Grand Theft Auto: Sweet 16

The title of Rockstar Games' soon-to-be-released Grand Theft Auto: Sweet 16 sounds like an oxymoron, but as soon as you pick up the controller, everything starts making sense. The company's last GTA release, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, raised the concerns of parental watchdog groups with its excessive violence, but gamers appreciated the engrossing action, characters and storyline. (Truth be told, it's fun to steal cars and run errands for the Mafia.) Grand Theft Auto: Sweet 16 is considerably less violent -- there aren't any guns -- but surprisingly, it manages to equal the earlier game in entertainment value.

Sadly, this game is not real.

Grand Theft Auto GTA:S16 exists only in our dreams. To play Grand Theft Auto games in real life, check out the box set, which includes GTA III and Vice City.
With Grand Theft Auto: Sweet 16, Rockstar expands the GTA franchise to include a previously untapped market -- preteen girls. You won't have to drive through dark alleys to meet a mob connection in this version, but you will have to drive your friends around, hold down a part-time job and keep up with constantly-changing clothing trends, all while staying on the popular crowd's good side. You play the role of rebellious teen beauty Jessica Lynn Johnson, and as the game begins, you're skipping school, so stay out of sight of your parents and teachers as you hotwire a car to hit the mall.

Grand Theft Auto: Sweet 16 screenshot
If you don't steal a car, you have to drive your mom's!
The missions here are very different from the violent bloodbaths of earlier GTA games, but once you enter the teen girl mindset, you'll find they are just as demanding. As you head to the movies to meet your crush, you suddenly realize you're one of six girls racing down the freeway. If you want to share his popcorn, you have to run them all off the road! Don't forget to drop your little brother off at soccer practice once you've knocked out the competition (and check behind the bleachers for a sparkly pink bonus). Instead of collecting mystery packages as in previous games, GTA:S16 challenges you to find all one hundred shades of lip gloss hidden throughout the game. My first time through, I found 68! Pretty impressive, huh?

  Grand Theft Auto: Sweet 16 screenshot
Your best friend crashed her car. Do you stay with her, or go make out with a cute boy?
Strangely enough, GTA:S16's one weakness stems from the game designers' attempts to create a realistic gaming environment. Yes, sixteen year old girls are notoriously bad drivers. But making every vehicle difficult to maneuver creates a very frustrating gameplay experience that isn't remedied until after the drivers' ed school opens (don't bother checking early in the game -- you can't take a driving class until you've completed eight missions.) Once you "learn" to drive, you'll find the cars respond noticeably better to your controls, and the game becomes much more fun from this point on.

As in earlier versions, each car comes equipped with a radio, but this time around, it's clear all the pre-sets were programmed by a preteen. The "oldies" station features pop stars of the past, including New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson and Tiffany; other buttons tune you in to an endless stream of hits by Beyoncé, Michelle Branch, and bands with numbers in their names. At first the frequently-repeated tunes seem grating, but as you grow more comfortable in the teenage character, you'll find yourself singing along and even turning up the volume.
--Lisa Beebe

RATING: A big Popcrazy thumbs up. (And these thumbs are sore, because I didn't want to stop playing.)

AVAILABILITY: Maybe someday, Grand Theft Auto: Sweet 16 will be available everywhere videogames are sold. But for now, it's only pretend, so keep your driving skills warm with Grand Theft Auto III and GTA: Vice City.