The first thing we’re shown is a flyover of the new Saints Row‘s Santo Ileso, “a dense open-world that rewards exploration”, split into nine districts. Gangs lift tire-weights on street corners and party around souped-up cars, and a ferris wheel hangs slanted on the outskirts. The Saints don’t exist at the game’s opening, we’re told, they’re roommates from rival factions, brought together by a need to make rent. Relate, millennials! Why aren’t you relating!
We cut to two of the Saints, Eli and the customisable protagonist, Protag if you will, driving to meet the others. Eli is listening to a self-help podcast. Protag is ribbing him for listening to it. They all meet up, get out some guns, and do a cool walk towards the payday loans company they’re planning to rob. “Walk away,” one of them says, holding the security guard at gunpoint, “or the phrase ‘dead end job’ gets literal”. I won’t quote all the dialogue, but this is a pretty good indicator of tone going forward. Draw your own conclusions.
Robbery achieved, it’s time for a car chase. The New Mexico-inspired city streets are colourful, if vacant and lifeless. A train cuts off our car on the way to the switch vehicle, and we wait for it to pass, a meme about obeying the traffic laws in GTA inexplicably turned into a set-piece. After the train passes, cop cars appear, and we’re introduced to the ‘side swipe’, a defensive driving manoeuvre that violently shunts pursuers away. The vehicle combat looks to have some neat physics, with cop cars careening into each other, falling apart, and eventually exploding with satisfying force.
Shaking off the cops, Protag arrives at the lot housing their getaway car, only to find it’s been claimed by gang members from Los Panteros. Our protag whips out a pistol, and combat kicks off. Whether enemies are level-gated à la recent Assassin’s Creed games isn’t clear, but some of these foes take multiple clean headshots to go down, which is monumentally unsatisfying to watch. Cover crouch and a defensive roll compliment a weapon wheel currently filled with old reliables. Next, we’re shown ‘The Pineapple Express’, as our protag sticks a grenade to a foe’s back and hurls them towards a truck, which then explodes with more of those satisfying physics. We’re shown a few melee finishers; creative and elaborate, but a touch too long to feel like a natural part of the flow of combat, before our protag escapes on a dirtbike over the desert dunes.
Next we’re shown customisation and emotes, including a genuinely hilarious guitar-strumming strut that impresses a nearby crowd of pedestrians. Customisation is vast, allowing for all the body, voice, and clothing changes that someone who doesn’t quite know what sort of game they want to play, but knows they love being mildly amused at funny hats, could want. Next, our protag hurls some explosives at an armoured truck – one of the ambient activities – and collects piles of cash from the floor, before entering another shootout with some cops. There’s a strangely psychotic, dissociative vibe to all this when paired with all the colourful quirkiness and dance emotes, as if you’re watching a TikTok category for snuff films.
A ‘side hustle’ follows. The open-world utilises the familiar formula of main, side, and ambient missions, with vehicle shenanigans and other creative traversal options tying them together. We ride shotgun for a bored housewife pulling off a robbery for funsies, fighting off pursuers from the passenger seat. You’ve also got the option of climbing on top of the car, for increased vulnerability but a wider firing arc. There are apparently lots of opportunities to spend the cash you get from these side missions, but we’re mainly shown clothes shopping, as well as some hideout and car customisation options. These play into the traversal aspects, with ejector seats, wingsuits, and the like.
Next, we’re shown a mission where Protag (now a burly cowboy through the power customisation) joined fellow Saint Neenah to destroy a rival gang’s vehicle forge. They steal an incredibly well-armed helicopter, take it to the forge, shoot some cars, then enter. We’re shown some active skills and passive perks, which you can slot in and out as the mission dictates. We follow the saints through a warehouse, blowing up cars and exchanging gunfire with gang members. There’s a sniper rifle at one point and, praise be, it pulls off single bullet headshots, just as God intended. Forge blown up, the pair escape, then enjoy some completion rewards: Cash, XP, a new car, and a helicopter pad for the HQ.
The Saints’ HQ is an abandoned church that starts out very much not cash money, but gets more lavish as your progress through the game. You can customise cars, guns, your crew, clothes, and everything else from here. You can also manage your empire from the new war table, a management minigame type deal that sees you buying properties to unlock activities like district takeovers, the chopshop, and insurance fraud. Then, these loveable, unproblematic millennials start dealing arms, which unlocks Mayhem gameplay. “Everyone and their grandma is running guns these days. We need a killer pitch!”.
It’s here we’re shown the “Drop in, drop out, untethered co-op,” as one of the devs in a helicopter carries the other in a car via magnetic winch, then dumps them off near the mission start. Much completely natural, unscripted patter ensues, and the mission kicks off: classic open-world style destruction for score multipliers. It’s all suitably cathartic looking, if a bit lifeless.
Finally, we’re shown a story mission. Saint Kevin is abducted by a gang called the idols – neon pink wearing anarchists – so it’s time for a rescue. We follow Kevin’s trail to a saloon, where a fistfight with the idols ensues. We’re shown a few more abilities, like a shield that electrocutes enemies that punch you, and a charged flaming fist. Melee combat follows the trend of looking colourful and chaotic, with some interesting abilities, but too loose and limp to seem properly satisfying. Idols well punched, the protag looks for someone to interrogate on Kev’s whereabouts, finds an unlucky chap in a portaloo, and drags him around via his car for a bit, knocking over tents in an enemy camp. This continues until a meter fills up, and the toilet friend gives up Kev’s location.
We climb a tower, disarming bombs and shooting Idols, and untie Kev from a chair at the top, before wingsuiting down to a compound to get some revenge. Here we’re shown a few of the game’s more interesting weapons and abilities. The ‘Thrustbuster’ is a throwable sticky grenade that launches enemies into the air, and the ‘Quantum Aperture’ not only lets you see through walls, but also shoot through them. There’s a ‘Piñata’ launcher, which is basically just a grenade launcher with added confetti, and foam hand gun-pistols. We shoot some more, rescue Kev, and the demo ends. So far, the best thing to say about Saints Row is that it looks like a solidly made open-world game with some creative twists and a very specific tone. Maybe that tone is for you, and maybe they’ll sort headshots out in time for the game’s full release this August.