Don’t be fooled, the Saints Row reboot is as bold, brash, and brazen as anything that’s come before it. You may have heard rumblings of a more realistic, less tongue-in-cheek slant on Volition’s action adventure series this time around, but, having been shown 45 minutes of hands-off preview footage ahead of E3 2022, let’s be clear: there’s more than enough here to satiate existing Saints fans, while simultaneously welcoming newcomers to its new sandbox setting, Santo Ileso. With that, expect blockbuster police chases, Hollywood-tier shootouts, outrageous weaponry, colossal customisation, genital sliders, homicidal gangs, a huge open world, wild west-style bar fights, wanton destruction, and wingsuits galore. If this is Saints Row ‘toned down’, then call me Johnny Gat.
The renowned protagonist of past Saints Row ventures, is, of course, absent this time around; as are dildo bats, alien invasions, and dubstep guns. The business-minded Eli, getaway driver Neenah, DJ Kevin, and quirky protagonist Boss are instead the stars of this show – one that’s more mature in its framing, but equally outlandish in practice. “What keeps something grounded is the emotional reality of it,” says lead writer Jeremy Bernstein of striking that balance. “It doesn’t matter how absurd a thing is, so long as it has an emotional truth. In one mission, Kevin is missing, and the Idols [gang] are going to kill him. That’s serious. But the things you do to rescue him – beating a man’s head against a jukebox, dragging another around in a porta potty – those are absurdist. But the emotional grounding is there. You’re doing these absurd things, but they feel like they matter.”
To this end, Bernstein says that he and the wider Volition team did everything in their power to avoid being absurdist simply for the sake of being absurd. Every action, every decision, and every mission in the Saints Row reboot, no matter how weird or whacky or outlandish, is rooted in reason – which might see you gliding through the sky in pursuit of an enemy, boosting the flight of your wingsuit by bopping the heads of innocent bystanders like Super Mario meets Whack-a-Mole. It might see you whipping an enemy vehicle off the road while piloting a helicopter equipped with a retractable industrial-strength magnet. It might even see you zipping down one of Santo Ileso’s six-lane freeways by hoverboard. But, each time, you’ll be doing so with a cause and a purpose.
In an early mission, this takes the form of the gang robbing a payday loan shop in order to make rent. The gunpoint heist goes pretty smoothly, and the player is thereafter tasked with driving from the crime scene to another getaway car in a bid to circumvent the cops. From there, things inevitably go south, and the player finds themselves gunning down city streets, sweeping thoroughfares, and narrow back alleys, before spilling into a graffiti-daubed L.A. River-aping underpass with the boys in blue hot on their tail. Here, we’re introduced to ‘Sideswiping’, a new vehicle combat mechanic that lets you bash and flip ensuing vehicles off the road. With two cruisers in pursuit, things quickly escalate, before one of the squad cars is sent careering into a wall, bursting into flames upon impact. Moments later, his partner meets the same fate.
It’s all very fast, very frantic, very Saints Row, albeit fresher and sharper, viewed through a modern lens with gorgeous visuals. If acknowledging the past while looking to the future is Volition’s overarching goal, I reckon they’ve done a fine job of walking that tightrope between deference and daring – something creative director Brian Traficante describes as he and his team’s biggest creative challenge. “We were very happy with the story told in the previous Saints [games], and we felt like we’d closed that chapter and accomplished the things we wanted to do,” says Traficante. “Approaching a new Saints Row game is challenging, as I’m sure you can imagine, because of all the things it’s done, everything it has accomplished, and what it’s meant to people. To come at that, to reboot all of that, to make sure it’s more than just a spiritual successor, but also a Saints Row game tried and true, wasn’t easy. With your controller in hand, we wanted players to experience something new while also feeling at home, to feel all of the things they’ve come to know and love about Saints Row.”
Saints Row’s Santo Ileso setting plays a huge role in striking that balance between old and new. Despite the enduring appeal of past Saints Row games, the last main series entry, Saints Row 4, launched way back in 2013. Its Gat Out of Hell DLC arrived two years later, and while Saints Row 3 was given a modern makeover in 2020, it’s been a long nine-year wait for players seeking something new in this universe. GTA Online has gone from strength to strength in the same time frame via a slew of extensive complimentary updates – not least last year’s Dr Dre-starring The Contract – but, as a result of being tied to the same setting throughout, part of me has always longed for a new landmass to probe and plunder.
Santo Ileso, it turns out, is inspired by “pretty much the entire American Southwest”, so says Bernstein. He explains: “For reference footage, we just went everywhere – Southern California, New Mexico, Nevada, a bunch of different cities, a bunch of different elements, a bunch of different landscapes. Two very different deserts from a decor standpoint, in terms of the different types of deserts you get in the southwest – the more dry deserts and the deserts are a little bit more lush. Every time I look at it all, I find it stunning. But it’s really just a great cornucopia of everything out there in the real American Southwest.”
Traficante adds: “Yeah, we did our usual location scouting for places like Sedona, we looked at Dallas, we looked at Austin, Texas, we looked at Joshua Tree State Park, even Reno, Nevada, which was a big inspiration for the El Dorado district. [Despite coronavirus restrictions] we did get to do some on-location photo scouting like we’ve done in the past, but the online tools we have at our disposal nowadays helped a lot. Anyone that we knew who’d visit any of these locations were forced to take plenty of photos for us!”
The spice of life (and death)
On the face of it, Santo Ileso’s shimmering desert plains and sparkling suburban sprawls are among its most obvious draws. It’s hard to deny a fresh, new sandbox that begs to be explored, but beneath its shiny veneer, one particular transition that grabbed my attention saw the action switch quickly from the game’s vast open world to a claustrophobic bar fight. Close-quarters combat can be hit or miss in open world games, pardon the pun, but it seems like Saints Row has its bigger and smaller moments finely tuned – where your approach to battle can shift in the blink of an eye, where being switched on at all times is key to survival.
This shift can seem seamless on our end, but that’s simply credit to the designers pulling the strings behind the scenes. “From a technical point of view, working with the camera and the controls, those transitions are always challenging,” explains principle designer Damien Allen. “You have this camera view that’s designed to work well in open areas and large environments, and then we want to bring that in and make it feel intimate but also not get in the way. There’s a lot of iteration, there’s a lot of work done in that. I’ve said this to people in the past on the systems team: if we do our job well, then no one notices it, because it just feels right. That’s our goal – if I can hand you the controller, and you can just run and have fun and it just feels natural, that’s when we’ve succeeded.”
And of course, the intrigue of exploring Santo Ileso extends way beyond its looks. Just about everything can be customised – from your avatar to your cars, your guns, your gang HQ, your 100+ emotes, and more – on the spot, simply by accessing your phone. ‘Discovery’ events spawn ambiently on the map, allowing players to generate cash in a hurry without too much effort. In the hands-off demo, this is illustrated by strapping remote explosives to an armoured bank van and “blowing it open like a six-tonne pinata”. ‘Side Hustle’ activities, on the other hand, are formalised side quests that let you earn money and XP, the latter of which can be traded to unlock special abilities out in the world and in combat. Variety strikes at the heart of the latter too, with players able to switch freely between stealth, defensive tactics, and all-guns-blazing offence on the fly as each foray dictates.
In one particularly heated exchange with the 5-0, the player is shown headshotting an oncoming SWAT team officer, sprinting to the fallen’s body, snatching his shield, and then storming a squad of non-shield-bearing cops, much to their dismay. Saints Row boasts “untethered” two-player co-op throughout, whereby some events are gated by sync and invite systems, as per previous Saints Row games and other sandbox ventures, but wherein players can otherwise band together seamlessly for the entirety of the game. And whereas Saints Row 3 leaned heavily on the presence of your squad (as NPCs or player-controlled team-mates), and Saints Row 4 was a distinctly more solitary experience, Volition reckons the Saints Row reboot lands somewhere in the middle of that spread.
Which again feeds back into the developers’ desire to pay deference to old school Saints Row while also carving its own, unique path with this Saints Row reboot. I’m admittedly a fan of crime simulator sandbox games – like GTA Online, like Just Cause, and, of course, like Saints Row of old – but from what I’ve seen so far, I can’t wait to get lost in Santo Ileso and all that it has to offer. If you feel the same, Saints Row is due on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X and Xbox One on August 23, 2022.
The Saints Row series features prominently on our best games like GTA list.