It’s almost difficult to comprehend the amount of
information packed into Rockstar’s latest entry in the
thriving “Grand Theft Auto” series. Part role-playing
game, part driving game, part action game and part epic adventure,
“Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” is so involved and so
expansive it literally takes an entire state to contain it all.

TV/New Media Reviews
Timeline compiled by Zach Borden, image courtesy of Rockstar
TV/New Media Reviews
(courtesy of Rockstar)

The setting for this iteration of “GTA” is three
West Coast cities in the early ’90s (all inspired by
real-world cities) sprawled across the fictional state of San
Andreas: Los Santos (Los Angeles), Las Venturas (Las Vegas) and San
Fierro (San Francisco).

Carl “CJ” Johnson, a young man from the desolate
neighborhood of Los Santos known as Ganton, and his gang are pulled
straight out of John Singleton’s “Boyz N the
Hood” and the architecture and styles of the times are all
hit with uncanny precision.

Though the progression in “San Andreas” is often
linear, it is, like it has been in the past, extremely open-ended.
After meeting up with a few friends from CJ’s past —
Ryder, Big Smoke and Sweet — a vast majority of Los
Santos’s map is already available for exploration. The three
cities, each the size of Vice City in 2002’s “Grand
Theft Auto: Vice City” version, have plenty of winding roads
and small backcountry towns in-between. To put this expanse in
perspective, the amount of area that’s open in the beginning
of the game is larger than the fully opened Vice City and only
expands as the game advances.

The developers at Rockstar have put as much, if not more, time
and energy into creating the atmosphere of San Andreas as they did
in creating a straightforward plot. However, that’s not to
say the plot falls by the wayside. On the contrary; the narrative
in “San Andreas” is one of the richest and
well-developed in “GTA” history. The voice acting of
the characters (Samuel L. Jackson, Ice T and David Cross are a few
of the well-known actors who lent their voices to the production)
and the well-written script give the performances a cinematic touch
so that they don’t feel fake or forced. No longer do the cut
scenes feel unnatural and rigid; they are an integral part of the
game and blend well with the in-game action.

The missions, like those in previous editions, keep the
narrative moving forward, as do the calls CJ receives on his cell
phone. In addition, the player’s use of a gang also changes
the perspective of play. Most of the missions are not solo; they
usually involve one or more members of CJ’s crew, making them
more about teamwork and unity and adding more human quality.

Breaking from the narrative, however, has always been one of the
game’s biggest assets, and “San Andreas” is no
different. Not only is there much more area to explore, but there
are dozens of new things to see and do, including eating,
exercising, gambling, tricking out cars and much more. In this
edition, the numerical health meter has been replaced by a stamina
bar. The player no longer relies on picking up random power-ups to
recharge and replenish health. Stamina is replenished by eating
food at local restaurants, which mainly consists of pizza,
hamburgers and chicken. Eating too much, however, will put extra
pounds onto CJ’s waistline and force players to work it off
in the gym.

Stats such as “Respect,” “Fat” and
“Sex Appeal” are all recorded in a level-building way
similar to games such as “The Sims.” As players buy
more stylish outfits (one can don anything from a green hoodie and
flip-flops to a sharp suit with dog tags and high-tops), CJ’s
sex appeal and respect will vacillate, making it either easier or
harder for him to pick up dates. In addition, skills such as
driving, shooting and swimming (yes, gamers no longer die as soon
as they hit water) have to be worked at and learned over time. A
player that has a higher level in driving, for example, is better
equipped to handle tight turns. A player that has an increased
stamina level will be able to sprint further and longer than one
that is fat with a lower stamina rating.

The stat system is a welcome addition to the “GTA”
package and adds more realism and customization to an all-ready
well-rounded package. In addition to changes in clothes and
nutrition, players can also visit local barbers and tattoo artists
to further customize their character’s physical
appearance.

“GTA” has always been about the vehicles, and
“San Andreas” does not disappoint. Some of the
highlights of the latest edition include the bicycle, the black van
and the four-wheeler. The bicycle is easy to use and as CJ becomes
more skilled with the bike, he can enter BMX races to win cash
prizes. The black van can be entered at night and triggered —
like in the “Vigilante” missions and taxi cab missions
of past installments — to perform home invasions, where CJ
will sneak into a person’s home and steal valuables for extra
money while the resident is asleep. The four-wheeler can be found
outside the city limits and used to terrorize the backcountry in a
full-out ATV onslaught.

Technically, “GTA: San Andreas” is another solid
installment into the genre. While the characters look a bit blocky
in medium and close-up shots, their animations and subtle nuisances
clearly make up for it. The environments are extremely well
rendered (each neighborhood within the various cities that make up
San Andreas have their own unique feel) and push the capabilities
of the PS2. Rarely do objects or textures suddenly
“pop” into view. The weather effects – including
a heat haze for the mid-day desert settings and a grainy,
desaturated texture for the grey, rainy evenings — are
especially impressive.

The radio stations, a staple of the “GTA” series,
are a collective mix of hip-hop, reggae, techno, country, classic
rock and talk that span a range suitable for a game of this era.
There’s nothing like performing a drive-by to 2 Pac’s
“I Don’t Give a Fuck” or cruising through redwood
country in a stolen pickup truck listening to Ed Bruce’s
“Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be
Cowboys.”

“San Andreas” is an epic game no matter how one may
slice it. With all of the possibilities for exploration, expansion
and customization, gamers could easily spend 150 plus hours within
this gaming universe and still not reach a 100 percent completion
rating. Games like this are simply unheard of in today’s
market. With such an expansive release, Rockstar could have easily
let the game get too far out of hand and end up as a jumble of
misfit parts. But in “San Andreas,” everything clicks
and falls into place to create one of the defining videogames of
this generation.

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

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