For reasons best known to Rockstar, it never allowed the press anywhere near GTA III or Vice City. With combined sales of well over 20 million units worldwide (mostly at full price, remember), it didn't exactly affect either game's popularity. Some might say the wall of silence actively encouraged the wildfire word of mouth that followed their respective releases. There was so much to see and do in both titles that each player's personal experiences sounded like the most outrageous movie scene ever. It was a game you had to own. These weren't games you could rent and take back - they took months to really get the most out of. Who needed the press when you had word of mouth?
As if to confound our theories once again, somewhere along the line Rockstar started utilising the press as opposed to giving us four screenshots, the barest minimum info possible and no chance to see anything. We weren't going to complain. Being granted a 40-minute one-on-one session in front of the biggest game of the year, possibly ever, isn't something we were entirely expecting at this point, given the resolute brush-offs of the past, but suddenly given the opportunity at short notice it was hardly something we'd stay in to wash our hair to avoid, either.
How do you say Va Va Voom in Californian?
So. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Set in the early 1990s in a fictionalised take on bits of California and Nevada, you control the fate of 20-something Carl Johnson, or CJ, Thierry Henry lookalike and former Orange Grove gang member, back in his home city of Los Santos after five years in Liberty City. Hearing of his mother's death, he hops on a plane back, gets a ride with some crooked cops and ends up dumped in rival gang territory.
Heading back to his neighbourhood to hook up with his older brother Sweet, we get to see CJ tearing up the streets on a... bicycle. Yep, not only are there motorbikes in it, but pedal power too, and boy does CJ have some power in his thighs as he races past cars and vans in a furious flurry of limbs.
The first thing to note is that Rockstar has done a seriously good job at pushing the PS2 to unprecedented levels, with a staggering attention to detail, vastly improved draw distance, hugely improved and more realistic animation, and just generally a more crafted and credible environment, but yet still with that distinctive Rockstar North trademark style evident wherever you look.
"Hey homey, it's good to see you back man. No homey love, no hug?"
Stopping off at his old neighbourhood, panning around the cul de sac shows just what they've been up to for the last few years, building a massively detailed world full of life and colour. Buildings and houses with character, and that now traditional orange summer glow that Vice City delighted in rendering the world in. Pedestrians that interact convincingly with one another, stop off, have a chat, shake hands, and give signals to one another with the constant chatter we've all come to expect. Allowing the camera to pan close up to CJ, you can see the detail shine through as he slowly chews gum and busies himself while contemplating his next move.
Stupendously lucky to be in charge of the joypad, product manager Dean Evans then take us through CJ's attempts to reunite the gang, and the first encounter takes place with Ryder - a bit of a loose cannon by all accounts: "He's hot tempered by nature, he's passionate about his gang the Orange Grove, and when people disrespect him, like the local pizza joint when they started erasing his graffiti, he got really pissed off!"
Naturally, the first mission shown off is an old GTA fallback: teach the owner a lesson. But first we stop off along the way at the local Barber's, Reece's, to show off some of the customization in the game, and it's fair to say there's a wealth of things you can do: "The level of control over customisation starts with his physical attributes such as hair and clothes, but extends to almost every other aspect of the game; driving, weapon skills, in-game possessions and also his relationship with other characters in San Andreas."
Passing up the Classic 'fro in favour of a razor sharp flat top, Ryder doesn't miss an opportunity to cuss CJ for his new look, and the pair head on over to the Well Stacked pizza joint to finish the job. Now, all that CJ's interested in is getting fed, and evidently the measly Buster meal deal isn't enough so we opt for the Full Rack. 25 bucks well spent. Except that, oops, 'your fat stat increases', one of many attributes that the game uses to determine you physical look and performance in the game.
Meanwhile, during CJ's nosh up, Ryder comes over to scare the clerk for some cash. CJ isn't particularly impressed as he doesn't want any trouble and tries to calm him down, but neither of them expects the clerk to produce a 12-gage from behind the counter and start blasting them. Consequently they scarper, tail between their legs, jump in their pick up and head back home.
Skipping forward to after CJ has finished hooking up with his old gang, (comprised of CJ, his older bro' Sweet, Ryder, and another guy called Smoke), the presentation shows off a bit of old gang rivalry between Orange Grove, CJ's gang and The Ballas. As PR manager Hamish Brown explains: "To show that they're back, they want to prove that they're back in full effect and want to take over some of the streets. The Orange Grove is one of a number of gangs that used to be a major force in the Los Santos gang scene, but as they disappeared, a number of others have come in and are flooding the streets with drugs," he says.
I've been drive-bying in my car
What ensues is full on GTA madness to the nth degree. A four-man drive-by shootout as CJ and the boys pull out their guns and basically mow down an entire 30-man gang in one hit in superb style. The boys are back in town. From the player's perspective, you've simply got to drive while the others do your bidding, but it's every bit as thrilling, dangerous and subversive as you'd hope and expect. The Daily Mail will be tut-tutting at the very prospect of glamorised street violence. We can see the frontpage headlines already. (In fact, we have seen them already.)
But it's not all about wiping out your fellow brothers: "CJ's brother Sweet wants to reunite the families and clean up the streets of Los Santos. At a nearby hotel there's meeting of all the original gangsters, the heads of each one of the families," Brown says, "and as usual CJ's been asked to do the driving. Only one member per family can attend the meeting, so CJ's brother Sweet has decided to represent the Orange Grove family, and the rest are left outside feeling a little uneasy and exposed."
In true GTA style, what can go wrong will go wrong and it's hardly a major shock to see that one of the rival Los Santos gangs has tipped off the LSPD, and the SWAT team raid the place. It's all going horribly wrong. To make things worse for CJ, Smoke and Ryder bail on him, but CJ, being the loyal brother that he is, won't leave Sweet alone, and quickly heads in to look for him.
In control of the mayhem
At this point we get an ideal opportunity to see the newly revamped control system, as Brown explains: "We've got a new and improved targeting system - as you're taking down enemies, you can strafe around your targets and pull off headshots with any weapon."
"The targeting system has borrowed quite a bit from Manhunt. You hold down R1 and target people, switch between them with the shoulder buttons or go into a free targeting mode with the right stick - the manual aim mode is very nice indeed, and it totally changes the way you play the game," he adds. Great - there's evidently none of the wild and clunky camera movement of old, and a much more fluid and natural looking targeting system with a slight zoom noticeable as you go into each aim. "Have you played Driver 3?" we ask cheekily. "No!" barks Brown. "Yes!" chirps Evans with a smirk. Surely they realise that San Andreas addresses every single stupid-arsed design foul-up from Reflection's appalling travesty. Diplomatically enough, they're not being drawn into a war of the words though, and why should they? Releasing the game alone is as big a two fingers to the opposition as they could ever give.
"So, once he's found his brother Sweet, the only way out is through the roof - a chopper moves down on them, but the boys [your gang] take down the chopper, having obviously had a guilt complex for running off."
OK with an AK
At this point, Ryder hands CJ an AK, and the game switches to a frantic first-person mode with the aim to keep the cops off their tail as long as possible. In a sequence straight out of a movie, a cop manages to climb onto the bonnet of the car, CJ's AK jams, and, worse still, there's a roadblock up ahead.
With no choice but to head down an alleyway, a chopper starts to bear down on the car with its blades whirling. "They don't know whether to back up or go forward, but they decide to roll forward, but someone's going to suffer!" The poor cop then, erm, cops it in the blades and the as all four men plunge through an advertising hoarding and a further 30 feet to the street below, it's somewhat surprising to see all of them emerge unscathed from their crash. But that's GTA for you!
And so the presentation ends with a bang - five short sections right at the start of the game, but every one a glimpse of how Rockstar North hasn't been resting on its laurels or getting fat counting its winnings. Although we won't know for certain until we play it ourselves, the signs are looking very promising indeed. On the evidence of what we've seen so far, there's every reason to believe that it will live up to people's expectations and more. We've been promised a further look at a more recent build in the near future (this one was 10 week's old, and featured placeholders galore, understandably), so check back soon for more on one of the most outrageously ambitious and boundary-pushing games ever. Bitch.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is due for release on October 22nd. Check out the official trailer later this week, with more first-hand impressions and chats with Rockstar in the coming weeks.