I am a big Saints Row fan—boss level big—and I have realized there is something special about the series that has kept me hooked on it all these years. It could be its character creation mode that lets you be the protagonist you want, or it could be its blend of humor that has gotten more absurd with each new installment. It could also simply be that I love the color purple and the game’s distinctive logo just resonates with me a lot.
Still, there is something to be said about the Saints Row series and how it has evolved over time. If you remember back in 2006 when it first came out, the game was compared to Grand Theft Auto because it looked and played very much the same. Over the years, though, Volition started to distance itself from GTA and started giving Saints Row its own unique identity. Those who like a side of raunchiness with their open-world games were in for a treat with its sequels which featured dildo weapons, superpowers, and even a dubstep gun back when dubstep was trendy. I don’t think it is anymore so now it’s time to move on—and thankfully, Volition agrees.
Saints Row IV was the peak of absurdity and after the credits rolled and after its DLC came and went, I wondered where else the series would go—I mean, they already conquered the world. I was relieved, then, when I heard the game was getting a reboot, because 1) it’s all the rage nowadays, and 2) it means the developers get a chance to redo everything in a different style, introduce their formula to a new audience, and create a game that fits with the times. A remastered version of the original would have been fine, but this, this reboot, is so much better.
I was lucky to get four hands-on hours with the game at a special press event in Las Vegas—perhaps the best place for a game like Saints Row to be previewed—and let me tell you, four hours can really fly by when playing an open-world game. Four hours feels more like an amuse bouche compared to the meatiness the game looks to be, but I did manage to play as many missions as possible and try out some new features. I’m happy to say, it made a great first impression on me as it reminded me a bit of Saints Row 2—and that’s a good thing because it’s my favorite game.
If you think about it, the original Saints Row was pretty gritty and kind of serious whereas Saints Row IV was its polar opposite. This reboot feels more like Saints Row 2, which to me felt like a good balance of story missions, character exploration, and comedy. As Goldilocks would say, it was “just right,” and I could feel that while playing through this latest version.
Welcome to Santo Ileso
Santo Ileso is the game’s new setting, and compared to Stillwater, it’s way more colorful and vibrant. Think of this city of an amalgamation of Arizona, Nevada, and even parts of California featuring various districts ranging from desert-ridden industries to bustling cities with Vegas-like casinos. It’s a giant map with personality, which you can easily appreciate considering how quaint some areas feel. Your own base of operations is a freaking church, which makes sense considering your gang is called the Saints, after all.
Before going into the story, I did want to mention the game’s character creation features which again remind me of those in Saints Row 2. Socks are back, and that is huge because games after the second one didn’t give you the option to stack them up or at least didn’t give you enough variety. What’s more, you have tons of options to fully customize your boss and make them however you want or whatever color you want—prosthetics and asymmetrical facial features included. It’s an impressive character creator which fans can already fiddle around with before the game even launches in the form of the free Boss Factory download.
What I’ve always liked about Saints Row is that you get the option to voice your protagonist how you want them to sound like, and that can really shape your whole experience for you. The voice selections are what you would expect from the game and feature talented voice actors giving life to your protagonist. I didn’t spend too much time making a character as I already made some with Boss Factory at home so once I clothed and voiced my dude, I was ready to get into the action.
What I liked about playing through the first few story missions is that these set the stage for the kind of experience you will be having. This is a reboot of the series, after all, so right away you will realize your gang doesn’t exist yet and the first few missions you play lead you to realize this is also an origin story, and one that is told in a way that holds your attention and flows nicely.
Your main character starts off working as the newest mercenary recruit for Marshall Defense Industries, but he doesn’t seem very happy after the first mission aptly titled “First F@$!ng Day”. Yes, it’s that kind of day. You soon learn that his roommates and friends are also members of different gangs but they all manage to somehow live together in peace. Neenah is a member of Los Panteros and is great with cars. Kevin hangs with The Idols and loves to cook, and Eli, well, Eli doesn’t belong to any gang but does have his MBA which means he is not only very smart but also provides the rational, strategic voice of reason during many debates. It’s a hodgepodge of personalities all living under one roof, but right away the game introduces you to this family unit that you, as a player, really start to connect with.
In fact, I really enjoyed the amount of diversity in the game. It makes sense considering what Santo Ileso is based off of so seeing that your roommates come from different backgrounds is very awesome. Games don’t need to always represent every community, but it was refreshing to see the effort put into showcasing a varied cast of characters of different ethnicities with their unique set of talents. Plus, it was even better hearing my protagonist swear in Spanish multiple times. His accent was good too.
As the story moves along, you will eventually get fired (big surprise there) and your friends will be put into predicaments that force them to leave their gangs. Putting two and two together, your protagonist realizes it’s pretty obvious they should combine their skills and start their own gang called the Saints. This is the beautiful beginning of the gang we all know today and the origins of the purple moniker that’s been in every game since. But like every new gang or business opportunity, you need to hustle your way to the top.
My preview build stopped letting me play story missions up to the point where the Saints formed their own gang, but there was a lot to do before that. The story missions I played were varied and featured high octane moments that had me jumping from truck to truck in a chase across a desert, surviving an ambush at a museum and using dinosaur fossils as cover to take down the enemies, and even dragging a giant container across town while Idol gang members were trying to ram me off the road. Considering the history the series has with story missions going all out, this feels like just the tip of a massive iceberg.
As soon as the Saints started their gang, the game introduced new side missions called ventures that are key to gaining money and influence across Santo Ileso. Like in past games, your main goal is to completely take over the city. Time will tell what kinds of missions you will get into to take areas way from gangs like Los Panteros, The Idols, and others, but for now one way to do this is by completing criminal ventures for money and experience.
The venture I selected was the food truck business which involved going to various areas around the city, stealing the enemy’s food truck, and taking it back to my garage while defending it from enemy fire. These missions were fun and felt uniquely challenging based on how long the route back home was. Completing these ventures meant that I would own all the food trucks in Santo Ileso but it also unlocked fast food costumes and rewarded me with XP and cash. Also, when I said food truck business I really meant “drug trade business”. It’s a shame it’s just a front because a taco truck with the name Chalupacabra is pretty darn creative.
Gaining experience to level up can happen by completing missions or even driving on the wrong side of the road. Some levels also reward you with a special skill to use in combat while some just give you more health. My favorite skill that I reused over and over is one where you grab an enemy, put a grenade down their pants, and throw them onto their friends for an explosive reaction. Future ones include a flaming uppercut and even more situational ones that let you evade enemies by deploying a smoke bomb. You need to have enough Flow Points in order to pull these off but gaining enough points is as easy as stringing combos together or causing destruction. As long as you keep killing people, you are guaranteed a chance to pull off some very fun (and very useful) abilities.
You also gain perks as you play through the game, and these can give you an edge in battle like improved health regeneration or faster Flow charge. I was told you unlock these perks by completing missions and exploring the city to discover them all. Some perks start off as useful boosts but later ones even let you summon a missile to blow up an area. Following your first perk, you can unlock additional slots by spending cash so you will have to wrestle with that age old dilemma of deciding to spend your hard earned (stolen) money on style or substance.
I also took some time to sightsee and explore the city and discovered a few fast-travel locations that can be unlocked simply by taking a photo of the nearby landmark at the right angle. Your camera can also be used to gather furniture items to fill up your catalog letting you use these same pieces at your base for decoration. It’s a great way to customize your digs but it also lets you explore the city in search of them all. In addition to main missions, I also stumbled upon some challenges that can be replayed for cash and experience. One mission had me leave a bad review at a donut shop causing its loyal patrons to come at me in vengeance. While the main missions are by far more robust and meaningful, these are great to pass the time or if you need some quick spending money.
The Future Looks Bright
There was so much more to do and explore in Santo Ileso, but time ran out and that is all I was able to play—Insurance Fraud, I wish I played you. If those four hours were any indication, Saints Row is sure to be a blast. The game features a script that will surely make you smile (perhaps even chuckle), and it also provides plenty of missions and challenges that will make you want to explore all its corners and complete every one of them just to see how things play out.
Saints Row feels similar in format, but it also feels fresh thanks to its engaging story and interesting cast. How fresh it is will be determined once the full game comes out next month, so I am hoping it will have missions like those in the third and fourth installment but nothing that disturbs the overall balance of wackiness and seriousness. So far, I am intrigued and invested and can only wait to see what time has in store for the Saints and their gang.
Giancarlo Saldana | Gamepressure.com