The most controversial series in videogame history has spawned an unarguable truth - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the best game on PS2. Fact. If not, one of the best console games - and we've thought long and hard about this - ever, matched only by such epochal titles such as Halo, Super Mario 64 and Final Fantasy VII. In some respects, Rockstar's achievement is all the more daunting because San Andreas delivers relentless, sublimely balanced and uniquely varied gameplay for at least 50 hours. And the only reason we can't vouch for longer is because that's how long it took us to finish the story mode - yes, all 90-plus invariably great missions - before we were forced to hide the DualShock 2 and hit the keyboard.
To give you some idea of GTA: SA's scale, and huge variety, it took us five days of play to reach the last mission (from 10am to 7pm) with the fifth day culminating in a 5am - yes, in the morning - finish. During this time, 109 virtual days passed, we'd wasted 1609 people (don't worry, they - usually - deserved it), spent $109,838 on shopping, started 756 fires, travelled 537,367 miles by car (forgetting on-foot, bikes, planes, choppers, BMXs and some huge surprises - more of which later) and - this is the killer - achieving a mere 51.87% progress percentage. 'Finishing' GTA: SA is only the beginning. We'd barely attempted a side mission - no pizza delivery, RC copters, renegade cop, ambulance or pimping - performed a measly four unique jumps (out of a total of over 70) and acquired only 36% of the territory. And don't even speak to us about the secret packages - more on them later. But...
... The most important statistic of all rests on the right-hand side of this page. Go on, take a peek. It's a score we thought we'd never award. Ever. And although we've made some mistakes in our time - giving Ico 85% after a furious office debate, over-scoring the odd Capcom game [cough] Auto Modellista 80% [splutter] and maybe getting over-enthusiastic about a similar game in the genre - this is one we're sure about. Don't be fooled. GTA: SA's not perfect. But it's the single greatest achievement on PS2, meticulously crafted, ruthlessly playtested and impossibly balanced. You simply can't believe that a team of developers could produce such a staggeringly huge, near-universally brilliant title in only two years.
It's not the game to end all games. It's the game that is all games. Well, almost. The driving sections are a match for Midnight Club 2 or Need For Speed: Underground 2, the shooting flits seamlessly from Max Payne to Hitman, the stealth sections do a decent impression of Manhunt and - just casually thrown in - are competent homages to Dance Dance Revolution, Time Crisis, World Championship Snooker and, yes, Crash Bandicoot. Plus - perhaps giving away too much - Ace Combat and Pilotwings. There's even a host of fully working retro arcade games dotted in bars all over the map - including, our fave, Let's Get Ready to Bumble, a bee shooting game.
It's also the only game - correct us if we're wrong - that asks you to worry about your virtual weight, beefing up at the gym, eating food, taking girls on dates, getting haircuts and going shopping Or rather, lets you control all those things at once. It's not a game in the conventional sense of the world - it's a lifestyle simulator, containing subtle (though relevant) RPG elements twinned to a compelling free-roaming action adventure. Over the fifty or so hours of story play (completing the game 100% could take 150 hours) you develop enormous emotional bonds, as your character CJ progresses from skinny runt scraping dollars for a burger, to a pumped up, international playa packing a cache of M4 assault rifles and piloting a [censored] chopper. We don't want to spoil it.
Funny thing is, it starts so inauspiciously. After a cut scene introducing your arch nemesis Officer Tenpenny (menacingly voiced by Samuel L Jackson) and his truly despicable sidekick Pulaski (Chris Penn), you're tossed on the streets with nothing more than a BMX. No weapons. No immediate danger. No soundtrack. Nothing. It's a far cry from jumping on the bike at the start of Vice City to the strains of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. That said, you soon start to appreciate the subtlety. CJ swoops his leg on sharp corners, the spokes hum and huge skids leave burning rubber on the tarmac - it feels perfect and the detail is typical of the remaining 40 hours to follow. It's a game steeped in love and minute intricacies, flattering the intelligence of players and serving constant surprises - for example, a Manhunt character scrawled on the wall of a San Fierro bar or the Candy Suxx picture (the one you took in that Vice City mission) on the walls of one of the properties you buy in Las Venturas.