Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is considered by many to be the pinnacle of PlayStation 2 gaming. It was the third GTA game on the console and delivered a gaming experience far larger and more diverse than any other game on that console - perhaps on any platform. As with its two predecessors, the game was a timed exclusive on the Sony console, but now that period is over, and patient Xbox owners can see what all the fuss was about.
There's no point in us going over what makes San Andreas such a great game. We tried to put that into words in our review for the original PlayStation 2 version, so we are going to look at why Xbox owners should be picking up this new release over the seven month old version that may well be available for a cheaper price.
None of the GTA games that have graced the PlayStation 2 have been stunners. I don't think anyone could argue that the frame rate and draw distance in each has been a little ropey. While San Andreas had moments of beauty, the game's main selling point was its freedom and the ability to do pretty much what you wanted. The Xbox version of San Andreas doesn't transform the game into a swan, but a fair bit of plastic surgery has been performed.
Most notable is the game's much improved frame rate. It's fair to say that San Andreas' frame rate chugged; not all the time, but enough to make it fairly noticeable, particularly for spectators (GTA spectating is a big pastime round here). The Xbox version is considerably smoother to look, with the game rarely slowing down. Not only does this make the game look nicer than the PlayStation 2 version, but it also makes it play better too.
'the aliasing found in the PlayStation 2 version is still very noticeable'
You can see further into the distance than you could on the PlayStation 2 version and this makes the massive urban and rural environments far more interesting to look at. This works vertically as well as horizontally, with those parachute jumps becoming even more exciting thanks to the improved view distance. However, while it is improved, it isn't as huge a leap as we had hoped for. Texture quality has also been improved, with the detail noticeably improved over the PlayStation 2 version, but the aliasing found in the PlayStation 2 version is still very noticeable, with lots of shimmering in the distance.
As was the case in ports of the previous games, San Andreas on Xbox has support for custom radio stations. While the soundtrack that Rockstar have put together is excellent, it's nice to be able to put in some of your own tunes to if you fee like it - you can even insert some DJ interludes if you like. The Xbox version supports 5.1 Dolby Digital and this gives it the edge over the other versions of the game, sonically at least.
Totally new to this port is the replay mode. With the number of insane jumps and crazy stunts that you can perform in San Andreas, this is a really nice addition to the game, but it is somewhat limited. It's great for taking another look at something that just happened, but there's no option to save replays to the hard disk. It's a real shame, but at least a replay feature has been included.
The Xbox port plays predominantly the same as its PlayStation 2 older brother, but the Xbox pad's lack of shoulder buttons causes a few problems. You can use the pad's analogue triggers to make the driving sections more enjoyable, but looking to the side of a car or using the rear view is rather an ordeal; the black and white buttons just aren't that easy to get to. The analogue sticks provide slightly smoother control than those found on the Dual Shock 2, but switching targets is tricky as that is also mapped to the black and white buttons. We can't really criticise Rockstar as they have done the best they can with the controller, but anyone familiar with the game on the PlayStation 2 may have an awkward time adjusting.
At its heart, San Andreas on the Xbox is a pretty straightforward port, but given that the original version is so great, this is no bad thing. The improvements made to the new version are significant enough to give Xbox owners the ultimate (console) version of the game, but existing PlayStation 2 owners would have to be die-hard fans to get much out of it.