A highly realistic simulation of life as a young black man in America.

If you grew up playing games in the 80s/90s, likely you had a lot of moments where you said to yourself something like " ... man, I wish I could hop in one of those jets or tanks parked in the background and just mow everyone down with it." The 3D GTA games have fundamentally been about fulfilling that sense of "I wish I could ...", crafting a giant playground in which you can do nearly whatever you feel like at any given time. The "sandbox" has still had quite a few constraints, however; and what San Andreas seems primarily aimed at is fulfilling the remaining checklist of "I wish I could ..."s that established fans of the series have.

I don't know much about art, but ...

Wish you could fly a jet? It's here. Jetpack? Yep. Want to jump out of a plane, or off of a massive building, and parachute to the ground? Check. How about just being able to go inside more of those businesses and buildings you always see around the game landscape, and actually do entertaining stuff in them? Sure.

The fictional state of San Andreas is an island roughly five times bigger than either of the previous 3D games. This expansion doesn't just go outward, but up as well - there's giant mountains and tremendous skyscrapers one can get on top of by various means, and jets can be flown that take you up above the cloud layer. It's even a little deeper, too, as your player-character can swim for the first time in the series, and dive underwater. Instead of one major city in this one, you get three - Los Santos, a composite of downtown LA, Hollywood and Compton; San Fierro, a San Francisco stand-in; and Las Venturas, the Las Vegas clone. I'd say each is roughly 3/4 the size of Vice City, but there's also a tremendous amount of forested land called the Badlands (largely based on Northern California's redwood country and the Mount Diablo area) separating the cities along with a pretty good chunk of desert terrain surrounding Las Venturas. Taken all together, the game world is much more massive than anything that came before it, and even better yet - on the PC at least - it's completely contiguous, there's no pauses or loading screens at all.

Of course, you don't get to roam free in all this terrain right from the start. The game begins in Los Santos, with main character Carl Johnson (CJ) returning home for the first time in five years. CJ is a former gangbanger that took off for Liberty City when things got too hot for him, but he's come back to bury his mom, who was killed in a drive-by. On his way home, however, he's intercepted by the corrupt Officer Tenpenny, a pretty transparent adaptation of Denzel Washington's character in Training Day. Tenpenny makes it clear that he has plans for CJ, before letting him go home to find out that his former gang is in decline due to their refusal to sell crack in the ghetto, while opportunistic rivals get rich off of it and push closer and closer to wiping them out. This sets the stage for the usual series of GTA missions and mayhem; CJ has a set of tasks to complete in Los Santos before the Badlands and San Fierro are opened to him, and then he'll have some more work in those areas before Las Venturas and the remainder of the map can be safely accessed. Previous GTA games used this "gradual unlocking" strategy to give you at least some incentive to follow along with the story rather than just going on a joyride/killing spree and racking up six-star wanted levels every time you turned the game on, but they used water as a physical barrier to keep you out of those areas, which couldn't be crossed without either exploiting glitches or hacking the game. Since water is no barrier to CJ anymore, a patient player can technically access the whole map straight from the start, but Rockstar attempts to dissuade you from this by saddling you with a five-star wanted level instantly if you cross into an area you aren't "supposed" to be in yet.

It's perhaps a bit of a cheap and annoying tactic, but it's unlikely that you'll ever feel confined and lacking for things to do. In addition to expanding the game world, Rockstar has filled it in with a massive amount of mini-games, customization options and races to keep you busy. These are a mixed bag, but there's such a wealth of things to do that it's easy to set aside the boring and tedious stuff in favor of other things. As far as the mini-games go, CJ can shoot hoops (solo) at basketball nets found in driveways and courts throughout the game, place bets (ranging from $50-$1000) to play pool at bars, gamble on horses (and when Las Venturas is opened, play poker, blackjack and roulette), test his shooting skills in competitive matches at Ammu-Nation stores, dance in a DDR-style rhythm game at dance clubs, or pass his time tossing money to strippers in a VIP room. There's even some arcade games found scattered about that can be played, but they're little things thrown together in-house by Rockstar rather than actual arcade titles of the time a la Shenmue, and they're all honestly pretty bad and unplayable. In addition, you've now got a complement of statistics - CJ has ratings for his level of Fat, Muscle, Stamina (replacing the unseen ability to sprint for longer with practice in the previous two games), Sex Appeal and Respect. CJ also needs to grab something to eat at least once every couple of game days from the numerous restaurants scattered about, or his Fat will gradually waste away, then his Muscle, and finally his health until he dies of starvation. CJ's sprite will also change in appearance relative to his levels of Fat and Muscle; you can pork up by eating multiple Cluckin' Bell meals in one day, tone up by sprinting or cycling, or put on muscle by using one of the various gyms scattered through the game world to do a weight-lifting minigame. CJ can also get himself clothing, tattoos and haircuts, all of which influence his Sex Appeal level; this comes into play after a certain point in the story missions, where CJ becomes able to date various women. Finally, Respect is earned by completing missions successfully and stackin' that paper - the higher the level, the more members of CJ's gang can be commanded to tag along with him and back him up in a gunfight, with a posse of seven possible at the maximum ranking.

One aspect of the game that gets great expansion here is the (largely optional) illegal street races. There's an absolute ton of them throughout the game, and San Andreas' expanded repertoire of vehicles opens up a lot of possibilities. You've got your usual range of sports cars, motorcycles and RC cars, but there's also go-karts, races across the Badlands in ATVs, monster trucks, lowriders, bicycles, biplanes, helicopters, even a hovercraft for land/sea races.

The randomly generated pedestrians and drivers have also been given some expansion. You'll notice that the generic drivers tend to be more aggressive, not stopping on a dime like they did before when they have the right of way. So if you drive into oncoming traffic going up the wrong way of a freeway off-ramp, for example, expect someone to plow into you full-tilt without even thinking about stopping or swerving. Generic drivers also stand a chance of getting raged if you so much as nick their car; they'll follow you suicidally trying to ram you at top speed until you either fire a few warning shots at them or bail from the car - hilariously, they keep attacking the car rather than you if you jump out, and they reminded me of Little Larry's neighbor from the Big Lebowski ("You kill my car! I kill YOUR fucking car!") Peds who are walking may also stop and engage in brief conversations with each other, which can be hilariously random. They might also make a positive or negative remark to you about your clothes or muscle tone, to which you can tap Y or N to give a positive or negative reply, and the negative sometimes touches off a fistfight. You sometimes see couples walking together hand-in-hand, and there's a much greater overall variety of random peds and voice clips. They also have a much more detailed set of animations; the gangbangers you see around the ghetto of Los Santos can be seen puffing blunts, sipping malt liquor, stopping to lean against parked cars, running to hit on women (particularly funny when it's some ancient granny), or just walking down the street waving their hands and rapping to themselves.

Rockstar eased up on the celebrity voice acting for this one, preferring to cast relative unknowns in the role of CJ, his family members, and his gang's OGs. There's some Name Actors in the more secondary roles, however - James Woods as a CIA spook out of the X-Files, Peter Fonda as a weed-farming hippie, Ice-T as an alcoholic washed-up rapper, Chris Penn as a corrupt cop and Charlie Murphy as a small-time pimp. The biggest star on the roster is Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Officer Tenpenny, but he really just seems to be playing Samuel L. Jackson - I think Young Maylay, a previously obscure rapper who voices main man CJ, by far does the best job out of anybody on the cast, making the character personable and likable even as he's committing mass murders.

                                                 "Oh hai"

This indirectly brings up an interesting point about the game. I'm sure you've heard of Hot Coffee, which was really the stupidest controversy ever in video games (perhaps second only to the Night Trap debacle.) While Hillary Clinton and other opportunistic politicians (who undoubtedly never played the game) were grandstanding for the sake of their careers, they apparently missed the fact that many of the game's mandatory story missions have you casually killing off masses of soldiers for often spurious reasons, and at one point you even sneak into the game's approximation of the Hoover Dam to plant bombs on the power turbines (an important distinction: unlike what many other less careful and thorough "games journalists" have written in their reviews, you do not *blow up the dam* - you blow up the power systems in order to briefly cause a power outage in Las Venturas so as to sneak past a casino's security system in Oceans Eleven style.) I suppose if you can swallow killing hordes of cops, killing servicemen isn't any bigger of a moral quandary even in This Post 9/11 World We Live In; unlike the cops, however, the game never portrays the soldiers as thugs who have no regard for human life and will gladly mow down scads of pedestrians while in pursuit or open fire on someone who nicked their car. They're usually just standing around guarding restricted areas, which is what soldiers generally get paid to do, and the juxtaposition between CJ being the most likable and seemingly good-hearted GTA hero to date, with the fact that he does the most cold-blooded shit out of anyone thus far in the series, is interesting to say the least. Also interesting is how America and its politicians goes ape-shit over hiding goofy polygonal sex (with no genitals or even frontal nudity) from The Childrens, but epic killing sprees don't require a similar level of histrionics in the media.

While the game works so often you likely won't mind too much the bits where it doesn't, there are still frustrating moments that crop up a little too often. While it's usually optional or side missions that are the worst offenders, there are at least a few amongst the story-based missions (the ones required to eventually unlock the whole game world) that are more head-banging than they really needed to be. The worst example is a series of flying missions required to complete the plot - the plane controls in general are very touchy and needlessly finicky, really the only examples of bad vehicle control in the whole game. This was the case in previous games too, and I think it's a case of Rockstar misguidedly going for "realism" in the physics rather than just focusing on what's fun and player-friendly. It's frustrating how arbitrary the challenges are, as well - the flying missions are designed to teach you how to turn, take off and land, yet you're forced to go through a series of coronas that are pointlessly distributed in a way to make you deke and jive much more than you'll ever really need to in a plane in the game.

Outside of the frustratingly arbitrary flying missions, the regular missions are a bit more of a mixed bag than in previous games. The best ones are better than anything ever seen in the series by far, but there's some really bad ones too. Missions that have you inflitrating a structure are generally the best - some incorporate a mix of stealth, with a new mode that allows you to move silently while crouching, hide in shadows to evade detection and perform a "stealth kill" by sneaking up on enemies from behind. Enemy AI is improved from previous games - they'll now move in a crouch toward and around you using cover all the while, lean out from behind walls and corners, and even split up and try to flank you when in big groups. Between better AI and more robust scripting, which allows for stuff to happen during the missions like SWAT teams bursting through the ceiling or crashing through a wall in an armored vehicle, these missions are immersive and among the best points of the game. Also good are various "rail shooter" sequences that are much like the helicopter missions in Vice City where you are armed with an infinite-fire machine gun while someone else drives a vehicle through small armies of enemies. For each mission like these, however, there's a mission that strips you of some or all of your weapons unexpectedly and arbitrarily, or makes a vehicle that you brought to a mission randomly disappear for no apparent reason and then force you into a much crappier vehicle for the duration.

Vets of the previous games will likely to be happy to discover the "gang wars" feature that allows you to gradually take over territory and, eventually, wipe out enemy gangs (causing them to no longer spawn around the game map and attack you at random.) This is another mixed blessing, however; the turf wars are usually pretty fun, but the downside is that there's just far too many little territories, and until you take over 100% of them you'll get called to defend a random one every three games or so. There's a glitch in the game where saving or initiating an R3 mission can cancel out a turf takeover in progress, but even with those outs you can still be interrupted while in the midst of something else (like, cruising in a jet on the far side of the map) at the penalty of lost territory and respect if you don't respond in time.

A rare look into the off-duty hours of Snake Eyes

To finish up the list of complaints, the vehicle camera has suffered a slight downgrade in the PC version - it no longer auto-snaps to the back of the vehicle as it did in Vice City, but sometimes drifts around directly overhead (the worst possible angle) until you've driven in a particular direction for a while. This is supposed to be counterbalanced by using the mouse to adjust the view while driving, but if playing with a gamepad, it requires a third hand to keep control of everything all at once. You can play the game entirely with the keypad and mouse, but driving with the keyboard is a bit of a nightmare in itself.

That's about it for the complaints though, and a few janky story missions, the relatively minor inconvenience of the "turf wars" and the slightly annoying vehicle cam aren't enough to overwhelm the positive qualities of the game. It's really one of the most ambitious and amazing projects in the history of the medium. The "gangsta" attitude, gratuitous violence and focus on criminality may not make it everyone's cup of tea, but at least on a technical level you can't deny it is an incredible achievement, and there's so much going on you're likely to find *something* about it to enjoy.

Links :

* How to mod v2.0 of San Andreas
* Downgrader patch for v2.0 (needed to mod/install Hot Coffee)
* (general fan site)
* Girlfriend wooing guide
* Appearance FAQ (clothing and tattoo ratings)
* Turf War FAQ
* Vehicle Guide
* GTA:SA Sticky Topic at Gamefaqs (lots of good general info and links)
* Rockstar's answer to the PC "gym glitch"
* Excellent comprehensive FAQ
* Deezire Mod (replaces deleted missions and items)

Videos :

Gameplay Video

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