The Saints Row reboot is actually all about the power of friendship

Saints Row screenshot showing combat against a helicopterVolition

If you’ve played any Saints Row game, you’ll know that the crime drama that plays out does so in the background of huge personalities and no small amount of silliness.

Whether it’s sex toys as weapons, a whole squad wearing Johnny Gat masks, or being the superpowered president of the United States, it feels like Saints Row is long overdue a return to simpler times.

While the initial reveal may have left longtime fans of the franchise feeling alienated by a new direction, after four hours of hands-on time with the game, I’m very pleased to say that this is shaping up to be a surprisingly heartwarming tale of mass murder and wanton destruction.

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Preface: There are some spoilers below for the opening hours of Saints Row.

Who’s the boss?

Saints Row screenshot showing the Los Panteros factionVolition
It doesn’t take long to upset Santo Ileso’s other gangs.

Saints Row picks up with your created character having a pretty hellacious day working for Marshall, one of Santo Ileso’s three factions.

Desperate to make enough money for rent, our protagonist works to apprehend a wanted criminal. In true Saints Row fashion, though, it’s not all easy — players fight their way through a facsimile of an Old West town, before a chase through a saloon and a ride atop a hover jet.

It’s exhilarating stuff, and while the third-person shooter fundamentals are solid, it’s the sheer variety of set-piece ideas that consistently impressed in my playtime.

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All within this slice of gameplay, our Boss was mantling across cars and leaping from roof to roof while chasing an armored convoy into a sandstorm, terrorizing a real estate magnate by driving and protecting a priceless artifact during a museum heist.

That ridiculousness seeps through into the combat, too, with the “Pineapple Express” upgrade letting players put a grenade down an opponent’s trousers before hurling them into their cohorts. In my time playing, I enjoyed seeing which ability I’d unlock next, and trying to work them into combat encounters was a fun challenge.

Fatal Four Way

Saints Row screenshot showing the Idols factionVolition
The Idols are obsessed with tearing down capitalism.

Those combat encounters vary, too, because each of Santo Ileso’s trio of factions approaches fights in wildly different ways. While all use ranged weapons to some extent, Los Panteros are aggressive in melee range, moving in close to engage with fists, bats, and more.

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The Idols, on the other hand, wear EDM-inspired masks and will throw dozens of characters at players at once, with some able to deflect bullets by spinning melee weapons rapidly.

Finally, there’s Marshall – a well-funded, private military group that have seemingly unlimited resources (including the hover jet mentioned earlier). Each faction also has its own boss encounters, too, and missions where it’s easy to get caught in the crossfire between them. They all weave into Santo Ileso, and it helps make it feel as though the Saints truly are the new kids on the block.

Wanna be in my gang?

A lineup of the main characters in the Saints Row rebootVolition
Saints Row’s heroes are more likeable than I was expecting.

It’s taken a fair bit of time in this preview to get to the game’s story and core quartet of characters, but make no mistake: As fun as Saints Row’s explosive action is, the characters are the reason I can’t wait to return when it launches next month.

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Developers Volition have done well to avoid too many cringe-worthy jokes, but there are plenty of pop-culture references between the Boss and their comrades. Perhaps most importantly, though, there are in-jokes between them that feel earned.

Neenah, a headstrong getaway driver, begins the story working for the Los Panteros, while Kevin, a fitness and cooking-loving DJ, is part of the Idols. Completing the trio is Eli, an investor with enough business acumen to build the Saints’ reputation.

With all four characters hustling to be able to pay rent, they decide to break away from their respective factions and build a new empire, the Saints. That’s an overly simple way of summing up the opening of the game, but to give too much away would ruin much of the fun (and dramatic stakes) of the first act.

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Within just four hours, though, I felt a connection to each of the four main characters — and that’s not something I can say about many open-world games.

Home is where the NPCs are

Santo Ileso screenshot from Saints RowVolition
Santo Ileso is big and beautiful, but feels a little empty.

Aside from working through the first few story missions, I was able to spend some time exploring Santo Ileso. The New Mexico inspiration is clear, with dusty streets and diners flanked by small mountains, settlements, and built-up metropolitan areas, too.

It feels closer to a real place than any Saints Row before it, but mainly through visual design than anything else: Pedestrians roam the streets, but it doesn’t feel particularly alive — more like set-dressing that acts as a backdrop.

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Side quests, at least within the opening chunk I played, also feel derivative but do at least play host to some fun gags. Being hired to leave negative reviews at rival businesses, before fighting off a horde of angry gang members eager to change your mind feels like classic Saints Row. It’s self-referential without taking itself too seriously and is all the better for it — sidestepping the inherent sadness that creeps in when Rockstar holds a mirror up to society.

Sure, Saints Row makes plenty of statements, but it’s also here to have a good time and that’s OK.

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Final thoughts

The Saints Row reboot is looking to offer carnage and catharsis, but also no shortage of heart and soul. After this initial session, I’m excited to return to Santo Ileso — if not for the location, then to catch up with friends.