One word to sum up GTA: San Andreas: Wow.
Really, I mean that. I'm a gaming realist. While not classically trained in game design or programming, I've been playing video games more or less since they were invented. My family owned an original Pong game, for Pete's sake. Thus, with over two decades of experience in the matter, I thought I had a pretty good handle on what could be done in the third installment of what has turned out to be a very, very popular franchise. I am delighted to say my expectations have been exceeded.
Now, I'm sure you know the history of this series, but just to make sure you know where I'm coming from, let me provide my point of view. Grand Theft Auto, for the PC, started it all. It generated early buzz by being a target for banning, because it was so violent. It spawned a sequel, which raised little critical acclaim.
Then came GTA 3 - and with it a switch over to a 3-dimensional gaming world. Even though the mechanics stayed largely the same from its top-down 2d predecessors, it provided such freedom, such immersion in the gameplay, that it received wide acclaim. The subsequent uproar among politicians and more banning threats only helped fuel the bad-boy image that catapulted the title to almost universal popularity. Buzz aside, the game itself did something few if any games had done previously - it offered open-ended gameplay. You could literally spend hours entertaining yourself doing random stuff unrelated to story progression.
Clearly, though, there was room for improvement, which is where Vice City comes in. Vice City did everything GTA3 did and more. You could now buy new hideouts, enter certain buildings, use motorcycles and helicopters, change outfits, and acquire cash-generating assets. Along with loads of new "minigames", expanded search-quests, and top-notch voice talent, Vice City seemed like it was on top of the game. All Rockstar had to do to sell a million copies of the next game was craft more of the same in a different environment.
And thus we come to San Andreas. Expecting more of the same, I was nonetheless enthused to pick up a new GTA title and see what it had to offer. I have been subsequently amazed by the sheer amount of *stuff* this game has to offer.
Most obviously, we have tweaks to the game mechanics. Rockstar has now added an RPG-like element to the series - the main character (CJ) has upgradeable stats. There's not a ton of depth there, but it's certainly more than what I expected. His health bar upgrades slowly over time. He gets better at using weapons. His skill with vehicles improves. He gains greater lung capacity as he stays underwater for extended periods of time (and he can actually swim!). And these are not simply numbers that you can upgrade and feel good about - they actually impact gameplay. Riding a motorcycle with a low bike skill will often send you flying off with the slightest bump, but as you improve, you're able to make sharper corners and heavier impacts.
The upgradeable stats comes with a greater sense of immersion. The previous titles, while entertaining, still suffered from video game logic. Did you hurt yourself? Go pick up a "heart" from the hospital to make yourself better. Not the same here. Rather than finding random little items, you heal yourself by eating. Amusingly, you can make yourself fatter by eating too much, which impacts both the appearance of your avatar and his physical performance. Buff Carl may be able to scale a ten-foot fence, but big fatty Carl can barely roll over a highway median. Of course, if you choose not to eat, you will lose weight, and if you have no fat to lose, you start dying. Literally. Your health bar decreases over time until you finally grab a bite. Rockstar seems to have struck a good balance here, as well - you need not constantly eat, so it usually doesn't become a distraction, but ignore the need for too long and it will affect you.
Not only can you upgrade yourself, you can also upgrade almost any vehicle in the game. In previous GTA games, the only way to change a car's appearance was to go into a pay'n'spray, and keep going in and out until you got the color you wanted. Here, there are shops that will allow you to customize the color, as well as add new features, like new wheels, struts, headlights, etc. And like I said, you can do this for just about anything in the game. You haven't lived until you've seen a farm truck, complete with wooden-cage flatbed, cruise down the highway on a nitro boost with spinners on the wheels, bouncing up and down on its struts.
Game mechanics aside, San Andreas also fundamentally changes some of the "givens" of the GTA universe. Previous titles had you finding "hidden packages" to acquire bonus weapon pickups at your hideout. This time around, there are no hidden packages. Instead, there are various search-quests that are region-specific. For example, the region you start in has you spraying the grove street logo over other gangs' graffiti. Find all 100, and you get a bonus in the starting area. When you move on to a new area, you then get a new quest that will benefit you in that area. And rather than simply running over packages, you actually have to interact with the search items - for the tags, you must target and "shoot" them with spray paint, which you can pick up at your hideout.
Asset properties have been upgraded since Vice City, as well. In VC, Tommy didn't have to do much to acquire the properties - complete a mission, sit in a strip club for 6 minutes, etc. Carl has a much tougher time of it - to acquire assets, he has to do several missions, or an extended minigame-like mission. And these are not part of the regular story - you must search them out first, requiring more exploration.
And that's just the stuff you don't have to do. There are also a large number of missions to drive the story forward, all very well voice acted, with some recognizable voice talent. And once again, the signature radio stations have all-new content (and Lazlo makes a brief return to talk radio in a hilarious segment interviewing "OG Loc").
Honestly, there's just so much to do here, the game can easily engross you for as long as a good Square RPG, if you choose to take advantage of all the minigames, subquests, search quests, etc. Getting "100%" completion rating is a labor of love, one that I have not yet attained even after at least 40 hours of gameplay.
So, is there anything not to like about this game? Well, a few things. First, the "mature" rating is well-deserved, even in the special edition release where the hidden mod has been removed from the code. Swearing is prolific. At least once a minute CJ blurts out an expletive when someone runs into his car, or talks back to him, or looks at him funny. This is pretty much unavoidable, so if you have a problem with cussing, you'll need to mute the game. And *definitely* do not let younger kids play this. Not only is the game vulgar with the curse words, it also has suggestions of sex (no actual nudity or explicit situations, but you can hear muffled voices from inside a girlfriend's house, complete with VERY suggestive moans and groans), and brutal, brutal violence (though this is similar to the previous GTA games, so if you've played those, you won't find much worse).
If you're mature enough to handle the suggestive themes and aren't completely put off by the nonending strings of cursing, you may take umbrage with the slightly blocky graphics. I can't detract from the score that much, because Rockstar has built a gigantic world with zero load times that I've seen, so I imagine the character and environment models had to suffer a bit to achieve the smoothness of the transitions. Even so, the graphics are less than optimal. Characters do move their lips when they talk and have some very basic facial expressions, but they're not very lifelike up close, and pedestrians are still largely undetailed and a little blocky. This is naturally to be expected with current hardware, but I can't wait for a GTA game on the Xbox 360 and PS3 - the series' graphics should start to shine on par with the gamplay.
Another very minor quibble is in the controls - they are a tad on the stiff side. This usually does not matter - driving is just about perfect, but aimed weapons are tough to get a handle on, because the sensitivity of the analog sticks does not seem to be used to its full potential.
However, these are at best minor quibbles. I can't rate the game a perfect 10 because of them, but I feel confident in saying that this is the most immersive GTA game yet, with the most stuff to do packed into it. If you're a fan of the GTA series, you need this game.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10,