I Hope Saints Row Hasn’t Dug Its Own Grave

Stakes were high for the Saints Row reboot. The newest game was said to be a highly-anticipated return to the tone of 2 and 3 for Volition after we had space-fairing Matrix aliens, a trip to Satan’s domain, and alternate reality superheroes in a futuristic South Korea, but it’s not doing well. Burdened with an average of 63 on Metacritic and even lower scores from users, the fated return has fallen flat on its ass with no car hood to bounce it back up.

We thought Gat out of Hell and Agents of Mayhem were the nail in the coffin too, but we were wrong – Saints Row came back with a big budget and lots of initial fanfare. The series still has – or had – a cultural cachet. It could’ve used that to make a bombastic return, kickstarting sequel after sequel, and finally reviving a beloved but dormant property. Instead, it pulled a Crackdown 3, and I’m worried that Saints Row has finally run out of lives.

Saints Row was always the alt-GTA, its weird cousin that showed up to family gatherings in a corny t-shirt emblazoned with a gay cowboy riding a tiger. While GTA pushed the envelope for open-world games, Saints Row always went in a different direction with its constantly developing world and in-depth customisation. You take charge of the story and The Boss in ways GTA never facilitates, so while it often gets called an uninspired knock-off, it was always the perfect antidote to the big dog. That’s less prevalent these days with development times growing and budgets inflating, meaning we’re still playing the same GTA almost a decade after it came out, but Saints Row could have adapted to this new landscape. It could’ve offered something new.

I remember the anxious wait for GTA 5. I’d played the fourth instalment to death and was quickly burning out and in need of something ‘new’ to ring that serotonin bell, and then along came Saints Row The Third. It had floatier driving and was infinitely more over-the-top, but it scratched an itch I didn’t even know I had. The opening felt like a dumb B-movie with The Boss and Shaundi leaping out of a plane before driving off to buy a pistol and raid a military base, taking on tanks and helicopters as they staked their claim on the city of Steelport.

It captured the chaotic essence of GTA without losing its heart. I still cared deeply for its characters and world, even getting a little teary-eyed at Johnny Gat’s death, feeling the same raw emotion as my virtual gangsters upon his funeral being invaded by our bitter rivals. It manages to be silly and eccentric with a unique personality and corny aesthetic while still keeping that emotional edge GTA was so renowned for. It stood side by side with a titan despite having half the budget and a much smaller team piecing it together. I think that’s why hopes were so high for the reboot. Open world games have changed so much, and to see Volition deliver a Saints Row that understood that evolution while still bringing its core tenets to life could have been masterful. Instead, it was a disaster it might never recover from.

The reboot doesn’t accomplish this delicate balance of care and chaos at all. It’s a desperate attempt to fit in and ride current trends rather than forging its own identity and paving the way for new trends. Saints Row was an oddity that stood out because it was so different, whereas now we have every other game trying to be Borderlands with quips, puns, one-liners, and over-the-top action. The Penetrator isn’t nearly as shocking now as it was a decade ago. Saints Row needed to do more, but in playing safe, it’s likely dug its own grave.

I sincerely hope I’m wrong and Volition pulls it back out of the coffin and tries again with a sequel, learning from the mistakes it made here, but I get the feeling that Saints Row will fall into being a product of a bygone era, something we look back on fondly with nostalgia like Dead Rising and Twisted Metal. GTA might have been groundbreaking for the industry, but Saints Row took that identity and sought to reinvent it, to give it a unique edge that kept things from going stale. It isn't too late for Volition to leave its mark on the medium once again and recapture the iconic shift it made so many years ago.

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