Saints Row

Here it is, boys and girls -- the best reason to own an Xbox 360 this side of Oblivion. For Xbox 360 gunslingers, Saints Row is a must buy.

New screens here.

See Saints Row multiplayer in action.

THQ and Volition blow away GTA with Saints Row, an inspired update to the open-world formula

THQ and Volition blow away GTA with Saints Row, an inspired update to the open-world formula

We can only hope that the developers of Grand Theft Auto IV are taking careful notes on Saints Row, the next generation of the "open world"-style games popularized by Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas. At first glance, Saints Row looks like little more than an Xbox 360-fortified version of San Andreas: from the mission design to the basic play mechanics to the tongue-in-cheek spirit, it's abundantly clear that Saints Row is firmly grounded in Rockstar Games' groundbreaking series.

Only it's better. Much, much better. Unquestionably, irrefutably better in nearly every possible way. Saints Row not only looks leagues better than the latest Grand Theft Auto games, it plays better. It's what you hoped you'd see in the yet-to-be-unveiled Grand Theft Auto IV...only you won't have to wait until late 2007 to play it. Groundbreaking it's not, but for Grand Theft addicts, Saint's Row is very clearly The Next Big Thing.

Ever wanted to escort soccer moms to risky drug deals? Now you can!

Ever wanted to escort soccer moms to risky drug deals? Now you can!

Tales From the Hood

The story is simple but well executed. As a fledgling member of the 3rd Street Saints, you're charged with, shall we say, opening up new business opportunities. After being canonized in a vicious all-on-one mob brawl that serves as a brutal inaugural mission, you find yourself on the bullet-riddled streets of Stilwater armed with your fists and your dreams. And missions. Lots and lots of missions: Saints Row's in-game map is studded with literally hundreds of activities, stores, attractions, and clubs. To help players negotiate this sprawling playground, Saints Row's developers streamlined the cluttered, confusing map system from GTA. One of Saints Row's biggest selling points, in fact, is the GPS-style navigation system that draws a colored trail to lead you to any point of your interest (be it a gun store, a shootout, or a tattoo parlor). It's a magnificent navigation system, and Rockstar would be smart to borrow it for Grand Theft Auto IV.

Insurance Fraud: just remember to go limp

Insurance Fraud: just remember to go limp

Speaking of missions, Saints Row's mission objectives are also hugely improved over San Andreas's infamously frustrating chores. Fail a mission? No sweat: tap a button to instantly try again without any penalty. The campaign missions themselves are also more ambitious, ranging from the usual petty thefts to ultra-satisfying killing and vandalism sprees. Some missions are tougher and more frustrating than others, but all can be conquered sans cheat codes. Mid-level respawn points would've been a thoughtful addition, though

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Better yet are the seemingly never-ending array of side-jobs and mini-games, some of which made us think "Mafioso Mario Party." Our favorites were Insurance Fraud, where you fling yourself in front of speeding cars to cash in, and Drug Trafficking, where you ride shotgun with a dope dealer as they make their "deliveries." Other side-jobs will have you hijacking cars, dodging paparazzi, and assassinating people from a mysterious hit list. These side missions are downright addictive, and are some of the game's biggest strengths. And since their difficulty levels and cash rewards scale ever upwards, they'll keep you playing for hours.

A rifle will do the trick, but you can use a 9mm handgun if you're good

A rifle will do the trick, but you can use a 9mm handgun if you're good

Saints Row treats gangs and cops the same way, in that you can piss off any faction independent of the others...but not all at once, or there'll be hell to pay.

Saints Row treats gangs and cops the same way, in that you can piss off any faction independent of the others...but not all at once, or there'll be hell to pay

Careful! Gang-banger skin burns easily

Careful! Gang-banger skin burns easily

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