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Saints Row preview: Big, dumb, and loads of fun

Saints Row tank explosion
(Image credit: Deep Silver)

Saints Row is a series synonymous with over-the-top chaos, crude humor, and brilliantly absurd sandbox gameplay, even if some initial criticisms labeled the franchise as a mere Grand Theft Auto clone. This open-world action franchise feverishly battled to establish its unique identity over subsequent games, with Saints Row: The Third generally considered the highlight of the tetralogy.

It's been nearly a decade since the last Saints Row release, leaving a noticeable hole in the open-world genre that other outrageous games like Just Cause haven't been able to fill. Following the flashy reveal for a Saints Row reboot last year, some fans were wary of its stylistic direction and a possible shift in tone. Despite these concerns, the team at Volition reassured players this franchise refresh would reinvent and reestablish the core tenets of the franchise.

At a recent preview event hosted in the sweltering heat of iconic Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to spend over four hours playing Saints Row. Attendees could craft their own Boss character and experience a massive segment of the full game. As I found, Saints Row is shaping up to be a powerful return to form for the franchise.

I'm a sucker for big, dump co-op shenanigans and this reboot absolutely delivers in that department. From wingsuit-kicking innocent bystanders into orbit or praising the sun as my custom, disgusting Thanos character, it was impossible not to laugh at the hysteria of it all. 

Customizable character chaos

(Image credit: Deep Silver)

Upon starting a new game, players are introduced to the debauchery and illicit activities of Saints Row with an in-engine cutscene. This location (that we can't disclose due to embargo restrictions) is brimming with booze, drugs, and excessive lifestyles. It sets the stage for your time in Santo Ileso, the fictional city where the game takes place. A series of events and introductions eventually culminate in the grand reveal of your fully tailor-made playable character, which is where the fun begins.

Saints Row games are known for their robust and absurd character customization options, and the reboot's version is more unbelievable than ever. I spent a solid 15-20 minutes trying to make my character look like Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I assumed my meme-fueled efforts would be fruitless, but I was shocked by how detailed I could make my custom character. Sure, I didn't quite look like Josh Brolin's interpretation of the villain, but I still had glossy purple flesh, rough deep skin, and a gargantuan chin. 

And for you deviants curious to know the lengths at which players can curate their unmentionables, you'll be happy to hear that Saints Row offers robust lude customization.

If recreating timeless Marvel figures isn't your endgame, hundreds of other bonkers creation tools are at your disposal. Want to be a full-grown human with a literal baby head and candy corn for teeth? Go for it. Do you prefer to stalk the streets of Santo Ileso as Shrek's long-lost vampire-fanged cousin? Get weird! However you decide to build your Boss, it's consistently hilarious witnessing your freakish creation participate in dramatic, scripted cutscene moments.

(Image credit: Deep Silver)

And for you deviants curious about how much players can curate their unmentionables, you'll be happy to hear that Saints Row offers robust lewd customization. In addition to inflating your boobs, bulge, or both, you'll get access to a nipple toggle and nipple size/style options. In place of the default blurred bricks, players are empowered to use eggplants, donuts, and dozens of other nonsensical emojis to cover their most private areas. If you want a more wholesome crime-laden adventure, you can also keep your underwear on and turn your nipples off. 

Customization doesn't end with your character, either. Vehicles have always been a quintessential component of the Saints Row blueprint, and that's reemphasized in the reboot. After completing odd jobs to earn some quick cash, I headed to my local mechanic to trick out my skeezy, windowless van. This plain black murder box went from eyesore to total score in a few minutes. I cruised the streets in style with a hand-painted psychedelic mural and neon pink underglow. If you're going to be running these streets as a renowned crime boss, you have to do it in style. 

Saints Row is a frantic physics playground 

(Image credit: Deep Silver)

I distinctly remember playing the original Saints Row on Xbox 360. As a high-profile near-launch title for the "next generation of gaming," I rented it from my local Hollywood Video on a whim. Like many others around this time, I went in expecting an off-brand variant of Grand Theft Auto. After about 30 minutes of playing, that mentality dissolved, and I quickly became enamored by the splendid nonsense of this special open-world action game, which embraced and rewarded the obnoxious antics we all gravitated towards in Grand Theft Auto.   

I also owe much of my appreciation of ragdoll physics to the Saints Row franchise. Since the debut entry, exaggerated physics have been a notable draw for fans of Saints Row's distinctive brand of anarchy. Ludicrous minigames like Insurance Fraud, which tasked the player with diving into oncoming traffic to rack up as much medical debt as possible, proudly honored the importance of limp flailing limbs in video games. All of this maniacal methodology is no different in the upcoming reboot

(Image credit: Deep Silver)

From the moment the first gameplay segment begins, it's apparent Volition is proud of its new custom physics engine. Your crafted character, in my case Thanos, leads an assault with a private military spec-ops team. Within 30 seconds, you're sending bodies flying by shooting strategically placed explosive canisters. The impact of these blasts is enormous, demonstrated by the sheer distance our unfortunate antagonists are hurled through the air. Every death results in glorious, grind-inducing ragdoll physics, and depending on how you deliver the final blow, their limp corpses will respond hilariously. 

Plowing through city streets in a lifted pickup truck felt like an avalanche of unstoppable force.

After completing the introductory tutorial mission, players are swiftly granted free access to explore the beautiful sights of Santo Ileso. This fictional desert-based city amalgamates several legendary locations from the American Southwest. This picturesque location makes for a perfect playground of destruction with splashes of Las Vegas, Southern California, and New Mexico. The distinctive palm trees, cacti, taco trucks, music festival tents, and other biome-appropriate obstacles are yours to annihilate unabashedly.  

(Image credit: Deep Silver)

No matter where I was on the map or what items surrounded me, nothing (outside significant buildings or landmarks) was indestructible. Plowing through city streets in a lifted pickup truck felt like an avalanche of unstoppable force. Any object or pedestrian in my path cascaded over the hood of my vehicle. If an unsuspecting motorist crossed the intersection while I had the pedal to the floor, we'd collide in a spectacular explosion that would send the charred remains soaring hundreds of feet.   

As a self-proclaimed physics fiend, the team's emphasis on environmental reactions and eye-catching collisions provides outstanding moment-to-moment gameplay. Every few minutes, I would uncover a new subtle detail that completely reinvigorated my sense of exploration and wonder. Seemingly small features like fire hydrants creating a stream of water powerful enough to launch players or even cars in the air when destroyed made such a meaningful difference. Even following an extended four-hour play session, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of the physics possibilities in Santa Ileso.

There's no shortage of carnage prospects for solo players, but you can easily amplify the devastation in two-player co-op. Our preview session only had a small number of co-op stations, so I couldn't go hands-on with the multiplayer. However, I did have the opportunity to see and hear the hilarity. One choice moment featured a partner player Chris Farley-emoting on the hood of a sports car while their driver blasted through a row of porta potties — sludgy human waste discharged from the debris in a viscous sewage shower. It's safe to say I can't wait to experience this sandbox with a pal. 

A new era of Saints Row 

(Image credit: Deep Silver)

The Saints Row announcement trailer managed to ruffle some long-time fans' feathers. Skeptics were uninterested in the brighter, hipper, and sillier aesthetic presented in the three minutes of cinematic footage. I thought the fire-filled reveal did a decent enough job setting the over-the-top tone the series is known for. However, a contingent of the potential audience seemed disappointed in the franchise's departure from gangster-focused storytelling.  

While the over-arching narrative has never been the primary reason I play Saints Row, I appreciate how fans have connected with the series over the years in different ways. In my preview session, I played a handful of main story missions and got a decent taste of what to expect from the new game's tone. I left impressed by the delicate balancing act of drama and asininity this reboot attempts to walk. It's for players like myself who want idiotic, Fast and Furious-inspired moments of unfiltered madness and for folks who desire the compelling origin story of a group of unlikely outsiders constructing their criminal empire.

(Image credit: Deep Silver)

As an avid supporter of ragdoll physics, vehicular carnage, and bananas character customization, I adored my time with this promising reboot.

In typical Saints Row fashion, everyone is the butt of a joke. From the EDM-obsessed gang, called Idols, who don Deadmau5-era LED headwear, to the military-grade marriage between capitalistic super corporations and weapons manufacturers, nobody is excluded from a good ribbing. Even our primary cast of characters pokes fun at the hypothetical intersection of stereotypical gang culture and the modern millennial desires for amenities like luxury waffle makers. I thoroughly enjoyed how storytelling was presented in Saints Row because I was never forced to take it seriously.   

If you're expecting the greatest crime drama of our generation, this isn't going to be it. However, if you're looking for an outrageous sandbox for you and a friend to wreak joyous havoc in, there's tremendous potential with Saints Row. 

As an avid supporter of ragdoll physics, vehicular carnage, and bananas character customization, I adored my time with this promising reboot. It's too early to say whether or not this entry will reach the beloved heights of Saints Row: The Third or stand as one of the best PC games of the year, but you can Dark Souls dab as Thanos after kicking someone to death in a wingsuit. That has to count for something.

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Saints Row

After almost 10 years, Saints Row is back with something to prove. This upcoming reboot aims to reestablish the chaotic formula fans know and love.

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Miles Dompier is a Freelance Video Producer for Windows Central, focusing on video content for Windows Central Gaming. In addition to writing or producing news, reviews, and gaming guides, Miles delivers fun, community-focused videos for the Windows Central Gaming YouTube channel. Miles also hosts Xbox Chaturdays every Saturday, which serves as the Windows Central Gaming weekly podcast.