Few games cause people to queue outside of a shop at midnight, hoping to be the first to play it with their mates. If you had to bet on any one game causing such madness this year, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas would get you good odds.
While GTA III and Vice City were bloody good games, there was always something missing, people were left wanting more. Not more missions but more features, the ability to swim for example was one that everybody mentioned. This and more was promised for San Andreas. In fact Rockstar promised so much and so much information was given out that the game seemed so big it would take a lifetime to complete. Aside from that if the game was going to be that good people would play it for a lifetime!
San Andreas puts you in the shoes of Carl "CJ" Johnson. It's 1992 and you're in the fictional state of San Andreas. CJ is back in Los Santos (the first of 3 cities available throughout the game), San Andreas after 5 years in Liberty City. His mother has recently died and he is back in the neighborhood to sort a couple of things out. However, in true GTA style the beginning is never good. Home for the first time you are pulled by 3 cops who frame you for the murder of one of their colleagues and only let you go as long as you do some of their dirty work.
Your first order of business is to reestablish your old gang, The Grove Street Families, which has fallen apart and no longer carries any influence anywhere, thus allowing rival gangs to take over and sell crack on the streets of your home. This is where the main focus of the game is at the beginning, setting up your gang, gaining influence and cleaning up the streets. From there on the plot twists and turns to take you to the other areas of San Andreas (San Fierro, based on San Francisco and Las Venturas, based on Las Vegas).
The game plays in a similar manner to previous ones, complete a mission and another one becomes available or a new character becomes involved allowing you to do missions for them instead. The type of missions available are also quite varied, in one of them you have to literally dance to succeed, which plays out a bit like the recent dancing games by pressing the right buttons as they scroll through a marker at the bottom of the screen. Also missions are more exciting and more challenging early on. Additionally, the mission objectives are easier to figure out, this is accomplished through colour coded subtitles which highlight important words.
Side missions have also made a return, just get into specific vehicles and you can do missions by pressing the R3 button. The usual ones are there such as the Vigilante and Taxi missions with a few more added like the pimping missions, where you need to ferry around a couple of prostitutes, giving you more money and a nice reward at the end or Burglar missions, allowing you to break into people homes to steal goods and make some more money. This is also an area that introduces stealth, requiring you to stay quiet throughout. You will also find lots more types of races, ranging from mountain biking to the good old dirt ring races.
Another addition to the game is the ability to date women at various points in the game. The missions are pretty simple involving you picking up them up and take them out on a date at a location of your choice. Whether she like the location or not depends on her and dictates the progress of the relationship.
As you all know by now there are new vehicles in San Andreas. From the start you are given a bicycle, which you can ride like every other vehicle by pressing X or go even faster by tapping X. This is also true when you are on foot, where tapping X makes you sprint. The game not only adds more vehicles but increases the number of types of vehicles. For example in Vice City you had the PCJ600 motorbike, in San Andreas you also have the BF400, NRG500, FCR900 and a Police Bike (HPV1000). You will also find in the game more planes and helicopters to fly, articulated lorries, more off road vehicles, combine harvesters, road sweepers and more. In fact there are so many different types of vehicles it will take you a long time before you drive them all.
Not content with adding more vehicles, Rockstar have completely changed the way your character works. Instead of just having a couple of outfits, you can now customize CJ's look. From tattoos to clothes, there are many ways to customize your character, like the full gangster look? Then you can buy chains, vests, different trainers, jeans/trousers, sunglasses and more. CJ also needs to stay in shape. This is achieved by going to a gym every now and again. The more time you spend in the gym on the various apparatus the bigger you will get. This in turn will allow you to punch harder, thus killing people quicker, you will also gain more stamina allowing you to run, cycle and swim faster. In addition to going to the gym CJ will need to eat. If you don't eat your health goes down and you will eventually die, eat too much and avoid the gym and you will get fat, this will have the opposite effect to going to the gym, where you won't be able to run, cycle or swim as fast.
Personal stats are not the only thing that you need to keep on top of. The game remembers stats for various things. You start off at a basic level for everything in the game, driving, cycling, swimming and flying. All have levels which you can improve on by actually doing something, riding a bicycle improves your cycling stats, this allows you to take more knocks without falling off, the same applies to your motorbike skill. With cars the handling is improved to the point where you can practically skid around a corner almost perfectly. Similarly you are given skill stats for every gun in the game. The more you use a gun the better your skill will be with it and the faster you will reload it and the further the lock on will be, in some cases upgrading will also let you wield 2 of that weapon or allow you to shoot whilst walking around.
Now you might say that all of these additions would get in the way of the rest of the game. Personally I don't find it a problem, in fact getting an upgrade message makes me feel that I am actually progressing through the game in some way as opposed to just roaming around and not actually getting any further. Also you don't have to rush any of these skills. You might want to gain them as fast as you can but they don't cause you any problems if you leave them to increase as you do the missions.
One of the best and most celebrated parts of the GTA series is the radio stations. Once again, Rockstar have spared no expense in getting this right. The radio stations in San Andreas reflect the various cultures in the state and also cater for everyone's taste. Old favorites return such as K-Chat, while new ones arrive to reflect the overall theme such as Bounce FM and Radio Los Santos, which is the most appropriate for the era and as it focuses on West Coast gangsta rap and where you will hear the likes of Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur. The other radio stations are a mix of various music including country, funk, soul, hip-hop and classic rock. Granted they don't all match the era but having them provides you with something else to listen to while driving about. A neat thing about the radio stations is that when you enter different vehicles the radio sounds different, for example enter a truck and the radio sounds tinny whereas you enter a nice sports car and you can hear the bass boost at work. The only feature I reckon that would have been great is to limit you to certain stations as you drive to different areas.
Rockstar also spent time getting the voice acting right. While CJ is played by the unknown Young Maylay, an LA rapper, the most famous voice has to be that of Tenpenny, who is played by Samuel L Jackson. The voice acting is really well done and the storyline pretty convincing. There are a couple of bits here and there that cause you to scratch your head and ask why it was included but overall it is very engaging. Similarly, the sound effects are spot on, engine sounds are nice and meaty where appropriate, gunfire sounds realistic and the background sounds make the city feel like its actually populated, people stand around and chat, police chase other people instead of you all the time and cars crash into each other, everything you'd expect from a crime ridden state.
While for the majority, San Andreas is pretty much perfect, the graphics system is where it is let down somewhat. The sluggishness of Vice City returns, which is not helped by the fact that the draw distance has been increased. For the most part everything is fine, there are times however that you can see the screen redraw itself. This is particularly evident when speeding towards a wall or something and breaking harshly just in front of it or in some of the cut scenes where the graphics update as the camera pans. Vice City was not known for its particularly complex models. In fact the character models had only basic details and were not overly complex, which is also noticeable in San Andreas. They have upped the poly count but not enough to make a difference and you regularly see jagged edges instead of smooth curves. That said, it does not detract from the game play as most of the time you are in a vehicle and they still bend and fall apart as you crash into things. The scenery also reflects the areas you are in, go to a really hot area and you can see the heat wave coming off the road, fog effects and the rain have also been improved to make them more realistic also when traveling at high speed the screen blurs and shakes, which gives the right impression.
When a game like San Andreas is so anticipated and hyped it can be easy to get caught up in the hype or tear it apart for not being as good as everyone expects it to be. That said, San Andreas is bloody good, the minor graphic flaws that come with it don't spoil the game play and while there are some frustrating moments the better ones overwhelm them. San Andreas is what we expected it to be. It's big, bold and delivers one hell of a good gaming experience. There are so many things to do, the missions are more varied and in most cases a little easier, the variety of vehicles and added enhancements make the overall package worthy of anyone's collection.