Saints Row has been through a lot. The series has amassed a ton of fans throughout the years, but there’s a split in the community between those who prefer the newer, wackier adventures of the Saints and those who wish the franchise would dial things back and return to the more grounded, serious tone of the first two games.
I recently got the opportunity to go hands-on with the first four hours of Volition’s upcoming Saints Row reboot, and it pleases me to say that Saints Row combines the best parts of old and new. While our first Saints Row preview from earlier this summer provided an exciting first look at the city of Santo Illeso and this reimagined version of the Saints, this hands-on preview allowed us to take a much more in-depth look at the inner workings of Volition’s reboot.
This is a reboot, so you’ll be working alongside an all-new cast to build an entirely new version of the Saints from the ground up. Despite the series revisiting the not-so-humble beginnings of the Saints yet again, Volition hasn’t forgotten that the humor and over-the-top action are why so many people fell in love with the games in the first place. This is the premise of the original Saints Row mixed with the attitude of Saints Row The Third, starting with your highly-customizable Boss running small-time jobs with their roommates with the end goal of creating a criminal empire that redefines what it means to be a supersized street gang.
In the city of Santo Illeso, crime is commonplace and gangs are ingrained in the daily lives of citizens. Two of your roommates are involved with Los Panteros and the Idols, the two major street gangs operating in Santo Illeso, and they chat about crimes and gossip about gang higher-ups over brunch like their lawbreaking is just another day at the office. The gangs throw parties all the time that inevitably end up getting crashed by rivals resulting in the murder of countless gang members and innocents alike, but your crew talks about these explosive firefights as if they’re just another fact of life. Your character even works as a mercenary and just comes home to a dingy apartment to share a meal with roommates like it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
This is an extremely self-aware and tongue-in-cheek game, which is to be expected from Saints Row. Pulling off a tone like this without making it annoying is tough, and after seeing how similar sequels to games from the era of Saints Row The Third and Saints Row 4 turned out — like Borderlands 3 for example — many fans were worried that Saints Row’s writing would not survive the transition to the modern day. Remember, the last time a mainline Saints Row game was on store shelves, dubstep guns and “lol XD random” humor were more cool than cringe.
Thankfully, the writing and dialogue are great. The Boss has a fantastic personality this time around, and the supporting cast is surprisingly likable. Neenah, who associates with Los Panteros, is bold and brash, serving as the de-facto best friend to your character. Eli doesn’t associate with any of the gangs in Santo Illeso, but his refined demeanor and nerdy interests make him the perfect fit to manage the Saints’ finances and growth plans.
Kevin, who has a tenuous relationship with the Idols, doesn’t fare as well as the other main characters, sadly. He’s loud and never wears a shirt, which is just as annoying as it sounds. I was starting to come around on Kevin as I progressed through the opening hours of the story though, so he could end up being a cool dude overall. That wouldn’t be a first for Saints Row.
All in all, the story doesn’t take itself too seriously and you can tell that the writers and voice actors are having a great time. Even the side content is wrapped in a signature Saints Row bow. For example, your typical wave-based survival mode is framed this time around by you leaving bad reviews on a service called “@tcha.” The fewer stars you leave for an establishment, the angrier the crowd you’ll have to endure. Other fan-favorite activities like Insurance Fraud return as well, so there’s plenty on offer for those that want to have fun in the playground that is Santo Illeso.
You’ll be spending most of your time in Santo Illeso shooting at rival gangs and police officers, so Volition has made some core changes to the third-person gunplay that Saints Row fans have gotten used to. The most notable tweak is the removal of regenerating health. You now heal in combat by performing melee takedowns (think glory kills from Doom).
Takedowns can only be performed when the meter is filled, and you have to defeat enemies normally to fill it up. Also, certain tough enemies, identified with yellow health bars, are immune to takedowns until you weaken them. This system works just as well as it does in other games like Doom, forcing you to throw yourself into the action and be the badass the game wants you to be.
The gunplay itself has also been improved since the last games, with each weapon having a much more distinct identity than before. For one, the SMGs and assault rifles no longer feel like one and the same. Now, submachine guns shred enemies at close range but have a sharper damage falloff. Assault rifles have to be fired in bursts to remain accurate at long range before you upgrade them.
Of course, Saints Row features a full weapon wheel that allows you to pull entire rocket launchers out of your back pocket, so there’s no shortage of freedom in firefights. Shotguns have a thunderous boom when fired and are a match made in heaven for the new takedown-centric combat system. Each weapon also has a unique perk that is unlocked by completing challenges. The axe’s perk, for example, restores health when you hit enemies, making a melee playstyle somewhat viable.
That freedom is at the core of this Saints Row reboot. The game constantly encourages you to “Be Your Own Boss,” even going so far as to make that an audiobook that Eli listens to all the time. Weapons are more customizable than ever, letting you adjust the smallest details such as the luminance and shine on weapon parts. The same applies to vehicles and your character’s appearance, the latter of which can be changed at any time.
The “Be Your Own Boss” mantra kicks into overdrive once the Saints are actually established a few hours into the story. You can collect decorations for the Saints HQ all over Santo Illeso, and you can pick and choose which criminal ventures the gang should focus on. Criminal ventures bring in passive income for the Saints and unlock new side activities that increase the earnings rate for the districts in question.
The series has never afforded this level of personalization before, and it was very difficult to pull myself away from customization and side content to push forward through the preview build before time ran out. Santo Illeso is a true playground where everything you do funnels back into the Saints and the gang’s growth.
Sure, the story missions are engaging, but the game is at its best when you’re driving around, taking down rival gang members to increase the earnings of your criminal ventures. When you factor in co-op support from start to finish, Saints Row is going to be a blast to play once it drops in August.
Santo Illeso itself is also a surprisingly varied and expansive playground. The game’s marketing has primarily focused on sandy deserts, but don’t worry. There are plenty of urban environments and neon-lit streets to explore as well. The city draws inspiration from the entire American southwest, so expect to see everything from arid badlands to vibrant casino streets.
The radio stations are also equally diverse, which is important for a game like this. You can blast mariachi music as you cruise through the desert outskirts of Santo Illeso and then change the radio to listen to Trippie Redd as you reach the heart of the city. There’s even an awesome synthwave station that lets you live out your Outrun fantasies as you drive through the neon-lit parts of Santo Illeso.
Volition’s Saints Row reboot makes an incredibly strong first impression. The game’s goal is remarkably clear right from the opening hour. It puts as little as possible between you and the fun. Santo Illeso is just a joy to exist in. Throw on some bunny slippers that you bought from a dingy roadside stand, surf on some cars in the middle of rush hour traffic, glide across stretches of arid desert with your wingsuit, and just have a good time.
If Grand Theft Auto highlights the pitfalls and negativities of a life of crime, Saints Row celebrates the glitz and glamour of being the head of your very own criminal empire. That distinction has always existed between the two franchises, but it feels like Volition has finally found Saints Row’s true identity with this reboot.
The original two games were a bit too serious, while the third and fourth games got a little too lost in the sauce. The Saints Row reboot is the best of both worlds, and I can’t wait to spend hours building the Saints from nothing to something when the game launches in just a few weeks.
Saints Row will be released on August 23, 2022, for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Google Stadia.