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Saint's Row

Not so much halo, but plenty hail-o'-bullets. Welcome to THQ's GTA-inspired, next-gen crime-a-thon

Two men are sitting in a pub. One reckons he's done it all, bragging about how he started a craze, saying he's the greatest at this and that. The other guy humbly admits he's lived a relatively normal life, not tried to set the world alight, just done his best.

Which would you rather sit and chat to? In a similar way, we like Saint's Row because it doesn't try to hide the fact that it's a carboncopy GTA clone. Volition's crime sim not only looks like Rockstar's series but also has many identical gameplay features. However, it does have the major advantage of being released this side of Christmas!

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You play as one of the luckless souls trying to scrape a living in decrepit Stilwater City. At the start of the game, you're caught up in a random drive-by shooting and end up being recruited by a gang called 'The 3rd Street Saints'. They've not only got a taste for purple clothes, but they're serious about homicide, drug dealing, hijacking, prostitution and insurance fraud too.

Stilwater City provides more than enough opportunity for all these misdemeanours. It's a very generously proportioned game world, probably about the size of GTA's Vice City and there are absolutely no restrictions on where you can travel within it. You could travel to all four corners of the map without completing the first mission if you wanted to.

You'll probably already be familiar with the gameplay if you've played GTA. Core story missions are available at the starting point, and beating the first couple opens up branching storylines across various parts of the map. There are nearly 100 bonus missions to complete too. As well as having side stories of their own, these also boost your cash and respect meters. Gaining respect is crucial, because often you'll be unable to enter a story mission unless the Saints believe you're up to the job. Respect has other privileges too, such as giving you up to three AI-controlled homies. These deviant devotees will follow you around and help you to pop some caps in cops and rival gangs.

In true yin and yang style, the more you're respected by your friends, the more you'll be feared and loathed by your rivals. Rolling into enemy territory and gunning them down will increase your notoriety meter, meaning that they'll pursue you with a vengeance later on. The same goes for the cops. The more you kill, the more they'll send after you, climaxing in the standard showdown with SWAT team members and police choppers.

If Saint's Row doesn't sound too original, that's probably because it isn't. On the plus side, you can get into it in no time at all and there are a few surprises that you won't find in any other crime-based games. Our favourite of all the side-missions is Insurance Fraud. After a meeting with a dodgy attorney, you're advised to make a quick buck by throwing yourself in front of traffic. You dive for the tarmac using the Left or Right trigger, and the harder you're hit by oncoming traffic, the more money you're awarded in damages. Multiplier bonuses are given for hitting more than one vehicle before you land, and witness bonuses also give you a score boost.

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Thanks to the game's excellent ragdoll effects, these missions are pretty hilarious. We played Insurance Fraud for hours and always ended up with a smile on our faces.

The other superb mission we discovered is a real nostalgia trip. If you visit Stilwater's motordrome, it's possible to take part in a fender-bending 12-car destruction derby. It's just like the classic PSone game - absolutely brilliant. Of course, these days we have the advantage of better game physics, which makes smashing old bangers into each other until they explode all the more enjoyable.

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