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Saints Row reboot is ‘more grounded,’ ‘not grimdark,’ Volition promises

New Saints in a new city return the crime-spree franchise to its 15-year-old origins

Four young adults leaning against a wall; these are the new Third Street Saints in the rebooted Saints Row.
Here are your new Saints: Kevin, the Boss, Eli, and Neenah.
Image: Volition/Deep Silver
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

It should come as no surprise that the next Saints Row, launching in February, is a complete reboot of Volition’s open-world crime spree franchise. As fun as it was to make, the studio realized they may have painted themselves into a narrative corner, eight years after the thoroughly surreal Saints Row 4 widened the gangland canon to include an alien invasion, Vice President Keith David, the Dubstep Gun, and the author Jane Austen.

“When we would talk about Saints Row 4, we would talk about how you were coming from the crack house, to the penthouse, to the White House,” Jim Boone, Volition’s chief creative officer, mused in a preview livestream two weeks ago. “By the time you’re done with Saints Row 4, you are the ruler of the galaxy. If you were to think, ‘Where would we take it from there?’ — we went to Hell and conquered that, even, right? So there truly isn’t anywhere to go past that.”

Thus, it was “a pretty easy decision for us to go back to our roots,” Boone said, and that’s how we got Saints Row — no numbering or subtitling — launching Feb. 25, 2022 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows PC via the Epic Games Store. In the game, players lead a cohort of Gen Z crime impresarios in the takeover of an all-new city, the corrupt, Vegas-like playground named Santo Ileso.

“So this, with it being rebooted, is a completely new story; it doesn’t fit chronologically with any of the ones that we have done,” Boone said. “We have little nods here and there to some of our previous mascots and things like that, but it is a brand new story.”

“Ileso” means “unhurt,” or “unscathed,” and it’s an appropriate theme for the over-the-top action, punctuated by explosions and smirks, as Volition showed Wednesday in a reveal trailer at Gamescom. Players will still create, style, and control the new Boss of the 3rd Street Saints, but they get all-new lieutenants whose backstories and characteristics are a lot more up-to-date. Everyone has been kicked out of one of Santo Ileso’s three established gangs. Taking down the three factions — the goal of the first three Saints Row games — serves everyone’s vengeful desires and criminal ambitions.

“While this is a more grounded game than Saints Row 4, it’s hard not to be a more grounded game than Saints Row 4, honestly,” said Jeremy Bernstein, the game’s lead mission narrative designer. But, “We’re still going to have outrageous antics; we’re still going to have lots of fun. This is not a grimdark Saints Row.”

The updated premise for the Saints’ origin: They’re a startup business, they just happen to be criminals. The idea comes from Eli, a bowtie-wearing MBA and one of the four founding friends that start the Saints. “He just didn’t realize the business he was going to build was a criminal empire,” Bernstein said. “So that means the next step is to make connections with people that can shoot guns.”

Neenah is the gang’s wheelman, and was jettisoned from Los Panteros, one of Santo Ileso’s enemy factions. The Idols are another faction, and they tossed out Kevin, a DJ party animal character. The third enemy faction is Marshall Defense Industries, basically a mercenary company that makes their own weaponry.

Players will build up turf in Santo Ileso’s nine districts (Volition makes the requisite promise this is the series’ largest-ever map) and launch criminal enterprises within them. The reveal video mentioned running drugs out of a fast food restaurant, as well as car theft and chop shops, gun running, and a series favorite, insurance fraud.

“I’m continually amazed by how much gameplay there is (in this game),” said James Hague, Saints Row’s design director. “You’re building criminal ventures, and each criminal venture is unlocking its own custom gameplay with it. And that’s in addition to all the other stuff that you can do out in the world.”

After the Saints get powerful enough, they’ll take on a gang in a big set piece at their headquarters. Boone said the action and combat players will find in Saints Row takes inspiration from films like John Wick, Baby Driver, and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. Obviously, that means a lot of driving action — without cruise control, Boone said.

“We did spend a lot of time with a driving model to try to make it as drivable as possible,” he said. “You will still be able to fire out the window like you could in previous games, but we’ve gone a different route in terms of the way the car combat works. You’re using the car more as a weapon in Saints Row than you are using your firearms. As a result of that, we didn’t feel like we needed to try to come up with that cruise control mechanic from the past.” Cars aren’t the only mode of transportation — aircraft, hoverboards, wingsuits, and bikes are also in the fleet. Wingsuits are even the premise for one of Saints Row’s side hustles.

Cooperative multiplayer remains a staple of the rebooted Saints Row as much as the preceding games. “Every mission in the game is a co-op mission,” promised Rob Loftus, Volition’s executive producer. That includes cooperative play across console generations, too, Loftus said.

“I think that’s when you’re going to feel something that has a very different formula, not just from Saints Row [the franchise] but, candidly, from any game that I could think of,” Boone added. “You get to decide what buildings you want to put down, you get to decide how you want to interact with them; you don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to. But there’s a lot of depth there, and there’s a lot of aggression with this whole criminal empire area, and I think that is a huge separation from anything that we have done before.”

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