In the late and early 2010s, the Saints Row series offered gamers an even more over-the-top take on the open-world third-person action-adventure genre dominated by Grand Theft Auto. This wacky approach reached its peak with the years 2013 Saints Row IVin which the player took on the role of the President of the United States (who also happened to be a superhero).
Aside from a standalone expansion released in 2015, the Saints have been quiet for nearly a decade since then. But that’s going to change with a “reimagined” Saints Row due in August.
And a lot can change in ten years, as the developers of Volition are well aware: parent company THQ has been declared bankrupt during the development of Saints Row IVand Volition was acquired by Deep Silver in 2013. Despite the tumultuous events of recent years, Saints Row remains a core part of Volition’s DNA, according to Creative Director Brian Traficante. “Saints Row contributed so much to Volition,” he told me during an interview at a preview event in Las Vegas last week.
The riotous desert city was the perfect setting for a Saints Row preview event, as the new game takes place in a fictionalized version of Vegas called Saint Ileso. Traficante said that “come back to” Saints Rowafter almost 10 years, was fantastic… We are excited to come home.”
A more grounded Saints Row?
During the preview event, I played the first 3.5 hours of Saints Row, which could be considered a reboot or reinvention of the series. “We’ve done a lot of research — do we want to multiverse, do we want to prosecute it?” Traffic explained. “What felt best to us was the opportunity to use this fresh approach to IP.”
What surprised me the most about the new one Saints Row was the more grounded approach. Instead of issuing executive orders, hanging out in a penthouse or flying high above the city skyline, the protagonist in the new Saints Row– known only as “the boss” – is just a regular, broke 20-something who shares a dingy apartment with three other people. The boss takes a job with a local mercenary group to make ends meet, and the roommates do odd jobs for the local gangs. However, the group often falls short when the rent is due and payable.
This struggle should be surprisingly familiar to many millennials and zoomers who have spent their post-graduate years building careers in a time of massive inflation, stagnant wages and economic recessions. Earning hobbies and building side business to pay off student loans is strangely recognizable, especially for a notoriously “exaggerated” series like Saints Row (to use Traficante’s term).
“It became a process of understanding…when you have to do something absurd, stupid, childish, gross, whatever it is, but then how to get back to this believable state of the world.” What Traficante calls the game’s “beautiful contrast” takes center stage as you steal cars and drive recklessly across the desert while shooting anyone who gets in your way. While some of us might work extra hours or sell assets on eBay to get rent, the boss and their friends casually knock over a predatory payday loan. Hey, it’s more ethical than robbing innocent people, right?
But before that happens, you need to create your boss from scratch. Saints Row has one of the most comprehensive character creators I’ve ever seen, going way beyond the typical options that many games consider standard (you can even try it out as a free demo before the game comes out).
Yes, you can change the default attributes like height, build, skin tone, hair color, and facial features, but there’s so much more to customize here. Want to be a Hulk-esque muscular green gangster with exposed veins and some nasty scars? You can do that. Fancy playing as an older woman with wrinkles and a fierce mohawk? Why not? You can also add prosthetic limbs, choose from multiple patterns that represent the skin condition vitiligo, reshape your face and give yourself a metallic hue while you’re at it.
The depth of the character creator is really impressive and feels more similar to a game like The Sims than any other action game. I spent about half an hour painstakingly crafting my Boss and probably would have put more into the maker if my time with the preview build wasn’t so limited.
According to Traficante, allowing players to express themselves in any way they see fit is “one of our fundamental pillars in terms of development.” That also includes “various and inclusive options for players”, so whether your character is rooted in reality or looks more like an alien, you’ll be able to make it work.