GameCentral gets to play the opening hours, and speak to the principal designer, of the controversial new Saints Row reboot.
It’s seven years since the last Saints Row game was released and it’s hard to say how much the world has missed it. Previous games have been very successful but 2017 spin-off Agents Of Mayhem was a dud, both critically and commercially, and so the upcoming reboot is vitally important to developer Volition and the future of the franchise.
Things have not been off to a great start, with fans upset that the new game does not feature any of the characters from the previous titles. There’s also been differing responses to its tone and art style, which has been described as both too realistic and too cartoony.
We recently got to play the first few hours of a near finished version of the game, and it’s not hard to understand some of the concerns about the new characters. The gameplay is certainly what you’d expect of a modern Saints Row game, but the question is whether that’s enough now, given how open world games have evolved in its absence.
The new Saints Row is based around the creation of a new criminal gang, with you playing as an entirely customisable character referred to only as The Boss, who conspires with three roommates who represent the existing three gangs in the city of Santo Ileso. The game starts off with you beginning a new job at a private military company called Marshall, which acts as the most high-tech of the three initial gangs.
This works as a tutorial for the third person combat, which on paper is fairly standard but in practice a lot more fluid and enjoyable than equivalent systems in Grand Theft Auto. There’s no cover system though, which is slightly surprising (although you are encouraged to duck behind objects) and the health recovery system is a slightly confusing mix of automatically healing when not in combat and using an instakill move, which recharges on a timer, to get an immediate boost.
The problem for Saints Row is that while having competent combat was a major selling point when the game’s main rival was Grand Theft Auto 4, the competition is now much more varied and while games like Watch Dogs, Days Gone, and The Division have their own issues combat and movement generally isn’t one of them.
That means that, more than ever, the key distinguishing features for Saints Row is its lack of realism and rampant absurdity. This reboot is meant to be more serious than the last few games (just look at how many times the word ‘grounded’ is used in the interview, with principle designer Damien Allen, below) and yet the opening few minutes include shooting scores of idiot enemies that stand around next to barrels with the word ‘TNT’ written on them, as you fire at them from the back of a hovering vehicle that looks more like an alien spacecraft than anything that exists in the real world.
More serious story elements are promised for later in the game but the opening, and everything else we saw, is nothing but jokes, most of which fail to land. We thought at first that the game might be going for a RoboCop style satire but later on the game just devolves into mindless quippery, that’s much more reminiscent of Borderlands. Nothing anyone says is ever funny or clever and the dialogue gives the impression of being scripted by people that are far older than the characters they’re writing for.
Comedy is subjective but the one element that we really objected to is the ghoulish way in which the main characters are portrayed. It’s not entirely clear how young they’re meant to be, but they barely look to be out of their teens. And yet the way they casually discuss murdering people and running their criminal business makes them come across as more disturbingly psychopathic than anything in GTA.
The dialogue is generally poor (‘Do you think this is a game?’ is one of the most memorable early lines, for all the wrong reasons) but the writers and performers were presumably aiming for a sassy teen action comedy. We have a horrible suspicion that someone might have pitched it as a cross between Deadpool and The Godfather but that’s absolutely not how it comes across, and the complete lack of moral direction is genuinely disturbing.
In terms of the gameplay though it’s… fine. It does all feel rather old-fashioned, but there’s little to pick holes with in terms of the car controls and gunplay. There is a certain weightlessness to the physics though and when an early cut scene has a car jumping through the air to land on the front of a billboard, so that it falls down and kills some enemies, it’s very hard to understand where the talk of being grounded is coming from.
Santo Ileso also seems a disappointingly bland and empty setting, but while it may get more interesting as you open up more areas, what we saw looked and felt more like Violation’s Red Faction games, which are set on Mars, than Saints Row.
The pop culture references, for which the series is also famous, come thick and fast from the very beginning and the first few story missions involve some very obvious steals from Mad Max and Fast & Furious. There is a clear effort to avoid the ‘go somewhere and kill someone’ mission structure of GTA but an escort mission in a museum (which seems to involve some kind of magical ‘codex’) is very by-the-numbers, and when you start escorting a hovering display case that moves around like a Dalek grounded is the very last word that comes to mind.
Saints Row may well end up being a fun, open world romp. There’s a lot of unlockable skills, buffs, and weapon modifications that we only just started to get into, so hopefully it will get more mechanically interesting as it goes on. The initial impressions are not great though, with a very unappealing main cast and gameplay that now looks and feels a generation or two out of date.
Formats: PC (previewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: 23rd August 2022
GC: I think the first question that comes to mind here is why has it been so long since the last Saints Row? It’s unusual for a popular franchise to be left dormant this long.
DA: You know, we’ve been working on this game for quite some time. Games in the modern era definitely require a lot more scope and fidelity in creation. And this game has been a labour of love for quite some time now. We did take a break in-between Saints Row 4 and Gat Out Of Hell and this game. And now, once we started working on it, in full, it has been a growing process of understanding what this game is, where it is and what we want it to be.
GC: Are you officially using the term reboot or is that something you’re trying to avoid?
DA: I don’t know that we’re trying to avoid or anything. This is a new version of the Saints. The story we told in Saints Row 1 through 4 and Gat Out Of Hell is done. Those characters, they have told their story. And so these Saints, the city of Santo Ileso, the boss and their friends, they have their own story to tell and they’re not restricted or beholden to anything that happened in the other games.
GC: What’s the specific reason for this not being Saints Row 5? Is it primarily because of the new story, the gameplay, or because you wanted to change the tone?
DA: I don’t think there was a primary reason. I think it was a combination of all of those. The story told in 4 and Gat Out Of Hell was very definitive and very large in scope, with Zinyak and this alien invasion, Gat and Kinzie going to Hell… there was a lot that was told there. And so as we discussed what we wanted this next game to be, we wanted to say like, ‘Okay, what is the story we wanna tell?’ And the more we explored that, the more we realised this game, we want to be able to have this group of Saints have their own story and not have to worry about the other layers of possibilities that would come into play there.
It also allowed us to say, ‘What is the core idea of a Saints Row game? What is this idea of this group of people working together to create a criminal empire?’ And it also allowed us to really sort of look at what tone do we want? You look at Saints Row 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, and Gat Out Of Hell and they each sort of have their own tone and their own feel. And we didn’t want to necessarily say, ‘Okay, this sits in-between these two games or is more of a Saint Row 3 or whatnot.’ It’s more of, ‘We’re gonna take the aspects that we felt worked well in the previous entries in the franchise and put them in where appropriate.
We have… the story itself can be very serious. It’s a very down to earth story, in the sense that these are people that are struggling and have their own reasons for creating the Saints. But we definitely allow the player to express themselves and we allow for moments of levity all throughout. We want there to be humour and fun and that sort of wacky feel where appropriate.
Part of that is the player themselves, in how they choose to engage in the content, what they express themselves as, what they look like, how they play. And part of that is in… of course we’re gonna have those moments of just crazy and over-the-top action. I mean, it has to feel like a Saints Row game, but also we don’t want it to be chasing after… how do you one up yourself when you have had an alien invasion and have gone to Hell?
GC: Perhaps just because it was a fake ad, but that opening level reminded me a bit of RoboCop, in terms of how it dealt with commercialism and corporations. Was that a conscious choice, because that’s a bit more of a serious satire than you’d have found in previous Saints Row games.
DA: I don’t know that it was necessarily anything to do with like RoboCop and that type of satire but if you look… Marshall, who that video is about, that fits their personality as an enemy group. The Panteros, The Idols, they each have their own goal and desire and tone and sense. So there’s opportunities to have different macro and micro stories told throughout the entirety of the game.
As you engage in criminal enterprises, as you choose to build different buildings and engage in the activities there, each one of those also has their own bit of story and tone and feel. But overall, I would say we’re definitely more grounded than some of the later entries in the franchise. But I don’t know that there was any specific goal to have it be satirical specifically.
GC: I don’t think this is unusual, but I’ve basically always thought of Saints Row as GTA but with decent combat.
GC: But there’s also the sense that you’re not bound to the laws of physics and reality and that if it seems like fun you’ll just put it in the game, and I appreciate that. But in this game, even after having played it, I’m not sure where the lines are. That first level, you’re basically holding onto the back of a spaceship and that makes it hard to gauge what is and isn’t going to be deemed too unrealistic.
DA: So, during the creative process we come up with all kinds of crazy ideas and over-the-top ideas. And we wanted this one to feel more grounded. So the vehicle you’re flying on, the VTOL, is a more tech approach, but it is a somewhat grounded vehicle. Marshall is the tech group in the game. And so they’re gonna have access to somewhat fantastical, but hopefully a little bit grounded, technology, that the player will have access to as they go throughout the game.
Panteros, they’re much more… they’re, muscley, they’re much more into cars and lifting weights, and the Idols are a little more chaotic. We want fun to be at the forefront, but we also don’t want it to just say, ‘Oh, we can just wave our hands and because it’s Saints Row, yes, you can do that. Yes, you can fly, you can do whatever.’
Everything, as we were building things like different aspects of traversal or you’re driving as a vehicle and being able to sideswipe or different parts of that, we wanted to say, ‘Okay, well what’s fun? And realistically, can you have your car jut to the side in an instant like that?’ Not quite in the way that we allow the player to do, under the hood. But it feels grounded. It feels like the person just yanking the steering wheel to the side and causing the car to go careening off.
We, wherever possible, give the player a feeling of power and control, even if physics may not agree with them. But we were not looking for the level of superpowers and overall empowerment that we had in SR4.
GC: It definitely seems like you’re using Hollywood physics, and towards the Michael Bay end of the scale too.
DA: Michael Bay is not a bad idea but, like everything, you need to have your peaks and valleys, if everything is a Michael Bay explosion and everything is a Michael Bay moment, then they don’t feel like that anymore. So we want to have those grounded shootouts where you just have a pistol and the other person just has a shotgun, and it feels more tonally visceral and grounded.
But then you’re also engaging someone while you are car surfing on the top of a vehicle, shooting at them with a rocket launcher and their cars are exploding all around. So we have that range, and the car is going around corners and going off ramps. If you try to do that in real-life… no, it’s not possible but it feels like it fits for the game and the world that we have created.
GC: I think its ameliorated since, but the initial reaction from fans towards the game was not positive. Do you feel you fully understand their concerns and have done enough to prove they shouldn’t be worried?
DA: While I can’t speak to the fans in specific, ’cause I think each person has their own reasons for what they like and they dislike, I do know that as we were building this we really wanted to make a game that we loved as developers. As we saw reaction, as we saw fans expressing their thoughts, whether positive or negative, we were excited to be able to share more because we understand that sometimes if you are looking at something through a tiny lens, you can’t see the scope of everything that is there.
Having played the game… I have now played the game in multiple states, many times over the years, but even recently I have actually had a chance to play the game from start to finish, and see aspects of the world that I didn’t necessarily have a hand in designing or a hand in implementing at any level, whether it’s gameplay moments or areas of the world.
And I’ve been able to enjoy, I’ve been able to fall in love with it in different ways and express myself in different ways. So it’s hard, ’cause yeah, of course there’s part of us that wants to say, ‘Oh, these are the things that you’re gonna love. These are the things you’re gonna be excited about. And we feel very passionate that the things we put in there, we are excited about.’
Now everybody has, of course, their opportunity to say yay or nay. And there are games that my friends like that I don’t like and vice versa, and that’s fine. But we have a wide variety of content. I truly feel that we have tried to be as authentic and honest to the characters, to the world, to the setting that we could be, while still feeling like a Saints Row game.
We’re not trying to be this super gritty, dark type of game. We still want to have the fun and the levity of a Saints Row game but we also… we had to make something that we felt was authentic to the developers as a whole. We had lots of discussions, where does something fit? Does something not fit? Is this what we want to do? Is this what we do not want to do? And we pushed and pulled and we looked at different aspects of it. So as we saw people expressing things, we were excited for them to see more.
GC: I must say, I do have my concerns about the new characters, as they do not seem very likeable. I don’t know what age they’re supposed to be, but they look really young and that’s quite disturbing when they’re talking about murdering people in such an off-hand manner. To me, there’s a visual and tonal disconnect there. And they all seem very smug. Smug seems like one of the key words I would use to describe the game’s tone as a whole. These are not people I would want to hang around with.
DA: Well, I mean, I think that as you are somewhat early on in the story… each player as they play through this game, and even if you look back at the previous games, different fans gravitated towards different characters. Whether it was one of the fan favourites Johnny Gat… I don’t know that I would invite him into my house or want to hang out with him necessarily either!
GC: You might want to be him though. I can imagine younger players in particular seeing him as an aspirational character, but I don’t know if that’s true of these new ones.
DA: I think every person is gonna take that and figure out who they want to be. We really wanted to allow the player to express themselves through the boss character and the characters around them – Eli, Neenah, and Kev – they are our friends and confidants and people that work with them. But we really wanted to give the player the feeling that the boss is their character, that they are empowered to express themselves whether creatively or tonally how they set their character up.
GC: Well, that did work to a degree, because one of the first things he said was for the one guy to put his shirt on, which was exactly what I was thinking.
DA: [laughs] Yeah, I think that I will say that I am very impressed by what the writers have done throughout the totality of the game and the different side content. It is a lot of fun and I do have favourite characters. I’m not gonna reveal them. I definitely want people to make their own opinions but throughout the scope of the game there are definitely a wider variety of characters that the player gets to interact with.
GC: But in terms of the tone when it comes to the gameplay, I’m still unclear just how crazy it gets. How much leeway do you give within the open world to create your own ways to play – is it going to be like Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and all the crazy ways fans found to exploit the abilities and physics?
DA: I think wherever possible, especially in the open world aspects of the game, we try and design tools for the player, like the wing-suiting, the vehicle driving, the weapons, some of the vehicle abilities. We give the player this ability and we give it a set of rules. We give it a set of things that it will respond to and things that will respond to it and say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna teach you a way, or we’re gonna encourage you, to use it in a specific way but have fun doing it a different way. We definitely, as much as possible, try and show players like, ‘Here is a way to use this thing. Here is a cool thing that we have thought of that you can do with this, but what else can you do?’
Playing in co-op, you can get a helicopter with a tether and pick up your buddy’s vehicle, whether it be a little coupe vehicle or maybe even a tank, what kind of craziness can you do with that? Like, where can you go and play throughout the city and the world with that? I guarantee there are gonna be videos that we will be watching as devs and say, ‘I never even thought of doing that!’ and we’re gonna love every second of it.
GC: OK, great, thank you. Thanks for your time.
DA: No problem.
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