When we got our first real look at Saints Row back in May, we said that the reboot feels like it sits somewhere between Saints Row 2 & 3. That was music to my ears, as I always preferred the (slightly) more serious tone of the second game to the straight-up zaniness of The Third. Now, after having played the first few hours of this new take on the Saints for myself, I’m glad to be able to say that it definitely feels more like an action-comedy from the likes of Matthew Vaughn or James Gunn rather than a straight-up farce from National Lampoon – though it also keeps a healthy dose of the bombastic action that made the later games so fun, too.
At this point, we’ve seen plenty about Saints Row’s extensive customization options, so I won’t spend too much time re-hashing that aside from saying Volition definitely doesn’t seem to be overselling that aspect of it. There are loads—from a wide variety of vehicles and weapons with their own mods, upgrades, and skins, to being able to completely redesign your entire character in a pause menu (technically it’s an app on your in-game smartphone, which has some horrifying in- universe implications, but we’re not going to think too hard about that).
Not every element of previous games’ creators have made it over—you can no longer adjust the pitch of your chosen character’s voice, for example, and there’s no “Nolan North” option anymore—but beyond that, it seems the sky’s the limit. I also appreciated that the different voice actors for each option seem to bring a lot of themselves to the performances—sometimes even changing what language your character speaks in.
The overall setup for your takeover of the fictional southwestern burg of Santo Ileso looks to be staying true to the series’ DNA. A blend of real-world cities like Reno, Nevada, and Austin, Texas (“Keep it Strange, Santo!” is plastered on graffiti and billboards all over town), and Las Vegas, there’s already plenty of crime plaguing Santo Ileso’s streets. There are the Panteros, old-school brawlers with a penchant for monster trucks, a group of technopunk-anarchists calling themselves The Idols, and Marshall Defense Industries, the billionaire-backed private military company. As the unnamed boss of a gang of underdogs, you and your motley crew of would-be crimelords will have to bring them all down in order to take control of the city’s criminal underworld.
This time, however, your anti-hero feels designed to be instantly identifiable to Millennials and Gen-Z: you begin the game reluctantly working as a Marshall grunt in order to pay off your student loans, while two of your NPC roommates have joined the other gangs to subsidize their aspirational careers as an influencer/DJ and art historian. These “new” Saints are born out of a relatable blend of desperation and disdain for the status quo—though, thankfully, the writers don’t seem to be trying to sell us on the Saints as the beloved public heroes that they eventually became in the original run.
Not every gag landed—we get it, “Millennials like brunch,” and the quick-time event to motivate during a depressive episode went on a bit too long—but I definitely walked away wanting to see where the next chapter of these plucky psychopath’s story would take them next—and most of the missions the story strings together were equally enjoyable. While there’s definitely an abundance of ‘drive here and/or shoot these guys,’ my demo also shuffled up the action with setpiece encounters or particularly wild scenarios fairly regularly.
Jumping onto the roof of moving cars to fire RPGs at pursuers or clinging to the back of a harrier jet all felt right at home—and Saints Row is clearly not afraid to pull more blatant inspirations from a variety of pop-culture sources, either. One long chase was reminiscent of the convoy sequence from Uncharted 4, while another mission had me tearing through city streets with a shipping container tethered to my bumper like in Fast & Furious. There were some story seeds planted about some sort of mysterious ancient relic, too, though I’m hoping we can avoid a Crystal Skull-style alien encounter.
The most bombastic of these sequences were easily where the reboot feels closest to the later games in the original series, though the developers say the balance between gameplay grounded in realism versus straight-up ridiculousness is about 80/20. While there was plenty of wild fun to be had in The Third and Saints Row IV—whether in huge setpiece missions or wreaking havoc in the open world—the undisputed source of most of those madcap shenanigans was you. 2022’s reboot seems to be much more focused on dropping you in the middle of that mayhem and letting you blast your way out.
For instance, while the more recent Saints Row games were perhaps best known for their insane arsenal of slapstick weaponry, I didn’t see one dildo bat or a single gun that shot bears, or bees, or bears with bees in their mouths (so when they roar they shoot bees at you). That doesn’t mean they aren’t there, of course, but in my roughly four hours of playtime about the craziest thing I fired was a rocket launcher. There were some wild weapons being used against me, though—for example, the Idols show up to battles dressed in rave gear and hurl neon-trailed boomerangs at me, and kept using something that looks inspired by SR3’s dubstep gun to stun and deal damage over time.
Your own arsenal, at least based on what I was able to unlock, seems a bit more traditional. I was mostly strapped with my trusty 9mm and assault rifle, though I also picked up a shotgun from the local Friendly Fire gun store and enjoyed a couple of opportunities to turn one of the miniguns used by the Marshall faction against its owners.
Saints Row – New Screenshots (July 2022)
Controlling combat was roughly what I expected: gunplay that’s more about explosive, stylish action than precision aiming or expert timing—though that doesn’t mean any/all strategy has been thrown out the window. Many of your abilities are now tied to skills and perks that require you to fill meters as you fight. The infamous “Awesome Button” from Saints Row: The Third, for example, has been functionally replaced by a takedown meter that charges as you get kills. When it’s full, you can perform one of those cool finishing moves as well as refill a portion of your health bar if you’ve taken damage (don’t worry, you can still steal cars by just sprinting as fast as you can at them and smashing through the driver’s side window).
Other abilities, which are unlocked as you level up your Boss, can be assigned to hotkeys and used when you gain enough “Flow” in combat. These include active abilities like the “Pineapple Express” move that’s been shown off in trailers (where you drop a frag grenade into an enemy’s trousers and toss them a few yards before it goes off), as well as passive buffs like a bigger health pool or being able to use more Flow. It’s worth noting that it seems like (aside from some scripted events) these active abilities are the only options we have for thrown explosives, with the ability to simply toss a frag grenade—without dropping it down some guy’s pants—being locked off until you hit level seven.
That doesn’t feel like a particularly frustrating hurdle, though, as I unlocked it towards the end of my demo – which covered what essentially felt like a lengthy prologue, ending right around when my Boss and their band of misfit pals actually start their journey up the criminal ladder in earnest. And those early hours definitely weren’t spent bemoaning the lack of a “throw grenade” button. Not only was tossing a bad guy into a crowd of other goons and/or their cars to create a gooey, fiery mess pretty great every damn timebut there was (as you might expect) a ton of side content to check out as well.
As we’ve seen in trailers and other exclusives here on IGN, franchise favorite side jobs like Insurance Fraud and Mayhem are returning alongside plenty of new activities like the wave-defense mode with difficulty determined by how poorly you rate a business on Santo Ileso’s equivalent of Yelp. Other activities were more bite-sized, earning me tiny cash/XP bonuses for visiting local landmarks or stopping other criminals mid-crime – or just literally digging them out of dumpsters. Others still had you riding shotgun for delivery drivers (or, maybe more accurately “clinging to the roof with a shotgun”), pinching cars to strip at your pal JR’s (no relation) chop shop, or using a big magnet to steal an armored car with a helicopter. This last one was great fun, as its bonus objectives that really challenged me to work against the exaggerated physics at the heart of so much of Saints Row’s chaos.
That madness isn’t just reserved for the moments when you’ve got a Brinks truck or shipping container tethered to your ride, either. Even with four wheels on the ground and nothing dragging behind me, there was no shortage of spectacular crashes, flips, and jumps—which I suppose is to be expected from a game that awards you extra XP for driving on the wrong side of the road or almost hitting other cars. That said, while the addition of Burnout-style shunting, ramming, and sideswiping is definitely a big plus, driving did feel a little floaty at times, and I never really figured out the difference between using the handbrake button to perform what they call a “Quick Turn” and just drifting until I slam my car into the nearest building and whatever poor trees or NPCs happen to be standing in front of it.
Saints Row: Self Made Trailer Screenshot Gallery
I’ll mostly blame my mishaps on it being my first time behind the wheel, or not knowing where the Wingsuit button was—I opened it once, entirely by accident, and never managed to again—though there were some technical bumps that I can ‘t take credit for. Mostly some LoD pop-in and framerate hitching, though we did at one point get frozen in a menu and have to restart our PC build, and once randomly ended up with a weapon wheel devoid of any weapons, Ultimately, though, these errors were mostly just inconveniences and didn’t detract too much from what was overall a good time.
On the whole, Saints Row is shaping up to be an action-packed mix of satire and slapstick mayhem, which—for me, at least—sounds like a great recipe for some much-needed destructive escapism. My time with it might not have been perfect, but the life of a career criminal never is (especially one sharing a 2-bedroom apartment with three other people) but any game that lets me raise hell in a bulldozer is one I’m eager to play more of.
J.R. is a Senior Producer at IGN, you can follow him on Twitter for more video games and tabletop RPG shenanigans.