It's been about eight months since I first had a hands-off sneak peek at the new and about-to-be-rebooted Saints Row, and six since we've heard it was being delayed to August this year. With its late summer release fast approaching, Volition recently showed off a larger chunk of some actual gameplay to press in another remote preview session. It looks almost exactly like what you'd expect it to look like: a fun open world game where you shoot people and smash cars into other cars.
Barring any catastrophic eventualities where this game actually ends up being just a load of bugs propping up other bugs in a fluorescent trenchcoat, I feel almost 100% confident in saying to you that this will be an enjoyable product when it comes out. But I also should be honest and say that the gameplay I saw has congealed into the same kind of sticky morass and blurred whirling lights in my memory as my first all-night benders. It's a big collage of colours and explosions, and words like "cops", "switch car" and "plan", leaving a general impression of fun but, so far, few specifics in its wake. And to be even more frank about it all, I can't think of a nailed on reason why any of it has to be a Saints Row game.
Here is the pitch if you missed it last time: you, The Boss (who Volition were very keen to emphasise is extremely customisable on every level, at any moment), are starting a new crime gang. You're doing this with three friends: the one who's into cars, the nerdy one, and the fast-talking kook with funny tattoos that arguably fits into the "beloved franchise mascot character" space vacated by Johnny Gat. Once assembled, your big plan is to take over territory in the fictional South West desert city of Santo Ileso, currently occupied by three rival gangs. Los Panteros are big hammer-swingin' toughs who probably really like The Fast And The Furious; The Idols are influeners who've gotten way out ahead of themselves; and Marshall is a PMC group just openly contracted to do crime, I guess?
There is a car chase with the police where the player learns how to destroy other vehicles by ramming them at speed. To make sure you're aware of this, an NPC says, "Keep your speed up!", "You need to speed up!", "The faster you're going the more damage you'll do!" every few seconds. There are big natural ramps in the world so you can vroom up them on a bike and jump a height and distance that would make Superman whistle through his teeth. A way to get quick cash early on is to explode security vans and collect their insides, as one would crack open a tortoise. There are cowboy-themed saloons and a Vegas-style neon strip, there are chip shops and clothes stores and street bands. Shoot a cop just before he calls in for backup. Shoot a riot cop to steal his shield. Shoot enemy cars from a helicopter. Shoot whoever. Have you played old Saints Row? Better yet, have you played GTA, which this looks a little closer to? Then you get it.
There are a couple of key differences to nuSaints Row, the first being that you have theoretically seamless drop-in/drop-out co-op. "The game is complete, all playable, all facets of the game - open world, critical path - in untethered two player co-op. In terms of progression, all the content is is dialled up, you got a buddy, so it's not going to be as easy as it would be on one," confirmed creative director Brian Traficante, who explained that co-op partners earn and share rewards.
That means that if you're early game, and I'm very late game but you join me, you'd get those late game rewards. Then when you got those same late game moments in your own campaign, the game will ask you if you want to skip. This seamless drop in was demonstrated in the pre-recorded gameplay by another player coming in with a helicopter to pick up the first player's car, and drop it from a great height. There was natural and definitely unscripted bants happening at the same time.
The second, at least in my opinion, is that Santo Ileso is a very different setting, inspired by "pretty much the entire American Southwest," as lead writer for missions Jeremy Bernstein said. "Southern California, New Mexico and Nevada, a bunch of different cities, a bunch of different elements, a bunch of different landscapes" were all important touch points, he told us.
In the desert I saw a giant fork. It was stuck tines-down, like the dropped cutlery of a god.
The dominant colour I've seen so far in Santo Ileso is orange, and it feels different to the grey of Stilwater, and certainly more alive. I want to explore it much more than I did any other Saints settings, and I maintain that Santo Ileso looks like the most interesting part of Saints Row so far. Artist Danielle Benthien commented that "the city itself is alive even when you're not in certain areas. There's always things to see," adding that Santo Ileso is like "the fifth friend" in your gang. I think my favourite thing from this preview were the sculptures and statues. There's a lot of weird art in SI, and describing them sounds like a weird dream you had once. In the desert I saw a giant fork. It was stuck tines-down, like the dropped cutlery of a god.
In the business of playing the game, of course, Santo Ileso is the playground. Around it you will find 'discoveries', little mini-opportunities like the armoured trucks full of money. Then, in a reference to the new and improved Gen-Z origin story this time, you get Side Hustles. While for many of us this is embroidery or Twitch streaming at weekends, in Saints Row these are repeatable missions you can keep doing to get money and XP. The one in the demo was called Riding Shotgun, where you defend a getaway driver after a robbery. The preview made it look like the driving combat is much improved on previous entries in the series - way more stable, way more cinematic, way more enjoyable, and that can be no bad thing.
There are now Criminal Ventures, too. From your HQ you can open up seemingly legit businesses on vacant lots in the city, and eventually take over entire districts. Building the Shady Oaks medical centre unlocks Insurance Fraud, and Chalupacabre sells drugs through food trucks. In the preview, they built The Big One, a military surplus store that is actually your arms dealing business. You can drum up sales by showing off the merchandise and blowing up a bunch of stuff. This seems like no efficient way to do business to me, but then I am not in a criminal gang.
This touches on what I'm noticing more and more about Saints Row, which is a very slight tension between this new game, and the old Saints Row. Traficante said that "we were very happy with the story we told in the previous stance and for us, we we've closed that chapter and accomplished the things we wanted to do."
But in almost the same breath he said that the biggest challenge with this reboot is "to make sure it's more than just a spiritual successor, that it is a Saints Row game tried and true" with "all the things you've come to know and love about playing Saints Row."
The biggest challenge with this reboot is "to make sure it's more than just a spiritual successor, that it is a Saints Row game tried and true" with "all the things you've come to know and love about playing Saints Row."
Later on principal designer Damien Allen said, "I'm honestly amazed at how much it feels like an SR game," and Bernstein (who came in well after development had started) said, "Everything I saw was like, 'My God, that's Saints Row.' Like this is what, as a Saints Row fan I want to see out of a new Saints Row game." Writer Jennifer Campbell also added, "I'd say like the humour is definitely a lot closer to SR3. I don't think we get as dark as SR2 got in certain places."
So is that chapter closed? Because you talk about that chapter a lot, is what I'm saying. But obviously, of course you fuckin' do, because you called this game Saints Row!
This Saints Row is a new game. It's made with more modern design sensibilities than you'd get in 2006. You can select different abilities and perks to equip to give you, for example, fire resistence if you're going into a fight against some Panteros, who burn things a lot. Weapons get signature ability upgrades, too, and the HUD is pretty customisable with scaling elements up or down, or changing colours. UX designer Kenzie Lindgren said that "it's definitely the most accessibility [options] that we have ever had in a Saint's Row game. And I'm very excited to show people exactly what we can do with that customisation, we have a lot of difficulty options that come into play, we have a lot of options for like helping with motion sickness, hearing disabilities, visual disabilities, even some motor disabilities as well. We have full integration with Tobii [eye tracking] software that is coming to our game."
At one point Bernstein said, "To me, what keeps something grounded is the the emotional reality of it. It doesn't matter how absurd a thing is, if it has an emotional truth underneath it," which I think is one of the clearest, smartest things I've ever heard a developer say. And he was saying this to point out that you can still feel like something's real and has stakes when your friend Kevin is captured, for example, even if in the course of saving him you change tracks on a juke box by smashing someone else's head into it repeatedly. Because of course.
At the same time, though, it doesn't feel like the stuff you'll be doing in nuSaint's Row is going to be fundamentally different. There's still a lot of old Saints Row stuff that keeps elbow nudging me in the face. There's the mandatory check list of wacky weapons - the showcase one for this preview being the Thrust Buster, a kind of wild-card explosive football (as in American, not fut). "You can run around and attach it to people directly like you're doing a hand-off, or you can throw it from afar," said Allen. "It can even stick on vehicles and send then flying." There are also over 100 emotes in this game, which I think is more emotes than I can express in real life. And heck, even though the old chapter is definitely, 100% closed, we still have that Insurance Fraud you loved back then, don't you worry! It's not too different, is the thing. It's still that thing you like.
There is a non-zero chance my thoughts on this have been influenced by watching back-to-back video essays on Nostalgia Critic and the Angry Video Game Nerd, but part of me wonders if this game started out being called Saints Row. That same part wants all the excited and smart and engaged developers at the round table to be given millions of dollars to make something with absolutely no strings attached. And maybe they'd still call that game Saints Row, and that's fine. This will be a fun game. In a game where the player can be anything, it's just a shame that freedom doesn't seem to extend to the game itself.
On the other hand, I can't see any compelling reason it shouldn't be a Saint's Row game either, so fuck it, I guess. The Saints are dead. Long live The Saints.