Saints Row is keeping it real

Saints Row is bringing an old-school mentality to a modern gaming landscape. But can it succeed?

The last time I really paid attention to Saints Row as a series, the most notable aspect of the game was that you could beat NPCs to death with a big purple dildo. Ah, the video game industry has grown up so much in the last decade (not really, but kind of).

Saints Row feels like a series of a different era. The last game, Saints Row IV, launched in 2013, just on the cusp of the current market era where every single-player game is an open-world experience filled with busy work or a gratuitously expensive, “prestige,” story-driven title, and every multiplayer game is just an excuse to sell battle passes and microtransactions. Nearly a decade later, Saints Row is rebooting the series for the modern era, and facing off with a gaming landscape that looks completely different from the one it left behind, while also contending with fan expectations for a weirdly beloved franchise.

Thankfully, based on my limited hands-off impressions, developer Volition seems to be nailing it.

I recently had the chance to sit in on an extended gameplay presentation that covered everything from the game’s story and mission structure to its combat and open-world gameplay. Seeing as how I’ve covered Saints Row several times already, I’m not going to repeat everything I’ve already seen about the game’s story and customization options. In fact, some of the gameplay that Volition showed us was from missions that they’d previously previewed, though we did get to see a lot of new material, including our first glimpse at co-op gameplay.

Instead, I’m going to give my brief impressions of what I’ve seen and why I’m excited to go hands-on with Saints Row.

First things first: Volition seems to have nailed the tone. While the series might have become a bloated self-parody by the end of its original run, the earliest games tried to strike a more serious tone. It mostly worked, but sometimes they tried a little too hard with the dramatics. The new Saints Row seems to be really trying to create a balancing act between over-the-top action and comedy with enough humanity and gravitas that you will actually care about the characters. There are still absurd and exaggerated moments, but the dev team has also created stakes by making the cast so likable, so those absurd moments feel like they actually still matter.

Another area where Volition seems to be striking a fine balance is with the volume of content available. According to the presentation, Saints Row will feature 25 critical path missions and 10 side missions, as well as 14 different criminal ventures, all with their own series of missions to complete. Main story missions seem somewhat involved, tasking you with completing multiple objectives, while criminal venture activities look a little more straightforward, asking you to do things like causing a ton of damage with explosives within the time limit. There’s a lot to do, but not too much. Players who want to invest time can, but you won’t feel like the game is taking over your entire life like other modern open-world titles.

Just in general, the gameplay looks extremely satisfying. Gunfights look arcadey, though light RPG elements like your skills (active abilities) and perks (passive abilities) let you customize the experience to better suit your play style. Driving and car combat looks serviceable, but it’s always hard to tell how fun it is to drive in a game without actually trying it for yourself. Still, there promises to be a decent amount of variety when it comes to traversing the map, as Saints Row offers 80 vehicles, each with their own multitude of presets that you can further customize.

Weaponry ranges from the traditional to the goofy. One of the most intriguing weapons is a throwable, football-like item that attaches itself to enemies and turns into an out-of-control jetpack that sends them flying. Saints Row also has a railgun called the Quantum Aperture that can see through and shoot through walls.

I know I’ve covered it before, but it does bear mentioning just how much customization is in Saints Row, even beyond the cosmetic stuff. Completing missions nets you money and XP that you can spend on your hideout, new cars and weapons, or even your allies’ abilities.Often, one of the other characters will accompany you on missions, so buffing them is to your benefit. You can also change your Boss’ whole look, from their clothes to their voice and gender, anytime you want.

The main thing that I’m excited for, however, is the drop-in/drop-out co-op that the game offers. It’s always fun to play with friends in games like these, and Saints Row has removed as many barriers as possible when it comes to partnering up. You can of course free roam and cause chaos around the map with your friends, but you can also complete critical story missions as well as criminal venture activities. Co-op is also untethered, which means you and your friends can be on opposite sides of the map if you want. You can also pull off one of the cooler new gameplay mechanics, car surfing, that lets you ride on the top of a moving car, guns blazing.

Saints Row looks like a proper throwback to an earlier era of video games updated for a more modern, mainstream audience. The writing does seem to have matured just enough without completely sacrificing what made fans fall in love with the series. The sandbox offers a ton of options but not as much busy work, and the gameplay looks fun and arcade-y while also maintaining some light RPG elements. Really, the only thing that’s missing are some fun PvP modes, though I’m thankful that we won’t be getting some exploitative MMO offering like what GTA Online has become.

But my main question is, will it be enough? Will fans of the older Saints Row games embrace the changes that Volition is making in the reboot? Will new fans even care about Saints Row? And does it do anything that will make it truly stand out?

To answer these questions, I will need to actually go hands-on with  Saints Row when it launches on August 23rd for Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.

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