From "Grand Theft Auto IV" and "Metal Gear Solid 4" to "Fallout 3" and "Gears of War 2," the majority of 2008's smartest games have one thing in common (besides numbers in their titles): They're rated M, as in Mature, meaning you have to be 17 or older to buy them.
But an M rating isn't necessarily a guarantee of quality. Less ambitious developers will serve up blood, guts, profanity and maybe even a little nudity to be "edgy," but if they don't deliver rich gameplay and satisfying stories, they aren't likely to hold the interest of adult players. The three games reviewed here earn their M ratings, but may not earn your loyalty.
"Left 4 Dead" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, $59.99): The "4" in the title refers to the only four humans who are immune to a virus that has created a city filled with bloodthirsty zombies. We're talking about the speedy type of undead from recent movies like "28 Days Later," along with a few "special" mutations, like a zombie that spews blinding bile on you.
You need to team up to survive, and "Left 4 Dead" is far more effective if you join with three other players online. (The single-player mode serves mainly as practice.) Each of the four campaigns is paced like a Hollywood horror movie; at certain points, you know a horde is about to attack, and you have a few seconds to brace yourself.
There's no depth to "Left 4 Dead" — it's simply kill or be killed — and it's overpriced for a game with just four relatively short scenarios. But it fully succeeds in creating a sense of dread and panic, and its execution is nearly perfect. Three stars out of four.
"Saints Row 2" (THQ, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): The latest urban crime adventure from THQ's Volition studio is a passable way to kill time while you're waiting for the next "Grand Theft Auto." After a stint in prison, your character returns to Stilwater to reunite the old 3rd Street Saints and reclaim the streets from three other gangs.
It's all an excuse for a wide variety of over-the-top mayhem, sometimes even more outrageous than "GTA." But "SR2" is bogged down by technical glitches and low-rent production values. It's trashy, but does capture a certain grindhouse vibe. Two stars.
"Legendary" (Gamecock, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Pandora's box has been reopened, setting loose armies of mythical monsters onto Manhattan streets. It's a great premise ruined by lazy programming, in which your character is too often powerless to stop the chaos. The challenges you do confront are repetitive, the levels are unimaginative and the controls are sloppy. One star.