Saints Row Hands-On Preview: Insane Adventures in Santo Ileso

Everything was going well until that damn train stopped me. My crew and I had just knocked over a Payday Loan joint. I didn’t feel bad; those guys are the real crooks anyway. But now we were stuck, and the police were bearing down on us. I hit the gas, but it didn’t matter. They were catching up. 

As we raced through the winding highways outside of Santo Ileso, I went on the offensive, sideswiping the pursuing cop cars and running them off the road in what I’m sure were very safe fiery explosions. 

I tried to switch cars, but another gang had stripped my backup ride, so I parted with my companions and made an off-road escape on a dirtbike. It’s a tactic that almost worked — until my path took me right into a police roadblock and some very effective spike strips.

As the fuzz closed in and all seemed lost, my accomplice Neenah showed up in a car, jumped it to the top of a billboard, and brought the giant sign down like a flyswatter onto the bewildered cops below. Splat. 

It was a move almost too ridiculous for even a Fast and the Furious movie. It was stunning, absurd, and precisely the tone-setter I needed for my hands-on preview of the upcoming Saints Row

The initial reaction to the Saints Row reboot trailer was lukewarm at best. But it’s hard to get a sense of tone or scope from just a few minutes of video. With that in mind, I was interested in getting my hands on a playable build at a recent preview event in Las Vegas. I wanted to see what this new chapter in the Saints saga was all about.

As I played through the intro — which I won’t spoil — the art style stood out immediately. Things look clean and realistic, but with exaggerated colors and visual pops instead of highly detailed textures. It’s a sort of middle ground between the hyper-realism of Grand Theft Auto and the more cartoonish look of Fortnite

I started in a small apartment with the new Saints, all with their own unique skills and interests that a burgeoning criminal enterprise needs, be it driving, finance, or just good old-fashioned muscle. They are a personable group, especially The Boss, and even in my short time with the game, I found myself invested in the characters as we tried to create a name for ourselves in Santo Ileso. 

The main story missions I saw were full of dramatic set pieces, like a high-speed convoy chase or a visit to a rave that ended with me attaching a tow cable from my car to a shipping container and swinging it like a flail to obliterate the fluorescent dune buggies in pursuit. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds and entertaining as hell.

After a few story missions, I decided to see what side quests are available in Saints Row. In short order, I was picking up dropped drug crates, dumpster diving for lost treasure, and stealing things from a helicopter to make extra cash. I bought a nice big machete and sombrero with my ill-earned money, and the vast number of shops around town indicate a lot of variety for your loadoutsAt one point, I was leaving a bad review on the in-game version of yelp, which naturally ended in violence.

Shooting guns feels about the same as any third-person action game, and swinging my machete was satisfying. Over time, you build a meter through attacks and kills that lets you execute a takedown animation, instantly eliminating most enemies and refilling your health, similarly rewarding aggressive gameplay like Doom.

Santo Ileso itself feels very alive. The neighborhoods and districts I drove through were distinct, with cars and people that varied to match the area. Residents milled about, visited shops, and generally behaved in a manner that felt natural. At one point, I found myself just sitting and watching a group light fireworks, basking in the colorful bursts of light.

I couldn’t let the peace last for too long — this is Saints Row, after all. As my playtime neared its end, I did what any person in an open-world game inevitably does; I started creating as much mayhem as humanly possible. I began by crashing into a fuel container truck. I jumped out of my car and filled the massive fuel tank with machine gun fire until it erupted in a very satisfying fireball. 

Unsurprisingly, it caught the attention of local law enforcement. The first car deployed a pair of officers. One charged me but met the business ends of my fists. The other didn’t want any part of that action and fled to call in reinforcements. I could have tried to stop them from getting the call through (there is a small meter that fills, indicating the progress of a backup call), but I wanted to see how far things would go. More police arrived, and a high-speed chase ensued when I stole a nearby car. I took out a few cruisers with carefully-timed sideswipes, and my Wanted level increased. 

As I sped along to create more chaos, the growing number of pursuers started setting up roadblocks. I decided to fight my way out on foot, using a rocket launcher to clear the SWAT teams trying to box me in with their riot shields. My fight didn’t end until I finally pissed off the authorities enough for them to send in a fully loaded tank, and the machine guns and cannon brought me down in a blaze of glory.

There is a lot to like in what I played of Saints Row. It looks and plays well, and the variety of action and set pieces kept me well entertained. It’s a crowded genre with some heavy hitters. Still, the bombastic action and engaging characters might be just what this reboot needs to stand out and reestablish the Saints as a group to be reckoned with when it releases on August 23, 2022, for PlayStation, Xbox, PC, and Google Stadia. 

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