Saints Row is getting a complete reboot, and it's just called Saints Row. All those wacky antics from the four previous games, like diving into computers, killing zombies for Burt Reynolds, becoming president, and ruling the world with superpowers? None of that ever happened in Saints Row's new American Southwest-inspired world, Santo Ileso.
This time around, the Saints crew is a close-knit group of four young friends, each with their own expertise: planner and business mind Eli, expert driver Neenah, DJ and smoothtalker Kevin, and the slightly off-the-rails Boss (that's you). As the Boss, you can still create a completely custom character (and choose one of eight voices) that's big or small, young or old, and anywhere in between.
Interestingly, Saints Row won't have an expanding cast of characters that join the core Saints crew over time. You will recruit additional nameless underlings as you expand your criminal empire with new businesses, but the story centers around the four Saints founders. Volition talks about the burgeoning crew—a quartet that's tired of working for big criminal organizations that decide to start their own thing—more like a startup company than a gang. I guess that means your mission is to "disrupt" crime?
The new crew seems like a spirited bunch. Their appetite for chaos is reminiscent of the old gang in the best ways, but I detect less meanness and cynicism this time around. Speaking only from the few minutes of cutscenes and gameplay I saw, the four feel like a proper friend group that accepts and supports each other, similar to Watch Dogs 2. I want to learn more about them, but I'm more excited about Santo Ileso itself, which basically looks like a truncated version of Las Vegas' desert region. Creative director Briant Traficante told press in a closed briefing that Santo Ileso is "one of the largest cities we've built for a Saints Row game."
How big is "largest" exactly? Volition didn't say, but it did talk about a few of the nine districts that make up the world. There's the gritty casino district of El Dorado, the lofty mansions and manicured lawns of Monte Vista, and a financial district with all the skyscrapers that I'll probably try to loop a jet around. A big chunk of the map is a wide-open desert that looks ripe for offroading hijinks. Car customization is back, of course, and now every vehicle can be outfitted with offroading tires.
As someone that spent over a hundred hours causing hijinks with friends in GTA Online's varied Los Santos map, it's great to see Saints Row expand out from a single city-sized sandbox. One of GTAV's greatest strengths is its world that's just as fun to drag race in as it is to jump motorcycles off huge dirt hills. I hope Santo Ileso can achieve similar highs, but don't expect a similar player count. Like every Saints game before it, Saints Row caps out at 2-player co-op. The whole game can be played together and co-op partners can drop in and drop out at will. That may be bad news if you're used to grouping up with a big crew in GTA Online.
As you grow the new Saints crew (company?), vacant lots across Santo Ileso can be purchased and turned into crooked businesses. Volition showed off a few examples, including a food truck dispatch that also peddles drugs, arms dealers, car repo shops, nightclubs, and laundromats. I got the sense that these optional businesses will rake in extra money automatically, but you can also help out by operating businesses yourself (like delivering drugs in a food truck). It sounds like players will be busy with all those minigames, but Volition confirmed that some popular side activities from past games will make a return through opening businesses, like the ragdoll punishment minigame Insurance Fraud.
What's probably not returning is the exact tone of humor that players might remember from Saints Row 3 and 4. I remember laughing often at Saints Row The Third when I played it 10 years(!) ago, but it took some googling to remember just how embarrassingly edgy its writing was. Between memorable setpieces and lovable characters were moments of casual sexism and homophobia within its main cast and beyond—the sort of stuff that I breezed by in all media when I was a dumb 15-year-old.
Without getting specific about the series' past, studio development director Jim Boone said the Saints Row reboot will bring the series into the 2020's. "We love [the old Saints Row games], but we also recognize those are games of a time," he said. "They made sense within that era, and we were able to do things that felt good back then. But that tone is not something that we feel like we want to do today. We had a different kind of story that we wanted to tell."
What I've seen so far more-or-less tracks with this. I get the sense that Volition wants to keep telling over-the-top, funny stories while leaving its mean streak behind. Hopefully that means the Saints can still pull off impossible stunts without making me wince or cringe every five minutes.
A new main cast and city certainly freshen things up a bit, but as a whole, Saints Row seems very similar to the games before it. Volition promises that the shooting is still arcady, driving is better than ever, and the weapon choice is vast.
We'll check on those claims once we can actually play it, which is sooner than you might expect. Saints Row is launching February 25, 2022 on the Epic Games Store, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, and PS5.