The Player

by Marty Demarest & r & & r & Saints Row & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 'm getting sick of being a gangster. Ever since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I've had to worry about getting out of shape from eating too much virtual junk food. The cops have been on my ass worse than ever thanks to "advanced artificial intelligence." And suburban sprawl is killing me. Back in the day, it was fun to drive around from place to place. Now every other videogame has me schlepping myself through ticky-tackyville for hours at a time just to score a drug deal. It's enough to make me want to invest in a quiet little magic shop in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

& r & So when Saints Row plunked me down in the middle of a city "torn apart by rival gangs," I knew I was destined to hijack a car and start hauling hookers. I'd done it before, and I was willing to try pimping on the Xbox 360 if only because things often look prettier there. What I wasn't expecting was that one of the prostitutes was as skinny as a meth addict while another was short, fat and heavy. The car (I stole a sleek sports model) even tilted toward her side when we jumped off ramps.

& r & Not that we did anything immoral, mind you. Saints Row isn't that kind of game. If there was a street corner at which we could make my car bump and rumble, I didn't find it. What I did locate was a handy list of "activities," which, much as their summer-campy name suggests, were stations at which I was given busywork to do. Haul these hookers around. Shoot the cops while this soccer mom delivers her drugs. (She's afraid to go into the city because she's "not poor.") Throw Molotov cocktails at the enemy gang stronghold. Blow up everything.

& r & The Grand Theft Auto III formula has been taken apart. Instead of bogging me down in developing a character or presenting a "world," Saints Row runs its city like an arcade: All I need to do is walk up to a crook (marked on my map with an icon that, like a roadside facilities sign, indicates what "activity" -- insurance fraud, drug dealing, assassination -- I can find at the location), introduce myself, and I've got something fine-tuned to play. It's enough to make the life of a gangster fun for one more game.

& r & THE GOOD: Despite its reliance on action, Saints Row features several storylines that are worth seeing. Tia Carrere and David Carradine, in particular, lend genuine characterization to what would otherwise be digital puppets. Nevertheless, it's still the abundance of digital puppets -- the kind that walk along the street waiting to be shot -- that makes Saints Row so interesting a game in which to make mischief.

& r & THE BAD: It's a pity that I can't actually interact with many of Saints Row's objects (chairs, doors) that look so real and interesting. It's pure eye candy, and it's wonderful for a while, but never manages to immerse me in the game's world. Ah, for that simple, fully interactive shop in Oblivion.

& r & THE BOTTOM LINE: Saints Row takes everything fun about the Grand Theft Auto videogames and lays it out like a sampler tray of mayhem for the 360. n