Grand Theft Auto. Most of us have played the last two versions, and some of the old schools gamers here have had a romp through the two old PSX versions. Now, the latest edition is upon us. San Andreas, the much-anticipated latest entry to this vaunted series, has a ton of hype to live up to. Like Fable before it, it share the possible fate of being crushed by it’s massive hype. It also shares some other values, but we’ll discuss that later. Did it survive the test? Well, it appears to have survived the hype, and come out better then I expected.

What I mean is that I had low expectations for GTA:SA. I couldn’t imagine what else they could do with the series, and even the previews and hints of the new features had been greeted with skepticism. The idea of playing another guy trying to make his way in the seedy world of crime sounded like fun, and the idea of a huge area to explore – one much larger then the past two games – was very exciting.  I just didn’t see what kind of innovations they could really bring. Hello, Alpha… reality shock incoming…

This is the best game on the PS2, bar none. Like I said, I was doubtful as to what could be improved in the series, but I was shown that Rockstar really knows what it’s doing. We’ll start with the graphics. The character models of the random people in town (and outside of it) are a lot more diverse then I’ve ever seen before. The weather effects are also a sight to behold. The best sights, however, await those who leave town and explore the outlying areas. The rolling hills, pine forests, sea shores and cliffside views were all outstanding. I was tiring of the in-town life that had been the only option in the last two games.  This ability to leave the big city and see a whole different world was brilliant. More credit to Rockstar for proving that they aren’t limited to making realistic cities.

So it’s pretty. Big deal, huh? There’ve been sweet looking games before, but some controlled like the player character had been on an all-night drinking binge and had lost all motor coordination. This is not the case with San Andreas, as the controls are fine tuned to a tee. They aren’t as precise as, say, a Mario game, but they are fitted into the game play in such a way that they just feel natural. Carl Johnson (CJ, the main character) can do all of the things his predecessors could, but he’s outdone them in every way. His jump is so much more useful. No more bouncing back if you jump too close to a wall. CJ will clamber over it and get into places that Mr. Vercetti could never hope to enter. Climbing fences and walls gives CJ a fun and entertaining way of eluding the police. At one point I was being tailed, so I ran up a nearby ‘unique jump’ ramp and lept to catch a nearby wall that was too high to get from the ground and climb over to freedom. Try to match that, pal, I laughed. I was free to let my reign of terror continue.

Weaponry is also good, but some of the weapons seem to much like the others. Despite the lack of originality, the weapons control and fire quite well. The only problem I had is that the auto-target sometimes would target anyone except the guy shooting me. Cheap deaths ensued. The Molotov cocktails and flame thrower have a much more profound effect this time. You can actually start fires that the Fire Department will have to come out and try to put out. The game also tracks the number of fires started; a cool feature.

Now I mentioned that this game had some features that reminded me of Fable. What I was talking about was the ability to customize CJ and really make him into what you wanted to be. The ability to buy, mix, and match your entire wardrobe is a good time (and money) waster that can have a big impact on people’s impression of you. However, there are just some things that aren’t practical that you just have to buy (joke eyeglasses, anyone?). Also, you can get haircuts to again alter people’s image of you, along with getting tattoos. Do you see where I’m coming from? Two great games that share some fun features. Take notes, developers. There’s going to be a test in the upcoming months.

Is this the perfect game? No, not hardly. The camera, whether on foot or driving, has a tendency to get out of control. Also, like I said the lock-on aiming is a pain. It’s also hard to drive your prize car anywhere since rival gangs shoot your tires out at a moments notice, leaving you vulnerable to further gunfire. Robbing houses is a good concept, but for heavy-handed gamers like me it can be extremely frustrating to do. Lastly, people you take with you on missions still can hardly hold their own. I can’t count the number of times I had to stop what I was doing to save my nimrod partner that has an SMG from one guard with a handgun. If you have to take them on missions, they should at least be able to protect themselves to some extent.

All in all, it’s a great game that no one should miss, despite it’s flaws. Some people may be offended by it, but those who take it in stride will find an unforgettable gaming experience.