Open world games encourage exploration, both of the virtual world and gameplay. That's never more true than with fantasy role playing games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But a free roam shooter does not inspire one's imagination in quite the same way. So what is a shooter fan to do in the wide open spaces of, say, Steelport?

Customization options in Saints Row: The Third are pretty deep. Considering I spent many hours experimenting with the game's character creation demo prior to its release, it's no wonder that I would end up sinking quite a bit of time doing that in game, as well as selecting wardrobes, gang appearance and vehicle upgrades.

That's not to say I didn't spend time testing what this shooter had to offer in the gameplay department. Customization is a nice distraction but the real draw is the gangland gunplay and vehicular mayhem. To judge by the carnage one leaves behind, whether an ejected motorist stuck head first in a storefront or a decapitated pedestrian, you can cut quite a bloody fun swath.

The third time's the charm for the Saints, who have hit the big time and are livin' large. That includes their own personal gunship. My overriding interest early in the game was obtaining the most powerful arsenal and being able to rule the skies was integral to that vision. Appropriately, this helicopter wasn't easy to obtain -- only after several attempts and finally unlocking a follower was I able to storm a base and make off with this prize possession. 

The nice payoff to spending loads of time customizing your character is that they are fully, seamlessly and impressively integrated into cutscenes, making you feel like you lent an invaluable hand to the developers at Volition. Of course all the credit goes to those talented game creators, but the fact they give gamers the tools to help sculpt their own virtual reality is one more feather in their cap.

After securing the gunship, my next challenge I set for myself was to obtain a tank. They appear when you've earned five-star notoriety, and are tough to commandeer due to the sheer number and type of enemies that stand in your way. First stealing a SWAT APC or military Humvee helps eliminate the competition.

It did take me longer to figure out how best to obtain the tank then it did the gunship. I found that besides surviving the gauntlet of foes between myself and the tank, I had to take out its machine gunner before I could gain entry. Then I had to drive the lumbering beast across town with all manner of foes in pursuit before I could stow it in my garage.

This raises an important issue that would have helped in securing the vehicle in the first place. The easiest way to garner five-star notoriety is to stay inside or just outside your garage while attacking passersby. This affords a measure of protection as well as easy access to an APC or Humvee provided you've already secured one. Then, the tank will come to you.

Helicopter gunships represent a unique challenge but thankfully their penchant to move infrequently means picking them off can become a routine affair. But you'll need to nail them twice with shells prior to their crashing if you want to earn credit for having destroyed them.

This is what can happen when your tank takes too much damage. However, if you employ careful strategy you can take full advantage of this steel beast before its time's up. Indeed, I spent a great deal of time just fending off waves of foes whether on the ground, airborne, military, law enforcement or hoodlum.

The plethora of foes and their numbers can make for some truly kinetic and inspired firefights that not only test your reflexes and dexterity but likewise your framerate. Combine the action with impressive explosions and you have a recipe for a Tony Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer film come to life.

Some of the funniest sequences involve enemy A.I. When you've earned five-star notoriety and the subsequent carnage has left city streets strewn with human and vehicular carcasses, foes will trip over themselves to get to public enemy No. 1. In this instance, tanks ran into and over each other as they jostled for position. Thankfully, your tank likewise can scale obstructions.

Of course from time to time you'll have to ditch your flaming ride but there are plenty of places to hide and replenish your health. But if you find yourself out in the open the easiest way to survive -- and thrive -- is just leap into the nearest vehicle, which having garned some notoriety can be a pretty powerful weapon to boot.

Once you've vanquished your enemies, there's only one thing left to do. Goodbye, cruel, cruel world!

I was surprised I've sunk so many hours into this game. Next to Skyrim and Dead Island, it's proven quite the diversion. Even more shocking was that I'm in the upper percentiles as far as Respect and Money earned, not to mention people run over LOL, which might be more testament to my poor driving skills then homicidal intent, though my total kills might suggest otherwise, haha.