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A shooter fires a gun on the roof of a car while two men have a fistfight nearby in a screenshot from Saints Row (2022). Image: Volition/Deep Silver

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Saints Row’s Gen Z reboot won’t skimp on the mayhem, studio vows

The huge, open-world crime epic comes home for a new generation

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

If you’re headed into Saints Row when the rebooted, open-world criminal escapade launches in August, pack a proverbial lunch; it looks like a lot. The developers at Deep Silver Volition are aware of this.

“In terms of the amount of it, you said it, you can be a victim of so much,” creative director Brian Traficante acknowledged — where “so much” means just about every feature in Saints Row: character customizations, side hustles and rackets, car combat, melee finishers, and, of course, multi-part set-piece missions that drive the core narrative.

“So we put a lot of energy into making sure that you can feel successful, and you can be accomplished in the main objectives,” Traficante said. “You don’t have to do all the things. We give you easier outs. In an example of a [business] venture, you can build it, but you can only do 25% of [the] venture and you’ll earn the achievement [to] move on.”

In other words, Traficante and Volition are trying to thread a needle. On the one hand, there’s the boundless open world of content that hardcore completionists have expected from Saints Row and its genre for two decades. But, in structure, dabblers and samplers won’t feel paralyzed by FOMO. Instead, the designers are pitching Saints Row’s many facets as an expression of playing style, on the assumption that most folks won’t want to do everything.

“You’ll see a cool thing, and that’s the beauty of it — are you pulled to vehicles? Are you pulled to combat?” Traficante said. “Are you pulled to weapons? Are you pulled to character style? Like, what is your thing? Because I guarantee you, we’ve got something out there for you to go seek.”

Big picture, Saints Row will be the same up-from-nothing/comeback epic players have come to expect of the open-world crime genre, no matter how weird it got from 2011’s Saints Row: The Third onward. The game still centers on wiping out rival factions to establish control of the city — in this case, Santo Ileso, introduced in the game’s first big reveal at Gamescom 2021.

Three months later, Volition and Deep Silver kicked Saints Row’s launch date down the road to August (from February), saying that the game needed more development polish while vowing not to back away from the younger, more diverse, and more inclusive Gen Z sensibilities presented in its cast and story. Last week’s preview event seemed to confirm this; the missions, dialogue, and (it must be said) weapons stayed true to what was shown nine months ago, and didn’t veer back to the days when Saints Row was marketed by porn stars and dildos.

That’s not to say it’s any less zany. Players will be onboarded with a tutorial heist mission of a payday loan joint — because they and their group-house roomies need to make the rent. Of course, that leads to more trouble with a rival gang, in a lengthy story mission that introduces your lieutenants’ stories and the gameplay loops you’ll be returning to throughout Saints Row.

“There’s a lot of heavy lifting” done in the game’s early portions, Traficante said. “These are brand-new characters. […] We want to give you all the time, and all the knows, and all the feels, but there are other costs to that, right? We’ve got to keep things moving along to keep the player engaged.”

The “boss” player character looks at her smartphone with a sunset in the background Image: Volition/Deep Silver

Volition showed off a mission in which the gang, still in its early days but starting to pack a punch, acquires an attack helicopter (they’re used as thrill rides in the Vegas-like Santo Ileso, letting tourists shoot up the desert) to invade a rival faction’s weapons factory. Before going in, The Boss (the player character, same as they’ve always been known) respecced their skills loadout, which runs four perks deep. These minor, passive abilities are earned by completing challenges in the larger open world, and, arrayed properly, can give players an edge. In the mission we saw, a fire resistance perk helped the player chew through the weapons foundry against the Panteras gang, which is known for deploying firebombs.

Similarly, all weapons in Saints Row will have signature abilities that are unlocked by completing challenges. In the weapons factory mission, we saw a submachine gun that could deal extra damage to cars. That comes in handy when a rompin’, stompin’ monster truck rolls up on the set. Presumably, there are other perks and weapon signatures to efficiently pacify these boss and sub-boss enemies, depending on player style.

A character swings past a monster truck in a screenshot from Saints Row Image: Volition/Deep Silver

“At the end of the day, it’s a Saints Row game, it should be recognizable and felt as Saints Row,” Traficante said. When Volition announced the game’s delay in November, chief creative officer Jim Boone said the studio wasn’t using the extra time to rewrite Saints Row’s story or characters. Bottom line, Volition is trying to make Saints Row feel familiar through gameplay, assuming that’s what its biggest fans value most.

Side hustles and ventures, a staple of the franchise, are another welcome mat Volition is laying to make Saints fans feel at home. Santo Ileso’s map has 14 vacant lots in need of redevelopment, one of them being an old folks’ home that unlocks the fan-favorite insurance fraud racket. A chop shop garage delivers additional vehicle customizations, for players who find drive-bys more efficient than shootouts on foot. The business ventures will have four tiers, with progressive benefits and mission lists to unlock them. These missions also lead to turf takeovers, which of course help move the game to its end state.

“The side hustle culture is something that I think I drew a lot from,” said Volition’s Jennifer Campbell, one of Saints Row’s writers. “Because of the dream of, like, ‘One day, maybe I’ll be able to retire.’ It seems to be really big in the early-to-mid-20s. Just seeing all these entrepreneurs making opportunities for themselves, when they have so many roadblocks in their way. That’s a really awesome story to inspect: When you’re up against the world, how do you find ways to prosper?”