Saints Row Hands-off Preview Impressions: Fun, Dated and Too Late?

An extended hands-off preview for the Saints Row reboot shows off old-school fun in a crazy sandbox.

After a lukewarm announcement followed by a myriad of defences by its most passionate fans, Saints Row is coming back this year. The iconic franchise is being rebooted for both the new and the last generation of consoles. Now just three months away from release, I had the chance to gaze upon an extended gameplay preview explaining the nuances of the new Saints Row experience, and despite still being sceptical of the whole premise, I think it’s going to be a fun time.

Let’s start off with one of the best things about the new game — customisation. You can change anything about your character, at any time. And the mad developers at Volition really mean anything, at anytime. From body types to genital proportions (hello Cyberpunk!), to tattoos and eye colour, you change nearly any aspect of your “boss” and save them as presets. That way, you can swap between your customised characters from the in-game menu any time you wish.

This flexibility also flows into other aspects of the game, including vehicles and weapons. Saints Row will give you the option to change every little detail to your satisfaction, across 80 different vehicles, so your experience can stay as unique as possible throughout the course of the 25-mission long campaign. Of course, this being Saints Row means that some wacky elements are also present, such as an unlockable ejector seat along with a wingsuit for that Just Cause-inspired mayhem.

Speaking of vehicles, we got to see a hefty chunk of vehicular combats and it looks…fine. It can get pretty intense in the middle of chases with multiple police cars behind you, and you can ram into them for some NFS: Most Wanted-looking destruction. But the default camera angle for driving sections makes the action feel extremely distant, which doesn’t give a great impression of those sequences. It also doesn’t help that the gameplay preview included some pretty heavy pop-in that doesn’t look good for a game coming out on the PS5 and Xbox Series X. Granted it’s a cross-gen game, meaning its design limitations can be blamed on the lower spec machines of yesteryear, but usually showcases like these include gameplay from a high-end PC or console, so, for the time being, I expect this is what gameplay on a PS5/Xbox Series X will look like.

At the heart of all of this is your HQ, located inside a church which, you guessed it, can be customised heavily. The game includes over 100 collectables (their words, not mine) that you can decorate the HQ with, along with venues for refilling ammunition, customising your crew and tuning up weapons. The church also includes the war table, which is the game’s menu system for selecting and executing missions across the map of Santo Ileso. Players will be able to manage their ‘criminal empire’, which sounds similar to GTA Online’s narrative progression system, but of course, all of it is basically fancy phrasing for starting missions and side-missions. I’m not sure how much the game’s systems will respond to the different types of missions you take, such as starting a heist or robbing a bank, or starting a fight with rival factions, so we’ll have to wait and see what the final game has to offer on that front.

Like previous games, the new Saints Row also includes 2-player co-op and it looks pretty seamless from the gameplay preview. Players can drop-in mid-action without much fuss in the way of server invitations, or at least that’s what it looks like in the slice of gameplay I saw. Co-op works in both open-world free-roam as well as during missions, of which there are 25 excluding the main missions. Of course, there are more missions by way of side objectives that will potentially make up the remainder of the to-be-expected bloat that stems from open-world design at this point, but so far the sandbox created by Volition looks pretty fun.

But what’s a sandbox without cool weapons, right? Saints Row includes a large arsenal of expectedly goofy tools, such as piñata launchers and blacklight bombs, that work exactly as they sound. When it comes to straight-shooting though I think it could use some more tuning, as most of the shootouts in the gameplay looked fairly bullet-spongy. It becomes quite tiring when you empty an entire magazine on just one normal looking dude, but that’s where the different enemy types come in. There are of course the usual grunts, and then there are the heavies, who move slow but hit hard. Switching between different weapons will be key, but then again the rest of the gameplay makes it clear that making the player feel like the king (or queen) of their world is the goal, so combat may just end up being a means to an end. Melee combat also looks a little janky but the perk system with different abilities should make up for it if the controls are responsive enough.

The rewards for your criminal activities in Santo Ileso look standard, including cash, XP, and skill trees, along with unlockable and purchasable perks. All of this is swappable with the smartphone, which also includes a handy ‘DLC’ section so it looks like Volition is planning to support the game fairly after its release.

The preview did include a couple of story missions that I can only describe as something out of the Watch Dogs sequels but without the hacking. The tone is pretty light, and the comedic writing feels like a juvenile version of GTA’s satire. Ultimately, while it does look like I’ll have fun goofing around this open world, the last-gen inspired design decisions, gameplay and potentially annoying characters may stop my enjoyment. We’ll have to wait and see.

Saints Row releases on August 23, 2022, on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S consoles and PC.

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