Having watched roughly 50 minutes of Saints Row gameplay, I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen. Deep Silver Volition’s reboot of the series looks a lot of fun, filled with the wackiness, carnage, and humour you’d expect. It feels comfortably familiar, but with enough new ways to play to make it not just seem like a retread of what’s come before, and promises to be a welcome throwback to an era when playful, urban open-world games were a much more common occurrence.
The first thing that caught my attention was the huge emphasis placed on customisation. Everything – from your playable “Boss”, a huge range of vehicles, arsenal of weaponry, and your base – can be tailored to your own designs. Car customisation in particular looks substantial with everything from paint jobs to neon underglows available. The character creator is also extensive, giving players the option to create just about anything human-shaped their mind can imagine. You can also completely overhaul the look of your character at any time – simply open the in-game phone app to perform the most advanced cosmetic surgery known to man. In a weird way, it reminded me of The Sims as you build a library of characters, each with their own backstory you’ve made up in your head, to take control of.
However, the setting is less SimCity and more Sin City. The world of Saints Row is a fictional depiction of the American Southwest and looks colourful and bustling with life. The main city of Santo Ileso – a well-observed riff on Reno, Nevada – is a perfect example of this as little vignettes play out as you stroll down the street. A band might start playing out of nowhere, or you may even decide to provide the music yourself by pulling out a guitar to entertain or annoy the locals.
It’s this mix of a semi-realistic setting and knowing silliness that made the Saints Row games what they were. Distinct sandboxes where anarchic behaviour is not only encouraged, it’s often required. Tonally, Saints Row fits somewhere in between the second and third of the original series – not quite as dark as 2, but not as off-the-wall bonkers as The Third. From the brief conversations I heard in cutscenes and the way the members of your gang spoke to one another, I was getting big Watch Dogs 2 vibes – something I’m sure will split people – but as a big fan of Ubisoft’s San Francisco-based sequel, I found this encouraging.
That said, Saints Row appears to offer a much more rural setting than you might expect. Large swathes of desert punctured with pockets of civilisation fill the map, and it all looks pretty good too as dust and sand is kicked up into every cactus you fly by. These large open areas look set to be where Saints Row’s vehicles shine, with fully revamped driving mechanics which borrow from familiar favourites.
Games from the mid-2000s were never shy of taking successful gameplay quirks and dropping them into theirs, and that legacy continues here. Slide swiping into other cars conjures flashbacks of Burnout on PS2, while ejecting from a speeding car, deploying a wingsuit and hijacking another is a staple of Just Cause. I’ve even seen hints of a Back to the Future-style hoverboard. These are all positive steps, because what I’ve seen looks really good fun and there’s a good reason why you’d want these mechanics in an open world. Of course, the big test will be when we actually get to go hands-on and find out if these are successfully implemented.
One thing Saints Row has always benefited from is its vast range of unique weapons and that’s no different here. I’ve seen guns that shoot bullets through walls as if they’re paper, finger guns that fire bullets from giant foam fingers, and my favourite – the Thrustbuster – a throwable football that sticks onto enemies and vehicles, sending them flying into the air before exploding into tiny pieces. Every weapon, even the more conventional ones, have their own unlockable signature abilities too, such as turning a simple pistol into a quickfire machine pistol with the click of a button.
As you’d expect, the action and violence is all very cartoony. It’s fluid too, and finishing off an enemy with their own weapon before diving feet first into a nearby car for a quick escape – then climbing onto the roof to fend off chasers while car surfing – looks very slick. Enemies do look a bit bullet spongy, with some taking several shots in the head to take down, and it’s often completely ridiculous, but that’s always been part of Saints Row’s charm.
There appears to be a ton to unlock, such as special moves like the Pineapple Express – in which you shove a grenade into an enemy's mouth and launch them at one of their friends – as well as skills and perks let you tailor your style further. There’s real variety in the enemies too, with each rival gang having their own fighting styles, units and mini bosses.
From what I’ve seen, activities are pretty standard open-world fare. Randomly generated Discoveries – like blowing the doors off an armoured van to get to the cash inside – provide moments of distraction, plus there are more scripted side missions. Main missions are as you'd expect from an open world game of this kind – a lot of car chases, firefights, and the occasional big explosive moment. For example, borrowing a heavily weaponised helicopter to destroy a rival gang's facility before landing on the roof and infiltrating, further increasing your grip on the city. Then there’s the modes which abandon story in favour of pure fun. One of these is the returning Mayhem, a mode where you cause as much damage as possible within a set time limit. It’s Saints Row in its purest form and makes no apologies about it.
Taking down other gangs looks like it’ll take up most of your time in Saints Row as you gradually complete missions to increase your influence over the map by fulfilling the 14 separate business ventures available on your war table map. New gameplay mechanics and modes (such as Saints Row – Insurance Fraud) and customisation options unlock as you progress through these objectives too, as well as collectibles to find around the world – some of which can be used to redecorate your church base – further driving home the point of Saints Row being full of character, and encouraging you to stamp some of your own character on its world.
There’s a lot going on in Saints Row then, and all of it will be fully playable in drop-in and -out co-op too. Whether it all comes together to make for a great time before its August 23rd release date is hard to know, especially as we’ve yet to actually play it. From what I’ve seen so far though, I’m hopeful. Saints Row is looking like a fun throwback, and finger guns crossed it feels exactly like that.
Simon Cardy would like a Burnout reboot next, please. Follow him on Twitter at @CardySimon.