Saints Row, the class-clown of GTA-esque open-world sandbox games, is no more. In its place is Saints Row, a reboot of the series with a back-to-basics focus on ground-level crime and violence. In the seven years since Gat out of Hell was released (we’re not counting Agents of Mayhem), the world has moved on, and so too must Saints Row.
Welcome to the Weird West
The new game is called Saints Row (which we're told has no subtitle, despite the repeated use of the "Self Made" tagline even on the box art), and is set in Santo Ileso (Spanish speakers, does that pun work for you?), a stand in for America’s Four Corners region which the developers are calling the “weird west.” There are Route 66 signs scattered across the landscape and the desert that surrounds the city, with its patchy grass and tall mesas, looks a lot like Arizona. The neon-strewn casino district (El Dorado) seems to be inspired by those found in Albuquerque. And the financial area, at least from the trailers (and to my British eyes) seems to have been pulled from downtown Santa Fe.
Santo Ileso is made up of nine individual districts with each one designed to use a different traversal method. Running and driving will work best in some regions, while players are encouraged to fly a wingsuit off the top of the financial district’s skyscrapers to cover long distances. Or you can steal a VTOL-equipped craft and just make merry havoc all over the city as you go. The game was built in a brand new, as-yet unannounced engine and these new environments are designed to take advantage of the power that next-gen consoles — if we can still call them that — can offer.
The developers say that Saints Row’s focus is, at least early in the game, going to focus on the material concerns of its young crew. These disaffected millennials turn to crime to, for instance, put food on their table, feel part of a community and pay off their student loans. Chief creative officer Jim Boone says that it’s, broadly, a “contemporary” millennial “power fantasy.” It’s only later that the game’s focus switches to the sort of empire-building that, in the previous series, eventually saw your character becoming president.
As the game progresses, players can buy property and businesses which opens up new game modes and levels. You can choose where to put those businesses, too, like putting a garbage collection site in the middle of the financial district. The choices you make here will, for instance, engender resistance if you start putting toxic waste next to wherever the one percenters live and work. And, as you take over more of the city, the bigger your power base will grow.
The storyline sees your ragtag quartet encounter three distinct gangs, each of which owns a chunk of Santo Ileso. The Panteros, for instance, are a bunch of muscle-car enthusiasts who try to use their superior strength to defeat you in combat. Marshall Defense Industries, meanwhile, is a local weapons developer with its own mercenary army equipped with a range of sci-fi weapons and superior marksmanship. Then there are the Idols, a group of Kawaii Cyberpunk Anarchists wearing light-up cat ear helmets who overwhelm you with numbers in a fight.
Meet the new boss
As far as we know, references to Steelport, the 3rd Street Saints, Johnny Gat, Kenzie and anything else from the prior series are gone. Or, at least, will be relegated to the odd, deeply buried easter egg for die-hard fans to root out while they’re immersed in this new world. In their place is a trio of characters that work to support your player’s unnamed and customizable protagonist.
There’s Eli (pictured, 2nd from right), an MBA student who works as the team’s planner, speaking in the language of startups, investment and business. Then there’s Neenah (pictured, right), the team’s driver, who had aspirations of becoming an anthropologist but got sucked into working as a mechanic for Los Panteros. Rounding out the quartet (of which you are the fourth member) is Kevin (pictured, left), a topless thrill-seeking DJ who, like his fellow Idols, loves wearing a Kawaii Cyberpunk helmet and wreaking havoc.
The player character is, as before, infinitely customizable — although it’s not clear how broad those options are. Deep Silver says that you’ll have access to the “most advanced suite” of customization tools ever seen in an open-world game.
One of the questions raised in the roundtable with the game’s developers was that of cultural appropriation. The six people made available for interview were all middle-aged white men, creating a game set in a region where a significant proportion of the population is Latinx or Hispanic. Creative director Jim Boone said that diversity was important, and there was an explicit focus on making the team producing the game as diverse as the characters in it.
In terms of what we can expect from the new title, Boone said that some of the major inspirations for this film came from the cinema. He cited three titles: John Wick, Baby Driver and Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbes and Shaw as key influences. From the first, you will be able to spot some of the brutality in the combat and some of the melee takedown moves are cribbed from the film’s action sequences. The experience of driving has been pulled from the second, while the third’s penchant for over-the-top action helped provide a baseline for how stunts would work in the new game.
There will also be a broad degree of Fast and Furious-inspired vehicle customization in which every playable ride can be fixed up. The desert that surrounds Santo Ileso, for instance, has plenty of rough terrain that can be used to crest dunes and chase or evade your enemies. Consequently, players can even jury-rig the game’s garbage truck as a heavy-duty off-road vehicle.
Saints Row is coming to the PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X, Xbox One and, for PC gamers, the Epic Games Store. The developers said that cross-platform co-op will be available from the start, and you can play the entire campaign through “untethered co-op play.” One thing that was mentioned was the ability to “prank” your co-op partner, stymying their progress in order to advance your own.
The elephant in the room
There are more than a few reasons why Volition chose to make Saints Row, rather than Saints Row V. Boone said that the classic series of games were very much “of [their] time,” with tastes and attitudes having moved on. And it can’t have helped that the company’s last attempt at a reboot, Agents of Mayhem, received lukewarm reviews and poor sales, forcing Volition to make layoffs in its wake.
Lead mission designer Jeremy Bernstein added that the original story, by the end of Gat out of Hell, had burned through all of its narrative runway. When your player protagonist has conquered Earth, ascended to Godhood and escaped hell, there’s not much you can do to top it. Bernstein compared the problem to the James Bond movies circa Moonraker, saying that once you’ve done James Bond In Space, the gritty realism of For Your Eyes Only is one hell of a tonal shift.
But is it still fun?
The team wanted to assure us that while the juvenilia that marked the previous series was gone, the irreverence would remain. Bernstein said that it would be pretty much impossible to make a “grimdark Saints Row game” for obvious reasons. And while the developers didn’t elaborate much on silly weapons, like the Penetrator (Saints Row The Third’s infamous Dildo Lance) and the Dubstep Gun (from Saints Row IV), they said one or two had made their way into the title. You’ll also, once again, be able to ragdoll yourself into traffic under the auspices of committing insurance fraud.
If I have a concern, it’s that I always found Saints Row a more enjoyable franchise than GTA because of the emphasis on fun. The challenges soon became repetitive, but the breadth of ways in which you could complete a mission (and the fun weapons) helped smooth the edges. The emphasis here, so far, has been on the difference between the new game and its predecessors, with less discussion on how fun it all is. Maybe that’s just savvy marketing, and the new title will be just as fun and silly as franchise diehards are hoping. But it’s something that I’d like to see more of, or else I’d get the feeling that the title may lose the one thing people are so desperate for it to have.
Saints Row is scheduled to launch on February 25th, 2022 for current and next-generation consoles.