Saints Row is set in the fictional city of Santo Ileso, located in the American southwest, and based loosely on the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. Santo Ileso is under control of three criminal gangs: Los Panteros, a gritty vehicle and fitness-oriented gang; the Idols, an anarchist gang focused on clubs and nightlife; and Marshall Defense Industries, an international private military corporation based in Santo Ileso that is known for advanced high tech weaponry. The player-character, “The Boss”, is a former member of Marshall Defense Industries and assembles a new gang from dissatisfied members of these gangs and to seize power from them. These new members include: Neenah, a mechanic formally with Los Panteros and serves as the gang’s driver; Kevin, a DJ that was part of the Idols and handles the execution of their heists; and Eli, a business entrepreneur with an MBA that plans the Boss’s gang’s activities.
The city is broken down into nine districts, which include Rancho Providencio, a run-down rural town; El Dorado, a gambling casino haven comparable to Las Vegas; and Monte Vista, a suburban area. The player will work to take over these districts, granting them certain benefits. The player is able to use empty lots in secured districts to launch illegitimate businesses with legitimate fronts to help finance and benefit the gang. The city includes more vertical areas with tools that the player will be able to use to take advantage of that. The driving gameplay has been improved to encourage the use of vehicles as weapons themselves alongside guns.
The game includes a detailed character creator for the player-character, including selection of gender. There is a drop-in cooperative multiplayer with a second player, with each player having their own Boss character and progressing in their own missions while helping the hosting player.