Blah. Blah blah blah. Blah di blah di blah di blah. It's all irrelevant. Rockstar's already won. You've already bought it. You're sitting at work knowing there's a copy on your doormat, or perhaps you're glancing excitedly at a plastic bag on the edge of your desk, the DVD-case-shaped contours beaming like the sun-kissed curves of the woman of your dreams. Or, lest we exclude, rippling like the abs of a great hulk of a man. It's ready to pleasure you in every conceivable way.
Said and done
And when you turn it on it certainly feels like Rockstar has conceived of more than ever before. The narrative is engrossing, the characters believable and well-acted - as Kristan rightly notes, not just in the expected confines of the cut sequences, but also on the streets, in the cars, as you dash around covering your Triad gang boss or talk to your pals on a mobile phone as you tear up Los Santos with a gaggle of gun-toting police bearing down on your back-bumper and motorcycle cops hanging off the bonnet. And there's so much else to do beyond the Final Fantasy-dwarfing depth of the single-player story missions. It touches every base, wraps its fingers around them and squeezes every last drop. It's the biggest, most extraordinary developmental accomplishment this industry has ever seen.
So much stands out. Being chased through back-alleys of Los Santos on a motorbike, jiggling your low-rider's suspension with the right analogue stick in time to a hip-hop beat, sneaking into a mansion and knifing guards, racing BMX bikes down the side of a mountain, pinpointing the gas tank on an SUV as enemies spray bullets at you and blowing them all to hell with a single bullet, the first time you get to wield a pair of machineguns at once, flying crop-dusting planes, jack-knifing a flaming lorry into oncoming traffic and leaping out just as it explodes, taking over the gangland street by street, blowing bloody doors off with satchel charges, rendezvousing with familiar faces. Not all is scripted. So many of the things you'll remember about San Andreas most fondly will be of your own design.
And that's to say nothing of the humour. Cluckin' Bell restaurants with their "F***-a-doodle-doos", leading blind men into fire-fights, demented wannabe rappers, comedy allusions to a certain controversial Grand Theft Also you might recall we didn't like, Samuel L Jackson on a bong, "We'll s*** on you from such a height you'll think God himself has crapped on you," virtually every radio advert in the entire game (we've a particularly fond recollection of the ex-army exterminators - "What the hell is that?" "That's my son!" "Looks like Vietcong to me!"); you needn't worry about spoilers. It's almost impossible to be hyperbolic about its merits. There's just so much of everything.
Roll your own
The much-trailed changes largely come off without a hitch, too. The RPG-style elements - bodybuilding, watching your weight, swimming, targeting, etc. etc. - they don't interfere, they just improve, albeit some more than others. One of our biggest concerns was that we'd spend so much time trying to keep CJ healthy that we'd feel like NHS nurses with shotguns. In actual fact, restaurants and burger bars are just a cheap and easy health top-up, and you needn't worry too much about beefing up beyond what's sensible; you'd have to make an effort. And besides, going to the gym isn't just worthwhile for health reasons; it'll teach you new moves, improve your speed and stamina and all sorts. Much is like this - and the stats influence the world around you and its reaction to you. Literally nobody will see and hear everything this game has to offer.
It's not perfect though. Admittedly we had no right to expect that, but it is still a little grating to find ourselves fighting against the camera (particularly while driving) and the targeting system after railing against both and hearing tell this year of how neither would be a problem. And the technical limitations of the PlayStation 2 do frustrate, at least until you come to anticipate them. The game tops out at 30 frames per second, and spends an awful lot of time stooped far lower, while anybody whose PS2 hasn't come out of shrink-wrap this week is going to see the close-up hi-res textures drawing a couple of seconds late from time to time, and there's also a case for complaining about the pop-up. Granted, it's hardly on a par with DRIV3R's utterly contemptible failings in this regard, but there are one or two occasions when a thin but immovable wall springs out of nowhere to block your path as you lurch across a car park in pursuit of a shortcut.
Then there's the question of pacing, frivolity, and difficulty spikes. The story moves on quite swiftly, and sometimes leaves clever ideas under-exploited. Capturing gang territories was proving quite entertaining, then all of a sudden we were booted out of Los Santos and had no chance of building up that side of the game. That's one example. There are weaker elements like the already-chided countryside section that splits Los Santos and San Fierro, and some of the side missions like the trucking and taking out drug couriers drag you all over the map - which takes an inordinate amount of time - for relatively insignificant benefits. And, it has to be said, completing the arduous advanced driving school only to receive a minor stat top-up was almost as frustrating as failing the same mission over and over.
But while it's true that when totted up San Andreas has more faults than the average game, that's only because it has so much more of everything else. We can't stress enough how much fun there is to be had in this game. Everywhere you look. Whether it's jumps (which become more prominent in San Fierro), spraypainting tags, burgling people, dating, or just ripping the city to shreds and fending off waves of cops, SWAT, choppers, National Guard, army, feds and everybody else. One of GTA's perennial strengths has been its endgame - the fact that you're never finished, and even when you technically are you can always still have fun and find new things to do, listen to, or what-have-you. With San Andreas, that's more true than ever, and it's going to take you even longer than ever before to get there. It's no exaggeration to say that you could be still be playing this when the next GTA game comes out, even if it takes Rockstar another two years to finish.
It's not perfect then, but so much of it is so good that you won't care. Sure, you'll curse it until you're blue in the face, your coffee table's upended and your girlfriend's left you, and you may well switch off the PlayStation 2 in disgust from time to time. But you'll always come back, because there'll always be something else, some other fun you could be having with it instead. Whether it's better than GTA III or even Vice City is hard to say. But it's a moot point. It's still essential, even if it doesn't always pack the same amount of fun per square mile, and it's hard to imagine any other game besides the next Grand Theft Auto topping its overarching achievements. You were right to buy it. But then that was never in any doubt, was it?