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PC Review - 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas'

by Tim "The Rabbit" Mithee on June 28, 2005 @ 1:11 a.m. PDT

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: June 7, 2005

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Y'know, they say you can never have too much of a good thing. Back when the GTA series decided to really start pushing the limits with Grand Theft Auto III blew out of nowhere and turned a half-successful franchise built on the world of speed, drugs, and random acts of senseless violence into a full bore legend, it was new, great, and interesting. Since those halcyon days of 2002, the roam-about-and-do-whatever-comes-about riff has been copied, duplicated, reinterpreted, folded, spindled, and mutilated, with various levels of quality. Still, these three years later, the folks at Rockstar North do it better than all of those poseurs.

Grand Theft Auto III took us through the rather generic world of a modern-day pseudo New York, guiding the guns of the Unknown Thug. The second shot, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, was a more cinematic endeavor, starring a small cache of Hollywood talent through the sordid tale of one Tommy Vercetti as he tried to save his own buttocks from the proverbial wringer. Dripping with '80s nostalgia and culture references, it was lauded for hitting the theme square on while still expanding on the freeform SimThug from the first title. In two shots, GTA went from a mediocre overhead shooting fest to a crime spree in a living, breathing city.

This time around, we fall facedown into another signature phase of Americana, in the role of another small-time grunt in the never-ending street war. The time, 1992. The place, a seedy bit of low-income housing buried in a forgotten corner of Los Santos in the west coast state of San Andreas. The soldier, one Carl "C.J." Johnson.

A few years ago, C.J. fled from the 'hood to the quieter pastures of Liberty City in order to escape impending gang war doom. Fate's got a way of bringing a person back, though, and when Carl gets word that his mother's been killed, he's back in heartbeat to the humid, gangbanger-riddled streets of his youth. Only this time, the gangs are different, the streets are different, and everyone from the cops to the Crips are out to make sure our Mr. Johnson winds up kissing the pavement with a few ounces of nine-millimeter love buried in his backside.

And there you have it, initially. Just like Unknown Shooter and Tommy Vercetti, C.J. has just a few supporters — his brother Sweet, best homeboy Ryder, and hanger-on wiseman Big Smokey — in his blood-spattered quest to revive the hood.

If you've ever played any of the GTAIII era games, you've seen this all before. If you haven't, here's a brief rundown: the big attraction of the game is the city. While there are missions and a semblance of a plot to worry about, what's more fun anything is getting into a car — you can steal them, and pretty easily to boot — and seeing what there is.

You'll have shootouts, run over pedestrians, drive too fast and get killed by the four-oh, but it's all temporary, as the game goes to great lengths to make sure you can't really lose in any permanent way. The fuzz busts you, you bribe your way out; you get shot more times than 50 Cent, and San Andreas' fine medical facilities. There's no time limit, no push forward, and no real penalties for screwing around and exploring (although there are borders set up to keep you from going just anywhere). This is an amazingly huge map, too, once it's entirely open, ranging through dozens of square miles of terrain, three major cities and at least a half-dozen small ones.

C.J. comes equipped with a small segment of new movies, as befits a thoroughly modern man like himself. The more noticeable ones are his ability to swim (eliminating Insta-Drown Syndrome and making boats all the more fun to use), a new crouch 'n' roll, and the ability to manually aim when firing weapons. Headshots ahoy, captain!

The most significant, though, is in C.J. himself. When he gets off the plane at the beginning, he's nothing more than a scrub in a cheap wifebeater and saggy jeans. No one thinks anything of him, not even his friends and family. In order to get him some respect amongst the denizens of Los Santos, he's going to have to improve his image just a bit.

This comes to a 'Sim-Gangstah' system that integrates so cleanly with the basic game, it's a wonder they've never bothered before. Take, for example, driving. At the beginning of GTAIII, Nameless gets 8-Ball to the hideout like a professional race driver. Tommy drives Ken Silverman away from the Cuban ambush without batting an eyelash. Now, look at Carl. When he first gets in a car, it's like his fingers are all broken and his eyes are useless. You'll spin around, drive over curbs, slide, crash, and bang into things, not unlike a guy who doesn't drive very well. Over time, just from simply working at it, you'll slowly improve that skill.

This applies to everything — cars, the new bicycles, motorcycles, aircraft, guns (earning Hitman status enables guns akimbo for that True Crime feel), swimming, and then some. Carl himself is a pretty malleable sort: you'll build his muscles, cut his hair, give him some bling-bling, trick out his cars, and dress him up in the finest ghetto-fabulous threads. You'll build Sex Appeal and, best of all, Respect, helping you move up and build The Grove Street Family back up to the powerful force they need to be.

And that's just the gameplay and storyline. It's a shame that it's wrapped up with a slightly creaky graphics engine (though it's much cleaner and more detailed than Vice City, with far better animation), but it's more than adequate. The audio is absolutely dynamite, on the other hand, so if you were blown away by Vice City's radio stations and voice acting, you may need to sit down and maybe sip a cool drink. The amazingly good radio stations return, this time even broader in scope — a dozen themed stations in total — featuring an even wider spectrum of songs from more genres. The voice acting is spectacular, too; a sea of rappers get into the act, with work from James Woods, Peter Fonda, Bijou Phillips, Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Penn (doing magnificent work as pair of crooked cops); Chuck D, Axl Rose, Michael Bivins, and the great George Clinton (as "The Funkapotamus") do guest DJ duty (there's also a fairly lame Andy Dick routine and some work by the ever-fabulous talk radio man Lazlo).

There you have it. San Andreas rolls out the same routine as GTAIII and Vice City; where the first was Goodfellas made interactive and the second was a trip through Scarface, San Andreas brings out all the power of early '90s urban films, from people like Spike Lee or John Singleton and movies like Menace II Society, New Jack City, Juice, or even the standard, Boyz N Tha Hood. It's another series of shootouts, high-speed driving, and a palatable struggle for survival that makes this thing entertaining. The fact that Rockstar North has managed to create a much more believable character in a more vibrant, immersive world just shows why, exactly, they're still the kings of the non-linear mountain, and all y'all bustahs need t'stop frontin' an' sit ya fool #@()*es down. Or something.

Given the wonderful environment design, new RPG elements, and extremely well done "gangsta" theme, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comes as close to perfect as anything in the past few years. A few technical issues and an aging engine are the only complaints, and they're minor.

Score: 9.7/10

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