Saints Row 5 is coming but it needs to go back to its roots

With the reveal of the Saints Row 4 Nintendo Switch release, we mustn’t forget that Saints Row 5 is also on the way. Volition has been hard at work creating the next great adventure of the Third Street Saints, but they have to be careful: Saints Row 5 must not repeat the mistakes of the games that came before it.

What made Saints Row great

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At a casual glance, the Saints Row games look very similar to Grand Theft Auto. They do have a lot in common, after all. Both franchises have you heading up a criminal empire. Both use liberal applications of violence as the solution to most problems. Both have their moments of drama and hilarity.

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It was, however, the differences that really highlighted the appeal of Saints Row — and the anticipation for Saints Row 5. While Grand Theft Auto was mostly serious, Saints Row was mostly funny. The various GTA protagonists were largely grounded in reality, but the boss of the Third Street Saints powerbombed gang leaders into a garbage truck and promoted a branded energy drink. They’re similar games, but different enough that each has its own unique appeal.

Grand Theft Auto has been wishy-washy with the comedy, with some people — myself included — marking GTA IV as a low point in the franchise for seemingly forgetting about the humor of the previous games. Saints Row has made a similar mistake, although this one was done from the other direction.

Saints Row sideshows

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There have always been silly side missions in games of this sort, but Saints Row really takes the cake. As an example, Saints Row 2 has you driving around town with a septic truck and literally shooting sewage at your enemies in an effort to cause property damage. That’s about as lowbrow as comedy gets — but it’s also a boatload of fun.

I first entered into the franchise with Saints Row: The Third and absolutely loved the game, so much so that I picked up Saints Row 2Saints Row 4, and Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell. I’ve noticed a worrying trend since my first experience with the games.

To start, Saints Row 4 was really supposed to be a piece of DLC for the third game. The bankruptcy of THQ in the early 2010s led to an acquisition and a change of plans, stretching out a DLC’s worth of content into a full game.

It was not well thought out. Get through roughly 10 percent of the game’s story and the superpowers have essentially rendered vehicles and guns useless. You can never step into a car again and not be any worse for wear — why even bother? It’s like they forgot what kind of game this was supposed to be.

A similar thing happened with Gat Out of Hell. Kinzie and Johnny Gat quite literally go to hell and take on magical powers, once again rendering firearms and vehicles essentially useless. Another Steelport reskin of sorts stretches out a DLC’s worth of content into a full game.

The big picture

Saints Row 3 Open World

Stepping back, I noticed the trend of the franchise’s change in tone and wanted to take a look at Saints Row 2 to see just how far it had come. Sure, the PC port is a bit of a disaster, but it ran well enough that I was able to experience what many consider to be the pinnacle of the franchise.

There’s plenty of silly and crazy moments, but those weren’t the main focus of the franchise. There are not aliens blowing up the earth. You’re not traveling through time and meeting historical figures. You’re a gang leader fighting for control of a city, wearing stylish clothes and driving souped-up cars.

Ultimately, I realized what had bothered me about the tonal shift of the franchise. It’s not that the existence of slapstick humor and ridiculous plots — it’s that there’s too much of it, overshadowing what the game was about in the first place.

And the little things, too

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The dramatic aspects of Saints Row weren’t the only things lost over the years. Lots of little features disappeared, and I sure hope they return in Saints Row 5.

One of the criticisms I’ve seen voiced most often is the customization. Saints Row 2 had a stupidly-complex customization system that let you wear several layers of clothing, allowing for the creation of a very unique character. The amount of variety available to the player was frankly insane.

Saints Row 3 had a brand-new engine, and the collapse of the company’s publisher THQ likely resulted in some cutbacks. The customization options improved in some areas but got worse in others. You just had fewer options for decking out your character.

Crib customization was drastically reduced, too. Now, you only had the option for a straight upgrade. There were fewer opportunities for bringing your own visual flair to the Third Street Saints.

Saints Row 5 needs to dial back the insanity

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Saints Row 5 will likely be another big step for the adventures of the Third Street Saints. Unlike the jump from Saints Row 2 to Saints Row 3, Volition will hopefully not have to deal with their publisher going bankrupt. The success of the previous games will hopefully mean that the devs can execute and create a vision without having to worry about cutting corners in the areas that made Saints Row great.

My big concern is the effect that the more “out there” games are going to have on the future of Saints Row 5. Are we going to get another traditional gangster story with a lot of silly humor and the occasional crazy side mission, or are we going to be fighting alien lizard people on Jupiter?

I hope Volition takes a good look at what they’ve made over the years and sees how they’ve strayed so far from where they’ve first started. I’m looking forward to more silliness in Saints Row 5. I also look forward to salt on my french fries, but I don’t want you to dump the whole shaker on them, either.