Saints Row – Mayhem, Evolved

Saints Row Reboot Preview

There are many gamers — hell, there are legions of them — for whom the Saints Row franchise represents the perfect balance between humor and insane action. Some argue the merits of one installment or another. A few might even suggest that with the fourth game and its story about alien invaders, the series jumped the shark entirely. If you’ve been waiting for Saints Row to find solid ground again, you’re gonna get your wish. I had the chance to sit down and watch a nice chunk of dev-narrated gameplay, and it’s clear that this reboot knows what it’s about.

This time around, it isn’t about overt political parody or sci-fi shenanigans. It doesn’t return us to Steelport yet again. Instead, this new Saints Row is a more grounded game that isn’t afraid to blend in some emotional truth with its signature absurd action. In other words, you might be stuffing a grenade down the pants of a rival gang member, but you’re doing it out of love for your crew.

But don’t worry, this isn’t an after-school special, it’s Saints Row, so there isn’t any heavy-handed moralizing or overt heartstring-tugging. As always, the focus is on action and an almost absurd amount of choice.

Welcome to the West

Saints Row takes place in a fictional metropolis called Santo Ileso. It’s an amalgam of iconic Western cities, so imagine the glam and sin of Vegas blended with the hip sophistication of Austin. Above all, it’s a sprawling playground for your imagination and the game’s four rival gangs, one of which is your own. Just as each gang has its own combat style, Santo Ileso has nine districts, each with its own character and purpose. The game’s 25 main story missions most often task your gang with expanding its power and influence over ever-wider swaths of the city.

This time, your gang isn’t the familiar 3rd Street Saints, but a whole new crew. The game follows a quartet of quirky, financially challenged roommates — including you, The Boss — as they blossom from bumbling petty criminals into a powerful gang. Your HQ is a decrepit church, which over time transforms into something that’s a cross between a military installation and the world’s sweetest man cave. There are over 100 collectable props to add to your décor.

At the heart of your headquarters is the War Table, a map of Santo Ileso that shows the ever-shifting territory of each gang and your opportunity to expand by building new businesses. Growing your business side opens new missions and lets you take over districts. Of course, you might meet with just a bit of resistance from your rivals.

Twisted Combat

While Saints Row is a bit more grounded in reality than the last two games in the series, there’s still an incredible amount of imaginative, absurd action and the opportunity for creating creative mayhem. There are dozens of weapon variations spread across pistols, rifles, shotguns and a wide variety of inventive toys. If you’re more into grenades, bombs, missiles and drone strikes you’ll probably find those, too.

With over 80 different ways of getting around Santo Ileso on land and in the air, you’ll have an amazing time reigning down destruction while on the move. Just like with the game’s weapons, just about every component of each of the rides is customizable. You can add visual flair and character and really make the experience unique.

The deep level of customization of course starts with the character creator, which is hands down the deepest in any Saints Row game. You name the body part, and it can be modified, if you get our drift. While you unlock most of the game’s costumes during gameplay, there’s no cash shop or other extra nonsense. In addition to the wealth of cosmetics, characters gain a number of passive perks and up to four skills that can be assigned for specific missions.

Looking Good and Gettin’ Busy

Between the main campaign, repeatable side-hustles, quick missions, and just exploring the environment, you’ll never be without a goal. There’s a vast amount of stuff to keep you occupied but nearly all of it rewards you and feels like it’s worth your time. While most of the campaign missions end with a combat scenario, these aren’t simply battles of attrition. At least in the demo, they seemed like tactical, multi-part encounters that demand smart attention and just the right loadout.

Although it doesn’t scream next-gen exclusive, Saints Row’s art direction looks fantastic, a major step forward for the series. The action is fluid and fast, with an emphasis on fun over the pesky reality of frail human bodies. In particular, vehicles seem like they’re going to be a key to unlocking a lot of crazy action.

Judging by the preview, the writing and voice work are excellent. What’s great about this new Saints Row is that it backs off a bit from hit-or-miss parody, while still having a great sense of often absurd humor. My only complaint about the writing was its lazy and repetitive use of profanity. It wasn’t offensive, just non-stop to the point of being ridiculous. And maybe that was the point. Saints Row is smart enough to make a point about supposedly “edgy” games.

Gear Up

I’m nothing but excited about Volition’s new game. The weird wild west setting is full of character, the characters are full of personality and maybe best of all, Saints Row feels much more tethered to reality. To some fans that might sound like a retreat. Trust me, there’s still plenty of crazy action, humor and creativity. Bringing the franchise back to earth is a step in the right direction for a series that had started to lose its bearings. I can’t wait to dive into Santo Ileso, gang up, and start my own rise to power when the game releases in August.

Thank you for keeping it locked on COGconnected.

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