Given the endlessly bad press it receives, you'd almost think Grand Theft Auto was the ruin of Western civilization. But while its hooker-beating and indiscriminate violence come up every time some culture critic wants to rag on digital entertainment, gamers have their own reasons for liking it. Reasons like limitless freedom, unfettered exploration and infinite possibilities for running over old ladies at high speeds. And with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you'll get more of that stuff than most people can handle.
Giving players three full-sized cities to go nuts in, San Andreas is the biggest chapter in the urban car-crime series, as well as one of the most convincing virtual worlds ever created. As former gangsta Carl "CJ" Johnson, you'll explore the massive, fictional state of San Andreas, a California/Nevada hybrid complete with analogues of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, with miles of countryside and small towns in between. It's all supported by an epic, misison-based storyline that takes CJ and friends from fighting lowly turf battles to pulling jobs for the CIA to planning a massive casino heist. And then, as the game winds down, they'll finally go gun-to-gun with the people behind CJ's misfortunes.
Until then, the gameplay is classic GTA, which means players are generally free to do as they please in a big, open 3-D world. Any vehicle you see can be taken for a joyride, and thanks to GTA's mix of tongue-in-cheek mayhem and fine-tuned controls (when driving, at least), this is a hell of a lot of fun even when cops are chasing you around town (and they will, the second they see you doing something illegal).
The rest of the action still revolves around shooting or beating folks, and this is a little less enjoyable. If you're using a joypad, the auto-aiming system tends to lock on to the nearest person, rather than the nearest threat. Is there a gang member shooting at you from across the block? Too bad! You're locking onto that old lady behind you, whether you want to or not. And since she's behind you, CJ will just point his gun straight up until you turn him around. Using the keyboard and mouse instead of a joypad will give you perfect accuracy, but the trade-off there is that they feel awkward and a little stiff for running and driving in third person.