What sets the Saints Row series apart from Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto series is that it doesn't take itself seriously. If GTA is Goodfellas or Heat, Saints Row's take on a criminal empire on the rise is more like Leslie Nielsen's The Naked Gun -- and thesticks to that concept with gusto.
The upcoming reboot has been divisive among some hardcore fans, many of whome are disappointed it features a new, conspicuously young cast. However, the nearly hour-long preview we got of Saints Row's gameplay and story elements showed the reboot's change of pace and scenery hasn't detracted from the series' hectic action and bizarre style.
With the next game releasing on August 23, developer Volition is going back to basics: Saints Row focuses on a crew of upstart gangsters trying to take control of the city and earn some respect.
The last time we saw the Saints Row series was with its Saints Row IV and its spin-off, Gat Out of Hell. While the series started as a GTA derivative, it quickly found its own identity by leaning further into comedy and preposterous action. Eventually, the series escalated to fighting enemies with large vulgar sex toys and fighting space aliens with various superpowers.
In some cases, Saints Row has surpassed GTA in sheer ballsiness.
I had a blast with Saints Row IV, but it did seem like the series might have hit its ceiling prematurely with a Matrix-esque turn as an open-world action game. The upcoming reboot, simply titled Saints Row, takes things back to basics with a new crew of young criminals looking to rebuild the titular Saints and get what's theirs.
According to the developers at Volition, the pivot to the series' roots was about "finding its center" and acting as a jumping off point for zany action.
"I love absurdity, but if you keep everything at 11 all the time, then you kinda go numb to it, and it can become hard to appreciate things as well," said Jennifer Campbell, lead writer of the upcoming Saints Row."The more grounded the game is, the more relatable it is for people. I can see myself in many characters -- like how to find jobs after college, paying off your debts, and just generally being adaptable in uncertain situations."
Like with previous Saints Rows games, the reboot lets you plan out your own path of chaos to slowly dismantle rival gangs' power structures, all with a custom "Boss" of your own making. The customization I got to see was extensive, letting you change the proportions of your character, outfits and even select emotes to use when hanging out. Regardless of what you choose, every crew member will treat you like a true boss of a criminal empire, which gives way to some truly bizarre and thrilling moments of action for you and potential co-op partners.
The Saints Row series has always done well by giving you options in how you want to build your empire. While there's a thread of story missions to follow, there's also the plethora of mini-games and side jobs to handle. These activities include causing property damage with rocket launchers, committing insurance fraud during heavy traffic (this is a fan favorite), or simply collecting souped-up, novelty cars hidden around the city.
Some moments I got to see in this preview showcased the obligatory high-speed chases to get away from rival gangs and law enforcement. Still, things quickly went off-the-rails when the Boss used their special wing suit to soar across the map, bouncing on the heads of civilians to get more air. Another highlight was a mission where the Boss uses a port-a-potty as a wrecking ball chained to their car and barrel through a rival's base.
It's all so odd, but I couldn't help but smile watching all this chaos unfold. According to the game's creative director Brian Traficante, the reboot took some time to find itself, but they're confident they've made something that's true to the series.
"Even though this game looks a little different from previous games like Saints Row IV, the moment you put the controller in your hands, you'll realize you're playing Saints Row," said Traficante. "The DNA of Saints Row is alive and well; in some senses, it just took different a shape as we progressed through the long process of bringing this together. We did often ask ourselves, "what is Saints Row?" But bluntly, I think we nailed it in the end."
This reboot may have gone back to basics, but Saints Row's approach to intense action and cartoonish hijinks with a cast of characters hasn't lost the exuberance this series is known for. Grand Theft Auto and its ambitious scale are well and good, but sometimes it's cool to play games that aren't afraid to poke fun at the genre and turn into a giant playground whenever you want.
Saints Row released on August 23 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.