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PS2 Review - 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas'

by Alanix on Dec. 6, 2004 @ 12:43 a.m. PST

Five years ago Carl Johnson escaped from the pressures of life in Los Santos, San Andreas...a city tearing itself apart with gang trouble, drugs and corruption. On his return to the neighborhood, a couple of corrupt cops frame him for homicide. CJ is forced on a journey that takes him across the entire state of San Andreas, to save his family and to take control of the streets.

Genre: Action
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: October 25, 2004

Buy 'GRAND THEFT AUTO: San Andreas': PlayStation 2

I have been reading previews, reviews, and speculations about this game for almost a year now, and I finally have it for my very own, and I finally get a chance to throw in my two cents about my preciousssssssss. Oops, wrong genre, but I digress (I tend to do that a lot, don't I?).

Ok, we all got blown away by the previous incarnations of Grand Theft Auto games. They were anarchic, exciting, dangerous, and they were sure to piss off the Conservative Right. Kids and adults played them for days on end, and they were also reviled by naysayers for days on end. Every form of media, be it print, radio, television, cable TV, satellite TV, or even cranial implants was talking about them. We've played the old top-downs (making a nostalgic return for the GBA, by the way), we've wreaked havoc through the garbage-strewn streets of Liberty City, and we've been the Godfather of neon-drenched Vice City, so now what? I'll tell you what, gang bangin'! This next step in the evolution of the GTA franchise could arguably be called Grand Theft Auto: NWA. Talk about scaring the bejebus out of the Conservative Right. Gotta love it!

Now that I have gotten my pre-requisite tip of the hat to Rockstar's groundbreaking and genre-defying products, let's take a real look at GTA: San Andreas, named after perhaps the most famous earthquake faultline in the world. Prophetic? Let's see …

As far as the storyline goes (no real spoilers), you play the role of CJ, a gang banger who has just been released from prison in Liberty City and is returning to his old home turf. Once you get home, you find that your moms has been offed, and all your old homies think you're a banger. You have got to bring back your respect, find out who killed your moms, and take over this punkass town (deliberately not translated for the Caucasian-enhanced).

The gameplay is completely familiar. If you've played GTA: Vice City, you've played San Andreas. There are a number of additions to the standard movement fare, both in and out of vehicles, but you will instantly know how to control your anti-hero. You'll only have to learn and master some new skills. One particularly welcome addition is that of swimming. I always had a hard time getting my head around the fact that Tommy Vercetti was a tough-talking, hard-driving SOB, but he never learned to swim, although he allegedly came from Jersey (?!?!). On the positive side, the interactiveness of the environment is astounding! When you wander into a convenience store, all of the arcade games standing against the wall are playable, and you even have a videogame system (suspiciously looking like a Dreamcast/Genesis clone) in your home.

My favorite aspect of Vice City was the radio. No disappointments here! The radio is back and just as functional and varied as before. This time around, the stations range from a classic hip-hop channel (deejayed by the legendary Chuck D) and a funk channel (hosted by another legend, George Clinton of P-Funk fame), to Axl Rose hosting a classic rock station. There is so much attention paid to detail; my all-time favorite, the Talk Radio station, contains some funny stuff.

By neat coincidence, the first time I ever played /i>Vice City, the first song to play on the radio following my initial carjacking was Iron Maiden's "Two Minutes to Midnight." Talk about setting a scene!

Navigation is handled in an identical fashion to the game's previous incarnations. A mini-map keeps you oriented while driving, and it is expandable to full screen through use of the start and select buttons. A full-sized paper map is included in the game package, and this can be invaluable for those looking to expand their horizons. "Expand" is a great word to use at this juncture in the symposium because the world of San Andreas is extremely large, much bigger than Vice City or Liberty City. The neighborhoods range from Las Venturas, which is an ersatz Vegas, to the hood of Los Santos, to the upper crust of San Fierro. Each of these distinct boroughs has a distinct style, not only of architecture and landscaping, but of overall tone. This is one of those "x-factors" that is really hard to describe; it's just a certain "feel" that makes each area of San Andreas a locale unto itself. Nothing feels "tacked on" here.

You can do a lot in San Andreas, and the locations and individual buildings have also multiplied from previous games. Pretty much the most you could do with Tommy in Vice City was changing his wardrobe. In San Andreas, your options go much farther, allowing you to tattoo most every inch of your body. However, on the subject of wardrobe, make sure you are wearing the right colors for your gang. Wouldn't wanna get capped by your own peeps or anything. Also available for your shopping, dining, and various and sundry other pleasures are the prerequisite hospitals and police stations, the tried-and-true AmmuNation and the Pay and Spray, but now you also have your choice of burgers, pizza or chicken places to feed your face, no less than six different clothing shops, barbershops, car customization businesses (yes, the cars in San Andreas are upgradeable and customizable), gyms, and even off-track betting parlors.

That brings me to my next point, character development. Earlier GTA games pretty much advanced your character solely through cutscenes and through completing missions. This time around, you can build up your character independent of the storyline. For example, you have a set of meters that overlap the mini-map; your stamina, sex appeal, energy, etc., are all displayed for your information, and each of these stats can be raised (or indeed lowered) by visiting different buildings throughout the game. The gym is used to increase your strength rating, and so on. This pseudo-role-playing aspect is one of the improvements that have been made over the previous games. You need to keep an eye on CJ because, he needs to eat to keep up his energy, but if he doesn't "work it off," he gets a little soft, thus lowering his sex appeal.

The game packaging is usually something I don't mention in my reviews, because, for the most part, they have little (if anything) to do with the game itself, but in the case of San Andreas, I will make an exception. The packaging, maps and manual are among the best I have ever seen. They took the "tourist guide" concept that worked so well in Vice City and took it to the next level. After a few mandatory pages telling you which buttons do what, the book proceeds to give hint after hint about what to expect without actually spoon-feeding it to you. I love the fact that I never felt my intelligence being insulted, which is so often the case in game manuals. Not only that, but the humor is right on cue. As an example, an ad for the Rock Hotel ("We built this hotel on rock and roll") advertises special groupie rates.

Those of you who follow my reviews (and yes, I have gotten your hate mail [chuckle]) know that I am a stickler when it comes to voice acting, and after the stellar cast of Vice City, Rockstar had one heck of an act to follow. Again, another non-disappointment. Just look at these names: Ice T, Faizon Love, Samuel L. Jackson, Debi Mazar, Chris Penn, Peter Fonda, James Woods, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and Casey and Nina Siemaszko, to name a few. Mad props to the casting teams of Judy Henderson & Associates, Donna Deseta Casting and Jaki Brown & Associates. If there is a Video Game Award for best voice casting, this game should win, hands down. There is not a single moment in this game that feels forced or unauthentic. On the audio scale, this game rates a perfect 10.

While Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is without a doubt in my top five games of the year when it comes to pure gaming enjoyability, I have to subtract a point for what, in my opinion, is a total lack of overall upgrading. While there are hundreds of more things to do in San Andreas, I feel, in my heart of hearts, that the game looks and plays just like its two predecessors. I cannot really see a massive improvement on visuals or the physics engine, and as a result, both Vice City and San Andreas seem to be expansions of the GTA III game. It's a great game, but I guess I am coming to expect more from Rockstar than just new missions and new distractions. I am forever grateful to them for realizing that adults need great games as much as the kids do, and I love them for not "talking down" to me, but for GTA 4, can we take the presentation to a new level, please?

Score: 9.0/10

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