After four hours with the latest Saints Row, I felt deflated. This was a series that had previously carved a path filled with absurd set pieces, where no joke was deemed too stupid. Volition’s open-world games had a unique flavor I’d look forward to. This new reboot felt like a reining in, and I wanted to know why the developer had taken this new direction.
Principle designer on Saints Row, Damien Allen, tells me it’s because Volition “had a different story to tell”.
“We wanted to take the essence of what a Saint's Row game is – a criminal enterprise as a family working together to survive and thrive in their own way,” he says. But to do that with new characters meant “changing the tone a little bit”.
It’s difficult to judge the direction of a game from its early hours, and Allen does say, “We're telling the story of the rise of the Saints”. So perhaps that absurdity which made the series special will creep back in later in the game. While Saints Row 4’s intro had you clinging to the side of a rocket, trying to defuse it mid-flight, as Aerosmith’s ‘Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ played in the background, it built to that bombast in the previous games. The new Saints Row is starting from first gear.
At the beginning of the new Saints Row, your family unit – The Boss, Neenah, Eli, and Kevin – are all working for different gangs. They’re poor, and they’re at the bottom of the ladder. After some missions-gone-bad, missed paychecks, and minor betrayals, you’ll give up on working for other people and form your own gang: The Saints.
So, of course, the opening hours aren’t ones in which you feel powerful. But as the story progresses, Allen says you will begin to “feel like you are becoming this force to be reckoned with”; not just because you’re growing your skills, but also as you develop the sense of "this is my city".
This is a side of Saints Row I didn’t see in my preview time. While the city of Santo Ileso is an open sandbox for you to explore and cause chaos in as you wish, there’s a gameplay system tying it together called Criminal Enterprises, which only opens up as the preview ends. Effectively, the way it works is that the businesses you recruit into your organization as you grow in power don’t just provide a passive income – they also provide new abilities and activities in the game.
You could purchase buildings in previous Saints Row games, but Allen says Criminal Enterprises are a significant development on that feature. With each business you establish in the city, you’ll activate a unique storyline tied to the company’s manager. For instance, you will help Jim Rob set up his garage and chop shop, which activates a string of missions to steal particular cars for the mechanic – and unlocks your ability to customize vehicles.
“You are engaging with the creation and growth of the city and your empire,” Allen says. “It's much more than just a ‘check the box’ and move on.” I would need to see more of this in action to believe it – because after setting up Jim Rob’s Garage for a story mission in the main campaign, I immediately moved on and didn’t engage with the feature any further.
“That feeling of going from nothing to something is in both the core story and the mechanics,” Allen says. “Each time you build a Criminal Enterprise, you feel like you're really making this place your own, Santo Ileso becomes yours.” I didn’t get a sense of this in the preview I played, but it could be what elevates Saints Row above being just another open-world game.
The fact is, Saints Row has to not only live up to the games that came in the series before it, but also establish its new world and characters at a time when GTA 6 is on the horizon. Volition won its niche before. Is this reboot going to do enough for it to manage the same again?