After reading Scott's main review for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I wondered what I could possibly add. Scott's writing is always a tough act to follow, and he covered it all— gameplay, story, sociological aspects, role-playing elements, and even the optional cornrows. I agreed with everything he touched on, so I sat down looking for words I could say that he didn't. It was tough, but eventually I did come up with something—"ten."
Looking at the facts, Grand Theft Auto III was a landmark title that literally changed the face of gaming as we knew it. However, much like Scott's writing, it was also a hard act to follow. The inevitable sequel, Vice City, was a huge disappointment to me. I saw it as little more than a one-off with production values that did not impress, offering little after such a satisfying experience with III. As a result, I strongly felt that any more games in the series would have to go well past what was established in order to justify another round of free-roaming car-jackings and shoot-outs. There are no two ways about it—San Andreas not only met my expectations, it blew the hell out of them. It's essentially the same core game we got in 2001, but everything is so much larger, more varied, and deeper in every way that it's impossible not to recognize that the game is a significant, staggering achievement.
The game's scope is immense. For example, the amount of territory to cover is incredibly vast, offering everything from the mean streets of the 'hood to a top-secret military laboratory researching alien technology; from a high-roller's casino to a graveyard of dilapidated mobile homes. San Andreas' enormous landscape is impossibly well-realized, and every inch of it is open for interaction and exploration. Every time I thought I had seen it all, there was something new around the corner, down the street, or over the next hill.
The same goes for the gameplay; every time I thought they couldn't possibly add anything else in, there was something new catching me by surprise. What other game could conceivably include mechanics and activities involving cars, motorcycles, airplanes, remote control helicopters, go-karts, jetpacks, martial arts, tattoos, dancing, weightlifting, clothes shopping, casual romantic relationships, and double-ended purple sex toys? Going further, what other game could possibly make all of those disparate elements work with one another as well as they do in San Andreas?
Beside the gigantic amounts of quality play content, the story, characters, performances and settings of San Andreas were utterly spot-on. I'm basically a white guy, I've never been to South Central, and I have never held a real gun in my entire life. But, I had no problem at all becoming completely immersed in the saga of Carl Johnson and the Grove Street Families. It's clearly not straight drama since it includes many elements of satire, ridiculousness, and sometime parody of the culture it focuses on, but it's also serious at times, and many things about the characters are substantial and ring true. The game's uses of sex, violence and language were entirely appropriate and appreciated, and I was compelled by the sheer sincerity of effort put forth by the game's creators. Clearly, there are at least a few development houses out there that "get it" when it comes to the dramatic aspects of game creation.
Of course, there are elements of the game that still need some work; in spite of being awarded a ten, no game is ever truly "perfect." For example, the graphics can be very rough at times, and there were occasional play glitches or technical hiccups of a minor nature that irritate. I also quickly learned to dislike driving long distances after repeatedly failing missions with unexpected difficulty spikes. (The developers did implement a "trip skip" feature to avoid this headache, but it was only used very sporadically.) Those are all non-issues, however. To be completely frank, San Andreas needs a good coat of polish on about a million different things, but the game in its current form is so good, so bold, and so successful in raising the bar for developers everywhere that it deserves no less than top honors in spite of all the nitpicks and pokes that could be made.
A stunning milestone in every aspect that matters, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a monumental game that has now redefined the standard against which all future games like it will be measured.
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