One of the most celebrated series of recent times has to be Rockstar North's Grand Theft Auto games. From the original top-down versions through to the huge-selling 3D incarnations of III and Vice City, not many games can match the popularity (or sales figures) of the GTA games. The two years that players have had to endure waiting for their next dose of street crime-related shenanigans has seen a couple of pretenders to the throne - notably True Crime: Streets of L.A. and the horrible, horrible (horrible) DRIV3R - but neither could possibly hold a torch to what Rockstar achieved with their games. Now the wait is over and the Daddies have returned to show the pretenders how it's done. And then some.
If you haven't already, go and buy San Andreas. It is a stunning, stunning game. With that out of the way we can get into the nitty-gritty - why is it stunning exactly? Well that is impossible to answer in one review alone, as it would need more space than most novels take up to explain the intricacies and nuances contained within. The player takes control of one Carl 'CJ' Johnson, who is returning to San Andreas, after spending five years in GTA III's Liberty City, in order to attend his mother's funeral. No sooner has our protagonist landed at Los Santos International Airport when he is picked up by a couple of crooked coppers, who welcome CJ home by leaving him in enemy gang territory. To go on would spoil the story, but it picks up from there and doesn't stop for quite a while.
The core GTA experience is more or less the same as it has ever been - visit marked points on the map to trigger more than a hundred different missions, each opening with surprisingly well choreographed cut-scenes. The physical 'acting' of the characters is of a very high standard, with movements fluid and natural, but the experience is really lifted by the vocal talent on offer - Samuel L Jackson, Ice-T, Axl Rose, Chris Penn, Shaun Ryder, Peter Fonda, James Woods and a great deal more adding their voices to the interesting and funny characters CJ meets on his travels. As with previous incarnations, no-one is scared to use every word in the English language available to them, with San Andreas delivering more curse words than the last two offerings - and yes, as the game is set in the early nineties West Coast gangsta scene, you will hear constant use of the dreaded 'N' word. One more reason for the Daily Mail to go ballistic.
Another constant of the GTA series is the radio service, and the soundtrack offered up by Andreas is the expected early nineties fare - NWA, Public Enemy, Pearl Jam, Guns 'N' Roses, Rage Against the Machine are all included (though there is a notable exception of Nirvana). For some reason the songs offered up don't have the instant appeal that the eighties hits of Vice City did, and the radio can get a little tiresome as a result, especially if West Coast rap/hip-hop is not to ones taste. The in-between links, adverts and news reports are all of the expected high quality humour-wise and don't fail to raise a smile, even on repeated listens, with a definite air of Britishness in their comedy. The high-quality sound is once again partnered with the same GTA looks as the last two games, and whilst they aren't amazing, they do a job and clearly push the PS2 to its limit. If one thing needs to be improved upon for the next incarnation, it's the graphical performance - but seeing as the next game will more than likely be for the next generation consoles, that's pretty much a given.
The much vaunted character customization offers up an opportunity new to the GTA world - CJ can look how the player wants him to; tattoo's, haircuts and clothing are all changeable as the player sees fit, simply by visiting the appropriate shop. Want to be a fat gangsta with a huge blonde afro? Eat lots of fast food, don't exercise and visit the barbers. Voila! One fat, unfit, blonde gangbanger. Exercise? Why yes - a number of gyms are located through the state which can be visited as and when the player wishes, enabling a number of methods to improve CJ's physique, increase stamina and get rid of unwanted fat; weightlifting, exercise bikes and treadmills all being available for use. The much-talked about system whereby food must be consumed for the upkeep of the player is far more subtle than most would expect, with the practice not encroaching on gameplay in any major way - in more than thirty hours of play we managed to get by on less than ten meals, with health naturally returning at save points and through the old style collectable heart icons. These more in-depth character elements are a welcome addition - they could have very easily overwhelmed the core of the game, but instead they are implemented in such a fashion that they fun to take part in and almost totally voluntary in participation.
Amongst the ridiculous number of additions to the game are stealth kills and stealth missions - obviously something coming from Rockstar's foray into the world of Manhunt. This is another element in the game that is not overused and helps to break up the constant run and gun style that GTA has a reputation for. Along with stealth there is finally the ability to swim, so no more slipping off a cliff at high speeds to fail a mission, as CJ can simply get out of the car and swim to shore. This ability is another thing that isn't simply 'tacked on' as some may have expected, with a number of missions centred on water-based action and secret collectables being available underwater. Arcade games, breaking into houses, jet aircraft, car customisation, girlfriends, gambling and playing pool - these are just a few of the little touches that have been added to make San Andreas a much fuller experience.
If you can go somewhere, nine times out of ten, there will be something for the player to do in the area - something that doesn't affect the main story of the game, something that may well give the player little or no reward, but something that is undeniably cool and fun to take part in. The little secrets here and there have always been a triumph of the GTA series, and Andreas has them in abundance - the hidden packages of old being replaced by graffiti tags, horseshoes, oysters and secret photographs, along with many, many other elements. Trucking, quarry work and driving freight trains are all included as little earners on the side, and each have many fun and highly addictive qualities in them. Dancing in clubs to a Dance Dance Revolution/Parappa the Rapper style rhythm-action section isn't something that people would likely expect in a GTA game, but it is there.
There is just so much to do in the game it's a mini-miracle, and we haven't even mentioned one of the more core elements, statistic upgrades - CJ has a stat for just about everything he does; driving, flying, boating, swimming, shooting (with a different stat assigned to each different weapon), motor biking, cycling and respect, all having bars representing how skilful CJ is at the action in question, and each can be worked on by simply doing the activity - shoot a pistol, get better with the pistol. Drive a car, get better at driving. Help a friend out, gain respect. Simple, non-intrusive and welcome. Drivers react to the player crashing into them, the police chase other criminals, CJ can recruit a crew to follow him wherever and gun down any opposing gangs, gang turf is taken and lost throughout the game, BMX parks can be visited and there is even a two-player mode available at certain parts in the game. So, so much has been crammed in that players will be hard pressed to find they have nothing to do - even more so than in previous incarnations, and that's saying quite a lot.
San Andreas is worthy of nearly all the hype it received, and is definitely worth your attention. The nay-sayers have been coming out of the woodwork for this one, but they are wrong. This is one of the most fun and well-realised games that has ever been released. Everyone should enjoy San Andreas. Everyone over the age of 18 anyway.