It’s all change for Saints Row. Developer Volition is rebooting the open-world gangster series with a new game later this year, bringing a fresh city to exploit, and a fledgling criminal empire to grow.
But while much of its irreverent humor and destructive violence will be immediately recognizable to series fans, its tone may not.
Volition is taking a grounded approach to the Saints Row reboot. Cartoonishly over-the-top gameplay has been replaced with measured, if still ridiculous, gunplay; goofy stories have been done away with in favor of earnest character-led narratives. It’s an ambitious development, especially for a series that once had you become the president of the United States, defend the Earth from an alien invasion, and defeat Satan in combat – all in one game.
As TechRadar Gaming was told during a hands-off preview, Volition wants to rein in that level of absurdity, but not eliminate it entirely. As you progress through the game, vying with rival gangs for territorial control of Santo Ileso, you’ll find moments of sincerity wrapped up in the raucous excess that Saints Row is known for.
“What keeps something grounded is the emotional reality of it,” says lead mission narrative designer Jeremy Bernstein. “It doesn't matter how absurd a thing is if it has an emotional truth underneath it.”
“That gives you this great balance, where you're doing absurd things but it feels like it matters. Absurdism for the sake of absurdism – that's where everything feels fluffy and doesn't feel like anything really means anything. We worked very hard to avoid that.”
Porta potties and guns
That balance became abundantly clear in one mission we were shown during the preview. The Idols – one of Saints Row’s three rival gangs, which specializes in pink spandex and fistfights – has captured one of your loyal henchmen. You need to answer violence with violence, rooting out the Idols' HQ and shooting your way through their thugs until you’re able to rescue your friend.
The mission ends with a suitably overblown set-piece: your buddy is tied to a chair on top of the Hollywood-esque Santo Illeso sign, saying his prayers as a homemade pipe bomb ticks down to detonation beneath his feet. It’s a serious moment and one that tries to hammer home the cost of your criminal undertakings.
But it’s sandwiched between two segments of absolute levity. To coerce the Idols into telling you where they’ve dumped your kidnapped friend, you end up locking one of their officials in a portaloo, midway through their bowel movement. One tow rope later, and you’re dragging the toilet through the streets as the poor fella inside begs to be freed from his makeshift cage. After you’ve had your fun and rescued your buddy, you get to immediately leap off a cliff face and glide down to a nearby mansion to continue your killing spree.
“That mission [is] serious,” says Bernstein. “It feels serious to you and it feels serious to the character you're playing.”
“The things you do to rescue him – beating [a] guy's head against a jukebox and dragging them around in the Porta Potty – are absurdist. But the emotionality behind it, the grounding, and that character drive – that's all very real. You're trying to find your friend.”
Serious (criminal) business
Saints Row’s tonal shift shows itself in other ways, too. The game’s optional missions, which you can complete to unlock cash, XP, and new equipment for your character and their underlings, look to be a far cry from the wacky zombie outbreaks and alien invasions of the past games.
In the first preview mission we’re shown, the player robs a payday loans lender, reasoning that the creditor is just as wicked as they are. In another, you’ve got to shoot your way through a drab warehouse belonging to the rival Panteros gang – who trade spandex for melee weapons and Molotov cocktails. The gunplay looks as wacky as any previous Saints Row title, letting you switch between assault rifles, RPGs, and dual SMGs in an instant. But it's more streamlined, and carried through missions that are far less goofy.
The same goes for Saints Row’s environment. Santo Illeso takes its inspiration from a hodgepodge of cities across the American southwest, making for a somewhat muted color palette. The game is lovely to look at and certainly doesn’t fall into the concrete greys that characterized Grand Theft Auto 4, but it’s a world away from the zany environments that Saints Row sported at its peak commercial success nearly a decade ago.
Not everything’s been revamped, however. The series’ lowbrow humor is alive and kicking, and you’ll hear more f-bombs than you would in a Tarantino movie. Its gunplay, character comedy, and heaps of customization options are all staples of the series. The Saints Row reboot, however, has adjusted the formula to try to make them that much more sincere.
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Callum is TechRadar Gaming’s News Writer. You’ll find him whipping up stories about all the latest happenings in the gaming world, as well as penning the odd feature and review. Before coming to TechRadar, he wrote freelance for various sites, including Clash, The Telegraph, and Gamesindustry.biz, and worked as a Staff Writer at Wargamer. Strategy games and RPGs are his bread and butter, but he’ll eat anything that spins a captivating narrative. He also loves tabletop games, and will happily chew your ear off about TTRPGs and board games.