Volition might be rebooting the long-running Saints Row this year, but it’s doing so with a mind toward the chaotic energy and fun that has been at the core of Saints for many years. Plus, it was kind of hard to see how the series could continue after the narrative insanity of 2013’s Saints Row IV - which opened with the entire planet being destroyed.
Based on everything we’ve seen, from the insane levels of customisation through to the co-op, over-the-top physics, and activities that bring back classic modes - this is shaping up to be every bit the classic Saints experience we were hoping it could be. Albeit with a new modern coat of paint.
With its release around the corner we had the chance to sit down with the team to discuss everything from the new wingsuit, the evolution of the series, and what fans and newcomers can expect. With Brian Traficante (Creative Director), Jennifer Campbell (Writer / Narrative Designer), and Kenzie Lindgren (Associate UX Designer) on hand, it’s a behind the scenes look at the new Saints Row.
I’m a big fan of Saints Row and the fun and insanity of the series. One thing that immediately stood out was seeing the wingsuit in action, seeing you being able to bounce off pedestrians, to car surf. How did this evolve and come about as a new traversal mechanic?
: It's funny, originally there it was about allowing the player to leap from car to car, down the highway. We have a mission where that is one of the key mechanics within the mission. But doing that for a full open-world was going to be too much technically. So we backed out and that led to different traversal ideas like wingsuits. But we didn't want the two of those [driving and flying] to exist separately. The thing we learned from Saints Row 4 was that once you got all those superpowers, nobody drove a car. We kind of negated all this work that was put into the vehicle system. We didn't want the wingsuit to become that.
"The thing we learned from Saints Row 4 was that once you got all those superpowers, nobody drove a car. We kind of negated all this work that was put into the vehicle system. We didn't want the wingsuit to become that."
What the designers nailed was the idea of not treating them separately, but as one traversal mechanic. Exploring ideas like, ‘Why can't I just land on the roof of a car?’ ‘Now that I'm on the roof, can I get in?’ ‘Can I get back out onto the roof?’ And you can, you can get back out. The car will continue at some speed so you can leap off again. And then that led into other mechanisms that we didn't foresee, like the ejector seat which gets you in the air and connects these two systems together. There's also launchers throughout the city that shoot you into the air. Players can also get up in helicopters. We wanted to take traversal to the next level and keep people constantly moving, because that's the chaotic action and energy we aim for.
One way to describe the feel is that Saints Row is an over-the-top violent cartoon where anything goes. The customisation options that build on top of that idea is impressive, and obviously must have taken so much time just to get that many things in there. But, how does that marry with the overall story and give players the freedom to choose or change the narrative options and shape the world?
: In terms of how the world interacts with the player, no matter what your choices are, how people react doesn't really change. But, the eight different voices we have, the way that those different lines are delivered, changes the experience. It's the same line every time, but the way that each of the voice actors delivers that line really sets a different tone. Also, something like seeing my customised character in a cut-scene, and it's Shrek in the background, that level of craziness adds a lot. You can also dial it back a little bit, if you want a regular normal looking Boss, even if it's just one of our default bosses, it's going to look good.
That was a really important choice that we wanted to give to the player, if you wanted something that was more grounded, you have that option. And that coupled with the voices, the different vehicle customisation options, even the weapons, it all comes together to make each player's experience with the game unique. No two players are going to necessarily play the same way.
: Our narrative is a little more linear than it has been in the past, but there are moments where we give the player a choice through action that does affect whether or not you'll see other characters in the future. But, it won't make a massive change to the world state. With the open-world side, there’s different buildings you can choose where to place and which ones you want to interact with.
We're seeing the return of fan favourite modes like Mayhem. And with the open-world, the brief glimpses that we saw of the map looked very Saints Row-ish, so to speak. In designing the open-world, what sort of new things push the series forward?
: “Core mechanics get distributed through missions, if we have a mission and there's a mechanic that's introduced, that's a new activity or something you can do in the open world. And there's no shortage of activities, from new to reused, that we could put into the missions and into the open-world. By chopping up the classic ‘here's your activities across the map’, we distribute them as different ventures - and all 14 ventures are a different activity. We have Mayhem, and we have Insurance Fraud. Those are classic things that we enjoy and just fun for us to play. We wanted to get those back in there.
"Core mechanics get distributed through missions, if we have a mission and there's a mechanic that's introduced, that's a new activity or something you can do in the open world."
One of my favourite new hustles is called Wingsuit Saboteur, where you're dropped from a helicopter in the night and wingsuit down to rooftops to destroy antennas. You’re also taking out all the guards and then bouncing or launching to the next next target to do that four times before the timers up. We have another called Pony Express, and that's an A to B race through the desert where you've got a time mechanic and you’ll need to avoid police patrols or clear out the police before you can drop off the package at the delivery zone. No matter where you go, what you engage with, the activities are different. And with the sheer amount of content we have, we're able to give players a lot of unique experiences.
: All the criminal ventures and even some of our side missions they all tend to highlight a different mechanic that we introduce. In the case of Wingsuit Saboteur that's focused on the wingsuit. Insurance Fraud is based off of our physics system and ragdoll effects. Having the ability to place buildings around the city, to kind of get each one that you want, helps with player choice.
The Church as the player base. What sort of customisation can you do? Also, being able to speak with your teammates will it become the place where relationships evolve and character development emerges?
: A lot of the bonding between the characters will happen within missions, but when you go and talk to them, either in your apartment or at the HQ, you get a sense of what their relationship is and what they're doing behind the scenes.
: And they'll give lines and responses to where you're at. If you've just completed a particular activity or where you're at with the main missions, they’ll have commentary. And it's really cool just to talk to them, Eli's just interested in how much money was made. Kev is all about fun. Nina's like, ‘We can't do that again, our cars will all break’. So you do get that individuality. And with the HQ, there are pedestals outside, very large ones where you can place six to eight metre tall objects you find in the world. You can take photos, find collectables, and put them all over the outside. Not just on the inside.
The HQ itself will go through three upgrades, there’s the rundown version, there’s the mid-game when the Saints start getting some income and money in. That’s where you’ll see the renovations begin, and your friends will start talking about what their ambitions are, what they want to do with the renovations. And then of course there’s the end-game, where you get the glorious, completely renovated, gorgeous, what you'd expect a Saints Row Church to look and feel like.
Customisation is one thing, but another key takeaway from Saints Row as a series has been the personalities and the larger than life characters. From companions to enemies and the various gangs. We’ve seen glimpses of some of the new gangs and the new Saints, how close is this going to be to what we saw in previous titles? How has the new location and the current state of the world informed the design?
: We have a saying, Saints Row games are of their time. What was going on in the world, who we were, what gamers wanted at that time. You can play Saints Row 1, 2, and 3, and you'll see what that time was and what we wanted to do. And that's no different here, we've made choices around who we are as entertainers and what we're responsible for in the game.
It's interesting because we used the same recipe, at a high level, with the approach to gangs. We wanted something very grounded and very Saints Row 2, which is Los Panteros, a literal street gang. For the Idols, we wanted something brand new, something we hadn't done before which is this anarchist, faceless collective. And you'll see a lot of STAG [Saints Row: The Third], when you think about what Marshall is with their technology and weaponry. Definitely, we used the past to inspire what these factions would look like.
: And the leaders of the factions are these large personalities. Especially Atticus Marshall, I think he's one of my favourite Saints villains.
: Even characters that you talk to for those side missions, they all have those types of personalities. They have their thing and I really love that.
: “That’s essentially you growing your crew, and you meet these managers when you start hearing the word ‘Boss’. These are the first people to call you ‘Boss’ in the game and through that you're meeting these new, wonderful, colourful characters. And the rewards from Ventures are, crew. The kind of people you can start customising at The Church and show up when you want help from the crew.”
With the skills and perk system, where it’s looking like you can have a set amount of skills and a set amount of perks equipped at any particular time. Does that lead to specific load-outs or play-styles? Was that the idea to create different play-styles and not have everything available at all times? And not let it get out of hand in a Saints Row 4 sort of way.
: There's always a button issue, and a limit of how many things you can provide to a player. But yeah, in terms of skills, it does fall short of the locked load-out approach where you’re playing a certain way. There are defensive abilities, there are offensive abilities. There are ways to mix and match those, especially in co-op. You can synergise abilities.
"We wanted something very grounded and very Saints Row 2, which is Los Panteros, a literal street gang. For the Idols, we wanted something brand new, something we hadn't done before which is this anarchist, faceless collective."
It was more about giving a breath of options versus a tight tree of a very specific play-style. That thing where you're the ‘ranged caster’. The depth is there so you'll find the thing that you like. You can have four skills equipped at any time, and with perks you can get some pretty fun, creative things happening. I'm a defensive player in everything I play, but I take dual-wield because I gotta have dual-wield. I'll also take fire resistance, and vacuum, which sucks up cash and ammo on the ground. There's also an ability called Get Tough, where you get a shield layer that gives you an extra layer of health for a while.
With co-op factoring into the chaotic action, how does it work for story and mission progress?
: The host will control that progression. So when you join my game, if I'm in a late game mission you can play and you'll get the rewards. We’d share rewards for everything we did together and you’ll take that back to your game. And when you get to that content, the game will ask if you want to skip that mission because it’ll recognise that you've done it. Or, you can just replay them if you want the experience.