After turning the Third Street Saints into literal superheroes and then sending them to Hell, there was no way in my mind that the Saints Row series could have gone anywhere but back to basics. So, with Deep Silver Volition making a return, that’s exactly what we’ll be getting next month with Saints Row. I recently had the opportunity to play through the first four-ish hours of the reboot and, as a fan of Saints Row 2 and 3 in particular, it really feels like the franchise never left.
This new Saints Row introduces us to a cast of young and disenfranchised characters trying to get by in the city of Santo Ileso any way they can. An unlikely group of four roommates with opposing gang affiliations across the city, the early hours of the game see that fragile balance completely turned on its head. And so Eli, Neenah, Kevin and “The Boss” (that’s you!) find themselves enemies of just about everybody in the city and decide to do what anybody else would do in their situation – form their own gang.
Before I get too ahead of myself though, the game starts in earnest with you, The Boss, on your first day on the job with global mercenary outfit, Marshall Defence Industries. It’s here you’ll learn the basics of combat in Saints Row and become acquainted (or re-acquainted) with the series’ penchant for over-the-top set pieces. If you’ve played any of these games before you’ll feel almost immediately at home here. There’s definitely a sense of everything being tighter and more fluid but general gunplay, weapon switching and using cover are all recognisable. Little wrinkles like being able to dodge roll or fire directly at nearby explosives with a button press help to make things flow even better than before though and round out your options nicely.
The idea of Flow is an important one, as it represents one of the bigger changes in Saints Row’s combat. The more you fight, the more Flow you’ll build and be able to use to pull off special moves. The first one I unlocked will be familiar to anyone who’s kept up with the game’s pre-release marketing, the Pineapple Express. Activating this close to a foe sees your Boss shove a grenade down their pants and fling them forward (hopefully into a group of their friends), it’s very satisfying. Subsequently unlocked abilities included things like a smokescreen for quick getaways, but I’m excited to see more of the outlandish stuff that’ll no doubt come later.
Through all the early missions I played it’s clear that Volition is putting a much bigger focus on its core cast of characters this time around, giving each their own unique voice and motivations in a way that instantly reminded me of the DedSec gang in Watch Dogs 2. They feel less like cultural caricatures and more like genuine people with genuine responses to the world they’ve had the misfortune of being placed into. There’s still plenty of chaos and toilet humour for the diehards though, just in case you were worried.
If Saints Row can keep up the level of excitement in the main missions that I played, it’s sure to be a winner. While they start simple enough with the odd bout of driving separated by clashes with rival gangs and law enforcement, I eventually found myself engaged in three-way shootouts in a huge museum, making a breakneck getaway while listening to a “Be Your Own Boss” audiobook in the car and using the new sideswipe mechanic to knock my enemies off the road, Burnout-style or tethering my ride to a shipping container and hauling it across the city.
The first time I had to do that last bit I amusingly tethered the rectangular container from the side instead of the front. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those videos of dogs trying to carry giant sticks horizontally through doorways but it was basically that.
As engrossed as I was in the core missions up to this point, I only managed to squeeze in a few rounds of one of the game’s new Side Hustles, called @TCHA, where you’re tasked with leaving bad reviews on local businesses and then defending yourself against incoming waves of enemies looking to pay you back for the unkind words. The lower you rate a business, the tougher the impending encounter, and while simply tussling with a bunch of baddies certainly isn’t the most interesting mechanic there’s a good amount of that classic Saints Row humour on display in the shopfronts and review text leading up to that point.
I may have spent just a little too long being distracted by everything on offer in Santo Ileso and didn’t get time to sample any of the Criminal Ventures eventually unlocked once you have access to the Saints HQ at the church and start setting up your own businesses, but it looks as though those missions are much more involved than the Side Hustles. There are also passive challenges to complete that provide one way to unlock new Perks to equip your character with, things like faster running, health boosts and the like. We’ve all had a chance to sample its character creator by now, and I didn’t get to see any of the vehicle or weapon stuff, but it’s obvious that customisation and player choice remains a huge component of Saints Row.
It all looks fantastic as well. I was playing a PC build and so it’s hard to say how the experience will match up on common platforms, but the exaggerated style of the Saints Rows of yore has been translated to modern tech nicely. Everything still has that chunky, glossy charm of earlier titles but the level of detail on display is fantastic. Draw distances are huge, particle effects from dust and leaves kick up around you as you engage enemies on foot or drive down dirt roads and the lighting in particular is gorgeous. Whether it’s the beating sun in the outskirts or the neons of inner-city districts at night, there’s an atmosphere on show that’s miles beyond anything the series has managed before.
I also had the chance to sample just a little bit of the game’s co-op experience, which is as seamless and chaotic as you’d hope from a Saints Row game. My co-op buddy and I went in with plans to tackle some of the game’s Diversions but quickly found ourselves indulged in the classic game of “How long can I survive with the full might of the cops/gangs on my arse?” as well as doing a bit of wingsuit sightseeing. I’m sure that many people, myself included, fully intend to play all the way through Saints Row with a friend, so it was good to finally get my hands around it and see that it works just as it should.
After a few hours with Saints Row I’m convinced that Deep Silver Volition knows exactly what it’s doing and precisely what lapsed fans want out of a fresh start for the series. It all feels incredibly familiar, striking a balance between the more grounded first entries and the abject chaos that was kickstarted with the later ones, but it also plays as well as you’d want from a modern open-world sandbox. All the sensibilities of a game from two generations ago with refinements in both gameplay and storytelling to match current tastes? That’s a winning combo in my books. I’m very keen to see how it all goes stretched out over the course of a full game but signs are remarkably positive so far.