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Preview: How Volition created a Saints Row for the side-hustle generation

When all you have is a sledgehammer, everything looks like a sledgenail.
Enlarge / When all you have is a sledgehammer, everything looks like a sledgenail.

In the late aughts and early 2010s, the Saints Row series offered gamers an even more over-the-top take on the open-world third-person action-adventure genre dominated by Grand Theft Auto. This zany approach reached its apex with 2013’s Saints Row IV, in which the player took the role of the president of the United States (who also happened to be a superhero).

Aside from a standalone expansion released in 2015, the Saints have been quiet for nearly a decade since then. But that’s about to change with a “reimagined” Saints Row due out in August.

And a lot can change in a decade, as the developers at Volition are well aware—parent company THQ declared bankruptcy during the development of Saints Row IV, and Volition was acquired by Deep Silver in 2013. Despite the tumultuous events of the last few years, though, Saints Row remains a core part of Volition’s DNA, according to Creative Director Brian Traficante. “Saints Row has been such a major contributor to Volition,” he told me during an interview at a Las Vegas preview event last week.

The debaucherous desert city was the perfect setting for a Saints Row preview event, since the new game takes place in a fictionalized version of Vegas called Saint Ileso. Traficante said that “coming back to Saints Row, after almost 10 years, was fantastic… We’re excited to come home.”

A more grounded Saints Row?

At the preview event, I played through the first 3.5 hours of Saints Row, which could be considered a reboot or re-imagining of the series. “We did lots of exploration—do we want to multiverse, do we want to sequel it?” Traficante explained. “What felt best for us was the opportunity to take this fresh approach to the IP.”

What surprised me most about the new Saints Row was its more grounded approach. Rather than issuing executive orders, lounging about in a penthouse, or flying high above the city skyline, the protagonist in the new Saints Row—known only as “the Boss”—is just a regular, broke 20-something sharing a dingy apartment with three other people. The Boss takes a job with a local mercenary-for-hire group to make ends meet, and the roommates do odd jobs for the local gangs. Still, the group often comes up short when the rent is due.

Sorry to do this, but I gotta make rent. You know how it is...
Enlarge / Sorry to do this, but I gotta make rent. You know how it is…

This struggle should feel surprisingly familiar to many millennials and zoomers who’ve spent their post-college years trying to build careers in a time of massive inflation, stagnant wages, and economic recessions. Monetizing hobbies and building side hustles to pay off college loans is oddly relatable, especially for an infamously “exaggerated” series like Saints Row (to use Traficante’s term).

“It became a process of understanding… when to do something absurd, silly, juvenile, crude, whatever it is, but then how to recenter back into this believable state of the world.” What Traficante calls the game’s “wonderful contrast” is front and center when you’re stealing cars and driving them recklessly through the desert while shooting anyone who gets in your way. While some of us might take on extra hours at work or sell belongings on eBay to get rent money, the Boss and their friends casually knock over a predatory payday loan joint. Hey, it’s more ethical than robbing innocent people, right?

Express yourself

Before any of that happens, though, you’ll need to create your Boss from scratch. Saints Row has one of the most comprehensive character creators I’ve ever seen, going far beyond the typical options that many games treat as the default (you can even try it out as a free demo before the game’s release).

You do you.

Yes, you can change the standard attributes like height, build, skin tone, hair color, and facial features, but there’s so much more to customize here. Want to be a Hulk-like muscular green gangster with visible veins and some nasty scars? You can do that. Feel like playing as an older woman with wrinkles and a bright mohawk? Why not? You can also add prosthetic limbs, choose from multiple patterns that represent the skin condition vitiligo, reshape your face, and give yourself a metallic tint while you’re at it.

The depth of the character creator is truly impressive and feels more comparable to a game like The Sims than any other action game. I spent about half an hour painstakingly creating my Boss and probably would have done more in the creator if my time with the preview build wasn’t so limited.

According to Traficante, allowing players to express themselves in any way they see fit is “one of our foundational pillars in terms of development.” That includes “diverse and inclusive options for players” as well, so whether your character is grounded in reality or looks more like an alien, you’ll be able to make it work.

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