How do you make a sequel to Saints Row 4 in the politically sensitive world of 2021? You don't, you reboot the whole damn franchise instead. At least that's what Volition decided to do, starting fresh with the slightly more grown-up, seemingly dildo-free Saints Row reboot, which will be released on February 25, 2022.
At first glance, this new Saints Row is a mash-up of GTA and Fast and Furious. You and your three friends are starting your own criminal empire from scratch, using your various skills to take control of territories in the city of Santo Ileso. Your partners in crime are Eli, entrepreneur and investor, Nina the artist and mechanic, and Kevin - who honestly seems the absolute worst - a DJ and thrillseeker with neon hair. Your character - the boss - is still fully customizable with what looks to be plenty of crazy outfits. The campaign will be fully playable in co-op, and executive producer Rob Loftus even teased there would be a way to prank your real-world buddies while you hang out with them in the game.
"You know, we talked a lot about the previous Saints Row games, and that we're very proud of them. We love those games. But we also recognize that those are games of a time - they made sense within that era," said Volition chief creative officer Jim Boone.
"But that tone is not something that we feel like is something that we even want to do today. We had a different kind of story that we want to tell that still has a lot of the same hallmarks - like humor and [being] over-the-top and the action, we're still a pretty bloodthirsty game, there are all kinds of combat and everything. But in terms of the story that we wanted to tell, it was important for us to come up with something that we felt resonated right now, not something that did maybe 10+ years ago."
Boone also made the point that - spoilers ahead - creating a direct sequel to Saints Row 4 would have been challenging. Depending on your choices in the game, you'd either be dealing with conquering new planets, or a restored, but previously alien-invaded earth where Jane Austen was alive and kicking.
But, despite the slightly less cartoonish vibe, Volition is sticking very much to its criminal power fantasy roots. As you work through the campaign you can start to change the city of Santo Ileso - the fictional location for this new game - building on vacant lots and choosing what type of criminal enterprises to run from them, opening up more gameplay activities as you go. Examples we saw were fast food-based drug-running rings, protection rackets, and arms dealerships. Volition also confirmed that a fan favorite, insurance scams, would be back too.
Of course, you're not the only bad guys in town, and you'll have to deal with three other criminal factions to really succeed. There are the Panteros, tough guys and girls who favor heavy weaponry and melee attacks, and who we saw toting some rocket launchers. Marshall Defense Industries, as the name might suggest, is a private military conglomerate with access to advanced artillery, and who you'll need to be more tactical to take on. Finally, there are the Idols, driven by a need for fame and notoriety, whose whole deal seems to be TikTok kids on extra doses of Adderall.
You'll battle them through nine different districts of Santo Ileso, which takes its inspiration from the American southwest. Jim Boone said the team took inspiration from Baby Driver, Hobbs and Shaw, and John Wick when designing the game and its nine distinct territories.
"Baby Driver in terms of a very large commitment to driving in the driving model and how it performs within the game, which feels really good in this one. John Wick with some of the brutality, some of the combat moves, we brought a lot of that into our combat system. And then Hobbs and Shaw for a little bit of that Saints Row sort of flavor, the over-the-top kind of nature that we're known for, and wanting to not lose sight of that."
So Eldorado, for instance, has a Las Vegas feel with neons lights and a sleazy glamor. Montavista is a fancy, gated community, where the Saints Row equivalent of the Kardashians might live. The Financial District was designed with traversal gameplay opportunities in mind, lots of tall buildings to test out your wingsuit from. "We've never had terrain like this in any Saints Row game before," said art director Frank Marquart. Getting around will be facilitated by the usual chaotic mix of vehicles, from quad bikes to helicopters.
Reboots of well-loved game series are nothing new - see Tomb Raider, God of War, and Resident Evil - but Saints Row made such a name for itself as the outrageous cousin to GTA's hipster satire that it's going to be fascinating to see how it strikes the balance between its frat humor roots and its new, 2021 aspirations. The chance to change the city to reflect my specific nefarious tastes is definitely appealing, and wingsuiting your way onto a gang of enemies never gets old. I just hope that Volition can find a way to keep the humor when all their sex toys have been taken away. No doubt we'll get to see a lot more of the world and the new direction before Saints Row launches on consoles and PC in February 2022.