A lot has changed in the open-world genre since the Saints Row series came to its ridiculous conclusion amid an alien invasion almost 10 years ago. And with the reboot of the franchise, Deep Silver Volition seems to be looking back to that time, before open-world games were flooded with RPG elements and crafting systems. The new Saints Row feels a lot like a game from a different era, but with a bunch of additions that make it more than just a nostalgic return to the past.
I played about four hours of Saints Row at a recent preview event, which encompassed the beginning of the game. As with the original Saints Row, the new game is all about creating your own criminal empire–but you have a long way to go before that happens. It’s set in the new city of Santo Ileso, a fictional location in the United States’ Southwest that mixes an urban center, suburbs, and desert locations, and has the vibe of places such as Las Vegas or Albuquerque without being quite like either.
From the outset, Saints Row takes a different tone than the last game in the franchise, Saints Row IV, which had gone into some pretty absurd territory. Volition has said that it means the rebooted Saints Row to be more grounded than where the series previously wound up, and while that’s true, this is by no means a serious game. It has the feel of an action-comedy akin to something like the Bad Boys movies or a ’90s Schwarzennegger romp. You’re still a kick-ass hero who’s great at fighting, you’re just not capable of superhuman feats anymore.
Thematically, though, Saints Row turns its satirical sights on some real, if heightened, elements of American life. At the start of the game, you live with three friends in a dingy apartment, hoping to make enough money to cover rent. In fact, the first time you turn to crime in Saints Row, it’s because your job doesn’t provide the performance bonus you expected to earn, leaving you short on your rent contribution for the month. Soon after, one of your friends, Neenah, mentions that the crimes she commits aren’t for herself–they’re to pay off her student loans.
As Saints Row user interface artist Cailyn Talamonti put it in an interview with GameSpot, Volition is looking to maintain the humor and “outlandish” elements that Saints Row is known for, while making them more relatable, like by making the satirical suggestion that crime might be an answer to crushing debt.
“Saints Row has the real problems of student debt, job loss, all this not knowing if you can make rent or not,” Talamonti said. “The game has its stride in taking outlandish thoughts and making them actually happen. In a way that’s like, ‘Oh yeah. That actually makes sense.’ We have the side-hustles like the toxic dump, where you can go dump all your toxic waste, and that’s a way to make money. And there are other ways to make money. There’s insurance fraud, where you just throw yourself in front of cars…. Saints Row IV is of its time and we respect it for what it is, but this new Saints Row reboot, it makes the outlandishness make more sense, in my personal opinion. It rationalizes it.”
Though we know you’re eventually going to become a crime kingpin who presumably can finally pay for their degree, at the start of Saints Row, your goal is to climb the corporate ladder as a mercenary at Marshall Defense Industries, a private military corporation. The game wastes no time sending up US corporate culture and the idea of wanton murder being okay as long as the profits are good. And Marshall would be a pretty good fit for the player character if it wasn’t run by rich jerks–your character is already a talented killer full of bravado, so the opportunity to earn bonus pay for performing well incentivizes you to become a maverick murder machine.
The opening mission is your first day with Marshall, dropping you and a bunch of other soldiers into a historical Old West attraction filled with members of another gang, the weight-lifting and car-focused Los Panteros. The mission highlights the lessons Saints Row has taken from modern open-world games–it’s a largely cinematic event, with cutscenes popping up here and there as you fight through waves of enemies and advance on your objective. The approach gives these campaign missions the kind of storytelling gravitas you often get out of more linear single-player games, and are reminiscent of what you might see in the Horizon games, for instance, with a lot of emphasis placed on characters and action-driven scenes.
In terms of gameplay, however, Saints Row often feels like a throwback. The third-person shooting aspect of the game is pretty standard, but I had a really tough time getting used to the feeling of aiming in Saints Row; the controller analog sticks were way too sensitive, with seemingly no way to adjust them. It took me a bit to get the hang of how to hit targets, which was best done by making liberal use of the auto-aim assistance that magnetizes your reticule to a foe when aiming down sights. It reminded me of awkward old-school open-world shooting from Saints Row or the Grand Theft Auto series, and not in a good way.
While the shooting itself was finicky, Saints Row introduces cool additions to gameplay that update it overall. Your health bar is divided into three parts, and while your health will recharge automatically if you’re out of the line of fire for a few seconds, it won’t refill fully–so if you’re between one-third health and two-thirds health, you’ll only recharge to two-thirds. To get more health back, you have to kill enemies using spiffy, cinematic execution moves that you can activate with a single button press when you’re close enough. Trouble is, the execution ability also needs to charge over time, so you can’t always pull one off. Kills recharge the ability more quickly, so the more mayhem you create, the more executions you can pull off, and the more you can heal yourself. It’s a healing system reminiscent of something like Doom Eternal, encouraging you to constantly mix it up in combat, rather than hunker down behind cover.
As the story progresses, you engage in some other ridiculous action-movie antics, although to no avail, as you’re fired on your third day of work for saving a board member’s life, rather than some expensive Marshall property. That leads to you and your friends deciding to start their own gang, and in doing so, becoming even more of an enemy to Los Panteros, the techno-anarchist gang known as the Idols, and Marshall.
Saints Row includes a lot of the elements you’d expect from an open-world game of its type, and as the story ramps up, you get more opportunities to mess around in Santo Ileso, finding illicit things to do. The game is full of “side-hustles” and other missions, like the aforementioned toxic dumping and insurance fraud opportunities. Our preview also included missions like “Choplifting,” in which you steal things by attaching a magnet to them and flying them away with a helicopter. The Choplifting mission I tried was to steal an armored car, the weight of which immediately unbalanced the helicopter, leading to a hilariously cursed attempt to fly it across the city without smashing it (or crashing) into everything along the way. Another side-hustle sends you out to leave negative online reviews on gang-backed restaurants, and then to wreck the enforcers who show up to express their displeasure with your opinion.
With the side missions, or even just driving around and getting into trouble, Saints Row channels an old-school feeling of unpredictable chaos as systems and artificial intelligence collide–what one might affectionately call “open-world jank.” Fleeing civilians will crash their cars into buildings and tear through gangsters accidentally; rockets fired at enemies might trigger massive explosions you don’t expect; enemies on dirtbikes find themselves stuck in walls as they try to attack you, before flying off their rides as you unload on them. At times, those weird interactions can be a little disappointing, especially when enemy AI occasionally breaks down, but during our preview, it also created the kinds of goofy moments that helped the open-world genre become ascendant to begin with.
Saints Row also brings in smart new ideas to update the formula. The driving systems make cars pretty deadly, with a dedicated sideswipe button that can be used to smash enemy drivers off the road. You can also now climb up onto the roofs of cars, which is especially useful when someone else is driving–when shooting from inside a car, you can only use smaller weapons and your range of motion is limited, but on the roof, you’re free to use larger guns and can shoot anywere. The trade-off is that there’s no cover on the roof, meaning you take a lot more damage. The inclusion of roof-riding adds a lot to Saints Row’s car chases, giving you opportunities to fight back in an effective way, but also forcing you to make tactical decisions about when it’s the right call to make yourself vulnerable.
Completing missions earns you experience points that play into a leveling progression system, the fruits of which make you more of an overall badass. Leveling up takes you along a linear progression path, unlocking either new, equippable skills, or earning you passive upgrades like boosts to your overall health. The skills are the cool part, as you can assign them to certain buttons and use them in the heat of battle. The first one you unlock allows you to grab a nearby enemy, shove a grenade down their pants, and then heave them back toward their friends, and it’s incredibly useful for crowd control. Later abilities included dropping a smoke bomb to make it tougher for enemies to get a bead on you, or throwing down proximity mines. You need to charge up these abilities in a similar way to executions, but they’re available much more quickly; I never found myself waiting for a chance to grenade someone or drop a mine.
And Saints Row also includes a variety of gameplay challenges you can complete while you’re doing other things, with objectives like driving in the oncoming traffic lane for a certain amount of time, or shooting a certain number of enemies in the head with a specific kind of weapon. Completing these challenges unlock perks you can equip to your character to further customize their abilities. One early perk we unlocked gives you faster run speed when your health gets low, making it a little easier to get out of fire to survive engagements. Slots to equip more perks unlock as you spend the money you earn in the game, creating a whole system that incentivizes you to mess around in Saints Row and engage with its various aspects, while adding new ways to deck out your character according to your playstyle. It’s a really intelligent way to make the goofing-off gameplay of open-world games a rewarding part of the experience, while also pushing you to try things you might otherwise skip.
“The goal of this game was to get that sweet spot between Saints Row 2 and Saints Row 3,” Talamonti said. “Give people something that they recognize, game mechanics that make them feel nostalgic, a game that makes them feel good.”
Arguably, though, the heart of Saints Row is its characters, as well as their dynamic and the funny dialogue between them. Your crew consists of mechanic and driving wiz Neenah, entrepreneurial expert Eli, and perpetually shirtless DJ and resident cook Kev. The portion of the story we saw was early, but the already strong friendship among the group proved to be a highlight, and the way they’re willing to help each other makes their ridiculous plan to deal with their circumstances–by starting a criminal empire–relatable.
Talamonti said that Volition might not have set out to make a satirical crime game about heartless corporations and systemic inequality, but a lot of elements from the real world make sense in the setting of the game.
“I’m not sure if we went into [making the game] with the idea of addressing really hard-hitting issues. I think it’s the stupid saying, art imitates life,” she said. “It’s hard to avoid letting our own personal experiences leak into the media that we create. In a way, it can be more creatively exciting to take our worldly experiences and twist them in a way that’s funky, wacky, and make it a story that is relatable.”
“This game is being made by a bunch of people who, probably some of them, are in serious student debt. Who isn’t in student debt right now? We know the issues and we want to address them in our own f–ked-up way,” Talamonti said. “It might be coping. Some could consider this coping, because in a perfect world, you could just throw yourself in front of cars, and then rag doll everywhere, and then just get back up.”
Four hours isn’t nearly enough time to get a full picture of Saints Row, but what it demonstrated most was the way Volition is combining the old and new to give a new spin on an older kind of open-world game. A fresh, updated angle on its story and themes and new ideas and mechanics combine with a looser approach to elements like shooting mechanics and AI. It’s too early to say whether those combinations work completely, but Saints Row definitely scratches the itch for the kind of unpredictable nonsense and mayhem that defined the series and games like it for years.