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Saints ROw Preview

Saints Row Preview – Fresh Without Losing What Makes It Special

This s'aint your typical open world crime sim.

I can think of few franchises that feel as of their time as Saints Row. So when it was announced that Volition was back and working on a rebooted take on the series I’ll admit I had reservations, even as a longtime fan. It’s hard to imagine trying to revisit the crude, slapstick tone and street sensibilities of yore while still keeping pace with an industry that’s arguably grown up in the years since without either alienating your existing audience or failing to capture a new one. After recently watching a lengthy, hands-off demo of the new Saints Row behind closed doors though, I’ll admit I’m feeling more confident than ever that the studio could pull it off.

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Our demo took us through a number of different looks at mission gameplay, ventures, customisation, vehicles and more, and all throughout I was left with the distinct impression that the current team at Volition really do understand the fundamentals of the Saints DNA. Importantly, it also seems as though they’re not simply trying to replicate it, but rather construct an entirely fresh experience that stands up on its own while still passing the vibe check for returning fans. 

I was lucky enough to get a few minutes to chat with the game’s Creative Director, Brian Traficante, Narrative Designer, Jennifer Campbell and Associate UX Designer, Kenzie Lindgren, after the demo. I was keen to know what brought on the idea of revisiting the Saints Row franchise in the first place, let alone the decision to make it a reboot. Traficante explained that, while the team was grateful to have had a break to try something different with the likes of Agents of Mayhem, it felt right to return with a fresh perspective. “That ‘different’… it was what it was. And so coming back to Saints Row wasn’t really so bad, was it?” he admits.

Talking about why Volition decided to go the reboot route, Traficante explains, “For me, the last thing I ever want to do is change what people know about a relationship, about a character, about a situation, right?”.

“And there’s some popular franchises that are doing that, that make me very angry… Honestly you know, it’s not just about ego, I can say that we weren’t just like, ‘No, this is about us, and we need to be new!’ It was the opportunity for us to use and to be inspired by that and apply that to what Saints Row is defined by today, as who we are, and what we think is the right kind of Saints Row to build today.”

Both Traficante and Lindgren agree that by approaching a rebooted Saints Row with a fresh perspective and a litany of contemporary open world games to take inspiration from when looking at what a modern take on the franchise can be, they’ve been able to escape the bubble of the franchise’s history and truly branch out. Or, as the studio’s Creative Director very neatly put it to me, “We also just try to get the studio to buy us as many games as we can. I need Elden Ring for work!”

There’s a lot yet unknown and obviously it’s hard to pass any real judgement without playing the full thing for ourselves, but we’ve put together some of the key takeaways in why we think this new Saints Row could successfully update the franchise without losing any of what made it special in the first place.

NEW FACES, NEW PROBLEMS, SAME SOLUTIONS

This fresh take on Saints Row starts with a brand-new cast of characters, and a new origin story for the Saints themselves. This time around, rather than a surly gang of thugs and criminals, The Boss and their entourage bring a more down-to-Earth perspective with a group of young and more empathetic faces. Between The Boss, Neenah, Kevin and Eli, there’s a distinct found family dynamic as the crew leverages their bond to lift each other up in a world that has repeatedly kicked them down. These aren’t larger-than-life crims as much as they’re everyday people pushed just that little bit too far.

But, that doesn’t mean that The Boss and crew are soft – not by any stretch. Modern problems can still be met with traditional solutions, and those solutions are still very much in the category of fists, firepower and flames. Like previous games, rival gangs represent the core threat in the world of Saints Row and each has their own distinct style and methodology to go with their territory. It’ll be up to the Saints to deal with them by any means necessary.

It’s definitely an interesting departure that at first seemed like it might clash. Attempting to have players connect with these more relatable characters and their disenfranchisement with modern society can’t work when they’re also going on rampant killing sprees on the street, right? I put the question to the Volition team and it definitely seems like something they were well aware of and fully embraced in the game’s writing.

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Volition’s Narrative Designer, Jennifer Campbell, explains that what’s most important in presenting these characters is finding the human element in all of them. “I think they don’t ever seem to be maliciously evil about anything. There were times in Saints Row 2 where the boss does things where you’re like oh, that’s pretty cold-blooded, I don’t really identify with that so much. I don’t think we have as much of that in the reboot.”

“They have more going on in their lives than just the crime and so it’s like, you root for them to kind of be able to break out from under the foot of society, basically,” she explains. “And the people who they rob and the people who they fight deserve it, you know? They’re assholes. So sure, yeah. Go shoot up their place of business!”

“I’m doing the city a favour! I’m the kind of criminal you want running the city, not Pantero,” chimes in Traficante. And it’s a solid argument, I reckon.

A DENSE AND REACTIVE OPEN WORLD

Saints Row’s setting of Santo Ileso isn’t just the franchise’s biggest and most varied locale, it’s also dense and teeming with life that reacts to The Boss in convincing (and often hilarious) ways. As we watched Volition take us on a tour of the city it was obvious just how big of a technological leap the reboot is next to the previous games, and both the environment and NPCs look to react in believable (if intentionally over-the-top) ways to the on-screen action.

It’s all completely explorable from the get-go as well, something that the team at Volition were very keen to stress as a pillar of the Saints Row experience when I asked about how much freedom players can expect to have. Traficante mentioned that there were early discussions about whether or not to use an in-game GPS or breadcrumb trails to lead players would work but it was decided that anything less than a truly open world wasn’t good enough.

Campbell shared an anecdote about one gameplay sequence in particular where the player needs to drive an NPC character to a specific location and the two discuss landmarks and neighbourhoods that they pass through. Rather than control the path the player takes so that the baked-in dialogue made sense, Campbell explains that the decision was made instead to simply write extra dialogue for any and all of the other places the player might veer off to of their own accord.

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I asked if that meant that players could also freely choose how to tackle the game’s 20-odd critical story missions, perhaps split up into smaller chunks based on each of Santo Ileso’s gangs in a similar way to Saints Row 2. Campbell explains that they chose a more linear path through the main mission content this time around in order to better tell a story that took every character and group into consideration throughout, but that there’ll still be points where the narrative forks and players will be given a little more choice in their direction.

MORE OPTIONS THAN YOU COULD CUSTOMISE A STICK AT

The Saints Row series has always been about giving players ridiculous amounts of customisation, and the newest entry continues that legacy proudly. Once again the character creator looks to be absolutely bananas with an overwhelming number of options for body shape and size, skin tones, hair styles and colour, facial construction and decoration and outfits. 

For some reason there are also over 100 emotes available in-game, including some that completely augment the way you walk around town.

Something that stood out to us is the ability to customise your Boss right from your in-game phone without having to hit up the requisite storefronts or Saints HQ which is a very welcome quality-of-life upgrade.

As for vehicles and weapons, Volition brags that Saints Row offers more ways to customise your gear than most games do for their entire player characters, offering a plethora of choices of materials, decals and even ridiculous reskins to turn your guns into guitar cases and giant foam fingers. We ran a preview not long ago about just how immense and flexible the game’s customisation options are set to be, so give that a good read for more on why this is particularly exciting.

WELCOME TO MY CRIB

It wouldn’t be a Saints Row game without an increasingly-opulent Saints HQ, and this time around the crew have decided to make a home out of an abandoned church in the middle of Santo Ileso. From here, The Boss can access their growing collection of weapons, vehicles, friends and more. Of course, the series’ aforementioned obsession with customisation isn’t lost here as you’ll be able to decorate your church with over 100 unique, collectible props as well as customise your friends, foot soldiers, vehicles and weapons.

This time around though, you’ll also have access to Criminal Ventures from a war table-esque map at the church. Here, you’ll be strategising and executing your takeover of Santo Ileso by choosing where to place a spread of ‘legitimate’ businesses across the city’s various regions. These fronts will give you access to new gameplay diversions, some of which are instantly recognisable from previous titles such as Insurance Fraud, unlocked by building the Shady Oaks Medical Clinic. With 14 possible businesses to erect across the map you won’t quite be building an incredibly unique version of Santo Ileso for yourself but it definitely seems like a neat way to offer player’s an extra little morsel of choice and contextualise some of Saints Row’s wackier gameplay types.

In showing off Venture gameplay with a little bit of classic Mayhem, Volition also demonstrated to us the new Saints Row’s drop-in-drop-out, untethered online co-op support. A friend can join in on all of the action across the game, including helping you blow up a whole bunch of sh*t in Mayhem or giving you and your car an aerial tour of the city at the end of a helicopter winch. Co-op is in the Saints DNA so it’s great to see it in full force here, and while we didn’t get to see exactly how progression is handled between two players it all looks as fun as ever.

A REAL ROW (LIKE, ROW AS IN A FIGHT. GET IT?)

A comprehensive look at both melee conflict and gunplay in our hands-off demo of Saints Row paints an exciting picture of fluid and versatile combat that’s a major step up from earlier entries. We see The Boss take down rival gangs and law enforcement with a huge variety of weapons and it all looks mechanically solid and satisfying, but I got the biggest kick out of seeing some of the skills and finishers that players can use to dispatch their enemies in style. Things like the Pineapple Express move, which involves grabbing an enemy, shoving a grenade down their pants and throwing them into a group of their friends.

While we only got a brief look, it seems as though there are a ton of these skills to unlock as well as passive perks and more by earning XP through every facet of gameplay. If the game winds up feeling as good in the hand as it looks on-screen when bullets are flying and pants are exploding, it promises to be an absolute blast.

FALLING, WITH STYLE

Easily the stand-out feature shown off in our preview session came as part of a deep dive into traversal, and that’s the wingsuit. Jokes about wingsuits in modern open world games aside, the Saints Row take on the idea is, naturally, utterly bonkers. At one point in our demo the team at Volition explained that the best way to get more air as you start to succumb to gravity is to literally bounce off of unwitting pedestrian’s heads – giving you a massive boost back up into the air to continue flying. It looks incredibly ridiculous and satisfying in action. I asked my new friends if they had any clue how the idea of NPC trampolines came about and they posited a few theories, but ultimately it seems as though the attitude at the studio is closer to fuck it just give it a go.

“Sometimes it comes from animation, like they’re partnering with design, who’s talking about how we’re going to execute on the thing, and they get this crazy idea, and they’ll go mocap it and they’ll come back and hand them an animation,” Traficante theorises. “It is very satisfying. You can Spider-Man across the whole city, and there are upgrades you can get that make the boosts higher, and the glides longer. There’s all kinds of options to extend that.”

After seeing a massive chunk of Saints Row, any initial concerns I had about the series staying true to its tone while still modernising feel completely rested. Volition’s ambitious reboot looks big, ballsy, chaotic, accessible and most of all fun as hell. I can’t wait.

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Saints Row is set to release for Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on August 23, 2022. 

Amazon currently has the cheapest pre-order price at $74.90 with free shipping.