Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Game Info
Xbox, PS2
Rockstar Games
Rockstar North
Official Website
ESRB Rating*
Violence, Blood, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes
The Good

• Massive game world
• Noticeable improvements in combat
• Missions are varied and interesting
• Interesting story and voice acting
• Custom soundtrack
• Tons of things to do

The Bad

• Character models are blocky
• Textures has issues at higher speeds

* While the rating is temporarily Adults Only at the time of this review, the game was released as Mature and a revised Mature edition will come out at a later date.

I won't lie - when GTA San Andreas came out for the PS2, I had no interest. I was burned out on the whole "sandbox" gameplay genre that GTA had spawned. Now, with the recent controversy over the "Hot Coffee" issue, my curiosity was piqued in the actual game. Not in the hidden mini-game because I've already seen footage of that and it looked downright stupid. So, I have to work a couple hours to get to a point to get a girlfriend, input some codes or downloading a hack just to get a sex-oriented minigame? Yeah... I do have access to the internet, you know. So, once I got into the actual game, my faith in Rockstar's ability to put out a solid game was renewed.

Once you get past the "gangsta" theme that Rockstar has used to promote the game, you'll find an interesting tale with a rich cast of characters, some damaged and some outright funny. After five years away in Liberty City, Carl "CJ" Johnson returns to San Andreas to find his mother dead, his gang scattered, and his brother and friends treading in dark and dangerous territory. Not five minutes in town, he's framed for the murder of a cop by other police officers and left on a short leash. Through missions from multiple people, you're shown more and more of the story and given a wonderful view of the world CJ lives in.

While a lot has been made of the heavy use of language in the script, once you get into the story, the conversation feels natural and fits the theme quite well. I really couldn't image the script being toned down without some effect on the overall theme. With that said, the script and content of the story is not for the timid as it deals with a lot of criminal elements, including drugs, gang warfare and corruption. The cast is pretty damaged internally and it's hard to tell who is good and who is bad.

As with the previous titles, San Andreas features a living game world where the player is set loose to do as they please, all the while collecting items and completing tasks for various people. Even though Vice City felt like a minor upgrade to GTA3, San Andreas makes a multitude of improvements that take the series to a new level.

Combat is improved, both in terms of hand-to-hand and gunplay. CJ has access to a ton of weapons and items, each broken down into groups so that you can only carry one of each group (handguns, assault rifles, etc.). When you break out your guns, you can target nearby enemies and even rotate targets. You can now crouch down, which aids in both improving your aim and reducing your enemy's ability to hit you. When targeted on an enemy, you can strafe and even do a tuck and roll dodge move. Melee combat is also improved as you can now throw combos, block and earn new attacks by going to the gym. These moves allow for running attacks and kicking people while they're down.

San Andreas gives players new content in a steady stream as you progress through the missions. After a few hours, you'll gain access to the ability to start gang wars. "Why would I want to do that?" Well, if you win a gang war, you'll earn that territory, which nets you more money. To start gang wars, you just need to shoot up a few enemy gang members in their own territory. After shooting your way through a few waves of enemies, you'll be through with that territory. Of course, you'll also have to keep enemy gangs out of your territories when they attack.

Also introduced is stealth mechanics and stealth kills. You can use these to do a few different things, like breaking into people's homes, sneaking up on people and killing them quietly or just sneaking past enemy gangs and cops on the street. Players will also be able to gain girlfriends, who they must keep happy and take out on dates. Each girlfriend gives CJ a certain bonus when they're "happy", so choose wisely and work hard.

The guys at Rockstar have really honed their ability to keep the missions fresh. They've managed to make each mission varied and complex without making them brutally hard. Most missions can be completed with decent skill and those that provide a little more challenge can still be completely with a little thought and preparation. Along with pickup and drop-off elements, there are races, assassinations, and straight burglaries. As with Vice City, you can buy new properties. You can also buy new clothes, get your hair done different ways and get tattoos.

Along with tons of regular missions, you can partake in missions by entering certain vehicles and activating their missions, including taxis, police cars, and ambulances. There are tons of things to find and collect, including oysters, shoehorns and spraying your gang tags over your enemy's gang markers.

Probably one of the more noticeable additions to the series is the inclusion of RPG elements, which includes variable statistics for fat, muscle, stamina, and respect (among others). As your fat and muscle stats vary, CJ's body type varies. To change your stats, you need to exercise and eat. In San Andreas, you regain health by eating at one of many fast food joints. Each meal affects CJ in certain ways. You can get some serious exercise by going to the gym and working out.

Visually, the game's graphics are all about the sheer volume of activity on screen. San Andreas features a massive game world. Rockstar North has managed to take the step up from GTA3 to Vice City and take it even further. This time around, the game features three pretty large cities and connecting areas, all packed with tons of details and style. Each area, even the smaller communities within each city has a certain style to its surroundings. When it comes to the finer details, the game does has more varied NPC models and the interiors do look a lot better. Where the graphics do show room for improvement is in the actual character models, which still look very blocky. Fortunately, the faces look pretty good and show a good bit of personality during the story sequences. One of the other flaws in the graphics engine is that sometime textures have a bit of delay in loading when you're driving really fast.

As with previous titles in the series, the audio portion of the game is stellar. The voice cast features a number of big names (Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Penn, James Woods and Peter Fonda) that really only to serve the fine performances by main cast members, including Chris Bellard as CJ, Clifton Powell as Big Smoke and MC Eiht as Ryder. Sound effects offer a wide range of ambient sounds that gives a certain bit of life to the game world. Guns and cars all his different degrees of "gravity" to their tone, making more powerful cars feel like they're tearing around the streets. As with Vice City, San Andreas features a lot of licensed songs, broken up into various radio stations and accented with DJ chatter. The soundtrack features a strong bent towards rap and hip-hop, though there is a rock, alternative and country station. For those who loved the talk radio stations from before, there is one channel just for you. Another great feature is the addition of custom soundtracks to the Xbox version, allowing you to play your own music if you don't care for the soundtrack.

San Andreas is a full-on upgrade to the series and really does so much that gamers who love both the series and the genre should own this title. If you enjoyed previous games in the series, you should really have this game. It's a shame that the controversy has overshadowed an excellent game. I can only hope that Rockstar can make some graphical upgrades with their next console effort as they've pretty much nailed the gameplay down solid.

- - Vane

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