Saints Row

Stilwater isn't a great city. Cruising its streets and alleys, you'll see a full-scale metropolis fleshed out from the downtown to the 'burbs. But look for more detail, and you'll get a zoned-out populace, faceless neighborhoods, and the kind of businesses that a 12-year-old might have come up with: an auto-body shop called "Rim Jobs," a neighborhood called "Black Bottom," and—in the game's biggest cop-out—a drive-through "confessional," where you can clear yourself of dozens of murders without getting out of your car.

Saints Row is a better-than-average Grand Theft Auto clone, but to clone GTA, you have to capture the open-ended sandbox style of play—and that's the only place where Saints Row falls flat. You can pick and choose your missions, deck out your character, and build a criminal empire. But Stilwater doesn't have the depth of GTA's cities, which make it seem like there's a whole society ready to work against you. In San Andreas, you could be anything from a troubled anti-hero to an out-and-out villain, but in Saints Row, you're basically a psychopath in a world that could care less. Take on a free-fire "mayhem" mission, and the bodies and the police vanish the minute you finish. Sure, you may not care about realism, and it's funny when you slug an old lady in the street, only to see her wheel around and punch you right back. But it isn't very gangsta.

Beyond the game: After a consensual sex scene in GTA: San Andreas sparked last year's "hot coffee" kerfuffle, it took guts for Saints Row to include sex-themed missions—like stealing hos from one pimp and delivering them to another, or listening to people get freaky in the back of your ride.

Worth playing for: Saints Row scores with the individual missions, which are clever and often hilarious. You can make cash by faking an accident or whacking a guy in a hot-dog costume, and the turf wars against your rival gangs follow well-paced scripts.

Frustration sets in when: Almost nothing here is frustrating: The game goes to extremes to make sure you always know where to go, what to do, and whom to run over.

Final judgment: The perfect first thug sim for your younger siblings.

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