Not many games can go from being a clone of a chart-topping title to a respected companion piece of the same bestseller in three iterations or less. But the Saints Row series, which began life as a Grand Theft Auto clone trying to exploit Rockstar's slowness in getting to the "next generation" market of HD-gen consoles, has evolved into something else entirely -- the game that many people wish GTA still was.

Not to diss GTA IV -- it's still in my top 5 games of all-time -- but Rockstar made a conscious decision to make that game a platform for better narrative storytelling and its world more of an interactive dramatic stage than a sandbox full of rocket launchers. The only problem is, a sandbox full of rocket launchers is a hell of a lot of fun, and the game makers at Volition seem to have focused the evolution of the Saints Row franchise on that: how do we let gamers have a ton of ridiculous fun?

So instead of going darker and grittier like GTA, Saints Row has gotten brighter and sillier. That's how it gets away with some of its more egregiously vulgar moments: by planting its tongue firmly in its cheek. In a sense, it sort of has to -- how else can you justify driving a car down a sidewalk at 70 miles an hour, tearing through pedestrians like a wheat thresher without any kind of serious moral repercussions? Because Saints Row knows what it is: just a game.

That self-awareness turns into some clever satire on occasion. I've always thought that Saints Row sat somewhere in the middle of the sophistication chart, between GTA and Postal. But at the beginning of Saints Row: The Third we are introduced to a surreal world where the Saints are celebrities themselves, and the popular culture has somehow embraced violent street gangs who get in massive gun battles in public and careen recklessly through city streets in stolen cars as if they were rock stars. There are even certain people on the street who want to take your picture, and more than once I found myself posing in front of the burned out wreckage of a cop car or tank I destroyed myself.

It's those moments that make Saints Row that ultimate sandbox experience that some gamers prefer, but I think all of us enjoy. Compare it to the single-player experience of one of the big military shooters out this year. You can't talk about your experiences in those with your friends and have them be unique. Two people talking about a part in Battlefield 3 probably had nearly identical experiences. Two people playing Saints Row: The Third have an infinite amount of possibilities for how their experiences differed.

Saints Row: The Third

It all begins with the character creation tool. I don't think it should be understated how awesomely democratic this feature is; you can be anyone, and I mean anyone, you want to be. The fact that your character talks and engages in cut-scenes makes each player's experience unique, and almost gives you the impression that you're taking part in the game's design. That's a pretty cool concept that was satisfying to see in action, especially as the story continued on. It was for me, at least.

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