Boisterous business discussions and the clanking of silverware ring out from the crowded patio of a corner restaurant in the heart of Champaign, Illinois, a small college town two hours south of Chicago. Lording over these hungry patrons is the stoic face of Deep Silver Volition. The studio’s logo hangs a few stories above the lunch spot on the side of a brownstone building. Many eating here today are likely Volition employees, and they have reason to celebrate with a feast, as their studio’s next game, Saints Row, is nearing completion.
After a short elevator ride up to Volition’s offices, I meet Rob Loftus, the executive producer behind the game. He has a bounce in his step, matched by enthusiastic words. He says I’ll be playing through the beginning of the game on PlayStation 5. I’m free to explore its world, take on missions, or do whatever I want for roughly four hours. The only caveat: I can’t talk about a specific opening moment because it’s a huge spoiler.
I boot up the game, eager to see how Saints Row is shaping up and to learn what this big spoiler is. In the opening seconds, I see the Saints as I remember them: adorned in purple hues and partying like it’s the end of days. The iconic gang has turned a rundown church into a headquarters functioning like a nightclub with colored lights on the dance floor and drinks flowing like a river from the bar. This joyful moment is framed within a fun montage sequence showing a variety of detailed animated sequences captured with cinematic camerawork.
The protagonist is in their office, only shown from the backside for a split second before looking into a mirror. This brings up Saints’ elaborate character creator. I try making myself and land on an eerily realistic recreation; the only primary difference is how his voice sounds. The game offers eight voices, which you can freely change at any point, but none are close to mine.
Next, I get into the creator’s more refined details – like determining if my nipples show or are digitized when I’m shirtless. I also adjust the size of my groin – an awkward moment in the presence of the game’s developers.
After finalizing my look, that big spoiler hits, and it’s as shocking as Loftus billed. Following the impact, time in Santa Ileso rewinds to show how the Saints got to this point. I find myself in blue and white combat fatigues, working for an organization called the Marshall Defense Industries. This military group’s leader is a cowboy named Atticus Marshall, who wears a white coat and white Stetson matching his white mustache and eyebrows. Around his waist is a sizable belt bucket with a star on it. He screams of everything Texas.
And so begins my time with Saints Row.
I’m a new Marshall recruit, aiming to make the world a better place through a bit of T.L.C.: Technologically advanced weapons, Loose morals, and a Culture of conflict. My first Marshall mission is with a sizable squad of a dozen-plus people wearing the same gear I am. I get to know a few of them through another nicely animated sequence boasting sharp writing and the Saints Row humor we’ve come to expect. We’re storming a “historic location” called the Silver Gulch, which appears to be a tourist trap showing what the Wild West was once like. We’re here to apprehend someone named The Nahualli. All I know is his name.
Within seconds of controlling my character, he’s rocked by an explosion and thrown to the ground. A six-wheel transport explodes in front of him. Fire is everywhere. Blue flares littered across the dirt illuminate the scene with unusual beauty. Bullets rip overhead and more explosions rock the horizon. The chaos draws me in, but I can’t help but notice that there’s an old-gen feel to my character’s movements, how the enemies move in front of me, and the general levels of detail in the world, texture, and lighting. Saints Row has the appearance of a slightly enhanced last-gen holdover.
As I run forward into a hail of gunfire, bodies ragdoll around, and explosions continue. The Nahualli’s troops are decked out in red and black military fatigues and carry a variety of assault rifles and explosives. I light up over a dozen of them, and flicking up on the analog stick allows for quick headshots if I get the timing right. I use a machine gun for groups and the pistol for more precision with longer-range targets – both feel okay but don’t pack much punch.
The gunplay is satisfying in how easy it is to locate and hit targets yet lacks the intensity and skill of freely aiming. While I can turn off auto-aim in the options, this scenario has attackers approaching from multiple vectors at once; it forces me to dispatch threats with barely a glance their way. In other words, it’s designed well for aim assist. Explosive barrels littered along the dusty roads make my job easier. The chaos of this opening moment is glorious and silly and funnels me through nicely designed set pieces using vehicles and verticality in fun ways.
The war reaches an old-fashioned saloon, with swinging doors on its front and second-story inn rooms for the drunk. I get my first look at The Nahualli, but his troops are too entrenched, and I can’t get close to him. I regroup with my team, and we discuss a plan, but as we converse, he leaps out of a second-story window onto a descending hover ship looking like Tony Stark designed it for The Avengers. He tosses out the pilot and appears to fumble with the controls, giving me enough time to toss a grapple attached to a sizable APC truck onto the hover ship. My aim is true, and the line tightens, but not before Nahualli rockets into the sky. The APC lifts off the ground with little resistance. I leap onto the back of the airborne truck and, much like a scene in an Uncharted game, scale the vehicle’s exterior as it soars dangerously through a narrow canyon. I think I’ll get control of my character here, but the sequence ends quickly with the NPC hitting a rock bridge and stopping the hover ship dead in its tracks.
My character ascends to the aircraft’s wing and lays down as the vessel wobbles to free itself. Enemies emerge from nearby caves, and a shooting gallery-like gameplay sequence plays out. As the ship tries to get away, I’m thrown off its side, thankfully saving myself by grabbing the side of a wing with one hand. I again open fire on enemies in the caves with my other hand. This moment is grand in scale but a bit choppy in execution. Rough transitional animations make the switch between action moments a bit jarring. Enemy AI is also laughably docile, giving me plenty of time to frame them for a shot, even though they have me dead to rights for a good five seconds.
Once the coast is clear, I climb on top of the ship again and meet Nahualli for a fist fight.
“You have more courage than brains,” he says with a sneer.
“You’re god---- right I do!” I fire back like it’s a compliment.
I won’t reveal how this conflict ends or where the story goes next, but my following action is working on my character’s look for a second time, this time getting the opportunity to select my clothing. I can wear the Marshall gear or dress in civilian attire. I again recreate my look of the day with a gray t-shirt, black jeans, and a matching cap. The well of garment options is deep and should allow players to create some wild designs.
Opening Santa Ileso
The open world is finally available for me to explore, and I hop into a beat-up pickup truck to see what it offers. The vehicle has a loose arcade-like feel, and it can almost turn on a dime, thanks to an overly emphasized powerslide, which racks up experience points every time I use it. The experience system harks back to Saints Row 3 and rewards me for driving dangerously, like into oncoming traffic and narrowly avoiding cars. The world around me is primarily a brown desert, but I can see black smoke and fire spewing from factories on the horizon. A pocket of industrialization is out there, and I’m racing toward it.
To make my drive more relaxing, I scroll through 10 different radio stations and settle on Tumbleweed Radio, which plays classic westerns. The current song consists mainly of soothing whistling. It fits the moment.
I’m following a purple path of arrows to my destination, and as I draw near, I receive a series of calls that introduce me to the game’s main cast: Neenah, Eli, and Kev. During my hours playing, these three characters are a constant, and Saints Row’s story unfolds through this unified ensemble in a fun way, often slowing to show their chemistry as they hang out together at the gang’s apartment.
For the next couple of hours, I continue down the game’s critical path, picking away at missions, either with all four characters working together or on my own for the Marshalls. My efforts net me money to spend on weapons and gear, and I also earn valuable experience points that unlock levels and skills. My first unlocked skill is called Pineapple Express, which allows me to grab an enemy, drop a grenade down their pants, and throw them. It’s a hell of a way to clear out a group of foes. I later unlock a sticky grenade that I can throw at enemies.
At this point in my story, I’m mainly taking on the Panteros since they occupy most of the surrounding industrialized area. Some missions are as simple as driving to a location and taking out a specific general or robbing a safe. Other assignments deliver sizable action sequences, such as leaping across the hoods of cars as a convoy roars into a sandstorm. In another, I mount a turret on a flatbed truck to mow down motorcycles giving chase. The missions offer plenty of variety in these early moments, and the banter from the ensemble and adversaries delivers ample humor and insight into the developing story.
After a few hours, my group of friends realizes they are great at what they do and should start their own criminal empire. Eli knows how to start this business. Kev knows how to draw the proper attention to it. Neenah is the best driver around. And my player character calls himself a “walking murder party.” The gang of four is actually five: They have a cat named Snickerdoodle, almost always up to no good in cutscenes.
With the team unified, I can now call upon my allies to help me mid-mission – all I have to do is bring out my phone, dial them up, and one will be there to assist me in their unique ways.
The next step in building our empire is finding a place to set up headquarters. Before beginning, however, I’m alerted that someone has joined my game. Chris Donley, Volition’s lead project manager, jumped in to show me how cooperative play works. He tells me the entire game – all the missions and side activities – are designed with two players in mind.
His presence also brings a new icon to my HUD: The prank meter, which invites me to complete a unique challenge Chris can’t see. All I have to do is drive into an oncoming lane 20 times, and I can supposedly play a prank on Chris. I have no idea what will happen, but I’m excited to see what it is.
Rather than taking on the next story mission, Chris and I dive into some of the game’s side content. All the while, I’m working on that prank meter. One of our first stops is an activity called Wingsuit Saboteur.
After talking to a mission giver in a train car, we find ourselves hundreds of feet in the air in a helicopter. We leap out together and open our wingsuits to glide along the rooftops of a factory. We’re looking for satellite dishes we must destroy within a set amount of time. The precise wingsuit controls allow the player to dive to gain speed and press L2 to reduce and land. The division is fun and balanced nicely for two players, and we finish with just five seconds on the clock.
I still want to get my prank off, but Chris beats me to the punch. Within the next story mission, as we’re mid-battle against a dozen Panteros troops, Chris activates his prank, and a swarm of bees engulfs my character. They buzz about and cover most of my view, annoying for a surprising amount of time, even into the next story cutscene, making for a hilarious sight. When I gain control of my character again – now bee free – Chris departs my game, saying there are “tons of different pranks to pull on your friends.” Most are just visual, like the bees.
One of the following missions brings me to the rundown church where my story began. It’s in even worse shape than before and appears to be days away from being leveled. A few bucket loaders sit outside its front doors. I’m not here long before the Panteros’ forces show up for a fight. I hop into one of the loaders and manually raise and lower the bucket to smash cars bringing more troops. Most of these vehicles explode under my loader’s might, some tumbling hilariously away thanks to the game’s slightly unrealistic physics.
When the church’s perimeter is secured, it becomes the gang’s new base of operations. It’s here that I gain access to something called the Criminal Empire table. Sitting on it is a map of Santa Ileso. Scattered across it are well over a dozen vacant lots. I have the choice to construct a building on any of these lots. I select a spot just off Route 66 and can construct one of three structures here for free.
The first choice is a Chalupacabra stand, which opens up an activity to find and steal drug trucks scattered across the city. The second choice is a Bright Future building, allowing me to cheat corporations by dumping their toxic waste illegally. The third option, which I select, is the Shady Oaks Medical Clinic building, giving me a chance to compete in the Insurance Fraud activity. The Criminal Empire component offers players customization over the open world and ensures new activities are hitting periodically. However, not all buildings are free to build, so you will have to earn cash through various means as the game progresses.
One unconventional way to gain money is finding glowing dumpsters. Although loaded with trash, the dumpsters are Saints Row’s treasure chests. Dive into one, and you may find a stash of cash, a rare weapon, new clothing, or even a collectible that you can display within the church. You can put statues on pedestals, knickknacks on shelves, and artwork on the walls. You have a big hand in personalizing the look of your home, making the hunt worth the effort. You can also find additional emotes in the dumpsters. You can have two at any time. In my play session, one animation looked exactly like “praise the sun” but is slightly different since it ends in dab. The second emote makes my character repeatedly punch himself in the face. You can use these emotes whenever you want, even when conversing with NPCs.
By the time I finished playing, I was a bit overwhelmed by the vast amount of side content I unlocked. On top of the activities and missions I walked through, I also had the chance to dive into my phone to enter separate Wanted and Threats lists to hunt down specific targets. The latter gave me a boost in venture income. The Wanted targets bring story moments, as do your teammates, which unfold through companion missions.
Saints Row looks like a meaty open-world experience, delivering plenty of variety and enjoyment at almost every turn. The art direction for the world is fantastic, but the details for a new-gen game are lacking, making it look more like a last-gen sequel to Saints Row 3 than a true showpiece for your PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, or PC. That’s okay, however. In a market that doesn’t offer many games like this anymore, a new Saints Row that plays like the best entry in the series is a damn good thing to see. I left Volition eager to get my hands on more, and I thankfully don’t have long to wait, as the game releases on August 23.