I really enjoy Volition’s Saints Row series.
For me, the franchise has been the epitome of fun — perhaps not the most technically advanced or mechanically tight games around, but extremely enjoyable nonetheless on a raw, goofy level. Where Grand Theft Auto opts for realism, Saints Row has been all about over-the-top, arcadey sort of thrills, and I love it for that.
That said, I didn’t know what to expect from Volition’s reboot of the series, simply titled Saints Row. It’s not narratively connected to the previous four games at all, and it goes for a less zany tone, as well. While this was initially concerning to me, as I found that personality appealing, I was intrigued when I was invited to a virtual media preview.After attending this event, my biggest takeaway is that this is sort of a “back-to-basics” for Saints Row — largely for the better. While I adore the outlandishness of Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV, I do have to admit that the latter game — which had you play a superpowered president who fights off an alien invasion — was pretty out there. Further trying to up the ante could lead to diminishing returns, and Volition clearly understands that.
“For us, we’ve closed that chapter,” said creative director Brian Traficante during a Q&A. “[We wanted to] reboot all of that but to ensure, more than a spiritual successor, that it’s a Saints Row game tried and true.”
And based on the demo I saw, it seems like Volition is mostly succeeding on that front. Saints Row has always been about a criminal gang, its leader (“The Boss”), and the relationships between them, and this demo emphasized how Volition has honed in on that concept. In this case, you’re in charge of a gang that’s facing off against three rival ones in Santo Ileso, a fictional city in the American southwest.
Right off the bat, this more rural setting offers a nice change of pace from the bustling urban areas of Saints Row, Grand Theft Auto and other open-world crime games. Likewise, I was quickly impressed with the new and surprisingly robust character creator, which includes everything from zany skin cosmetics and crazy hairstyles to inclusive options like vitiligo skin patterns and prosthetics. You really get to make Saints Row (2022)’s version of The Boss your own aesthetically, and it doesn’t stop there.
As is the case with a lot of modern games, Saints Row (2022) has some light RPG systems, which allow you to equip The Boss with different abilities. These include four skills (such as a hilariously anime-esque ‘Flaming Punch’) and passive perks (like flame resistance). This came in handy in a mission where you’re raiding a factory belonging to Los Panteros, a rival gang. Volition says each of the three gangs will be focused on a particular combat style, with Los Panteros being all about tough, brawler-heavy enemy types. Therefore, having a powerful melee attack, as well as passive resistance to the factory’s flames, came in handy.
This level of personalization seemed to extend to the side activities. In between missions, you can customize your base — “The Church” — with all sorts of artwork, statues and other decorations. You can also talk to allies here, Mass Effect-style, and even customize how they look. While I didn’t get a good feel for how much I’d like the characters themselves based on the limited dialogue available in the demo, it was neat to see some of the ways you can tailor The Boss and your comrades. Saints Row was at its best when it was endearing you to the Saints themselves, and these are some good initial steps to do that.
I’m also intrigued to see more of The Church’s War Table, which can be used to manage your criminal empire by controlling vacant land. While this has a trope-y “clear out this enemy district” element to it, I do like that you’re given the freedom to use these spaces as you see fit and, in turn, open up gameplay opportunities. For example, the demo showed The Boss converting one spot into the Shady Oaks medical clinic, which unlocks Saints Row‘s classic, incredibly entertaining “Insurance Fraud” minigame (Basically, it’s like Skate‘s Hall of Meat where you deliberately cause as much damage to your character to rack up a high score).
The inclusion of Insurance Fraud speaks to a larger point about Volition staying true to the series’ roots. While the tone isn’t quite as ridiculous, and individual elements like the dildo have been removed, that lightheartedness silliness is still intact. The game’s list of driveable, customizable vehicles includes golf carts and hoverboards, and some cars can even receive add-ons like tow cables for further mayhem. The real highlight for me, though, was the ejector seat, which could be used in tandem with the new wingsuit for quick verticality — not unlike how The Dark Knight himself launches and glides from his Batmobile in Batman: Arkham Knight. As a particularly goofy touch, you can even bounce on people’s heads while gliding to regain altitude, allowing you to, in theory, maintain flight as long as you descend on some poor saps.
Ultimately, my biggest issue with the game based on the demo, if I were to point any out, is simply that Saints Row (2022) doesn’t really do anything particularly new. Those looking for a significant reinvention in the vein of, say, 2013’s Tomb Raider or 2018’s God of War will not find that here. The missions I saw, which included escaping cops after a heist and raiding the aforementioned factory, looked like stuff I’ve seen many times before in these sorts of games. The core shooting and driving mechanics look serviceable, but far from refined.
Having said all of that, not every game needs to be a super polished, narrative-driven, tightly-produced “Game of the Year” contender like those titles. That was never Saints Row, and it’s fine that it’s still not that. Sometimes, you just want a lighthearted game that you can kick back and enjoy. Nothing too deep or challenging; just having some good ol’ fashioned fun your way. So far, Saints Row (2022) looks to be accomplishing just that.
Saints Row (2022) will launch on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC on August 23rd, 2022.
Image credit: Deep Silver/Volition