Yes folks, the Saints Row series has been rebooted, bringing us a brand spanking new game called, er, Saints Row. It's coming soon, too: February next year. You may be broadly unsurprised, due to a tease tweeted by Geoff the Patron Saint of Games, and put on the old Saints Row website, amounting to less a tease and more a statement in giant neon writing reading "WE ARE REBOOTING SAINTS ROW."
Nevertheless, I am able to give you some new and unteased Saints Row factoids, delivered via an earlier press briefing. It's set in Santo Ileso, a fictional city in the Southwest of the USA - cowboy land, basically - and SI, like all good cities in the SaintsRowniverse, is beset by exactly three (3) distinct gangs with their own colour schemes and vibes. You and your mates are about to set up the fourth. Quoting the press release: "Ultimately Saints Row is the story of a start-up company, it’s just that the business The Saints are in happens to be crime." Please enjoy the cinematic reveal trailer below.
Your three main pals here are Neenah, the badass driver and mechanic who is well into art, Kevin, a DJ with shoulder tattoo of a waffle, and Eli the nerdy planner and aspiring businessman. Each of you, apart from Eli, occupied a low-level grunt role in one of the gangs and got tired of that. Said gangs are Los Panteros (Mad Max body builders with hammers), Marshall (PMC narcs with high tech weapons, apparently lead by Colonel Sanders), and The Idols (extremely hardcore Twitch influencers), and your goal is to take out these factions and achieve Saints supremacy in Santo Ileso.
The impression is that this new Saints is cleaving more closely to the original, back when it was less wacky and more obviously trying to compete with GTA. A little less Professor Genki, a little more action please, as Elvis would have sung about his favourite third-person, run-and-gun crime game franchise. Still, the roundtable of Volition devs (comprising excutive producer Rob Loftus, design director James Hague, art director Frank Marquart, associate art director Stephen Quirk, lead narrative designer for missions Jeremy Bernstein, and chief creative officer Jim Boone) was at pains to point out that Saints Row is still totally funny, don't worry.
"We will absolutely have humour in the game," said Bernstein. "It's become such a staple of Saints Row that I don't think we could do the game without humour." There will be "antics" and "outrageousness". This is not going to be a "grimdark Saints Row". There will, for example, be the return of the Insurance Fraud activity, to earn money by throwing yourself into oncoming traffic. "I don't think we can ship a Saints Row game without Insurance Fraud," said Boone. This time, it's a part of the criminal ventures that you can choose to embark on, by building in certain unoccupied lots. There's apparently a lot of freedom when it comes to that - you can build a toxic waste dump in a financial district, if you want.
"Each criminal venture is unlocking its own custom gameplay with it, and that's in addition to all the other stuff you can do out in the world," said Hague, who also commented that he was "continually amazed" by how much game is in his game. Quirk further expanded that, "As you place buildings in your criminal empire you're building a crew, you're acquiring employees. Based on your choices of what buildings you place, you're also placing additional Saints there."
"It's a new game, it's a new set of characters, it's a whole new world."
Insurance Fraud supports a "sort of questionable medical clinic" you can build, and isn't the only returning activity, though the lads are tight-lipped on any others for now. I'm certainly intrigued by the ability to shape the city as I take it over, though I'm not sure how transformative all of the criminal ventures will be in terms of actual play. Other examples given, including a fast food drug franchise, protection racket, auto theft and arms dealership, all sound like they could involve driving to different locations while being shot at.
If you're hoping for more carryover from Saints past, put the brakes on that train of thought. "It's a new game, it's a new set of characters, it's a whole new world," said Bernstein. "There are a couple of Easter eggs in there for the very sharp eyed, but by-and-large it's all new people with new quirks and new idiosyncrasies." Which is cool. I like the idea of a bunch of millennials thinking that starting a gang is the most sensible way of using their venture capital, or of minimising debt. I mean, why not, I guess?
It's also fair, because in the Saints Row franchise they have blown up Earth and conquered Hell so, as Boone pointed out, there really isn't anywhere left to go. Bernstein compared it to the Bond movie Moonraker: "It's so extreme, it's so over the top, it's so outside the bonds of reality - Bonds, a-ha, there's your humour guys - that you can't go farther, you've got to pull it back."
And they have, as they all said a few times, gone back to their roots, i.e. big guns and big crime. But even a more grounded Saints Row is still Saints Row. One of the options for traversal is wingsuiting off the top of buildings, for example. There are hoverbikes and hoverboards. You can customise your Boss however you like. And Loftus confirmed that the entire story is playable in drop-in/drop-out co-op, and has cross-gen crossplay because "co-op is always more fun with your friends". It's also, Loftus said, in a brand new engine - the first game they've shipped in it.
What we were shown did look very good, I have to say. Santo Ileso has nine different districts, with the goal being to give them all distinct identities. Ranchio Providencia has a "grittier, weathered identity" and is the Panteros home turf, El Dorado is basically old-school Vegas, and Monte Vista is gated communities for rich kids - to name but three.
"Santo Ileso is our amalgam lots of different influences from the Southwest," said Marquart. "It is definitely not exact replicas of what's in the Southwest, but I'm sure as you drive around the world you'll see things that are reminiscent of the actual Southwest."
Boone said that they "have a lot of influences," with a few of the touch points being John Wick, Baby Driver, and Hobbs & Shaw. "Each of those brought a certain element that resonated with us." (The latter apparently for "that Saints Row flavour, kind of over-the-top nature that we're known for.") For me, the look of the place was one of the coolest things about the preview. It looks like a kind of grubby neo-Nevada smashed up with the spectacular lanscapes of Monument Valley.
This setting probably won't help to stave off a fresh round of comparisons to GTA, of course, but I for one welcome our new Santo Ileso overlords - if cautiously. I'm a S'row fan, but wasn't hugely on board once we hit super powers, y'know? So I'm up for some run-and-gun antics that are a tad more subdued without getting into the territory of boring realism. And the team at Volition have apparently been working to refine gunplay and driving, and to give players even more options than before. That all sounds great. But it's easy to excite me with a cinematic trailer and carefully curated presentation footage. We've been burned before. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, but I can at least say I'm excited to grab a spoon. Preferably a spoon and not a giant dildo, also. That would be no way to eat a trifle.