“Saints Row” began life in 2006 as a series about a small-time Michigan gang that ends up taking over the fictional city of Stilwater. “Saints Row 2” in 2008 experienced even greater success critically and commercially. The cartoonish absurdity of “Saints Row: The Third” in 2011 was an attempt to distinguish itself from the Grand Theft Auto series, which had become more focused on depicting serious crime drama. In 2013′s “Saints Row IV,” the gang members become superheroes in a virtual alien world. Eventually, players become the galaxy’s rulers, even conquering hell itself.
It’s fair to say that developer Deep Silver Volition had written the series into a corner.
“It’s hard not to be a more grounded game than ‘Saints Row IV,’ ” said Jim Boone, chief creative officer at Deep Silver Volition. “There truly isn’t anywhere to go past that. Even though we loved the mechanics with all the superpowers, there isn’t a whole lot of runway to go past that. It’s why it was a pretty easy decision to go back to our roots and do something that was more contemporary.”
In the new “Saints Row,” players will create their gang “boss” character and work alongside three friends: Eli, a Black entrepreneur; Neenah, a Latina car lover and the gang’s driver; and Kevin, an Asian DJ and resident thrill seeker.
The new setting of Santo Ileso appears to be a large, open space with distinct cities, not unlike the famously large map of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” Fighting for gang territories makes a return, an innovative feature that went missing after series favorite “Saints Row 2.” Santo Ileso will have nine unique districts, each one having its own theme and culture. The El Dorado district appears to mimic Las Vegas, while Monte Visto looks a lot like the gated communities in the Palm Springs area of California.
Players will be able to buy real estate properties and use them for various criminal enterprises. One such example includes starting a drug-running business using fast-food meat trucks as cover, like Gus Fring’s chicken operation from the TV show “Breaking Bad.”
“These buildings come with player choice, where and which structures you opt for will impact the world,” said James Hague, design director. “Will you build your own fast-food drug-running ring? How about a protection racket? Auto theft? Arms dealership?”
It sounds like the old characters, including fan favorite Johnny Gat, won’t be returning to the stage. The developers said hidden Easter eggs and references will be strewn about, but were adamant that this is a new story focusing on new relationships and characters.
“It’s new characters, new people with new quirks,” said Jeremy Bernstein, lead narrative designer of missions. “They’ll have new idiosyncrasies that you’ll come to love just as much as the old ones.”
The gameplay mechanics appear to be an evolution of the third and fourth entries: solid third-person shooting foundations and hand-to-hand action seamlessly mixed in. Some of the later, more outlandish side missions like insurance fraud will also return.
“Saints Row” will be cross generation, meaning it will launch on the new PlayStation and Xbox machines as well as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It also supports cooperative play, and the developers say the entire storyline will be playable with friends.
Bernstein also said that there are no more additional named side characters within the Saints Row gang that factor into the storyline, but you will have gang members to manage and roll with across the map.
“For the first time in the ‘Saints Row’ series, players will build their game from scratch and get to witness the birth of the Saints,” Boone said. “The new location is an exciting departure for us. It’s build with exploration in mind and it is the most diverse sandbox we’ve created yet.”