Saints Row Hands On – Taking the series back to the streets

Not-so-undercover Boss.
Saints Row Idols Gang Header

Did the Saints Row franchise really happen the way it did? I’ll be honest, it kind of sounds like a bit of a fever dream at this point, as the Saints charted their course across fictional US cities, ascended to the highest office in government, battled aliens and tramped their way out of Hell. It’s the kind of tale that you might expect to be waved away as the protagonist wakes up in the shower.

That’s not how this Saints Row reboot starts, but honestly, it could have done. Instead, it’s a full-on reimagining of what the Saints are, where they are, and how they rise to power. But first things first, you have to decide who you are.

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The character creator in Saints Row is impressively broad, feeling like you can literally create any kind of person that you might conceivably want to embody – yes, you can even play as a boring white guy, if you want. There’s a good selection of presets to pick from, including the Boss that has led all of the marketing campaigns thus far, and for those without a real idea of what they want to look like in-game, they provide a good jumping-off point.

Body shape is determined by a triangle slider that can push you from skinny and lithe, to muscly, or something more like Spider-Man nemesis Kingpin. But then you can determine if you’re well-defined, veiny, add plentiful tattoos, tons of different hairstyles, scars, make-up (which can be asymmetrical), and so much more. Get past the game’s intro and all of this can be changed up on the fly with an in-game smartphone app.

Saints Row Customisation

Your Boss decided, and you’re thrown into the meatgrinder. You see, the Saints don’t even exist yet when the game starts. Instead, you’re just a (surprisingly adept and survivable) new recruit in the PMC of Marshall Defense Industries. Your best friends? Well, they’re relatively low level at Marshall’s rival organisations within the city of Santo Ileso – Los Panteros and the anarchist Idols. Between your measly gangster pay packets, it’s a struggle to make rent, so you take on a daft daylight robbery on a loan shark, the ensuing chase by the cops leading you through many of the city’s outskirts as you try to make your getaway.

From all the marketing build-up, you might have had the impression that this would lead directly into one of you having the bright idea that strike out for yourselves, but that actually comes a good two to three hours into the game. Each one of these founding members has to reach the place, the personal peril to realise that their friendship and bond is stronger, that they have the skills and ability to set up their own gang. Getting there runs you through a bunch of fun scenarios that really mix things up with the different gangs interacting and fighting. At times, all three are battling away and you’re caught right in the middle.

Saints Row Surrounded by Marshall

Saints Row doesn’t really revolutionise its third-person shooting, but then it doesn’t need to. At this early point of the game, you’re generally making do with standard assault rifles, pistols and the like, with the occasional flashes of the different and more distinct. The variety in the moment-to-moment comes from the enemies you’re facing – Los Panteros are more about bruising melee as they rush towards you, backed up with bombastic customised vehicles, the often shirtless Idols come in numbers, but are backed by special units that deflect incoming fire with spinning glow sticks, while Marshall rocks up with high-end military tech.

You need to get stuck in, though. You can regain chunks of your health by performing finishing moves on enemies, and there’s also special abilities that you’ll have a lot of fun using on all kinds of enemies. The first you’ll unlock as you level up is the Pineapple Express, a move that has you grab an enemy, shove a grenade up their bum, and then throw them at your enemies. It’s the daft kind of Saints Row action that you really expect to see.

You also get some of that through the side hustles and criminal enterprises you need to complete in order to seize control of different parts of the world. Some will have you post bad business reviews online and then deal with waves of gangsters angry at you for damaging their business rep, others have you riding shotgun for someone else wanting to run a hit. That brings you to one of the new gameplay twists – being able to ride on top of a vehicle so you can use bigger and better guns to fire back. Then there’s the new car ramming, which violently swerves into other cars and deals damage the faster you’re going. Oh, and one mission had me grab a shipping container and drag it around the world, swinging it back and forth to thwack into chasing enemies.

Saints Row Helicopter Fight

Of course, this is nothing to some of the way, way over the top set pieces that happen through the story missions. The overarching story beats might feel pretty tame in comparison to Saints Row 4, but the scripted moments are right up there with some of the craziest stuff that the series has ever featured.

After the first couple hours, and having reached the point where you’re founded the Saints and set up their headquarters in a rundown church, there’s a great sense for how this reimagining is handling the series’ legacy for wild excess and needing a fresh start that’s more grounded. This is a new take on the Saints Row origin story that feels more in keeping with the 2020s, but it’s not lost its edge and I can’t wait to see where it goes through the rest of their rise to power.

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