What does being the ultimate boss of something really mean? Delegation? Paperwork? For Volition, the developer of both the original Saints Row series and its upcoming reboot, being the crime-CEO means choices, and the entire reboot is structured around giving players as much freedom as possible.
NME sat down with Damien Allen, principle designer on the rebooted Saints Row, to talk about how the team focused on letting players be not just the boss, but a force of nature as they move through the game’s new setting of Santo Ileso.
That new setting came from a desire for a fresh start, in large part because of the Saints’ exploits across the years.
“The Saints have been a lot of places,” says Allen. “They started off very small but, you know, by the end of it you’re fighting Zinyak and fighting this alien overlord and then going into hell.
“There’s such a range, so that when we talked about it when we looked at what we wanted to do with this entry, we said ‘well let’s tell a new story, let’s tell something that is new characters, new boss, new location, let’s establish our own story basically’.”
Volition’s new story started with the character creator, which allows players to adjust their created character on several sliders, meaning instead of gender there’s the option for players to make their character more masculine or feminine, but also the option to choose any cosmetics for any body type, even replacing limbs with a suite of prosthetics if they want. Allen explains that even in “early talks”, the team saw the importance of Saints Row‘s character creator letting players express themselves.
“Expressing yourself can mean anything from trying to make a character a boss that looks exactly like you to making a character that is who you want to be ,” explains Allen. “How you look, how you feel, or who you…maybe not want to be, but who you feel like at the moment – like do you feel like this completely different person than you physically look like on the outside? That can even change from day to day, so we really wanted to give the power to the player as much as possible. ”
Of course, this is Saints Row – and once players have settled on their character’s appearance, it’s time to introduce the unfortunate city of Santo Ileso to the series’ sandbox shenanigans. Not content to keep things purely cosmetic, Volition’s focus on player freedom extends to how they choose to brawl, fly and careen across the world. Allen shares that Volition built Saints Row‘s combat in “layers”, and the end result is an approach that leaves players feeling like a powerhouse.
“We don’t want the player to spend most of their time hiding behind cover, we don’t want them to spend most of their time running away from combat – the combat can be a lot of fun if you’re engaging, if you’re pushing, if you are making sure that you use the mechanics that we’ve added,” says Allen. Some of those abilities – such as throwing an enemy with a live grenade down their pants – feel particularly distinctive, something Allen says the team was keen to explore:
“We try and layer those on as you play throughout the game, you’ll have gained more, you’ll have more abilities and features that you’re gonna be able to say ‘okay, here’s how I like to play the game, I like to push’ [or] maybe you’re the player that says ‘I’m just gonna go in with a rocket launcher in every situation’ and whenever that’s available, you just take that approach.”
Volition “definitely did not want a game where you’re hiding,” adds Allen. “You’re the Boss! You’re awesome! You are a combat god, and you want to be able to go in there and show these other factions that you are the Boss.”
While the player character excels in being the toughest brawler in Santo Ileso, being a safe and courteous driver isn’t one of their qualities. Saints Row takes a unique approach to getting behind the wheel – players will have a drift button rather than a handbrake, and one particularly violent feature will let players punt other drivers off the road.
“When we were looking at the driving mechanics and how we wanted that to feel and the combat while you were driving, we looked to see what we can do to give the player a sense of power and control, so they’re are not necessarily worried about whether they can control everything,” explains Allen. “So let’s see: what tools can we give the player?”
To that end, Allen describes trying to give players more power in their vehicles whilst getting rid of “frustrations that happen in all open world games, with all driving mechanics” – but for players with a particular distaste for driving, Allen says he’s “very partial” to the wingsuit he helped create.
The wingsuit – which lets players glide across Santo Ileso – is creative in its own right, but Allen explains that Volition’s goal was to create a tool that could be used alongside the other vehicles of Saints Row:
“We wanted to make sure that this form of traversal married itself well with the rest of the traversal in the game, whether you want to get into a helicopter and fly around, drive, or swoop down onto a vehicle, vehicle surf on the vehicle, and then yeet back off into wing-suiting. It was a fun mechanic to implement and to see the different ways you can use that to traverse the city. You can land on the car and you can fly back up, or you can say hey, this is my car now and kick the person out and take over and drive quickly. We really wanted to make sure that that made sense for the player, and also gave them another tool that they can play and have fun with.”
Driving – like everything else Allen has touched on – has been built with the same emphasis on flexibility that everything else in Saints Row has been. “[Players] get to express themselves at every level of the game and I think that that is something that is not always at the forefront of games, and for different reasons, but we really wanted to embrace that idea of being your own boss,” reflects Allen.
“Who is the boss to you? What is the way that they rise to the top of this criminal empire? What do they do along the way?”