Around the turn of the previous decade, Saints Row was in a wonderful position. In 2011, Saints Row: The Third, the game I’ve largely viewed as the series’ apex, doubled down on a legacy of ludicrousness and gave players a number of ridiculous setpieces and way too many toys to play with—including, yes, a sex toy. You could jack a car by drop kicking through the window, and by my estimation, no game has offered that since. It was simple, absurd fun at a time when games were growing increasingly complex and serious. Then Saints Row IV and Gat Out of Hell happened and Saints Row as a series got weirder than it perhaps ever should’ve. Where do you go once you’ve turned players into a superheroic POTUS who defends the planet from aliens and who is literally busted out of hell by their best friends? For all intents and purposes, Saints Row had run its creative course by 2015, sparing no idea on its way out. And yet the series’ increasing commercial success demanded more, and with nowhere to go after Gat Out of Hell, the only possible resolution was reached: it was time to reboot the Saints.
The result is that everything old is new again in Saints Row, whose reboot is just called Saints Row. At least that’s the impression I got from a 40-minute hands-off preview of Saints Row that I recently watched. The preview dropped us into a series of missions that, more than anything, reminded me of the structure of Saints Row 2 blended with the gameplay of Saints Row: The Third. The Saints are barely even a gang when this reboot picks up, a far cry from their celebrity and larger than life status by the end of the last Saints Row titles. Your lieutenants (Neenah, Kevin, and Eli) all seem to come from the various gang factions that run Santo Ileso, Saint Row’s newest setting and an amalgamation of “pretty much the entire American Southwest,” according to Jeremy Bernstein, the game’s lead writer. The game’s story will emphasize The Boss’ (the protagonist of the Saints Row games) connections to this new crew and their close ties to the respective gangs they belong to, which closely mirrors the approach that Saints Row 2 took to its story.
The gameplay is as familiar as ever too, playing like a mild but competent third-person shooter in the vein of Saints Row: The Third. Despite how that sounds, it’s actually refreshing to see the Saints somewhat grounded after later installments literally gave The Boss super speed and strength that made them nigh untouchable. Returning to basics means that you’ll grow an arsenal of weaponry featuring the mundane and the weird, like the Thruster Buster, which is a football that attaches itself to enemies before growing jets to fling them around. Complementing the return to something resembling normalcy is a rounded-out perk and skill system, which allows you to make builds on the fly depending on what antic or mission you’re up to. On display were builds that make you super tolerant to fire, as well as a super fire punch, and I haven’t even mentioned the finishers that players can do now. Of particular note was one called the Pineapple Express, where you attached an explosive to an enemy before lobbing them elsewhere and setting them off. You’ll use all of this to take on the three factions that have got a hold over Santo Ileso, including the powerhouse gang Los Panteros and the Idols, who make up for their lack of power with numbers.
Saints Row will also be returning with plenty of the activities fans have come to expect from the series as well as an updated open world, though it’s a wonder if the game will be able to keep up with its contemporaries. In the time since the series has been away, open worlds have seen a shift from mere expansiveness to liveliness. While there are still outrageously large game worlds that don’t always feel lived in, players have become more accustomed to prestige and realistic worlds that respond to your actions in them. Little of what I saw from Saints Row pointed to changes that would make it that mold of open-world titles, though in one instance the player did emote by taking out a guitar and playing for a crowd who cheered them on. Instead, the developers seem to be doubling down on making a quintessential Saints Row game. Typical side activities like Mayhem are returning alongside new “discoveries” that appear to be emergent cash grabs, like armored truck robberies, and repeatable side missions called “side hustles.” The developers noted that side hustles will be a sort of tutorial, with different ones showing off new mechanics. During the preview, they showed one in particular called Riding Shotgun, where you aided the wife of a councilwoman as she robbed a local jewelry store. Rather than being her getaway driver, you’re her hired gun, and the mission featured a new aspect of car combat (besides sideswiping other vehicles, another new mechanic) where you can hop onto a vehicle’s roof and have more range of movement.
Additional new features include a wingsuit and the ability to “boop” off NPC’s heads to continue flying. While it may no longer be out-of-this-world silly, Saints Row is still trying to keep things light and humorous as part of its reinvention and step away from “absurdism for the sake of absurdism.” This extends to the game’s chaotic missions, which included one where The Boss traps someone in a portapotty, ties a winch to it, and drags it around town as an interrogation method. While the writers seem keen to retool the tone of Saints Row, it’s safe to say that toilet humor is very much still on the table and the team told us in a Q&A that humor and action will be more deftly blended in order to capture an “emotionality” that will ground the characters without stripping them of any bite. But for all the changes made, everything from the very same grenade-throwing and carjacking animations to the familiar mission types and story structure gave the impression that Saints Row might be impossibly close to the same games I loved growing up.
The biggest change of the reboot, and the biggest challenge it’ll have to overcome, is the new Saints and the tone of their game. When the new Saints Row debuted, many decried its new cast as an appeal to “wokeness,” whatever the fuck that means. Countless people just wanted to be back in the boots of the Third Street Saints they knew and loved, a sentiment I can respect even if I don’t share it. While the preview didn’t offer the deepest insight into who the new cast is, I like what I’ve seen enough to say that I don’t mind the opportunity to learn more about them. The Boss from the older games became a dick who I’m glad we’re not revisiting, and over time the Saints just became a cruel parody of themselves, with The Boss especially becoming this holdover of an ego-tripping gangster for the sake of being one that dovetailed with the series’ descent into a cruel and senseless power fantasy. Saints Row’s growing self-referential humor offered the only reflection the series could muster at the time, and much like the games, it just became tired and shallow.
The briefest of glimpses at the latest Saints incarnation revealed a diverse group of folks with problems many can probably relate to. The first mission in the preview had the crew storm a loan shark’s agency in order to make rent, but not before accidentally scaring a woman there who thinks they’ll rob her too. She’s quickly shooed away as the crew assures her that they’re there for his money, not hers. It’s a small example, but it’s something I’m hoping could be emblematic of what a radical shift the reboot could represent, all the while embodying the chaos that has defined the series for nearly two decades now.
While I can’t say that I left my Saints Row preview glowing over the game, I also can’t find any particular fault with what I saw. Modest tweaks and updates bring the formula sort of up to snuff, and the series’ hallmarks like customization and humor are all accounted for. It’ll no doubt feel fresh in a field dominated by titles with a grittier tone, and that just might give it the fighting chance it needs to overcome the years of rust. Saints Row’s thesis, if I could give it one this early, seems to be that open-world games grew the wrong kind of way, and in order to find themselves again, they have to first go back to what they used to be. Grab a wingsuit and boop off of someone’s head or make your character walk and talk like a clown if you want to. Do whatever it is that you want and enjoy a laugh while you’re at it. A new voice might even point all this energy in a more inviting direction, leading me to think this reboot could be the successor I was looking for all those years ago. I’m willing to give Saints Row the chance to prove it can be.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.