After a brief hiatus into semi-homage with the Scarface meets Miami Vice storyline of Vice City, San Andreas effectively brings the series back into the territory of wholly original storytelling. The saga begins as Carl "CJ" Johnson, the story's focus, returns home to the city of Los Santos to discover his mother in the ground and his friends and family on the losing end of a bitter gang war. His old running buddies resent him for leaving them to try his luck in Liberty City five years ago, the streets where he was raised have been overrun by drug dealers, his brother hasn't forgiven him for missing out on their mother's funeral and a corrupt police department is breathing down his neck, just waiting for him to make a mistake. In short, things could be better. Fortunately, despite their uncertainty in his loyalties, CJ's friends have no qualms about bringing him back up to speed in the gang's business and allowing him to prove himself through blood, sweat and tears, (or various, mission-based tasks, as it were) and the driving force of the story revolves around this struggle to regain CJ's previous level of respect among his peers while making things right around the homestead. The main characters of the story are rock solid, and Carl is easily the most realistically flawed lead in GTA history. He made some mistakes before the story began and he'll make a few more before it ends, but he never crosses that thick line between sympathetic hero and irredeemable monster, even after curb-stomping a few grandmas. I think it's the game's incredible comedic timing and dry wit that keep CJ appealing; whether it's his brother constantly prodding at his driving or his often-venomous conversations with random pedestrians, there's always time for a snide comment or sarcastic remark after a brutal hit and run. His buddies and family have their own vulnerabilities, strengths and personality traits as well, many of which become major points of conflict as the gang war heats up and tempers flare.
Carl's tumultuous years in Liberty City, the setting of GTA III, isn't the only reference to previous games in the series, which have been masterfully threaded into dozens of situations throughout San Andreas. You'll bump into familiar faces, hear little comments about memorable locations and even get a chance to revisit a scene from an earlier title, and it never feels like a foreign element to the story. It's nice to see some continuity between titles, no matter how unrelated the subject matter may appear at first glance, and these clever little nods at the past only serve to deliver further depth to the game itself.
The setting, a dead ringer for early-'90s Los Angeles (with clones of San Francisco and Las Vegas playing supporting roles) is as much a player in the story as the individuals themselves. You can almost feel the weight of the town's imminent civil unrest pressing down on your shoulders throughout the early chapters, and as things build to a climax, that impending explosion just gets closer and closer to reality. There's an extremely angry tone to this game, even when compared to those that came before, and on the whole it feels much more mature (for lack of a better word) and true-to-life than its often-cheesy immediate predecessor. Conversations feel less rehearsed and scripted, and more spur of the moment and heartfelt. The lower-class pedestrians are justifiably angry and frustrated with life, while the rich seem nervous and shaky at all times and the folks that live off in the woodsy suburbs are completely oblivious. The feel of impending doom you're charged with throughout the game slowly, casually builds to a horrific boiling point that provides the backdrop for one of the most enjoyable, seat-of-your-pants final levels I've ever played. I never thought I'd play a game with a more rewarding, exciting, Hollywood action movie-style climax than I saw in the very first Halo, but if San Andreas doesn't surpass it, it undeniably comes extremely close.
Unfortunately, while the storytelling elements of San Andreas have markedly improved in the years since Vice City, the actual gameplay experience has taken a hit or two. Don't hear me wrong, the open-ended style of gameplay that defined the previous titles in the series is still here in full effect. It's still a blast to jog around the city with a blunt object and beat random civilians into submission, or to stand in the middle of the street and look around as motorists become more and more frustrated with you for blocking their way. The appeal of doing everything you can't do in the real world and enjoying the aftermath is still there, and it's still evolving, but the progression of gameplay seems to have hit a speed bump with this round. While I found constant amusement with the added ability to stomp on a car's hood while you stand atop it, (and the driver's sudden, reckless acceleration and swerving in a vain attempt to throw you off) there wasn't as much room for innovation here as there was between GTA3 and Vice City. The addition of motorcycles, airplanes and helicopters were substantial changes to the game, natural steps forward from what had been established before. This chapter's additions of bicycles, an intricate character customization system and a variety of level-based skill power-ups isn't quite the same, and often serves to aggravate rather than amuse. Instead of pulling up to a destruction derby or BMX race and trying your luck right away, for example, you must first spend hours building up your "driving ability" or "biking ability." Some missions require you to gain some weight by eating a dozen fast food meals, while others ask you to lose some weight by running aimlessly on a treadmill for fifteen or twenty minutes. Occasionally something redeemable is achieved through these tedious means, such as the ability to dual-wield weaponry or the chance to jump your bicycle six feet into the air from a standstill, (I'll never tire of using a bike with a banana seat as a lethal weapon) but on the large I found the renovations to be unnecessary and distracting. I wholeheartedly agree that the time was right to shake things up with a new direction in the gameplay, and to some degree the ability to swim around in the ocean accomplishes that, but most of these changes feel more like a burden than a blessing. Playing a game shouldn't feel like work, and that's what a lot of the activities required to build your stats feel like.
Additionally, some of the newly-restyled missions feel inappropriate for the genre and completely out of place when compared to every other game in the series. For instance, you'll occasionally stumble upon a mission that asks you to press different directions on the analog stick in time with the in-game music while CJ cuts a rug in a late-night club or participates in a low-rider hydraulics competition, sort of a poor man's Dance Dance Revolution. Problem is, these little missions are nowhere near as polished and enjoyable as DDR's various levels. If I were in the mood to play a game of Beatmania or Samba de Amigo, I'd probably pop one of those games into my entertainment center and go to town. I'm not looking for that style of gameplay in a Grand Theft Auto title, and even if I were, the representation seen here is so shoddy and unrefined that it's barely even worth playing. I don't mean to paint a dark picture of the overall gamplay experience, because this remains a largely exciting, entertaining game despite a few missteps, and I have to admit that not all the innovations made were negative (I loved the turf wars, which divide the city into two dozen color-coded zones to indicate which gang owns which territory, and ask you to slowly overtake each one by brutally murdering the opposition on their own doorsteps). I just can't say that I was impressed by the direction the series may be headed in the future, if the majority of this is any indication.
This was my first experience with the series on the Xbox (I own PS2 copies of the last two GTAs) and I found the translation of controls to be a little awkward, to say the least. Most of the buttons are a simple, literal masking of the PS2's functionality onto the Microsoft controller, such as the "A" button as a run / fire button or the "X" button for jumping. Where the box really loses ground is with its lack of a second "L" and "R" trigger, as well as the additional freedoms bestowed upon players with the right analog stick and the camera angle it controls. Where the L2 and R2 buttons gave players the freedom to easily look to the left, right and behind them while behind the wheel of an automobile, that same functionality is mapped to the Xbox's mysterious black and white buttons with disastrous results. On my Type-S controller, those particular buttons are so small and out of the way that I was almost immediately screaming for the return of my old Dual Shock. Performing a precise drive-by shooting, which is a necessity on several missions, is nearly impossible with these tiny buttons... and forget about looking behind you while you roam the highways of Los Santos. Similarly, the inclusion of a more player-friendly camera control system with the right analog stick only seems to cause headaches and rarely, if ever, aids in the completion of a mission. As soon as you climb into a vehicle, the camera hovers almost directly above your car and looks down. If you have any interest in seeing the road in front of you, you're almost condemned to holding the right analog stick forward, while steering with the left and working the gas and brakes on the triggers. Throw in the aforementioned "look right" and "look left" buttons, along with the "A" button to actually pull the trigger on a drive-by, and you'll find yourself wishing for an extra appendage to remove some of the strain from your overworked fingers. Common movements and commands, such as roaming around the streets, slapping a homeless man with a dildo or leaping off the edge of a building are cake, as well they should be. It's when you start getting deeper into the missions and asking more difficult motions of CJ that things start to get really tough on the digits. To its credit, this is a very complex game with literally hundreds of possible actions, but I have trouble believing a few of these button placements couldn't have been just a little more thought-out before release.
Where the series has really begun to show its age with this installment is in its graphics. Though the size of the map is just insanely large, close to three times the size of Vice City, the contents are almost identical visually. Though the old engine from GTA III has been tweaked to the very limits with this release, it's still that same old engine at heart. Player models don't exactly hold up when compared with similar games released within the same year. The variety of city buildings and wall decorations is still impressive, but the actual quality of those textures leaves a lot to be desired. After hearing almost endless praise about the differences between the last two games on PS2 and on Xbox, I was left feeling extremely underwhelmed after my first experience in San Andreas. What's twice as unforgivable as the slow decay of the graphics, however, is the sudden and infuriating problems I experienced with late-to-materialize objects and textures. One building in particular, located in waterfront San Fiero, is notoriously slow to load, and cost me my life on almost half a dozen occasions. I'd be running from the law, as usual, at top speed... zigging, zagging, winding my way down streets and through back alleys, until out of nowhere my car would slam to a halt, explode into flame and leave me all-but-decapitated. As I tried to figure out where I'd gone wrong, an entire building would suddenly fade into view directly in front of me, where before there was nothing. It's surprising to see such an obvious flaw come to the surface in a game of this magnitude, but that's par for the course as far as the graphics are concerned. You'd expect better.
Fortunately, the same shortcuts apparently taken with the visuals are not repeated in the audio department. The soundtrack to San Andreas, while not quite as awe-inspiring as that of Vice City, is still a behemoth of its own and does an outstanding job of setting the tone for an area and covering a wide range of genres, tastes and ethnicities. Hop into a car in the ghettos of Los Santos and you're likely to hear an excellent collection of the founding fathers of hip hop or the pioneers of gangsta rap. Steal a car in the forest-coated, far less populated towns well outside the city limits, and you're much more likely to hear some country. While the obvious focus is on rap and hip hop, there really is something for everyone here, and the collections showcased on each station are almost indisputable. Almost every musician who experienced mainstream success in the mid '90s is represented with a track or two here, and a few of them even go so far as to lend their voices to the DJ commentary that fills the airtime in between tunes. Speaking of which, the famed comedy of the on-air commercials, personalities and programming choices, while not quite up to the same level as the last two games, is still good for a laugh or two and far, far above the level of GTA's closest competitors. The sophomoric humor herein takes a step away from the sarcastic tone of previous games in favor of a slightly cheesier bathroom joke or two. I guess, since the actual story itself works as such a grim commentary on the state of things in the 1990s, that the DJs and advertisements needed to take a break from parody for a change. Like I said, it's a bit of a step down from where Rockstar had set the bar beforehand, but it's still miles ahead of anything else in the business today.
The one exception to that rule? The in-game voice-over work. The series was honestly no slouch in this department before, but San Andreas just takes it to a whole other level on the backs of Samuel L. Jackson, (who steals the show as Ten-Pin, the crooked cop) Ice-T, Young Maylay and Faizon Love (as CJ and his brother Sweet, respectively.) I wouldn't quite say the delivery is consistently on the level of a major motion picture, but this is far from your usual, B-grade at best video game fare.
Well, when push comes to shove, I can't say that I got all I was expecting out of this package. I intentionally waited for the Xbox release for this one, hoping to enjoy it in all its glory on what's quickly becoming the most desirable platform, but in the end I would've been better off just buying it on the PS2 in the first place. The Box offered little to no visual separation over previous titles on the Sony system, and what difference I did notice in load time was balanced out by an occasionally poor control scheme and horrible problems with invisible buildings. Despite some weak innovations in the gameplay, this is still a lot of fun to play and I'd recommend it just for the ongoing insanity of that final stage, but don't expect to be completely blown away, because this is hot-and-cold stuff. As far as the missions go, you've either played it before and enjoyed it or it's something new they're playing away with and it doesn't feel finished. The story blows its predecessors out of the water, with outstanding new characters and a surprising respect for previous games in the series, and the physical size of the map is a true sight to behold. This is still a very good series, but the step from GTA III to Vice City was much more noticeable than that same stride from GTA: VC to San Andreas. Worth checking out if you're a fan, but it's not going to do anything to change your mind if you weren't already on the bandwagon.
Overall Score: 8.7