New Saints, who dis?
From a game developer’s standpoint, I’ve long maintained that the Saints Row series is one of the most unique major gaming franchises in the industry. From a gamer’s point of view, I can’t get enough — even the so-called “misses” leave me roaring with laughter, or at least a stupid grin on my face. From a game journalist’s perspective, however, there are some surprising challenges when maneuvering around the ever-evolving series, as each new iteration is wont to abruptly change direction or scale dramatically into insanity. Is it possible to simultaneously appreciate the enormous risks that make the franchise distinct while recognizing they weren’t always well-received for arguably valid reasons (even if I personally don’t agree with them)? Can a dev team even hope to make everyone happy with their work — should they even hold that hope?
Although I may have initially had some concerns with the new direction Saints Row is brazenly careening into with shirts off and guns blazing, participating in the Saints Row Hands-Off Preview last week cleared those doubts entirely. After sitting through two hours of in-depth footage and a Q&A session hosted by key members of the dev team, I’m of the opinion that not only has Saints Row delivered their special brand of delightful chaos yet again, they’ve done so in a way that — I believe — could genuinely please every player. Which… damn. With a consistently inconsistent series like this, that’s saying something.
Saints Row opens up on four friends from different factions struggling to pay the bills. The group cooooooould pick up some side gigs like food delivery or dog walking, but this is a Saints Row game we’re talking about here — the mean streets of the desert oasis Santo Ileso have far more opportunity in crime, crime, and more crime, so that’s what the crew immediately sets out to do. Gotta make rent somehow, right? A payday check cashing place is chosen for their first big heist, and the group moves in to take out a loan they have no intention of giving back (get it).
It’s in this first mission we get to know a bit about each character. There’s Eli, a bespectacled business-focused guy who practices manifesting being his own boss, Kevin, a shirtless DJ and card-carrying member of the Idols gang, and Neenah, a skilled driver who can getaway like the best of them. With Kevin’s brawn, Eli’s brain, and Neenah’s badass driving abilities, we have assembled the finest crew money can’t buy (we’re still broke) — and just in time too, because the police catch wind of the robbery and are in hot pursuit.
It’s here where one of the first new mechanics comes in: vehicle combat. Players can smash their car into another while driving, sending cops, rival gangs, or soccer moms spinning out of control and into a ditch. This mechanic would have felt right at home in Saints Row III, but what makes it seriously shine here is Santo Ileso itself. Modeled after various cities in Southwestern US, Santo Ileso featured a very familiar-looking waterway akin to the LA River, which makes for a perfect stretch of open concrete to race and ram those pesky cops. Then there are the strategically placed ramps, the occasional missing freeway barrier, dirtbike trails that circumnavigate sweeping desert vistas… I foresee many trips to Rim Jobs Jim Rob’s in my future!
Another fun mechanic I’m particularly looking forward to are finisher moves, which seem to be separate yet related to the skills system from Saints Row IV (also featured in this new iteration). I cannot say for certain how they work, but it’s almost like the taunt mechanic from previous games made its way into fist-fighting, elevating combat to give it a slightly cinematic and definitely silly feel. Shooting at the Los Panteros gang got you out of ammo? Go mano a mano with one of the gang members and show them your Karate Kid special. A nasty brute coming right for you? Shove a grenade down the back of his shirt and send him off on the Pineapple Express. I’m reminded of the wrestling moves from both Saints Row IV and the No More Heroes series, so I cannot wait to see more of them.
Of course, Saints Row has some downtime between combat, which is best spent exploring the entirety of Santo Ileso. One area that I can see players spending a ton of time in is the Las Vegas lookalike El Dorado sector, which is full of dusty, dilapidated casinos and hotels. The wear and tear doesn’t stop tourists from visiting the area of course, so they’ll all be out and about doing their own thing. In previous games, people mostly just walked around town, but these people seem to have actual lives — some might be chatting each other up, others dancing in the street, and others still getting arrested while a mariachi band plays the smallest trumpets they own nearby. The NPCs will also react to your emotes — of which you have 100+ — so if you start strumming the guitar, they’ll cheer for those dulcet tones. And did I mention you can perform these emotes while walking if desired? It seems like a small thing, but changing your walk cycles in an already silly game opens up plenty more silly possibilities.
An aspect of Saints Row I’m definitely excited about the HQ customization. An extremely welcome callback to the days of their namesake from the original game, the Saints Row HQ is an old abandoned Spanish colonial church, which is honest to God some of my favorite architecture (what can I say, I grew up in LA!). While you can make it more your own by adding neon signs, statues, and other personal touches, the existing décor is what really drew my eye, as everything looks the part for the area. Poorly lit rooms with the occasional sun beam illuminating dust particles, gun cabinets with that side of the desert road store flair, and crumbling stucco are really transporting me to every pit stop from LA to Vegas. I’m nostalgic for a place I frequent fairly regularly, I guess you could say, and seeing all this familiarity in one of my favorite franchises makes me even more eager to play.
Of course, the Saints Row HQ is more than just a pretty face — it’s also where you can customize your car, character, wardrobe, and even your weapons. Want to change your look? Awesome — new body customizations have been added (groin size), there are more facial features to choose from (elf ears), and even completely new details are thrown into the mix, such as multi-colored hair and even prosthetics! Want to paint your guns? Go for it — resembling the car customization abilities, the weapons customization allows players to paint different sections of their guns, like the barrel a bright blue and the forearm a frenetic fuchsia. There are even some wacky skins to choose from, like a big foam finger, firmly reminding players that, yes indeed, this is a Saints Row game.
Speaking of weapons… whoo boy. It wouldn’t be a Saints Row game without some crazy shit, and this new version isn’t playing around. All the standard guns make another appearance, such as the pistol, sniper rifle, SMG, etc., but also some new hardware to shake things up a bit. There’s the Safari Rifle, which only holds one round in its chamber at a time, but that one round is powerful enough to bring down an elephant (or, in your case, make some heads explode). Then there’s the Thrust Buster, which players will throw like a football at a target, who will then spiral into the air and out of the fight shortly thereafter. I’m a huge fan of the Finger Guns of course, which are the aforementioned foam fingers as a gun skin; there’s also the Quantum Aperture, which allows players to see and shoot enemies through walls like an OP CS:GO cheat. And who could forget the Piñata Launcher, a misleadingly cute papier-mâché party animal that explodes in spectacular fashion, taking nearby enemies out with it? So many new weapons, so many new opportunities to take out rival gangs.
A major new mechanic (which is more like two existing mechanics in a trench coat) added to this Saints Row is the war table, which plays very nicely into the whole origin story thing that’s going on. While at HQ, players can head over to a literal table with a map on it, wherein circled vacant lots available for purchase can eventually be turned into businesses destined for Saints’ ownership. Now, to the public these look like a regular shop, but that couldn’t be further from the truth once players get their paws on them. Appropriately referred to as a criminal venture, players will return to the familiar gameplay of acquiring shops to collect an hourly income, but with a twist; by constructing the venture, additional familiar gameplay is unlocked, such as insurance fraud and mayhem mini-games. By building out these criminal ventures and completing the venture challenges, players will expand the Saints’ territory across the entire map, making Santo Ileso their own.
Of course, if you wanted to share Santo Ileso with a friend, that’s fine too — drop-in, drop-out untethered co-op gameplay allows players to screw around with a buddy, ensuring even more mischief and mayhem befalls the Jewel of the Rio Salinas. Picture this: you’re headed to the other side of town, but wouldn’t you know it? There’s traffic on the freeway! Darn, if only there was some way to be miraculously airlifted through the sea of cars by a trusted pal piloting a helicopter. Wait, that’s a thing that can totally happen? Absolutely. If that’s too exciting for you, feel free to stick to sweeping through side quests together. Finally, I can play Saints Row without my husband hijacking my game!
Alongside all the big changes, there are quite a number of smaller adjustments that make life a little easier overall. Some of those adjustments include being able to change your appearance on the fly without having to visit the plastic surgeon, car-surfing during missions where you’re supposed to shoot at cars while your crewmember drives, and — my personal favorite — a one-two punch carseat ejection system plus a wingsuit, which feels like an ingeniously balanced compromise between car-centric Saints Row III and OP gliding in Saints Row IV. When I said the dev team created something that’ll make pretty much everyone happy, these nuances right here are what I mean. As much as I loved gliding around Steelport in Saints Row IV, it rendered just about every car mechanic pointless; meanwhile, driving around in Saints Row III when I know a faster alternative was downright painful. It’s this ejection + wingsuit combo sort of thing that I’m looking for in terms of reigning in some overpowered yet enjoyable mechanics, so seeing things like this gives me a lot of confidence in the overall direction.
I know I’ve gone over all the ways in which this Saints Row is crazy different from what came before, but it also brings to the table that iconic Saints Row style we’ve come to know and love. Players will still be picking up missions on their phone’s map, completing side missions to earn money, buying up the city and collecting that cold, hard cash in the process. Some will even remark how certain elements belong to specific Saints Row games from the past, everyone able to identify key parts of their favorite installment in the series. And while I personally loved the ridiculous scaling that happened between Saints Row III and Saints Row IV in terms of story, I know I’m in the minority; the dev team listened to the overwhelming amount of voices who wanted a return to a more human setting, and they delivered. With that being said, gameplay didn’t shed its improvements in favor of a complete return to the past, the updated and enhanced mechanics of later versions blended together with an all-new origin story. Truly, there is something for everyone here.
Whether players come to Saints Row for a new set of Saints and their introduction to the stage or for the continued evolution of over-the-top design, one thing remains consistent throughout the series: its personality. Sure, it may be sad to see our 3rd Street Saints’ chapter end, and these new Saints might need a little time to follow such a hard act, but their boisterous bravado, intense conviction, and tunnel-like focus on an outlandish goal that even bloodshed can’t break connects them through and through. They may be doing very ridiculous things, but the passion behind every Saint’s actions is raw, real, and 100% genuine, be it driving a getaway gimp & buggy, forcing people to dance to their deaths with the dubstep gun, or dragging an enemy in a sloshing port-a-potty through a soon-to-be poopy campsite. This new group may not be the 3rd Street Saints, but they’re undeniably Saints nonetheless, and they mean just as much business as the last crew.
So long to Stilwater and sayonara to Steelport — I think I’m gonna like it here in Santo Ileso.
Be sure to check out Saints Row on console and PC.