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.
Thankfully, you'll at least have someone to watch your back while you wrestle with the controls. Once he earns enough "respect" by pulling jobs and winning turf, CJ can recruit a small army of gang members off the street. They're rock-stupid, but they can help you pull off drive-by shootings, and they absorb bullets real good when you're fighting multiple opponents.
While that's the bulk of the game, there's much more to do, and that'sSan Andreas' real triumph. If driving gets old, for example, you can hijack a harrier jet. And when you get tired of flying it around, you can bail out at 40,000 feet, parachute onto a mountaintop, ride a bicycle down to a river, swim to the nearest boat and steal it. You can play pool, gamble, cultivate a romantic relationship or just get fat eating pizza. There are even a handful of two-player challenges, a first for the series. San Andreas is your oyster, and its dozens of minigames, all integrated smoothly into the landscape and storyline, give you plenty of ways to crack it open.
In terms of presentation and production values, San Andreas is a mixed bag. Sure, its graphics are ugly and chunky (although there's plenty of detail if you look closely), but each of the game's locales nicely captures the look of its real-world counterpart. San Andreas' cast (which includes Charlie Murphy, David Cross, James Woods and Samuel L. Jackson) turns in top-notch performances, the script is brilliant and off-kilter and the 11 in-game radio stations blare licensed rock, rap and country songs.