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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Score: 98%
ESRB: Adult Only
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Games
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Action/ Mission-Based Driving

Graphics & Sound:
Ask some gamers and there are probably only two games coming out this year to consoles -- Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Iíll spare you the lecture on just how many units the series has already sold and tell you that San Andreas is hype-worthy, and more than just a simple step up in the series like Vice City.

San Andreas looks better than Vice City, but isnít that great of a jump. The game still retains the same GTA style of graphics, but ups the details. This results in better looking environments, sharper looking cars, and more variety in player models. Nowhere is this seen more than in the evolving, and customizable, options available for C.J. (the main character). C.J. starts off as a generic character in a white T-shirt, but can be customized in a variety of ways to fit the playerís likes. In addition to the clothing changes that were introduced in Vice City, San Andreas also brings haircuts, tattoos, and body styles into the mix. Players can purchase the first two, while the latter must be earned through gameplay choices. Eating junk food and driving around a lot will result in a fatter C.J., while watching what you eat and working out (by riding bikes, walking/running, or at the gym) will pump C.J. up.

Environments really help to push the gameís diverse scenery. Attention to detail is a big part of what helps to make the gameís presentation successful. San Andreas looks damn close to the real Los Angeles, while the other two locations, Las Venturas and San Fierro, look like their real world counterparts. Each location has its own landmarks, as well as their own unique feel.

GTAís radio-style music system returns in San Andreas. Although I loved the 80ís tracks from Vice City, I would have to say that San Andreas is probably my favorite soundtrack of the trio of games since itís the music I grew up listening to during high school. Given the gameís gang-life theme, rap plays a big part in the gameís soundtrack. More notable appearances include Dr. Dre and Public Enemy. Other 90ís era groups, like Guns ní Roses, Depeche Mode and Janeís Addiction, also appear. When youíre not in the mood for music, there are always talk shows and commercials to listen to.

San Andreas also features a number of big name stars to help bring its characters to life. Rapper Young Malay stars as C.J. Chris Penn, Peter Fonda, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Woods also give excellent performances. However, when mentioning vocal work, itís also appropriate to mention that San Andreas definitely lives up to its Mature rating. San Andreas is not the cleanest, nor is it all that politically correct -- but if it were, it just wouldnít be Rockstar, would it? Language can get coarse during the game, but itís forgivable since it fits with the lifestyle the game is trying to portray.

One of the weaker aspects of sound, at least in my opinion, are the gun sound effects -- which sound weak, and more like toy guns than real firearms.


Gameplay:
When you first enter San Andreas, it feels like any of the previous two GTA games. You are dropped into an expansive environment and given free reign of the area. You can run missions to earn money and advance the story line, or just go out and look for trouble. Itís when you leave San Andreas that the game really begins to open up.

A quick glance at the in-game map will tell you that youíre in for much, much more with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. For starters, instead of exploring one city, you now have three to start trouble in, as well as outlying towns and wilderness. The city of San Andreas is your starting point, featuring all of the urban sprawl and Hollywood high-life that has made Los Angeles famous. San Fierro is the more ďcolorfulĒ of the three cities, complete with aging hippies, rolling hills, and the aging trolley system. When the color of San Fierro becomes too much for you, thereís always the high-life over in Las Venturas.

San Andreas does what any successful sequel should do by expanding and building on elements in the previous game, while introducing new elements to keep the game fresh. While in each of the cities, you can still do everything characters could do in other games. All of the gameís systems have been expanded, giving you even more to do. C.J. can buy up property around the cities and expand his influence, as well as try to capture territory for his gang, an element that plays a major part in the gameís gang warfare story line. Other mini-games include the option to go dancing at local clubs, or even try your hand at home invasion. When trying to rob houses, an entirely new game element is introduced which requires C.J. to sneak around areas instead of shooting everything in his way. C.J. can also take on triathlon and dirt bike competitions, shoot pool at the local bars, and play video games (which are based after classic arcade games). Pimping missions now join the already famous taxi, ambulance, police, and fire department missions. There are tons more to do and see in the game, but it would be a shame to kill all of the surprises.

As you progress through the gameís story, youíll find yourself working for a variety of people, including the crooked cops who framed C.J. Itís through this association that youíll get deeper into the cityís underworld than the gang life will, allowing you to associate with mob bosses and other thugs, including Salvatore Leone. Other characters from past games will also make appearances.

One of the things everyone seems to want is a multiplayer Grand Theft Auto. While I fail to see the draw of this idea, San Andreas gives gamers a little multiplayerís action -- but it might not be exactly what theyíve been hoping for. To unlock multiplayer, you must first pick up a Rampage icon or visit one of C.J.ís girlfriendís houses. Depending on which you do, youíll either enter a Rampage competition or have someone join you in the car and literally ride shotgun as they shoot people on drive-bys. Multiplayer is pretty fun when you can find someone to join you.


Difficulty:
Difficulty levels ebb and flow between missions. Some are really hard while others will leave you saying, ďThatís it?Ē Thereís really no curve to this -- you just have to take them as they come. Buying up property will, of course, make things much easier since it will give you more places to save. In addition, the ability to upgrade C.J.ís skills helps to make things easier.

Similar to the system found in Morrowind, the more C.J. performs certain actions, the more his skill in that area will go up. For example, spending a lot of time riding bikes or driving a car will increase his skills. This translates into better handling when performing that skill. C.J. can also upgrade his marksman and brawling skills.


Game Mechanics:
The controls behind Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas remain relatively unchanged, with the only exceptions having to do with little things like changing radio stations with the D-pad rather than shoulder buttons. One of the biggest changes to control is the targeting system. This has long been one of my main problems with the series, and Iím happy to see that it got a much-needed overhaul. Much of the system depends on your skill points, which can be upgraded by hitting targets and taking part in shooting competitions. Similar to driving skills, C.J. can only upgrade his skills in certain weapon types. So, if you favor sub-machine guns over rifles, youíll increase C.J.ís machine gun skills. While shooting at a target, C.J. can quickly target people instead of shooting at wide areas like in previous games. While in combat, C.J. can roll, duck, and pull other evasive maneuvers to keep himself around a little longer.

Vehicle variety is much larger than previous games, allowing C.J. to not only drive cars, trucks, and boats, but also planes, trains, and helicopters. Cars can now be upgraded at body shops, allowing you to install nitrous and give your favorite cars their own custom paint jobs. Like weapons, you can master certain vehicle types, giving you better handling while driving. C.J. can also get his pilotís license and fly the friendly skies (and even parachute out of the plane when things get rocky).

Surprisingly enough, one question Iíve been asked by a few people is if San Andreas is suitable for kids, even for those who have played the previous two games. To this Iíd have to answer itís really up to the parents to decide. The game has a Mature rating for a reason, and Rockstar has done their best to try and push that rating as far as it would go. Personally, I would try to keep the game out of younger kidís hands, but my iron-gripped regime, which would allow me to take actions like that, isnít in place yet -- so itís really a choice for parents to make. Just know that the game does not pull punches in any areas, so consider yourself warned if you hear something you object to.

Thereís really not much to say about San Andreas other than it is easily the best of the series. Everything you liked about the previous two that kept you playing for months on end is back, only this time thereís so much more that youíll likely spend the next year just trying to do everything only to find new secrets.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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