Hands-on: The Saints Row reboot is a clever mix of Saints Row 2 and 3

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Yes, it has a wingsuit

When the new 2022 Saints Row game was announced, I was legitimately surprised. A full reboot feels like the best direction to take a series that once brought us to hell and tangoed with aliens and superheroes, and we recently had the chance to put this to the test with a Saints Row hands-on session.

So what’s the verdict? Well after playing the first few story missions and four full hours of the open world (via a later save file), I can safely say that it feels like a comfortable mix of the seriousness of Saints Row 2, and the silliness of Saints Row 3.

Our story begins with the “boss,” our plucky protagonist (who is fully developed with a highly customizable character creator) who joins up with the PMC Marshall Defense Industries [MDI]. It’s here that the tutorial picks up and you start to see the aforementioned silliness in action. While the monetary plight of the boss is at the forefront, the MDI commercial also showcases how the organization is “serving the community” by saving an old lady from getting hit by a car by…blowing up said car with weaponry right on the street. It’s a tone-setter!

Speaking of the character creator, it’s also another neon sign of how weird Saints Row can get. I had the chance to flip through the boss creator social channel in-game, which included a dev creation of Shrek, fully decked out in Shrek garb (which you can click on as a loadout if you have the in-game cash to buy said outfit). Another writer next to me was making Thanos, complete with purple skin. So far, so good.

Whatever you end up deciding on looks-wise, the tutorial has the boss try and track down a notorious and elusive villain, disobeying orders in the process (which sets up a chain of events that leads to said boss creating their own empire with their own crew of preset story characters). Said tutorial also teaches you the basics of running and gunning, as well as the responsive dodge button and jumping mechanics. Immediately I noticed the snappiness of aiming and locomotion, a tightness that will come in handy after spending 30+ hours in this world. It also has a weapon wheel and a takedown system, as well as abilities like smoke bombs and proximity mines, on top of a leveling system and passives.

It’s functional and fast, which is how you want an open-world game centered around action and gunplay to be. There’s a familiar “retro” air to it too (as in, a GTA 3 retro, feel old yet?), with the proper amount of snap to the controls. On normal mode I acclimated very quickly to the game’s various tricks, and found myself able to mow down droves of enemies, even at a higher “heat level” after causing a ruckus. With adjustable difficulty, having that higher ceiling and air of accomplishment is a good thing on paper; if it keeps that feeling going through the finish line.

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Like the tone of the story, it’s all a careful balance. There’s just enough RPG elements to get that dopamine flowing when you level up in Saints Row, but not an overwhelming amount to the point where progression feels pointless. And it’s easy to progress, too, because there are a lot of little things to do beyond the main story. It’s still fun to stop and take a picture of a “Keep Santo Ileso Weird” mural (taking pictures of key/set locations also can unlock fast travel), or go dumpster diving (which is the Saints Row equivalent of a hidden package) after seeing an icon light up on the in-game radar. The map of Santo Ileso is massive, but it isn’t overwhelming to the point where it feels like an empty canvas full of soulless pins.

I had the chance to speak to Danielle Benthien, an associate artist at Volition, on how the team achieved this goal, and how the reboot is more of a mix of southwest Americana than it is based on one particular region: “Making the [map] bigger is always important, but more color, more vivaciousness, making things alive…we have the technology to do that now. Our team traveled to places like Las Vegas, to places here in the southwest, to see what it’s really like out here, and all those things we brought back to make Santo Ileso what it was. We wanted to make it bigger than Stilwater, bigger than Steelport. You have Mercado, which is very much like the Las Vegas strip, and you go out to the desert and it looks like the dry areas of Arizona, and then you go to the lush area with flora and fauna, and then there’s the factory district that’s very much the Breaking Bad [New Mexico] style.”

Saints Row is also bringing back the cell phone interface, and it thankfully serves as an easy way to get in and out of several in-game functions (like mission selection). Benthien recalls the “tried and true” system was used in past entries, calling it a “no brainer” in terms of its return. But with the proliferation of cell phones being used more and more in the modern era, it makes even more sense in 2022 than it did in prior entries. As far as the identity of the game goes, I brought up the polarized reception reboots and sequels can often have from a tonal perspective. Take Diablo 3 for instance: so many people loathed that it completely changed the aesthetic and vibe of D2, but a lot of people embraced the newness. Saints Row has been so many different things, and I don’t envy the position Volition is in when it comes to bringing it back.

Benthien responded in stride, noting: “So the decision to reboot the series wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it felt right. We felt like the original Saints had their stories told to completion, and there wasn’t much we could add to their story. So we had to strike a balance between people loving the seriousness, and while [Saints Row: The Third] was the more mainstream more popular one people were familiar with, we wanted to be sure we were respectful of both titles. So it’s a little more grounded…but with those bombastic elements.”

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As far as an “elevator pitch” in terms of what the Saints Row reboot offers that past games don’t have, Benthien says that the story is the aspect she feels the most strongly about: “it has a modern energy. So the Saints Row games are old at this point, and writing and gameplay can feel dated. It has the modern action system that never feels too slow, and this has some really serious elements and serious moments that really ground the characters…and show the whole spectrum of emotions of people trying to make it in this crazy world.”

In terms of the technical aspects of Saints Row 2022, we played a PC build with a controller, and I had very few complaints. There are heaps of accessibility options, the game ran very smoothly, and load times were super short, as we’ve come to expect this generation. The chance to change your appearance at any time and five difficulty options were also a nice touch. One of the only issues I ran into had to deal with animations, especially when it came to takedowns, but it was minor. The main thing is that the actual takedown would follow through, and everything would actually happen, but the character models wouldn’t always line up exactly. This is the sort of thing that could be shored up quickly as we head into launch.

Set to debut in August, the Saints Row reboot doesn’t feel like it’s stuck in time at all — but rather, it’s coming at the perfect time. Right now the landscape of open-world games has shifted a bit, and old-school “GTA” style titles aren’t nearly as prevalent as they once were. In fact, the whole GTA situation has cooled down a bit, and a lot of folks are done with GTA Online. Plus, it’s been seven years since the last proper mainline Saints Row project, and nearly a decade if you don’t count expansions. Timing is on Volition’s side, it just needs to deliver. As of now, it seems like it’s going to manage that.

[Disclaimer: Travel was provided by the publisher to this event in Las Vegas.]

Chris Carter
Reviews Director, Co-EIC - Chris has been enjoying Destructoid avidly since 2008. He finally decided to take the next step, make an account, and start blogging in January of 2009. Now, he's staff!