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Preview: Saints Row

21 Jul 2022

Santo Ileso was brought to life in Las Vegas last week as select media was invited to experience Saints Row – the reboot from developer Volition being released next month on August 23. Saints Row comes nine years after the last release in this series, and more than fifteen years after the original – so what does Volition have in store for the Saints? Turns out… quite a bit.

The game is set in the fictional city of Santo Ileso – a bustling Southwestern city filled with a wide array of different area types, from big skyscrapers, to rundown slums, and dusty lightly inhabited mountain terrain. The story kicks off with you as “The Boss,” a cog in the massive wheel that is Marshall Defense Industries, a corporate crime conglomerate.

Notwithstanding having proved yourself in some early action, or so you thought, you quickly find yourself fired and left to fend for yourself, with rent to pay and without a paycheck. Your roommates and soon-to-be members of your new start up gang are Kevin, a DJ and former member of the Idols gang; Neenah, a getaway driver formally associated with the Los Panteros gang; and Eli, the somewhat more intelligent member of your new gang. Together, you delve into a wide variety of criminal activities in order to raise your status as a gang to be feared in Santo Ileso.

We were provided with four hours of gameplay, starting from the beginning of the game, and Saints Row plays as one would expect – which ultimately is a good thing. After a few early required missions setting up the story, the game opens up and plays an a open-world action adventure.

The expected elements are all present. A map showing the various places you can go. The ability to steal any and all of the vehicles on the streets of Sant Ileso. Gunplay with a wide variety of weapons. Main story missions, non-linear “side hustles,” and ancillary collectable-type challenge activities like finding specific locations to take pictures or finding all of the wingsuit launchpads.

Santo Ileso is broken down into nine districts, each with its own set of missions and activities. The gameplay of the missions themselves (at least the majority of the early ones), involves combat with members of one or more of the rival gangs of Santo Ileso. The method that you choose to employ to defeat the gangs is largely up to you. While some of the early missions were somewhat restricted to gun fights with specific weapons (these also double as tutorial missions), once the game opens up you can choose to engage with the weapon of your choice, via hand-to-hand combat (not recommended), or perhaps by using the car of your choice as a weapon itself. With destructive environments you can – and will – wreck some havoc on the streets of Santo Ileso. 

Noticeably upgraded from earlier entries in this series is the driving. Fun and reasonably forgiving, the driving in Saints Row just works. You can try to stick to the roads or go off road, steal a curve-hugging speedster or a lumbering delivery truck, try to catch air off the rocky outcroppings, or even forgo the car altogether and fly via wingsuit to your next destination. The choice is yours.

When marking locations on the map or traveling to a mission target, your path is guided with arrows and the pathing algorithm will nicely adjust to any of your travel choices. It was difficult to damage your car to the point of it being unusable or overturned (indeed it was not entirely clear if such complete interoperability was even possible), so you can go crazy trying for the jump off the mountain or using your ride as a battering ram.

Battle difficulty was appropriate at the default level. But with five levels to choose from (Tourist, Hustler, Entrepreneur, Sensei, and Boss), the player will have plenty of options. At the default level, death or mission failure was certainly in play right from the earliest of missions, but such failures simply result in restarting the mission from the beginning or from a checkpoint.

Gunplay follows standard right/left trigger aim/fire mechanics, as does driving for acceleration and braking, with additional button usage for side swiping neighboring cars or drifting around turns. Hand-to-hand combat was limited, although certain enemies will be highlighted when they can be defeated with various satisfying hand-to-hand finishers with a single button click.

The beginning story was engaging, but we were so interested in exploring all that Santo Ileso had to offer that we didn’t progress very far. That said, the most critical thing to note about the story and Saints Row in general is that the story, dialogue, and graphics of this entry is less comical than the prior ones in this series. The reboot appropriately goes back to its roots and has a more nuanced approach. This is not to say that comedic elements are gone (the first mission is entitled “First F@$!ng Day” and some of your objectives after being fired are “Mope in the kitchen” and “Find food… or whatever”), they are just more reserved than the later entries in the series. 

The one place where this is somewhat less enforced, however, is in the character creator. The Character Creator – or the “Boss Factory” as it is called – is exhaustive. Perhaps even that word does not sufficiently convey what you can do here. With sliders for seemingly everything, colors for everything, not to mention tattoos, prosthetics, and an incredibly wide variety of clothing choices, your Boss can truly look however you want them to look.

There did not appear to be any restrictions, neither by gender nor anything else, notwithstanding sliders for bust and groin size and various “traditional” male/female voices. You can remove the modesty filter and go topless (again in either gender), wear your underwear around town, wear goofy clothing, “normal” clothing, etc. etc. etc. Moreover, you can swap/change your Boss at virtually any point in the game (and can save certain Boss set-ups for future use). The game comes with four pre-made bosses if you want a head start, but this is character creator with truly endless options.

One additional thing to note is that there is drop-in cooperative multiplayer available at launch, and while co-op was available on certain machines at the event, ours was not one of them, and as such we were unable to test this feature.

In any event, after a good four-plus hours of gameplay, this is a clear buy for anyone who enjoys this genre. The closest comparison would of course be to the latest entries in the Grand Theft Auto series, but there is a lot of gameplay structure reminiscent of Insomniac Games’ recent Spider-Man games as wellThese comparisons are of course positive, as these were award-winning AAA examples of the open-world action adventure genre, and Saints Row is set to follow favorably in their footsteps. The graphics are smooth and crisp and the gameplay fluid and fun. We know for certain that we’re ready to “Be Our Own Boss,” and will be picking this title up on release day for sure.

Saints Row is scheduled for release on August 23, 2022 on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One and PC (via the Epic Games Store).

Preview build provided by Volition for PC. Screenshots and featured image provided by Volition.