"San Andreas is not a city - it's a state." Those words from Rockstar's Dan Houser more than anything ought to inspire the Grand Theft Auto loving crowd (which is 95 per cent of us, judging by the sales figures). Comprising Los Santos (Los Angeles) where you start out, San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturra (Las Vegas), it's an epic environment allegedly six times the size of Vice City, unlocked gradually over the course of the game, and besides the cities it also features all the roads in between, allowing you to race through the desert, countryside, and even over a mountain...
"You've never had a mountain in a GTA game before." No Dan. No we haven't. Speaking in one of those loony print exclusives (with US mag Game Informer, cunningly handed out at E3 this week), Houser is outlining all manner of treats that GTA fans had no right to expect, and the idea of driving through the countryside outside LA and then climbing over a mountain to reach San Francisco is bound to evoke some dreamy cunning stunts in any ramp-junkie's subconscious. It's kind of a nod to folks who thought VC was too flat.
The fact that San Francisco is a seriously hilly place is another. Speaking about Vice City, Houser admits, "For good driving, one of the things that we missed was hills. It just adds that third dimension; it's not as fun with out." San Francisco - sorry, San Fierro - will reflect a shift in balance. It's hilly, the story finds ways to make you explore the hills, and some of the city's speciality vehicles are geared towards doing "some wild s**t you've never done before". San Francisco may have been done to death by the likes of Driver, but you can be sure Rockstar's version will be positively brimming with reasons to care - and across the three cities, the possibilities for references and satire exceeds anything in either previous third-person GTA title.
As Rockstar revealed to the rest of us earlier this week, San Andreas is the story of Carl Johnson, a man on his way back to Los Santos after five years out in Liberty City. Johnson left his ghetto home after the accidental death of his brother Brian - for which his older brother Sweet Johnson blamed him. But upon returning home for his mother's funeral, he's forced to dive back in not only to his family life but also his former gang (the Orange Grove Families) as former crew Sweet, Smoke and Ryder find themselves besieged by rivals and under the thumbs of corrupt policemen Frank Tenpenny and Eddie Polaski. It's the early 90s (complete with a wide variety of tunes of the time - including rap), and that means that America (and particularly LA) is a very tumultuous place to call home - let alone to try and rebuild a criminal empire - but then Rockstar North has never been shy of toying with controversy. What price a "kill all the protesters" mission?
Houser reckons that the intense level of research undertaken by the developer will see them through any uncomfortable claims of mistreatment or what-have-you. He points to a full time set of researchers, artists who visited every absurdly expensive Beverley Hills neighbourhood, every trainers-over-the-telegraph-wire ghetto cesspit with couches in the streets and gangbangers cruising past in low-riders, and everywhere in between, and the company's partnerships with the likes of LA-based photographer and street culture expert Estavan Oriol and producer/film director DJ Pooh. "One thing that makes me slightly nervous is the notion that it's a game about gang-banging, which it is not really," he says to Game Informer at one point. Apparently maybe three per cent of it accounts for that.
Gang-banging may not be the theme, but players will be able to take advantage of their gang to get involved in one of the game's most interesting features - four-character drive-bys. Crawling along the streets in sunken cars, windows rolled down and caps popping out and preparing to investigate asses, it sounds like the ultimate takedown, and we could get used to the idea of doing it quite a lot. However instead of getting caught up in little gimmicks, it's clear this GTA is about plenty more besides.
Houser is keen for people to appreciate that where GTA IIII had utterly separate story missions and secondary tasks and mini-games, and Vice City kind of lessened the gap between them, everything in San Andreas is intrinsically linked. "Obviously you still have missions you have to do," he tells Game Informer, "but when you're not on a mission, not only are there a thousand things to do, but what you can do relates to where you are in the story." And besides, that, you pick up skills.
Pays the bills
"There are hundreds of skills to learn in this game so you can't have hundreds of tutorials. So each mission you learn a new skill. In every mission you'll be doing something new." And that something could be recruiting gang members to fight alongside Carl, gambling in a casino, robbing the much more pregnable (and thoroughly modelled) buildings for cash (something which requires careful planning - "If you don't do very well, someone's going to shoot your head off, and if you do it well, you'll get away with plenty of loot."), carjacking as a group, swimming, scooting around on a bicycle ("it just feels like a bicycle"), or even building and running a casino.
The empire-building aspect is apparently a lot more thought out this time, aiming to convey the fact that Carl runs a burgeoning criminal empire rather than just collecting save points with the occasional chopper on the roof or rocket launcher in the cellar. So... what? Paying bills? Ordering people to do missions for you? "It will be done in a way that keeps you in the story through phone calls and speaking to people instead of checking on inventory or something like that." Speaking of the story, Houser promises "lots of stuff" that fans of the last two games will be able to pick up on, whether it's "weird characters turning up again" or just getting a mention.
In terms of voice acting, Houser is actually quite defensive, arguing that "Rockstar North are the stars of this thing," in order to avoid naming names. However we are told to expect actors who fit the roles, and if they happen to be big-name types and recognisable porn stars and so on then so be it.
Perhaps the most interesting change we've been privy to so far however is news that Carl will now have to eat in order to maintain his physical state. Through dozens of accurately modelled restaurants and other eateries, the criminal wannabe will be able to top up his stamina meter, and actually visibly gain weight. In fact, he can overdo it. Says Houser, "Playing a mission when you're a fat bastard and everyone call you a 'fat bastard' in the game world is an amazing experience." It makes the mission harder, but Carl can always go to the gym to burn it off, and then head back and blow the dissenter's head off with his newfound dual pistols.
Is it a gimmick though? "We're trying to build up a sense of ownership over the world and over your character, from his weight to a hundred other things you can do to him in that world." It still sounds a bit silly, but we'll have to wait and make that judgement when we've actually played it. Which, knowing Rockstar's tedious obsession with secrecy, will probably be in the days immediately prior to its massively hyped release in late October.
We'd be lying if we said we weren't interested though, if only because a number of the changes Rockstar North has made are clearly geared towards improving our experience of the key factors that the game retains from Vice City. Hand to hand combat, for example, will be more in depth with more stances, attacks and actual control (instead of the rather clunky system used previously), the targeting system is said to be along the same lines as the shooting sections of Manhunt (which used right-stick targeting, taking cover and firing round corners), the vehicle physics have been tinkered with to improve the mechanics of "cruising and chasing", and technologically we're now looking at real-time reflections on most glossy surfaces (be it cars, windows, mirrors), radial lighting to help the shadowing, soft-shadows on interiors, and even independent day and night models to make the game look good through the 24 hour cycle.
Rag-doll physics will also make an arguably long overdue appearance, adding true floppiness to the murderous rampages we're all familiar with, and thanks to the... wait for it... improved AI (yes), NPC behaviour will now change depending on the skill level - easing the challenge to let Carl and his crew make progress when they run into trouble again and again. Which may annoy hardcore fans, but given the massive numbers of people who will buy it, it's an understandable decision.
In fact, a lot of what Houser and Rockstar told Game Informer this month makes sense, and is bound to work fans into a lather. Obviously the game will be loathe to sacrifice its core gameplay, but by the sound of it we can expect a game brimming with everything we enjoyed about the last one, and plenty more besides. Is that what we want? Given that wholesale changes were always out of the question, it's going to have to do - and we fancy that Rockstar North's dark and satirical sense of humour, and passionate obsession with minutely detailed gameplay will see us through many a lonely night in San Andreas.
Full details of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas can be found in an exclusive preview in this month's American Game Informer magazine.