There’s no substitute for getting your hands on an upcoming game. I went into my Saints Row preview unsure of why this reboot existed. After four hours with the forthcoming crime-’em-up, I found a thoughtful open-world game with interesting combat and a focus on player freedom.
You can see this freedom immediately with Saints Row’s character creator. You can – pretty much – create anything you want here: there are an extensive range of prosthetic options available and additionally, instead of a binary gender selection there are a series of body options with sliders, with every voice option and cosmetic available for any body type. This should let players create something that represents them if they want, but then there’s the addition of shiny metal skin and a variety of weirder customisation options that will let players turn themselves into a purple-haired hunk with red skin. You can change your character at nearly any time, so you can create a boss that you can change to reflect how you feel on any given day.
It sounds like a small feat: make any character you want and change your look whenever works for you. However, for something that appears so simple, there’s often a significant dev cost and so few games actually offer this. The fact that it’s here speaks of a focus on player choice and inclusivity that permeates the entire experience.
The rest of the experience involves crime. Lots of crime. The game’s storyline has four young friends from different gangs sharing an apartment and getting involved in criminal hijinks to try and make rent. Whether this will actually resonate with the younger audience – I’m 33, upsettingly – remains to be seen, but in a world where no one has any money as inflation and a cost of living crisis gouge us all, it’s definitely relatable.
The characters you interact with are interesting too: while the playable main character is left as a blank slate beyond describing themselves as a murder machine, the rest of your pals seem to actually have some interests outside of being archetypes. The driving-obsessed Neenah is restoring a classic car (of course) but also talks about loving art and maybe jacking this whole crime thing in for a gallery curation job, while the perennially shirtless Idol Kevin is obsessed with food and music, talking about fancy kitchen appliances and what he’s planning to make for brunch. Once you get past the fact that they’re all sociopaths, required to take the starring roles in an open-world crime drama, they’re the type of people you might want to hang out with: three dimensional and interested in a life beyond supporting roles in cutscenes.
Even the bad guys you’re fighting have distinct personalities. Idols will occasionally stop mid-fight to snap a selfie, and their guns and equipment are all fitted with glowing neon. The police force will fight you with shotguns and a disabling taser, there’s Los Panteros – who feel like the less fleshed out of the bunch, being generically crimey – and then Marshall, the private security firm that’s all high-tech gear and armoured vehicles.
Even in firefights where a couple of these different groups have mixed together it’s easy to tell who you’re fighting just from the look of them. Considering you’re going to have to gun down a bunch of goons to roll the credits, it’s nice to vary it up a little – especially when you need to engage your brain a little to make sure you’re giving yourself the best chance of success.
Saints Row combat feels difficult and rewards aggressive play: third-person shooting and melee combat is crunchy but the addition of a health-regaining instant takedown and the ability to press a button to quickly shoot any explosive objects around you makes it feel like a relentless push forwards. Health regeneration is quite generous, and while you’re often surrounded you still feel like the most powerful person in any firefight, even as the game throws increasingly over the top set pieces your way. By the time you have finished the opening level you’ll have manned an APC turret to deal with an ambush, assaulted a group of enemies holed up in a saloon and even ridden a jump-jet as it crashes into the ground.
Combat gets easier over time. As you level up you get access to additional skills that will let you do things like… put a grenade down someone’s trousers and toss them like an explosive weapon. These abilities give you extra options, but you can also unlock perks for achieving challenges, selecting a few of these to give you little bonuses. As someone who loved unlocking extra perks for completing side activities in Saints Row 2, this is a welcome addition.
I still found it tricky. A memorable firefight at a church had me reloading after death a few times. But, with Saints Row I always feels like I have the initiative, something that flows down into everything: getting into a car is a piece of piss, and mashing the button throws you through the window of the car and has you ready to drive immediately. Rather than a handbrake, instead you’re just given a button to drift, cutting out the nonsense and letting you carve up the streets without a problem. Similarly, there’s a button to let you shunt enemies out of the way while driving that will often lead to them exploding beautifully. Driving feels slightly floaty, but it doesn’t really hinder your enjoyment as you cruise around the city doing whatever the hell you want.
Ultimately, doing whatever you want is the core promise at the heart of Saints Row. Do what you want. The game has you covered. Now fans just have to see if Deep Silver Volition can stick the landing on release and hold this momentum for the entire game.