Picture this; you’re a team of developers whose major video game franchise has morphed from basic open world crime sim to completely over-the-top superhero sandbox with a stopover in literal Hell over the course of four games. When it comes time to craft a brand-new series entry with the backing of one of the modern industry’s biggest publishers, how can you possibly follow all that up? Turns out the best option is to simply start back from square one with a full reboot.
While the world got its first glimpse of the aptly-titled Saint’s Row via Geoff Keighley’s Gamescom Opening Night Live presentation, we were lucky enough to see an extended look behind closed (virtual) doors, including a ton of gameplay footage and commentary from some of the key members of the game’s development team at Volition. What we saw was a far cry from the flat-out wackiness that the series had come to embrace by its most recent entries, dialling it down to sit somewhere closer to what fans will remember from Saint’s Row 2. It’s still incredibly over-the-top, not quite as serious as something like GTA IV, but it’s also not dildo-bat-wielding-sewerage-spraying levels of weird.
A Whole New World
Gone are the cities of Stilwater and Steelport (and New Hades, of course), with the reboot of Saint’s Row taking place in sunny Santo Ileso. Inspired by the weird, wild American Southwest, Santo Ileso is a vibrant and diverse place that happens to be the largest playable world that Volition has created for the series yet. That might ring alarm bells for those of us fatigued with giant, open-world spaces but the studio promises that their focus has been entirely on gameplay density over size for size’s sake.
Santo Ileso comprises nine distinct districts, ranging from the gritty, weathered home turf of the Los Panteros gang in Rancho Providencia to the neon-soaked glamour and seedy underbelly of the El Dorado district. Meanwhile, Monte Vista is home to the rich and powerful in gated communities and is the place to go for lavish parties, or you could hit up the Rodeo District for a more relaxing experience filled with dining and shopping. The team has designed each area to showcase a variety of scenery, gameplay options and traversal variety – whether you want to cruise the streets in your slickest ride or get your thrills from wingsuiting off of skyscrapers in the Financial District. It’s the most variety that Volition has ever packed into a Saint’s Row game.
These Ain’t The Saints You Know
In this reboot, Volition says they wanted to tell a more contemporary and relatable story while still providing the criminal power fantasy that the franchise is known for, and that starts with the formation of the Saints themselve. Saint’s Row’s four-piece squad actually reminded me a lot more of Watch Dogs 2’s ensemble cast than anything in previous titles. Like the DedSec kids, the Saints are born out of a sense of disenfranchisement with the system. Each member has a different reason to want to help build this new criminal empire, and so each brings their own unique beliefs and set of skills to the group.
Eli is the Saints’ business mastermind. He came to Santo Ileso with an MBA and the dream to be an entrepreneur, but didn’t realise his business ventures were going to be quite so illicit. Eli aspires for the Saints to be a proper, organised criminal empire and not just another gang. He’s also not a fan of violence and would rather take a more strategic and shrewd approach to expansion.
Neenah is the driver. She’s a car nut who also happens to have studied Art History and Anthropology, and came to Santo Ileso to work at a museum. When that didn’t pan out she got stuck working as a mechanic for the Los Panteros. Neenah decides she’s done working for other people, and wants to be self-made and earn respect among her peers, which is what motivates her to help form the Saints.
And then there’s Kevin. Kevin is without a doubt the ‘Jason Mendoza’ of the group (watch The Good Place). He’s a DJ, and a loveable goof that lives for thrills and massive gym sessions. Kevin comes to the group simply looking for something to belong to, defecting from The Idols. He’s friendly and outgoing, and has the connections the Saints need to get off the ground. He’s also intense and impulsive, qualities the Volition team promises will make him an…interesting match for the last of our four members.
Be You, Do Crimes
The final character in this quartet is The Boss. The Boss is you. The Volition team were silent about The Boss’s exact motivations, but it seems you start out under the employ of another of the city’s syndicates, Marshall Defence Industries, before deciding to help found the Saints. As the muscle of the group, you’re what the studio refers to as a ‘charismatic murder machine’. In classic Saint’s Row style, your version of The Boss will look and sound exactly how you want them to, with nothing locked behind your body type, gender, voice or any other characteristics – you’re free to express who you are, or who you’d want to be with the series’ most extensive customisation options to date.
Business Is (Sometimes Literally) Booming
When Volition says you’ll be building the Saints from the ground up in this game, the emphasis is squarely on building. As players take over territory in Santo Ileso, they’ll be able to establish (totally illegitimate) businesses of their choosing in vacant lots. These Criminal Ventures could be anything from food truck drug running operations to shop shops to radioactive waste ‘disposal’ or even just straight-up arms dealerships. These aren’t just set dressing either – establishing a business will open up new gameplay opportunities across Santo Ileso and will even have an effect on your influence over its gangs and law enforcement. The Volition team mention that it’s a great way to give players access to a ton of content without overwhelming them all at once and letting them decide how their urban playground rolls out.
A laundry list of possible businesses was promised (including an actual laundry), but we weren’t given too many specifics. I did notice a few returning activities like Insurance Fraud, and noticed structures like medical centres and fashion emporiums being built so it seems like there’s going to be quite a diverse range of businesses and they’ll tie into a lot of the gameplay content that Saint’s Row fans know and love. I also spotted a FR E SH A VOCA DO sign on a Tacos R Us, which gave me a chuckle (RIP, Vine).
Your competition in the expansion of your empire and domination of Santo Ileso comes in the form of three distinct factions. The Los Panteros are the city’s OG gang, using brute force with melee and heavy weapons to dominate their turf. Marshall Defence Industries on the other hand, is a private military firm with advanced tech and weaponry that controls the commercial districts (I’m pretty sure I saw at least one exosuit-ed militant murderer donning a cowboy hat at one point). Lastly, The Idols are fame-seeking anarchists dressed in electric pinks and blues and covered in neons. They control the upper hills and are responsible for the biggest and most out-of-control mansion parties in all of Santo Ileso.
Get Your Tyres Dirty
Outside of building an urban criminal empire, Volition also wants players to just let loose in Santo Ileso. To that end, not only have they crafted an expansive natural area surrounding the city but they’ve gone to lengths to make driving and traversal feel as fun and free as possible. This Southwest playground is home to arid desert areas and rocky canyons and, for the first time, you’ll be fanging it off the beaten path in both purpose-built vehicles as well as customised regulars. Did anyone say ice cream van with an off road kit?
Whether you’re in or out of the city, you’ll also find that the simple and satisfying act of driving with reckless abandon is well-supported here. Volition promises that almost nothing here can’t be driven through at breakneck speeds (buildings notwithstanding, or are withstanding?). No tiny shrub or annoying bollard is going to slow your momentum, and instead you’ll be happily destroying just about anything in your path. The destruction we saw on show looked mighty cathartic to enact on the streets of Santo Ileso, and in particular the vehicular destruction and deformation was impressive. At one point we saw a tank drive over a whole police van, rolling it out like a giant road pizza.
Tell Me More!
While we didn’t get to see everything that Saint’s Row will have to offer, what we know so far has us pretty convinced that it’s going to come out swinging. Long time fans have a lot to look forward to in what they love about the franchise, and anyone who’s fallen off or been put off by the goofy nature of recent entries can rest assured that this will have a newfound depth of storytelling and gameplay for the series. Plus, if you can rope friends in it’ll still feature multiplayer co-op, so you can drop in and out of each other’s games as you please and even engage in some form of ‘pranking’ that Volition were reluctant to describe in further detail.
It’s not as as far off as you might think either, with Saint’s Row headed to both old and new generation platforms on the PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One as well as PC via the Epic Games Store on February 25, 2022.