San Andreas lives up to the hype. There, I said it. Some might complain that it isn't radically different from GTA III or Vice City and others might moan that the story isn't filled with branching paths, but the bottom line is that San Andreas is still an extremely well put together game that is absolutely worth investing hundreds of hours into. And it isn't as if this is just Vice City with a flannel shirt and work boots on. Every single aspect of the game has been improved and the result is an experience that is the best the Grand Theft Auto series has to offer.
To understand why San Andreas is so great I think you need to look at why Vice City was a bit of a disappointment. It was still a fun game, but it was definitely missing something that GTA III had and after playing San Andreas it is pretty obvious. The city design in Vice City was crap. It was filled with dead ends and had kind of a goofy street layout and it simply wasn't as fun to explore as Liberty City. And all of Vice City had the same sort of feel to it. That had a lot to do with the fact that Rockstar gave you the entire city to play in far too quickly. In GTA III you had to play for quite a while before you opened up everything, which is important because it gave you incentive to keep playing and it also gave you some new scenery to look at every ten hours or so. Another area where Vice City suffered is that because of the lame city design, police chases weren't nearly as fun. There were no hills or anything like that. Just flat boring streets.
San Andreas completely fixes all of those little disappointments with Vice City. The map is not only huge, but every single area is extremely well designed. The cities actually feel like real cities again and there are glorious hills all over the place and not just in San Fiero. The space in between the cities and towns is also really well done. Forests really look and feel like forests and the desert really feels like the desert. That sounds stupid, but when you are stranded out in the boonies and there are literally no cars or people or houses for miles and miles the realism in the design of San Andreas will really hit home. Like in GTAIII, you have to unlock parts of the map and it takes a good 25-30 hours of solid mission playing before everything is open. However, since you can now do things such as swim and climb over fences, it is really easy to get to the locked portions of the map because you can hop the fence into the airport and steal a plane or simply swim across a river. When you go into a locked area, though, your wanted level immediately goes to 4 stars, which leads me to the next reason why San Andreas is completely freaking awesome.
Police chases are actually fun again. The great map design combined with its huge size means that you can have long chases with multiple parts. Chases can go on for hours if you are careful, but unlike in GTAIII or Vice City, you can cover a ton of ground and go through a lot of varied geography. And it really is a thrill to drive for a while, then switch to a plane or helicopter, then to a boat, then to a car, and so on. Police chases can be long and complex and tremendously fun.
Because of the huge amount of area to cover, the game almost seems too big. It can take more than half an hour just to drive from one end of the state to the other and that is only when you take the most direct route and don't crash very much. Once you learn how to effectively use the freeway or take advantage of the train tracks that cut right through the mountains, it is easy to get where you want but it still takes a few minutes due to the sheer size of the map. You can't just drive over the mountains and hills that block your path either; because that usually ends up with your car stuck in a river or in a smoking heap and then you're running for five minutes to reach a road. You really have to learn the roads in San Andreas in order to be successful. For some reason, that statement excites me. You can't just bull your way through everything and you actually have to use roads and things. Gee, that's pretty realistic. I love it!
The story and missions associated with it in San Andreas are also very well done and an improvement on previous entries in the series. If you have been following GTA: SA's development, you already know that you play as Carl Johnson and the game is set in the fictional state of San Andreas in the early 1990's. San Andreas has three major cities, Los Santos (Los Angeles), San Fiero (San Francisco), and Las Venturas (Las Vegas). Carl returns to his hometown of Los Santos after five years in Liberty City and finds that his old gang is no longer in power. As Carl tries to help his gang regain their former glory, he gets dragged into progressively bigger and much more serious things and eventually has to leave Los Santos for the relative safety of San Fiero and later Las Venturas. There are a lot of twists and turns and the story is good overall. Something amazing in San Andreas is that it really ties the series together. Memorable characters from GTA III and Vice City make appearances and it is really pretty neat to see the aftermath of Vice City as well as what led to the events in Liberty City.
What you do in the missions themselves isn't radically different than in previous games, but the missions are more complex and, thanks to the huge map, you have a lot more ground to cover which gives the game and story a much different feel. The missions are similar to what we saw in GTA III and Vice City. Lots of drive to point A, pick up an object, and then drive to point B? type missions. The best missions are the ones with multiple parts. In one mission, for example, you have to drive to the National Guard base, break in and kill any soldiers you see, use a forklift (that really works) to load boxes of weapons into the back of a truck, and then drive away safely. As you are driving, you can honk the horn to make your buddy riding in the back of the truck throw boxes out at the enemies chasing you to throw them off your trail. In another mission you start off on a rooftop sniping enemies that are holding your allies hostage. You then have to jump down and kill their leader and then jump into the water to reach a boat so you can kill off another fleeing enemy. These multi-layered missions give San Andreas a bigger, more exciting feel and it works very well. Your actions affect an entire state, and that is very cool.
Something else definitely worth mentioning is that the difficulty seems to have been dropped down a notch or two. You don't seem to take as much damage as old man Vercetti did, and when you can actually hold your own in a big firefight your chances for success in a given mission go way up. Another reason why the game is a little easier is that you can now recruit gang members to go with you and help out. They can shoot and fight just like you, but mostly they just give the bad guys another target so they aren't shooting at you and that gives you more time to take them out. The driving missions are a lot more pleasant as well. The time limits aren't so tight and vehicles that you are required to take from point A to point B can take a lot more punishment than before. I think that the difficulty is very well balanced now. GTA III and Vice City were hard games and many people didn't actually beat them. San Andreas is also a hard game, but experienced GTA players should have a much easier time than in the last couple of games.
The story and missions only make up a very small part of the overall experience, though. Easily 80% of your time in San Andreas is spent outside of the story missions and Rockstar has filled the state of San Andreas with an amazing number of side quests, minigames, and other activities to keep you busy. In addition to the ambulance, police, taxi, and fire missions from previous games, you can now drive a truck, do valet parking, train missions, airplane missions, and much more. You can once again buy property and make money off of it and these properties include an airstrip and a casino among other things. On top of all that, you can kill time by playing basketball or going to the bar and playing pool and there are also several different arcade games that you can try. When you reach Las Venturas you can enter the casinos and play roulette, blackjack, video poker, and slots and you can also bet on horse races. There are a lot of other things you can do as well, and every aspect is well put together and a lot of fun to do.
It is hard to deny that the core gameplay of the GTA series simply works. The go anywhere, do anything, kill anyone, drive everything gameplay is what makes these games work. San Andreas is the ultimate goof off game. When you are done with the story, which takes more than 30 hours, you still have another 30-40 hours of collecting hidden goodies, import/export garages, and side quests to do. And after that, you have yet another 30-40 hours of just goofing off and running from the police. This game is huge and every bit of it is fun. Most importantly, you are free to make your own fun and that is where GTA: San Andreas really shines.
Something very different from past GTA games is that now your character improves his skills as you play the game. The more you drive around or ride a motorcycle or fly a plane, the better you get at it and the easier it is to do. You also can now exercise to make CJ's punches and kicks cause more damage and also so he'll have more stamina so you can run for longer periods. The more you run and swim the better you'll get at it. The same goes for guns. The more you shoot, the more accurate you'll become and you'll be able to lock onto enemies further and further away. The way you know that a stat has increased is a little icon pops up in the upper left corner for a few seconds and that is it. You don't really have to think about any of this and it does a good job of representing the natural growth of your character as you play the game. Your CJ will be different from your friends' CJ because everyone plays the game a little differently. And the best part of all of this is that while it does make the game easier if you can run for miles and punch hard and drive a car like a pro, it isn't necessary to have maxed out stats to get through the game.
There is one thing that takes a little more thought, and that is keeping CJ fed. CJ has to eat to regain his health and keep up his stamina and if you don't eat, he turns into a skinny little wuss. There are a ton of restaurants in San Andreas and eating is as simple as going inside and ordering some food. CJ gets his health back and you are on your way. It is very easy, very quick, and you only really have to eat once every few days provided you live that long. You don't have to worry about it, and that is why it works.
If you ever get bored of playing alone, you can also create a little two-player havoc in San Andreas. There are icons spread throughout San Andreas that allow you to enter two player mode when you find them. The multiplayer experience is a little limited, though. You play it in full screen and players have to stay within a certain distance to each other. Also, only one person can drive a car. The other has to either run around like a moron or get in the vehicle with the other player and be a passenger. It sucks not being able to both drive a vehicle, but while one person is driving the other can be shooting, so it is pretty fun. On foot action is very fun since you can both be fighting and shooting everything in sight and police chases are arguably better with two people. It isn't exactly what people had in mind for a multiplayer GTA, but it is pretty fun and it beats not having anything at all.
The graphics in San Andreas can hardly be described as beautiful, but they get the job done and are just fine considering how much stuff is going on at any given time. The game still has that jagged, slightly blurry look that GTA III and VC had, but improvements have been made. The cars have that shiny look they had in the Xbox versions of III and VC. Also, the characters are sharper looking and the animation has improved quite a bit and looks a lot less robotic than before. With the good comes some bad, though. Remember that red tint in all of the early screenshots? Well, because of that exploring Los Santos in the evening is a pain in the neck because you can't see anything. Another issue is the camera. There are several choices including an eye in the sky COPS? cam, but none of them really provide an optimal view. The mid-range angle is great for on-foot sections and combat, but the camera pans down behind the car and it is hard to drive because you can't see what is in front of you. The up close angle is great for driving, but makes the on-foot sections more difficult. The only real solution is to switch back and forth between angles. It is annoying, but the game is still very playable.
Sound plays a huge role in the GTA games and San Andreas is no exception. The huge, living, breathing world sounds exactly like you would expect it to. The center of the city is loud and hectic while the middle of the desert is deathly quiet. Every car and gun and everything else sounds just like it should. There is also hours upon hours upon hours of voice work in the game and pretty much every voice actor did a great job. From the main story characters to pedestrians on the street, the voice work is top notch.
And then, of course, is the radio. There are 150 songs spanning rap, rock, country, and more. Artists include Ice Cube, Eazy-E, N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, Depeche Mode, Faith No More, Guns n Roses, KISS, Tom Petty, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and many more. All of the music is taken from the early 90's or earlier and fits perfectly. There is also a talk radio station that covers issues of the time period. Even though rap and hip-hop takes up a large chunk of the song list, the tracks were carefully selected to have mainstream appeal. This is really the best that early 90's rap has to offer and almost all of the songs are worth listening to, so don't avoid San Andreas just because you think rap is crap. Radio Los Santos might just change your mind. Overall, the radio does a good job of covering a lot of different types of music and features a lot of really great songs that fit the time period like a glove.
In the end, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the great game that we all hoped it would be. It isn't a giant leap forward in the series, but what else can they really do other than add more cars and more stuff to make the cities, and now states, you explore more realistic. It isn't as if Rockstar North took an if it ain't broke, don't fix it? mentality with San Andreas. Every single aspect of the gameplay has been improved. More notably, the state of San Andreas is a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more interesting than Liberty City and Vice City were. The whole reason why GTA games are so fun is that you have the freedom to explore and do anything and everything you want and San Andreas lets you do that better than any game before it. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is highly recommended for a purchase. Rent it if you aren't sure before you buy it, but definitely play it. You can get hundreds of hours of gameplay out of your $50 investment, and that sounds pretty good to me.