
With control of multiple cities and worldwide acclaim, it was hard to see where things could go with 2013’s Saints Row 4. The easiest way to describe it is off the rails.
The fourth instalment sees ‘Playa’ save the world from nuclear annihilation in the first few minutes. As a result, they find themselves elected President of the United States.
That clearly wasn't crazy enough though. During the president’s first press conference aliens invade and kidnap The Saints, putting them in a simulation of Steelport.
Think that's crazy enough? Think again.
The simulation is then hacked to give the player superpowers. Run up tall buildings, leap them in a single bound, perform telekinesis and employ mind control. All possible in Saints Row 4.
In spite of this level of lunacy, Saints Row 4 still reviewed well.
However, the introduction of superpowers removed a lot of the challenge from the game, likened to a 'God Mode'. Players also felt the environments weren't as vibrant and the missions felt more linear.
As for the storyline, while creative, it wasn’t as immersive as previous entries to the series. It seemed a realistic setting with some outlandish weapons and vehicles felt more relatable to players than a jaunt into space.
A ‘Standalone Expansion’ (figure that one out) called Gat out of Hell followed, which saw The Saints continue their capers - this time in hell.
It didn’t review anywhere near as well as previous entries. Critics complained about the repetitive missions, poor graphics, and an abundance of glitches.
It seemed that this would be the sour note the Saints Row franchise bowed out on, until…
The Rebirth of Saints Row
In 2019 THQ Nordic revealed that a new main entry to the franchise was in development for the PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S.
In 2021 they confirmed that it would be a reboot that will take its inspiration more from Saints Row 2 in terms of a balance between humour and realism. Reeling it back in and starting afresh with a reboot certainly makes sense.
It would have been nice to see some of the more beloved characters like Gat make a comeback, but a clean slate is a clean slate.
Volition has thus far played their cards close to their chest, but here’s a brief rundown of the things we’ve seen so far:
The formula of the first three games makes a return. Take down rival gangs, take part in some side missions, or explore the sprawling landscape of Santo Ileso.
The three gangs this time around are Los Panteros, The Idols, and Marhall, the latter kitted out with military-grade hardware.
Based on Reno, Nevada, large parts of the map are wide-open deserts, with densely-populated towns dotted around to explore at will.
Both vehicles and weapons are highly customisable, and the majority appear to have a whole host of upgrade options. Add to the firepower of a gun with different types of ammo, or equip a scope to improve accuracy. Or do both, if the price is right.
Speaking of customisation, the customisation suite in Saints Row 5 looks to be bigger than ever.
The ability to change up the look of the player character has always been a staple of the Saints Row series, and that’s no different here. Fans of Channel 4's Grand Designs are also in for a treat - bases are customisable too, with both functional and stylistic changes.
The Bottom Line…
For those worrying that Volition may have toned things down TOO much and lost the spirit of what Saints Row is all about, never fear!
Although there have been casualties like The Penetrator, there ARE still a bunch of crazy things to do in Saints Row 5.
Want to shoot someone with a Foam Finger? Hit someone with a football that shoots them into the sky and blows them up? Shove a grenade into someone’s mouth and throw them at another enemy? You can do all of that and more, and that’s sure to be the tip of the iceberg.
I’m excited to get my hands on the new game. If you’re a fan of the franchise, particularly the second and third games, I think you should be too!