Review by Tom Clark

"San Andizzle in the Hizzle, yo!!"

No frontin', Holmes, this rhyme is fo' real, yo! Fo' shizzle. Later I be breakin' out my lowrider and cruising the 'hood wi' my homies. . . Gonna bust a cap in your whack ass. I. . . uh. . . pity the fool who be getting' in my way G! Don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Know what I'm sayin'? Yeah, I know - proper convincing, isn't it? I could totally pass as being a street gang member. But if you don't know your Cripps from your MTV Cribs, your Bloods from your Bloodhound Gang, and if you think that Snoop Dogg hangs out with Charlie Brown, then your chances of ever experiencing the fast and furious life of a ghetto gangster are slim. Which is where GTA: San Andreas comes in. All the wacky hi-jinks of the street, without having to speak like a vocally deficient mental patient, Dawg.

San Andreas tells the tale of Carl 'CJ' Johnson, a former gang member who leaves the life of violence behind to start a new life in Liberty City. Time passes, and things look good for CJ, until the early nineties, when he learns that his mother has been killed. Returning home to the city of Los Santos, in the state of San Andreas, CJ is faced with a brewing gang war, apprehended by a corrupt cop who threatens to frame him for murder, and forced to face the animosity of his former friends and gang members, including his own brother, who are having trouble forgetting that he left them behind. And to make matters worse, his own sister is romantically involved with Cesar Vialpando, a prominent figure in a rival gang. Unable to escape his violent past, desperate to protect what remains of his family, and wanting to regain the respect of his former 'Grove Street' Crew, CJ finds himself riding out once more, as the streets of San Andreas prepare to flow with blood. But in a world where loyalty means everything, is everyone as loyal as they claim?

Plots in the Grand Theft Auto series have, until Vice City's tale of a drugs bust gone bad, been quite thin - the main character in GTA3 was never even named. With San Andreas, though, developers Rockstar really hit the nail on the head - for a game that allows you as much freedom as San An does, it really is remarkable just how tight the plot feels. A few random moments aside, the many missions in San Andreas all feel like they are contributing to CJ's story in a way, and that helps to make this the most involving GTA yet - a fact helped no end by a great cast of supporting characters. The corrupt Officer Tenpenny (voiced by screen legend Samuel L. Jackson, no less) proves to be a very charismatic nemesis, Cesar shows himself to be a very noble figure whose romance with CJ's sister provides some quite touching moments, while the various members of the Grove Street gang feel alarmingly real. From Big Smoke - the fatty with a heart - to OG Loc, the wannabe rap star with about as much flow as a frozen stream, to the ever-honourable Sweet, CJ's brother, who hasn't really forgiven him for leaving, it's alarming how quickly you become attached to the faces on offer, and this is a trend that continues throughout the game - from slutty girls who take a shine to CJ to delightfully wacky hippies who live in the wilderness, there is rarely an unmemorable character: there's even the occasional familiar face for eagle-eyed gamers. And as the plot builds it becomes ever more compelling - there are several twists and turns in there that prove to be genuinely surprising - culminating in a truly explosive and unforgettable finale.

The plot may feel streets ahead of the previous GTA games, but at first the game feels very similar to its predecessors. The bright Eighties colours of Vice City have been replaced with a Nineties grime, but other than that it's dirty-business as usual. As with past titles in the series, the game sees you let loose in a vast city, either doing you own thing (by stealing cars, motorcycles, boats, push-bikes and such - the latter new to the franchise - and committing as much violence as your heart desires; the media controversy caused by Rockstar's premiere franchise tops even that of the original Mortal Kombat title), or accepting missions from various characters (initially the Grove Street crew in this case) that tend to involve driving somewhere and shooting something. There's far more variety in the missions themselves this time round, though - from infiltrating mansions using only your stealth and a knife, to rescuing people from smoke-filled burning buildings armed only with a fire extinguisher, to stealing weapons from a moving train, San Andreas is bursting with incredibly stylish set pieces. And then, about ten to fifteen hours into the game, something happens to completely change the feel of the game - you actually leave the city, and enter the countryside (to be fair, the more explorative of you will have already done this...). It's at this moment that you realise just how much bigger than the previous games San Andreas actually is.

In total, there are three whole cities (in addition to Los Santos, you will visit San Fierro and Las Venturas - no prizes for guessing what cities they are based on), but it is the space in between the cities that really feels special. There are miles and miles of empty countryside, desert and mountains to explore, as well as some small hick towns and farms. This has led to rumours that there are creatures such as Bigfoot hiding in the woods - after all, there must be a reason for all the empty acres. But the truth is that all the empty acres and winding dirt tracks to nowhere serve to make San Andreas State feel like one of the most realistic environments in gaming. If every single spot on the map held some sort of significance it would diminish the sense of realism. The fact that there are places that are just there feels far more natural, and makes the game all the more involving. The game map is astonishingly detailed - especially since for the first time you are able to swim in the game, so every body of water has been mapped out below the surface, too (complete with marine life just doing it's thing). And even more incredibly, there are no loading screens to be seen as you travel the map. There is a pause as you enter the various buildings, but once you are outside you can travel from city to city without interruption. Despite this higher budget, though, the feeling of familiarity in the basic layout of the game is unavoidable, and as such, the flaws in the game are more immediately noticeable.

For starters, the weapon auto-aiming system is a right bugger. In theory it should be simple - a quick tap of the left shoulder button and you automatically lock on to whoever is close to you, allowing you to shoot them. Or stab them. Or batter them. Or chainsaw them (you get the picture). If you don't end up locked on to the chap you want to kill, tap the black button and swap targets - nothing could be simpler, in theory, and when there aren't very many characters on screen it works very well indeed. Unfortunately, though, when things get a bit crowded, the auto-aim has a tendency to abandon any intelligence it may possess. Due to the gang-warfare theme of the game you often find yourself facing hordes of enemies at once, often on already-crowded streets, meaning that you'll need to have your wits about you to survive some of the fire-fights here at the best of times, so when the auto-aim chooses to focus on the old dear running away from the action as opposed to the big fella shooting at you with the stupidly large gun, you can't help but feel frustrated - especially when cycling through the targets with the black button can similarly throw up several pointless targets before locking on to the one you want. Thankfully, though, the manual aiming in the game is a thing of beauty. With a little practice you won't need the troublesome auto-aim at all, as you learn to precisely choose your target by hand - soon you'll be shooting drivers out of moving vehicles, taking out car tyres, or even blowing up vehicles with a single bullet by aiming for the gas tank.

The other major complaint is the often awkward camera. While usually a quick play with the right thumbstick will set you up with whatever camera angle you could require, on occasion the camera becomes fixed in one spot, and you can bet that when it does it's not a useful place to be stuck. When reversing out of a car repair shop in your newly fixed and immaculate vehicle, for example, you can find yourself unable to actually see the road that you are reversing on to, which can lead to some nasty crashes. Frustrating at the best of times, particularly when you have just spent money to fix your car, when this occurs during a mission where it is essential that your car not be damaged it's enough to make you scream obscenities that would shock even a drunken Irish sailor. And whoever designed the otherwise impeccable control system need a swift kick in the balls for deciding to make it necessary to press both the black and the white buttons at the same time to see behind you. Finger-troubling enough as it is, it becomes a nightmare when you need to hold these buttons down to maintain the rear view and then steer, as well as trying to use the X button as a handbrake - on an original XBox pad it's nigh impossible.

These gripes aside, though, the game is genuinely magnificent. All thoughts that it's maybe a bit too similar to past GTAs are thrown aside when you realise just how much there is to do. In addition to the many, many missions on offer, the level of extracurricular activity is rammed up tenfold on previous games in the series. For starters, you have to eat to regain energy, as opposed to simply collecting health icons. This is slightly more realistic for a start (only slightly, mind - any wannabe gangstas should note that any near-fatal injuries inflicted while defending your hood can not be healed by a Big Mac and coke), and also increases the tension as you desperately try to reach your nearest pizzeria before you bleed to death. Eat too much, though, and you become fat. Being fat is not good, as you can't run as fast, jump as high, or climb over walls and fences (plus the other boys call you mean names when they think that you can't hear them....). To lose this excess blubber, you need to hit the gym. As well as simply keeping your man-boobies at bay, the gyms scattered throughout the State enable you to build up muscle - with a bit of hard work (mainly involving tapping the buttons very fast, Track and Field style) you can become built-up like a Terminator. Add in the ability to change your hair style by popping into the barbers, to change your clothes any time you visit your house or a clothes shop, and to tattoo yourself freely, and you can begin to see a level of character customisation never before seen in a game of this ilk. Games have allowed you to customise your characters before - and often to a greater extent - but this tends more towards the sports or RPG genres than the action games, and this always happens before you begin the game, not during gameplay. It's a magnificent touch, and one that truly brings you closer to CJ - he's very much your character.

And once you've got CJ looking as pimp as possible, there's still an almost brain-bustingly large number of side-quests and distractions to get to grips with. You can date the local ladies in a simplistic but enjoyable system that sees you working out where your chosen bedmate likes to go, how fast they like to be driven and such - sadly, though, only pre-selected characters are available for dating - you can't just find a random hussy to woo. Then there are the emergency service missions that see you taking on quickfire tasks for cash when you steal an emergency vehicle - you can track down criminals in a police car, or go fighting fires in a fire engine and such, or steal a cab and go all Crazy Taxi. Nothing complicated, but frantic fun nevertheless. You can play hustler as you challenge local drunkards to games of pool in the bars. You can hit the Casinos. There are some charmingly crude - and surprisingly addictive - arcade games just waiting to be played. Steal a black van and you can go out on the rob, breaking into people's houses to line your own pocket. Then there's the races - both legal in an arena on a proper track, and illegal through the busy streets of San Andreas. Most of these activities are fairly shallow, but it all adds together to create the impression that you are in a living, breathing world where there's always something going on - and this is only scratching the surface of what there is to get up to - and if that still wasn't enough, there are one hundred graffiti tags to track down and paint over, fifty oysters scattered under the surface of the State's lakes and rivers that need to be found, and fifty hidden horseshoes that you'll need a plane to find.

That said, the game can, on occasion, become intolerably frustrating - most often with regards to flying planes and helicopters. By definition, these aren't the most precise fellas to control, - not usually a problem as you don't usually need precision in aerial missions, but on occasion you will be asked to fly through some tiny circular checkpoints. These are far too sensitive (it's often hard to tell if you've actually succeeded or not, especially when you've missed by barely a pixel), and require more precision than the vehicles in question can really offer. It's a pain. As are the missions in the second city where you go to work for a nerd called Zero. He wants to use remote controlled planes and helicopters to launch an attack on his evil RC Rivals (. . .), and naturally it's up to you to do so. These are by far the worst missions the game - the handling is so terrible that there's no real sense that you are ever in control - it's howlingly frustrating, and despite what anybody may say, in a game where you take to all manner of different vehicles, where you kill, main and torture all manner of people, and where you take part in side-quests from simple burglary to dating to gambling, there's simply no excuse for the fact that the most difficult mission in the entire game involves a toy remote controlled plane. However, these frustrations are forgives as soon as you encounter some of the more epic and enjoyable missions in the game - such as planning an Ocean's 11 style casino heist, or using a Huggy Bear-esque Pimp-Mobile to assassinate a high-ranking religious official.

With so much already packed into the game it's a wonder that Rockstar managed to include so many different types of vehicle. There are the standard fast cars, people carriers, motorbikes and such, and these are all fine, but what really raises the bar is the sheer number of random unexpected vehicles you can take control of. From tractors and cement mixers to lawn mowers and street sweepers, the comedy vehicles both big and small cannot fail to raise a smile - especially when you use them to deliver carnage on the unsuspecting masses: if you've ever wondered what the single most rewarding feeling is in gaming, I can now tell you that it's running down hordes of inbred farmers with their own combine harvester - watching the messy remains being spat out of the back of course. And more incredibly, every vehicle handles slightly differently the huge number of cars don't just look different, they all feel different. Once again, there is an unrivalled attention to detail here.

With so much being crammed onto one disc, it's inevitable that something had to give, and unfortunately that something is the graphics. While the environments are all quite nice, with some good detail such as cracked roads in the countryside, or shrubs growing through the railroad tracks in the desert, the characters look incredibly blocky and jagged, particularly around the face area. This is a shame, as so much effort has gone in to the superb voice acting that you can't help but feel short-changed by the way the characters actually look. There is also an alarming degree of pop-up on display here. On occasion you'll have a good clear view of the road ahead, including all the traffic that's moving around in the distance, only to suddenly have a large truck appear not a hundred yards in front of you, which more often than not sees you crashing. There really is little difference graphically from the PS2 version, which is a real pity. That said, though, the weather effects are stunning - the misty wind-swept rain is quite possibly the soggiest yet seen on a console (and the handling of the vehicles is affected by the weather - impressive seeing how random it seems to be), and there is some lovely lighting on display, most notably when you see the early morning mist shrouding the cities from the comfort of a high-up plane.

The sound, too, is superb. As well as some top sound-effects (a rather lacklustre car-scraping noise aside), there is an excellent selection of music on offer. Presented in the form of different radio stations that you can listen too while in most vehicles (fantastically, the sound quality varies depending on what you're driving) - complete with some genuinely very funny adverts - there is a wide variety of nineties hip-hop on offer, as well as some rock classics (the undeniable highlight of which is the Guns 'n' Roses epic Welcome to the Jungle) and even some full on Country music for those dirt tracks and farming towns. And of course, if this isn't to your taste, the game can also take advantage of the custom soundtrack feature - picking songs at random from all your playlists and even adding in the adverts from the other radio channels. This can have some fantastic results - both unexpected and hilarious. While Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah would seem an unlikely song for the game, it actually fits in astonishingly well, while chasing people down in a large petrol tanker while Mmmbop by Hanson roars out of your stereo is a surreal moment that you won't forget in a hurry. While it may not exactly be staying pure to the game, the custom soundtrack really adds that little extra magic. The only slight letdown is that there is much less focus on the chatshow side of the radio - the Talk Radio stations in Vice City were one of the game's comic highlights, and it's a shame to see them neglected here.

San Andreas really is an essential game. It's not perfect, and it's yet another case of a lazy developer porting almost directly from the PS2 rather than upgrading the graphics quality to a more XBox-y level, but it is one of the most amusing, involving and jaw-droppingly full gaming experiences out there. It has hillbillies. It has rappers. It has jet-packs. It has Samuel L. doing his thing. And it deserves to have it's place in your collection.

Fo' Shizzle.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 01/16/06, Updated 08/30/06

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