A gangsta's paradise.
Despite its old age and jaded disposition, the Game Revolution staff still has no idea what it wants to be when it grows up. Will we chase bad guys as police officers? Help sick people as doctors? Wear chaps as" construction workers? All the world's professions sound really friendly and helpful when we read about them in social studies books.
Except, that is, the life of a digital criminal. First, he shoots the friendly cop off his bike with a sawed-off shotgun. Then he jumps on the bike, breaks out his glock and streaks down the streets firing indiscriminately at passers-by. In the chaos, a car explodes and flings the flaming construction worker across the street. Minutes later, the helpful doctor shows up to survey the carnage and maybe grab a couple watches. As the bodies are being loaded into the meat-wagon, our loco hero drops out of the sky in a crop duster, hitting the scene like a meteor. Corpses, doctors, and onlookers all burst into flames and go flying.
Leave it to Rockstar to help us discover what we really want to be when we grow up: Los Angeles gangstas. After playing so much of Rockstar's new Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that we can no longer drive the legal speed limit, we here at GR can honestly say that if we weren't game reviewers, we'd be in jail. Of course, we're too sane to actually try any of this stuff, so we're pretty happy just pretending with the amazing new GTA.
Set on an island off the West Coast in the 1990's, San Andreas follows the hard-knock life of Carl "CJ' Johnson and his travels through Los Santos (L.A.), San Fiero (San Francisco), and Las Venturas (Las Vegas). After moving to Liberty City (seeGTA 3) for five years in an attempt to escape the gangster lifestyle, Carl returns home upon learning that his mom has been gunned down by a mysterious assassin. Vowing to avenge his mother's death and restore glory to his neighborhood gang, the Grove Street Families, Carl and his crew battle rival gangs, drug dealers, cops and mountain militiamen until everyone bad and good is dead, including your mother's killer.
As soon as you get into town, though, you'll be picked up by Samuel L. Jackson's Officer Tenpenny and his crooked cop cronies. They'll take your money and possessions, threaten to frame you with a murder, and then dump you off in rival gang territory. So, you jump on one of the game's many new features, a bicycle, and ride home. Bicycles are shockingly cool. After cruising hot cars and bad ass choppers in previous games, a simple bike might seem a step in the wrong direction. Lucky for us, they handle well with bunny-hops, wheelies, stoppies, and if you lay into the "X' button you can actually haul ass.
But if you want to get the most out of a bicycle, you'll have to develop your character by eating well and going to the gym. When Carl is hungry, he'll gradually lose muscle and stamina and hit like a sissy. Without stamina, Carl won't be able to sprint on foot or jam on a bike for long without becoming winded. So you can take Carl to the gym, where he'll gain muscle and stamina, be able to hit like a truck, run a mile at top speed, and look like Tom "Tiny" Lister's big brother. To sustain your physique, you have to eat, but if you eat too much, Carl will become visibly porky and will lose the ability to scale fences and climb over obstacles.
Want to downplay your fat gut? Then buy new clothes, tats or hairstyles. On top of that, you can gain proficiency with all weapons and vehicles through repeated use. San Andreas keeps some sort of statistic for just about everything you do, and the fact that many of them actually affect the way you play the game is incredible. Not only is GTA a racing, action, adventure, stealth, arcade bonanza, it also has RPG elements to boot. This game is the alpha and the omega.
Once you've cultivated your inner G, you might wander through Los Santos (an awesome replica of Los Angeles), and stir up some trouble. For the most part, the game plays much like the prior two GTA games. You jack cars, you shoot people, you put out fires and you pick up fares just as you've done before.
However, San Andreas also lets you grab a pimp-ride and take hoes to waiting Johns, drive big tankers around in trucking missions, burglarize homes with moving vans, tag up the city with a spray can, take scenic photographs of the various locales, challenge martial arts experts for new melee moves, date various girls, recruit gang-members, take over rival gang territory, fly planes, enter low-rider contests, dive for oysters, dual-wield mac-10s, and generally go nuts in a million ways that don't have anything to do with the main story line.
This freedom has always been the GTA hallmark, and in that regard, San Andreas piles on the features to ludicrous proportions. Comparing San Andreas to any other game is like comparing King Kong to the other monkeys; it is the Overgame. San Andreas's only real competition is Vice City, just like Vice City's only real competition was GTA 3. Since merely listing the new features took up its own paragraph (and I didn't include them all), lets just take a look at a few in particular. After all, time spent reading this review is time spent not playing.
Take the turf wars. As a gang, you want money, power, and respect. To this end, you must defend your territory from rival gang hit-squads while taking over other neighborhoods. Get heated up, walk into a rival gang's territory, and start pumping their members full of lead. Once you've killed about five gang members you'll start a turf war, in which you'll have to survive three waves of attackers trying to drive you out of their territory. When you kill them all, the territory will be yours.
To make this task easier, you can recruit gangsters from your neighborhood by targeting them and pressing "Up' on the D-pad. Once you get a nice little group of strapped homies, you can wander into a rival gang's territory and start tearing it up. However, the only commands you're able to give your goons are "Follow me,' and "Stay here.' Otherwise, they act independently, which can be a bad thing since you have some extremely violent friends.
Once you've spilt swimming pools worth of blood and wracked up tons of money and respect, you might like to go out for a quiet night with one of your many girlfriends. For the most part, dating is easy: just take your girl someplace nice then take her home. As you take a girl out more and more often, your chemistry with her will go up until she's ready to get it on. However, if you find some flowers you can present her with those for some guaranteed play.
If one of your friends is over, you can even walk up to the Cooperative mode icon in front of your girlfriend's house and then you and your friend can rip up the streets as Carl and his girl. While there isn't a lot to do here other than raise hell, kicking ass and fighting cops with two people is a lot of fun. The camera is peskier than ever at these points, since the co-op sequences aren't split-screen, but the bodies you can generate as a couple will make the exploits of Mickey and Mallory Knox seem like the adventures of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in comparison. You make dead people.
Which is a little easier thanks to the improved controls. While driving in the GTA games has always been ghetto-fabulous, the gunfights were previously rigid, boring affairs where you clumsily locked onto enemy after enemy and had to take punishment if you were going to dish it out. But no more! Carl can duck, roll, and quickly toggle targets with quick taps of the L2 and R2 buttons. He could still learn a thing or two from James Bond, but hey, who couldn't?
The missions themselves are what you'd expect'if you expect the unexpected. From torching fields of marijuana to sticking up banks to driving music producers off piers, San Andreas has some of the craziest, most involving missions ever. The guys at Rockstar are obviously creative geniuses and they know how to make their crazy ideas work. As a result, the missions are just as fun as the rest of the game, even if they're also the source of some of San Andreas' few problems.
Though numerous, varied and largely exciting, the missions can get on a playa's nerves. Many are long and difficult, and getting back on track once you screw up can take forever, especially if the mission has you traveling out into the boondocks. Although checkpoints wouldn't do anything for the game's awesome sense of realism, reloading every five minutes doesn't do much, either.
As before, every mission must be completed to further the plot. While there are peripheral tasks to take on, none of them figure into the story. It would be nice if there were secondary missions that affected the outcome of the game but didn't have to be completed, or perhaps some sort of branching mission structure like what we saw in the great Colony Wars. How about if "Mission Failure" opened some other doors rather than requiring another try?
But hey, if a mission gets you down, there are a thousand ways to cool off, from just zooming around to fighting the cops. Even though you must complete the linear story missions to advance the plot, you'll never feel like there's nothing else to do. Can't get past a certain spot? Go hog wild in an airplane or fly through the countryside on a dirt bike. The only limit is your appetite for violence and chaos.
It should be noted, though, that you still cannot watch your carnage over again, as San Andreas doesn't have any sort of instant replay system. Considering how visceral and insane the action gets, the ability to save your more ridiculous moments to show your buddies is a no-brainer. We've griped about this for three games in a row now, so we're just going to shout it out and hope Rockstar finally ears us: PUT AN INSTANT REPLAY IN YOUR DAMN GAME. PRETTY PLEASE.
For a game of San Andreas's enormous size, the graphics are unbelievable. The animations are great, the lighting effects throughout the day/night cycles are brilliant, and the blur effect that kicks in when you go reeeally fast is thrilling. I've seen better character models in some games and better lighting in others, but when you consider the scope of this monster, you learn how to forgive.
If the graphics are great, the sounds are unrivaled. San Andreas' level of audio detail is overwhelming. Tractor motors sputter and stall, guns pop-pop-pop in the distance, and sirens blare to add ambience. The radio stations provide a schizophrenic soundtrack for your adventures in pandemonium. Reggae, hip-hop, rock, country, great Talk Radio'it's just a whopper of an auditory meal. Running down pedestrians to "mothers, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys' is the kind of ironic thrill that makes the GTA games so good, and so bad.
Of course, everyone has something sassy to say if you bump into them'and you should listen, because the voice-acting is the best we've ever heard. Relative unknown rapper Young Maylay is the voice of Carl, and I'm going to buy his album based on his performance as an actor in a video game. Seriously. His dialogues with the brutal Catalina are hilarious, his timing is right on, and his performance will forever make CJ one of the most memorable characters ever. Throw in more great work by the likes of Charlie Murphy and James Woods, and you have perhaps the best acted game ever made. You'll want to complete the missions just so you can hear what crazy, foul things these cats will say next.
And chances are, it'll be pretty foul. From the sick insinuations of Jizzy B. to the sexually deviant threats of Catalina, you'll hear things said in San Andreas that will curl your toes. Don't play this game in front of your parents, unless they're really, really cool, and don't buy this for your kids unless they're thirty. In San Andreas, crime of all sorts pays, and the language would make Bernie Mac blush.
We've torn ourselves away from this masterpiece to bring you this review, but the call of the ghetto is growing louder. If you fashion yourself a contemporary gamer, you must play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It's that simple. The series is an anomaly, the work of mad geniuses, and somehow the newest one is priced as though it were just another game and not one of the greatest of all time. Way to represent, Rockstar.