Reboots are tricky beasts that require a steady balance of paying homage to the original work while charting a new path forward. The industry is filled with disappointing (DmC: Devil May Cry and Need for Speed (2015)) and successful (Doom (2016) and Tomb Raider (2013)) reboots that are either made or broken on their ability to find that perfect balance. Since it was announced late last year, we’ve been waiting to see where Volition’s new take on Saints Row would land. Early trailers suggested a significant change in direction regarding tone, character and structure that likely would have caused it to fail. We recently got to look at character customization, however, which matched and exceeded the wacky creator tools available in Saints Row The Third and Saints Row IV, suggesting Volition might find that balance. Now, we had the chance to check out some early gameplay from Saints Row to see how well it adapts the absurdity of the past to the present.
Saints Row is a total reboot of the franchise. These are new characters in a new locale with a new story, and a new set of enemy factions. That’s a lot of new, but quite a bit of the series’ DNA remains. Tonally, Volition describes Saints Row as a middle ground between Saints Row 2 and Saints Row The Third, balancing the darker, serious tones of the former with the absurdity of the latter. This is most visible in the open world of Santo Ilesos, a city that’s more realistic than Steelport but still contains the wacky activities of a Saints Row title.
Split into nine distinct districts, Santo Ilesos features the same types of chaotic fun you’d find in Steelport. During the demo, we got to see the Boss wander about the Districts of El Dorado, Old Town, and Lake Shore, each unique in its aesthetic and type of opportunities available. There are Discoveries, random events in the world that allow you to make a quick buck like robbing an armored truck, and Side Hustles, more scripted events that net you a ton of cash that you can find around the city. Like the previous games, you can pull up your cellphone at any time to access the map, configure your skills and customize your Boss.
Of course, many activities fans have come to love also make their return. Mayhem, which arms you with heavy explosives, is all about causing as much destruction as possible. Meanwhile, Insurance Fraud is about letting the most amount of damage happen to you to get a giant payday. These were fun activities in the previous games, and it’s great seeing them return.
Tying everything together is the story. You play as the Boss, though you’re far from a Boss at the start of the game. We witnessed three story missions out of twenty-five total in the final game, one of which was the first mission. You and your three roommates, Eli, Neenah and Kevin, form a gang and go on your first mission to rob a simple store. Along the way, the Boss gets caught in a cop chase, a firefight with an enemy faction, and a high-speed off-road race. Honestly, this mission was generic and felt like it could have pulled from any modern-day open-world game, nor did it work to make any of the new characters likable. It didn’t feel like Saints Row. Thankfully, the other two missions picked up the slack.
The second mission we witnessed, The Forge, fully captured the absurdity of Saints Row. Angered about the Los Panteros gang wrecking her car, Neenah enlists the Boss’ help in blowing up their factory, The Forge. Pulling a pure Saints move, the Boss hijacks an aerial helicopter to rain hell on the unsuspecting enemies. Entering from the roof, the Boss used a wide array of guns, explosives and melee weapons to destroy everything in sight. The gameplay focuses heavily on third-person shooting, which appears to be similar to Saints Row The Third and IV, though more polished. You’ll aim, fire, open the weapon wheel to switch between your weapons, and dodge incoming enemies.
Speaking of enemies, each of the factions presents its challenge. For example, Los Panteros goons are built around strength and enjoy close-quarters combat. Therefore, mastering dodging and using the correct type of weapons is imperative to surviving intense situations. In this case, the developers equipped the Boss with a power weapon that dealt significant damage and pushed back advancing melee enemies. Finally, after a lengthy arena battle, the Boss and Neenah escaped as the factory exploded in epic action style. The Forge is a fantastic mission and a welcomed contrast from the lackluster first. It fully capturs the absurdity and over-the-top action expected from a Saints Row mission. It also did wonders to help sell us on Neenah, a tough-as-nails fighter that gave us some serious Shaundi vibes.
The final mission was Idol Threats, which focused on rescuing the shirtless Kevin from another of the criminal factions, the Idols. This mission gave us a chance to get a better look at some of the Boss’ skills. Yes, like many other open-world titles these days, Saints Row has skills players can learn and swap in and out to best fit their situation. One of the more intriguing ones is Pineapple Express, where the Boss shoves a grenade in the target’s mouth, flings him at enemies, and then it’s explosion time. The skills straddle the line between something that could plausibly work in the real world, like Saints Row The Third (i.e., Pineapple Express), and crazy superpowers from Saints Row IV (i.e., Flaming Punch). They’re interesting, but we’ll have to reserve judgment until we see how well the skills match the setting when the game launches.
Asides from that, Idol Threats is another blast that feels right at home in the Saints Row franchise. You’ll brawl in a salon, trap an enemy in a porta-potty and then use it as a wrecking ball to destroy the Idol’s Coachella-style camp. From there, it’s a race against time to rescue Kevin while disarming bombs and then finally helping Kevin take out the Idols in their mansion. It’s a wild ride filled with ludicrous variety, scenarios and gadgets. Though the mission didn’t help define who Kevin is like The Forge did for Neenah, the mission did enough to make us want to know more about him and his love for telenovelas.
While Volition didn’t get too deep into the technical aspects, they did confirm details. The entirety of Saints Row is playable in co-op with another friend, but you’ll have to stick to your family of platforms. The game is cross-gen (PS5 and PS4 or Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One), but it isn’t cross-play. You’ll also get a ton of control over the UI with the ability to turn different elements on and off, resize them, and activate various accessibility features. How the last-gen versions compare to the current-gen versions remains a mystery.
Saints Row has a lot to live up to. Players spent four games customizing their Boss, bonding with their crew and building their criminal empire. Volition is asking them to forget all that and accept the reboot. While that may have been hard a few months ago, it’s getting easier the more they show. One of the three missions is generic for an open-world title, but the remaining two manage to capture the essence of Saints Row. Meanwhile, the open world, side activities and gameplay all feel like natural evolutions of what had come before. There are still a lot of unknowns, but what we saw gives us hope that Volition has brought Saints Row’s chaotic magic to Saints Row.
Saints Row launches August 23 on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PC, PS4 and Xbox One.