What do you get when a new generation of game creators want to make an old school action game? The answer to that question might just be found in Saints Row, the upcoming franchise reboot set in the fictional city of Santo Ileso in the American southwest. Developer Volition worked wonders with Saints Row in the PS3 and Xbox 360 era, pushing past the domineering presence of Grand Theft Auto with a distinctive, anarchistic approach to open world game design. And it feels as if the cards are stacked against the studio once again.
Over a span of seven years, Saints Row gave us the freedom to conquer the streets of Stillwater, become President of the United States, and even face off against an invading alien empire. The series arguably worked as well as it did, when it did, because Volition refused to take any concept off the table – no matter how absurd or audacious it appeared on the surface; the more ridiculous, the better. But times have changed, as too have genre expectations and the technology driving game creation in this new generation. So, after nine years without a mainline installment to the series, Volition is set to take a more measured approach towards this Saints Row reboot. Not serious, not boring, and not lacking – measured.
"It's exciting and daunting, that's the best way I can describe it," says principal designer Damien Allen, speaking to the nature of such an ambitious reboot. Allen, who served as a senior designer on Saints Row 4, knows that Volition has the world at its fingertips here – and that by shedding almost all traces of the past, the studio is free to cut a new path through a genre that is still dominated by the presence of GTA 5, with the Just Cause and Watch Dogs franchises fighting for whatever scraps of attention remain. That in itself has been quite the task. "What in that world feels true to the Saints Row franchise? We have had so many ideas throughout the course of this project, and hopefully we were able to pluck all the best ones and put them together into a cohesive story, game, and world."
Change is long overdue
From the outside looking in, that might sound overwhelming but Allen describes the process of revitalizing Saints Row as a "fun challenge". Laying out the foundations for the future of Saints Row required big changes, one of which split the fanbase right down the middle – the lack of familiar faces. UX designer Kenzie Lindgren understands why some may not be able to envision a Saints Row without the core crew, but ultimately believes that investing in a new cast and such robust character creation tools was a necessary part of the process. "There's something really freeing about being able to create brand new characters that have no strings attached – there's nothing that you have to fall in line with. But it's also very daunting, because are people going to love these characters?"
Lindgren was just seven years old when Saints Row made its debut as an Xbox 360 exclusive, and the now 23-year-old UX designer offers an interesting perspective on the series – and pitch for why change is long overdue. "I didn't necessarily grow up with the franchise, but there's a lot of things about the old Saints Row that I'm not necessarily a fan of – and a lot of things that I am a fan of. I think it's interesting to come in and see how we can improve things, and still make it feel like Saints Row."
Speaking as somebody who did grow up with the franchise, I understand the impulse towards change. My interest in Saints Row massively waned over time, as I grew older and the series grew sillier. I loved the original game, one of the only solid alternatives to Grand Theft Auto on the market for Xbox 360 owners, and soon grew tired of the try-hard energy that encapsulated the later games – I cared not for the dildo bats, Johnny Gat, and the almost slavish devotion to outdated quest and combat design. I get why many players love Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row 4, but they just weren't for me – and that's okay, everything doesn't have to be for everybody, our tastes can change over time. But as far as I'm concerned, I'm excited to see what a more modern – if not grown up – Saints Row might look like.
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"It is a balancing act," Lindgren continues, "between what's old and what's new, but at the end of the day we have to keep moving forward with the times. If we stay the exact same, then it's not going to do well. We are creating a game that we love, and we are creating something that we think is Saints Row. And even if there are some older fans who are vehemently against it, I think there's going to be so many players that will end up falling in love with it – whether they're old fans, new fans, or just happen to stumble upon our game on one of the various stores that it'll be available on. I think there's something that's really cool about that."
Both Lindgren and Allen make it clear that Volition isn't trying to 'push any fans aside' with its Saints Row reboot, and that it's taking fan feedback that it has received since the 2021 reveal "into consideration." Volition is only asking that you give it a chance – on its own terms, free of legacy expectation. While Volition is yet to make a build of Saints Row playable to the press or public, the extended gameplay footage we have seen thus far is impressive – as bold, brash, and brazen as anything that's come before it.
The city of Santo Ileso is vibrant, full of life and smaller stories. The actions you'll undertake within it look fun too, with the space broken down into nine distinct districts which need to be conquered – how this is achieved is up to you, and there's plenty of toys within the sandbox that can let you get as creative (and destructive) as your heart may desire. Between the somewhat dour presentation of Watch Dogs Legion and the exhaustion set in by returning to the Grand Theft Auto 5 campaign on a third console generation, I have an appetite to break apart a big new urban open world.
Between managing illegitimate business (with legitimate fronts, naturally), to messing around with the new and improved driving mechanics and gunplay, there's a lot of Saints Row that's speaking to me. My larger concerns surround bloat and variety, a constant issue with modern games of this scale, though Allen explains that any and all changes found in Saints Row are routed through the idea of "respecting the players' time". He adds: "What we're adding to it, is it meaningful? Is it going to bring players joy, as they're interacting with whatever bit of gameplay or bit of story or bit of discovery throughout the world?"
"Like Kenzie was saying before, we all have our favorite parts of these games. Sometimes I hear from fans and they love different aspects of the franchise, and that doesn't resonate with me in the same way," says Allen, speaking to the number of activities and playstyles something like Saints Row has traditionally catered to, and will need to continue to cater to in the future. "So as much as possible we focus on breadth, on variety, and on making sure that we are really asking ourselves 'does this add to the player's enjoyment, and is it something that's worth their time?'"
Saints Row is set to launch on PC, PS5, Xbox Series X, and last-gen systems on August 23, 2022. I don't know about you, but I'm eager to see what a modern approach to creating an old-school sandbox will look and play like. Volition is taking a big swing here, and I really do hope that it's able to pull off the (what Allen calls) "zaniness with a sense of seriousness" tone which serves as the touchpoint for the entire experience.
Given how stacked the beginning of 2022 was, I'm ready for something a little more chaotic. I want something to play that offers destructive action in a reactive, evolving world. I want to craft a character with big main character energy, and use it to create havoc in a friend's own play-space through the two-player drop-in co-op functionality. And I want a story with impact to tie all the carnage together, driving me forward when side quests like Insurance Fraud inevitably begin to tank my attention. I think Saints Row will be the game to scratch that particular itch. Forget the past, I'm more interested in Saints Row's future.
We are hoping to see more from Saints Row at one of the conferences in the E3 2022 schedule. If you're looking for something to play in the meantime, why not check out one of the best open world games.