Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: June 7, 2005
If you have access to a television, the internet, newspapers, or just the outside world in general, you've heard of the Grand Theft Auto series. It's the biggest thing to happen to gaming in years, for better (huge, open-ended worlds and addictive gameplay) and for worse (most of the negative media coverage video games get these days is courtesy of GTA).
Luckily for Xbox owners, the six-month Sony-exclusivity period has passed and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is here in top form, telling the story of Carl "CJ" Johnson. The year is 1992 and Carl is returning home to Los Santos (one of GTA: San Andreas' three sprawling metropolises) for the first time in five years for his mother's funeral. Right from the get-go, you get introduced to the reasons CJ left in the first place: harsh streets filled with warring gangs and corrupt cops. Not to spoil anything, but he ends up extending his stay past his mom's funeral for less-than-legal reasons.
So, what does San Andreas offer gameplay-wise? Everything you've come to expect from the GTA series and then some. As always, the main focus of the game is running missions for various people and organizations for a sweet cash payout. This time around, a new addition to the well-known formula is respect; you won't always get paid for completing missions, but you will get respect. The more respect you have, the more gang members you can have with you at one time.
This brings up another new gameplay addition: gang warfare. Fairly early on in the game, you'll gain the ability to fight with rival gangs for their turf. Just walk into an area held by a rival gang (as shown on the always-helpful mini-map) and kill three opposing gang members to incite a gang war. If you can survive three waves of gang members thrown at you periodically, their turf becomes yours and is populated with members of your gang, the Grove Street Family.
Besides taking care of your gang, it's important to look after yourself. For the first time in the series, you have a few stats that improve either over time or in spurts, if you make time to visit the gym. By working out, you can build muscle to increase your melee attack damage, burn fat to up your sex appeal, and build stamina to lengthen the time you can sprint, swim, or cycle faster.
The stat building doesn't end there, though. You also gain skill as you use any one of the game's veritable arsenal of weapons. As your skill increases in a particular weapon, its rate of fire, lock-on range, and accuracy increase. Once you max them out and reach hitman level, the smaller weapons (pistols, micro SMGs, etc.) can be dual-wielded for double the pleasure. Finally, as you spend time driving around the different classes of vehicles (cars, motorcycles, boats, planes, and bicycles), the controls tighten up to reflect your expertise behind the wheel. The best part is that you don't have to constantly monitor and build up these stats in order to enjoy the game. The only thing you need to worry about is your diet, really. Put away too many cheeseburgers and pizzas and CJ gets pretty tubby, lowering the time he can sprint.
The graphics are mildly cleaner on the Xbox than they were on PS2. I've heard talk that they get a little jaggy when played on HD TVs set at the higher resolutions, but they look fine otherwise. The draw distance is also noticeably bigger, which comes in handy when you're tearing up the asphalt in a souped-up low-rider. Otherwise, everything looks pretty much like it did in the PS2 version. The graphical detail can be forgiven considering the sheer number of stuff the engine has to handle at once, all with minimal load times.
Once again, the sound shines in all aspects in this chapter of the GTA series. Just like in Vice City, the in-car radio stations are filled with music from the early '90s, with Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, NWA, Rage Against the Machine, and many more. If you have any music ripped to your Xbox hard drive, you can also tune into that. The voice work is top notch, easily the series' best.
CJ is voiced by a rapper named Young Maylay, but it's the seasoned actors who turn in the best performances. Samuel L. Jackson is fantastic as ultra-corrupt cop and puppet master Officer Tenpenny, Peter Fonda sounds right at home as hippy conspiracy theorist The Truth, David Cross brings his trademark comedic style to the role of nerdy hobby store owner Zero, and Charlie Murphy was destined to play San Fierro's number one pimp, Jizzy B. The Oscar goes to James Woods, though, with his commanding and threatening voice perfectly synced with Mike Toreno's attitude. The only flaw in his performance is that it's too brief.
The development team did a pretty good job mapping the controls onto the Xbox controller. The big change from the PS2 version is that the accelerator and reverse have been mapped to the triggers. Everything else feels fairly intuitve, save for one thing. So, without further ado, here is my one minor gripe about San Andreas: the way the controls default, it's awkward trying to do a drive-by, as the controls require you to press two buttons (one to look out the side, another to fire) that put your fingers in a tight squeeze. Whew…that was hard to say, but it had to get out there.
How replayable is this game? It's an 11 on a 10-point scale. If you manage to actually complete everything and get a 100% completion rating, congratulations and welcome to the year 2012. Ok, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there is so much to do in this game, it's mind boggling. Even if you do manage to complete everything, San Andreas is one of those games you can just pick up and screw around with. Thanks to the Xbox's hard drive, you can see an instant replay of the previous 30 seconds of gameplay anytime you want for all of those "Wow, those cars sure did blow up nice and pretty" moments you're guaranteed to have.
If you haven't bought this game for PS2 or PC, get up right now and go. We'll be here when you get back. This is the definitive chapter in arguably one of the most popular game series of all time. If you haven't ever played a Grand Theft Auto game… well, first of all, shame on you, but more importantly, this is the one to get you hooked. The only reason San Andreas shouldn't be a must-buy would be if you already owned the PS2 or PC version and couldn't justify another purchase for a couple of minor differences from the other two.