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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Doesn't Mean Anything.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, then. A game in which you live a huge section of the life of an uzi-hugging street-talking gangster, who buds, sprouts, flowers and would even have pollinated were it not for a last-minute sex-game excision, working your way through an entire state's worth of locations carrying out shooting and driving missions and all manner of other mini-missions in a seamlessly linked game world that's brimming with things to do, people to talk to, ways to kill and areas to explore. All done with more big-name actors and diversity than the average Hollywood nightclub - which you can probably visit while you're playing it.

Yet, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a game that I wish to crush. No, this is nothing to do with my much-shouted stance on the game's hip-hop style (a stance which involves standing over it stamping on its face bellowing, "Stop that! Don't you bloody dare get up!"). When I say "crush" I mean it in the literal sense.

I think that, were it compressed into roughly the same space as Grand Theft Auto III, San Andreas would offer so much fun per square mile that you'd shave your chest, throw on a tank top and adopt a much more reserved attitude to the idea of driving along a street shooting at people wearing the wrong coloured hats. As it stands, there's more fun to be had here than you'd find if you put ten rival games back to back - the problem is that you'll spend as much time as you would playing ten rival games back to back in order to eke it all out.

San Andreas is also a game that I wish they hadn't rushed. Now, granted, it's hard to imagine a game that's had more man-hours thrown at it in recent years, nor paid greater dividends for the publisher. On PlayStation 2 alone it sold more copies in the UK along than I will earn pounds (or even dollars) in my entire lifetime. (This is one of those occasions I hope to be proven wrong, dear reader.) But for all the work that went into it and the enormous volume of things to do in it, it's still hard to escape the feeling that it needs another six months of polish.

Lip-synching, in some areas, is tragic. A lot of the mini-games are poorly formed or tediously prosaic in their execution. A great many of its "100 plus" missions are either conceptually flawed or identikit [or just plain tedious - 103 story mission completing Ed]. And technically it's got more issues than its lead character - a man who not only got his brother killed, but over the course of this adventure will use remote control helicopters to kill geeks, slaughter rival gang-members at a funeral, and even engage in demented sadomasochistic antics with an equally demented South American firebrand of a girlfriend. Thankfully behind closed doors. Porting it to Xbox from the weaker PS2 hasn't really fixed anything.

But, as you may have spotted, San Andreas is a game that I'm not prepared to trash. That is a nine-out-of-ten sitting on the bottom of the review. And the reason it has that is that for all its flaws - flaws that you could spend as much time listing as it takes to write the average 2,000-word long-form review - there's about ten times as much to talk about in terms of adrenaline-kicks, hilarious, personal gaming anecdotes and moments of sheer genius - whether deliberately or accidentally comedic or just mechanical. Even generalising its successes eats up half a paragraph. And although it will frustrate and prompt you to fulminate, for the most part it's well above average, and it spends more time in the realms of excellence than at least half of the ten other games I've already lined up nearby. And of course, thanks to its zeitgeist-redefining third-person freeform structure, fun - and fun of your own design as much as the developer's - is rarely more than a few streets away.

It could have been closer, sure, but here you need the exercise.

And in actual fact you do. To drag this review into the realms of actual description, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is like previous GTA games except with barbells on. You take up the reins of Carl Johnson, a kid returning to his neighbourhood in Los Santos - an oft-convincing facsimile of Los Angeles - where his mother's just died. Reuniting with his old pals and brother, he sets about bringing his 'hood back up the rankings, completing drive-by shootings, stealing guns, taking down rivals, running errands for crooked cops, seizing territory by way of the odd bloodbath and driving like a maniac at all points in-between. And in-between he has to eat, go to the gym and generally mind his stats, which are Sims-esque in all but that game's ability to hack you off by dominating your routine with them. Here it's worth working toward, but it's not going to obscure your fun.

But while this is all pretty serious stuff - on the gangland front, the kind of material that Spike Lee would make you cry with - Rockstar gives it to you straight but works as hard as possible to lighten the tone with banter between the stars, acted - and acted well - by a mixture of knowns (Samuel L Jackson!) and unknowns (er, yeah, I dunno), and comedy ticks that run throughout, whether it's ticklish radio adverts playing in-between the copious early '90s pop tunes on the radio, the back-and-forth spoken over the top, the roadsigns (True Grime: Street Cleaners), the silly eatery names (Cluckin' Bell) and clothes stores (Pro-Laps sportswear), listening to someone mouthing off about Driver 3 ("Tanner, you suck!") while you sneak past his couch, giggling at your hippy drug dealer pal's conspiracy theories, or the simple absurdity of smashing through cartoon people on the high street and blowing up cartoon ambulances. And when you've just about had time to explore one area, it thrust you into another. And another. And another. And another. Then comes full circle.

It would be pretty easy to adopt a kind of moral discomfort about the blend of seriousness and flippancy that keeps San Andreas - and the whole GTA series - ringing up dollar signs in the eyes of Take-Two executives, but if you treat it all in the spirit in which it's been designed - to entertain, nothing more - then you can't go too far wrong. Later in the game you can steal a jet, fly it over the desert and just leap out of it with a parachute. The game always has you more interested in the experience of riding down with the parachute than what's happened to the plane you just leapt out of - and that's pretty symbolic of the whole approach. There are a wealth of unique stunts to perform by jumping off well-hidden ramps, but it's the fun of watching a car arc over a barn in slow motion and then clip it and tumble upside down into hay-bales that you care about; not the cost of replacing the weathervane.

And since we're heading in that direction, let's consider just what you can do, and how likely you are to stick with it. As with previous GTAs, you've always got something to do. Usually it's a mission, or a couple of them - serious endeavours that see you really risking death by taking on gangs, kidnapping record producers and driving their limos off piers, chasing down sexually repressed bishops as they try to "convert" prostitutes, playing driver to mad blind Triads with uzis who want to gun down their neighbours from the passenger-seat, killing witnesses guarded by FBI agents in the hills and photographing them, then biking down the side of a mountain to save your game, tapping buttons in time to music to convince a beach girl to (foolishly) let you into her sound van, sneaking around a rapper's mansion to pinch his rhymesheet, using a mini-gun to target remote control aeroplanes as they threaten your electronics guy's rooftop antennae. And so on.

And the execution is often good enough - thanks to Hollywood car handling that lets you thrash around performing absurd handbrake turns, rolling cars and leaping out of them at high speed, and simple-enough shoot-'em-up mechanics that while frustrating at times are often compelling enough. Sometimes it falls short - most notably in the case of off-the-beaten track missions like the "Zero" efforts in middle-city San Fierro, which spike the difficulty curve so high that you might as well be injecting pure frustration into the nearest vein - but, of course the missions are never the whole story. And with a bit of time away you come back with renewed purpose.

If you can't be bothered to do a real mission, you can look for those jumps I mentioned, find yourself some guns hidden in obscure spots (like on your neighbour's roof) and go mad on the streets trying to drum up as much police attention as possible and then bat it back, and although your extra-curricular activities aren't as prescribed as previously (Rampages, for example, are no longer obvious), there's usually something hidden away in any given block to amuse and, critically, give you an idea for something to do. If it's not just making you chuckle.

GTA is of course the original "sandbox" third-person game, full of toys with which to amuse yourself - and, as you may have spotted, any attempt to broadly describe its appeal at this late stage winds up going round and round in circles within a few paragraphs. So let's try and inflict some form of structure on this mess again and head toward the conclusion with a few pertinent observations beyond the fact that, dur, it's big and, double-dur, there's lots of mostly well-done things to do.

First, neither PC or Xbox gets it right on the control front though. The PC version only falls down when it comes to mapping buttons to a control pad, which it doesn't do particularly convincingly (not obviously allowing you to double up certain functions onto the same button, for example, even when they're mutually exclusive and behave like that on PS2/Xbox), but the Xbox's problem is sadly innate. The White and Black buttons, used here for looking left, right or behind you in a car, are almost impossible to hold at the same time as each other, let alone driving and firing. The PS2 Dual Shock wins out here.

Second, this game still does not run properly on a console. When it chugged and lurched into stupidly low frame rates on PS2 [which, to be totally fair wasn't that often - Mr '100 hours' Ed], had ludicrous pop-up and fogging issues and still managed to look pretty backward-arsed in terms of its graphical accomplishments, it was easy to say "Well, it'll look better on the Xbox. The other versions did." This one, frankly, does not. On a high end PC with 3x anti-aliasing and the draw distance whacked up to the max it looks splendid, going into silly resolutions, but on the Xbox it looks dreadful. Or, to be more accurate, pretty much the same. It still slows down. It still pops up. The degrees to which it does these things have perhaps lessened slightly, but the extent to which they make you frown has not.

Fortunately, the low-res style screams "cartoon", the stylistic animations often make up for the lapses in quality, and the entertaining gameplay - for there's so much going on here it'd be churlish to specify - dominates your view of it all. And, brilliantly, the addition of custom soundtracks means that areas that used to be incredibly dull, like the long trawls through the countryside and desert, are now so much more enjoyable. Rocketing through the countryside on a dirt bike with music you actually like blistering your eardrums arguably does more to keep San Andreas above the "nine" threshold in my little world than a hundred and one variations on the word "ho".

But, ultimately, GTA - and San Andreas in particular - is a game that cannot be easily bound by critics. And that, to my eyes, is because it's so all-encompassing. You can come home from work and feel like playing a sports game, a shoot-'em-up, a racing game, a rhythm-action game, or whatever. Most of the time you can come home from work and feel like playing a GTA game, because while it only flirts with some of those genres it does a good enough job of nailing the core interests of most gamers and padding them out with humour, ingenuity and variety.

It's one of the few games that recognises the unpredictability and psychology of the consumer - or at least accidentally seizes upon it. Back in the day you could throw on your favourite sports game for ten minutes, then your favourite shooter for another ten, then read Super Play for another ten and do your homework. These days ten of those minutes would be spent on load screens and in menus, waiting for discs to spin up and managing memory cards. GTA is a one-stop timesink that only asks for a couple of minutes to get going. It may not be best at everything, but it's best at doing everything. It's a gateway to doing lots and it goes against the current technical grain; in a few generations' time it's going to be a terrifyingly consuming piece of software.

As it stands now, it's far from perfect. But, divisive though its hip-hop ideology may be, and under-furnished some areas may feel, it still edges close enough often enough to be worthy of one of our highest marks. To put it another way, when I sit down of an evening and can't think of what to play, nine times out of ten I'm likely to settle for a Grand Theft Auto game. This one's no different. Low-rides over the 8/9 threshold. Now let's bounce.

9 / 10

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