I was recently given the opportunity to evade the Las Vegas heat, duck into an air-conditioned room, and play the opening hours of Saints Row, and I’ve come away from it with the greatest impression I could have as a Saints Row: The Third stan:
They’re back, babyyyyyy.
What was most remarkable to me about my time in Saints Row was how easily I slipped back into business as usual. Cruising around Santo Ileso in vehicles I dropkicked my way into felt like second nature. Taking on inane side jobs because they happen to dot the surrounding area and losing myself in one ridiculous scenario after another was just par for the course. Open world games have been an avenue for progress and advancement in tech for years, but there was a time when they were simpler chaotic romps and Saints Row feels like a bottling of that moment. So while it won’t reinvent the wheel, Saints Row has the potential to be a damn fun ride.
The biggest changes I could spot in Saints Row were on a subtler level. There’s a dedicated dodge roll button now and shooting feels heavier than before. To aid with that, there are seemingly more environmental hazards than ever and a quick press of a button will lock on to and shoot them for the player. Takedown animations have been simplified to a button prompt and a glowing enemy. You can now sideswipe other cars when driving, turning your vehicle into just as capable a weapon as your armory when you’re in a chase. The most important of these changes is that you can customize your character at any given time, so you’re never locked into being someone you don’t want to be. This evolution feels like the natural conclusion of Saints Row’s emphasis on customization, which has always been astonishingly deep compared to its contemporaries, and felt right at home. At the end of the day though, most of these are quality-of-life adaptations a decade in the making.
So what’s new then? Well, the cast, for starters. Introducing entirely new characters about five games deep into a series is quite the task but I think it was necessary. I’ve written before about how Saints Row’s tone began bordering on a bad parody of a parody by the time the series went on ice, and a retooling of its values is exactly what it needed. Neenah, Eli, Kevin, and the new Boss seem like just that. They’re friends who live, party, and go through unemployment together, as seen in one of the cheekier missions I got to play through where Neenah and I sulked in the apartment before storming a club in my underwear to save Eli and Kevin from a crossfire. They initially belong to rival gangs, but they’re also the kind of friends who call each other and give a heads up if their folks are going to jump yours, and if that isn’t friendship then tell me what is. It’s heightened nonsense, but underneath it there’s a heart and humor that’s felt absent from the series for a time.
Our new Saints also set up shop in Santo Ileso, a rendition of the American Southwest that immediately intrigued me due to how untouched the region is in games. We’ve all seen California and some of its surrounding area a dozen times, but rarely have I seen dry and flat land like Nevada and Arizona, or cities that aren’t dominated by skyscrapers and murderous traffic. It felt different and the occasional detail brought that to light. For example, Saints Row features not one but two radio stations that exclusively play Latine music and have Spanish-speaking hosts. I couldn’t help but flip through the stations in the game considering my history with Saints Row’s music catalog and broke out in a grin under my mask at the demo station after my discovery. The only way it could get better would be to throw in Bad Bunny. There are ways to make a setting feel real and there are others that give them depth, and this move definitely struck me as an ideal blend of both, making Santo Ileso that much more promising a locale to me.
The bulk of what you’ll do in Santo Ileso is a welcome return to grandiose, but grounded, form. The handful of story missions I was able to play established my character’s quick rise and fall from grace within the Marshalls. The game begins quite literally on your first day of the job, where you raid a small town in search of a cartel leader like it’s a Call of Duty mission, make it very clear to your CO that you’re a rogue element, and then embark on a ludicrous set piece where you hook yourself onto an escaping VTOL jet and gun down everyone in the surrounding valley and caves. Soon after that I was tailing a convoy through a sandstorm while hopping between vehicles and turrets, and a handful of missions later, I was attaching a winch to a stolen container and using it as a wrecking ball on the freeway. These missions were a great excuse to get a feel for some of the new gameplay mechanics, like the skills you can now unlock. Pineapple Express, a move where you shove a bomb down an enemy’s pants and throw them, is sure to become a favorite, especially when it comes to clearing out the new specialized enemies, who often have a larger lifebar and abilities that keep you in check.
Side hustles, which are optional jobs you can take on, offer narrower experiences that were still as chaotic, even if some struck me as tamer than others. For example, Riding Shotgun, where you play gunner to a councilman’s wife with a penchant for mayhem, welcomed me to use a new feature in the game where you can mount a car’s roof and shoot around you. While I bombed in practice (I died a lot to the cops, whose AI was a notch or six too aggressive), it was a fun distraction, which is largely what Saints Row’s side activities have always been. Another where I used a wingsuit to go rooftop to rooftop taking out satellite dishes fell a bit flat, though I’m sure later versions of the mission will ratchet things up. @tcha, a side hustle where you review bomb local stores or restaurants and have to survive waves of upset foes based on how poorly you scored them, was funnier in premise than execution but still a good time. While I couldn’t find it, I’m buoyed by the fact that Insurance Fraud, my favorite of these side jobs, is in the game, and there are even more that we’ll just have to see when it releases.
Unfortunately, I ran out of time shortly after seizing the church that becomes the new Saints HQ from a shitty realtor, meaning I couldn’t touch on the criminal ventures, which are new to the series. They allow players to set up criminal businesses in districts which not only nets you influence in Santo Ileso but unlocks side hustles in the area. If you want to see everything the game offers, you’ll definitely have to invest in it.
As far as Saints Row is concerned, what you see is what you’re getting. If you want an open world that doesn’t take itself seriously, has room for light-hearted characters, and lets you run rampant clearing silly objectives, this is that game. It’s certainly what I’m looking for these days and with that in mind, I’m allowing myself to be excited that this series is coming back.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.