What can be said about San Andreas that hasn't been said before? It's expansive, varied, vulgar, defining, addictive and able to impress even the harshest of critics. What Rockstar has been able to do with this series, time and time again, it's simply mind-boggling. But the formula works and this 3rd outing of Grand Theft Auto in a completely 3D world is nothing short of perfection. What other game on the planet allows you to do, well, everything?
San Andreas follows the story of CJ (Carl Johnson) who is returning from Liberty City in the early 90's, after a five year exodus, to bury his mother, clear his name and reclaim his territory. If San Andreas only followed CJ's story it would still be enough to warrant a purchase. The story is gritty and mature and eclipses many of Hollywood's current offerings. But the GTA series has always been about letting you do anything you want and San Andreas furthers this concept with so many ideas that you'd expect it to stumble. But the simple fact that it succeeds with such authority and determination at everything it attempts is proof enough that Liberty City and Vice City were no accidents. Rockstar Games loves making Grand Theft Auto and they will not compromise in any way regardless of the scope or difficulty of their ideas.
And where GTA3 and Vice City allowed you enough freedom to fill 10 different other titles, San Andreas easily trumps them both. How many games will let you drive any car, bike, plane or boat, sky dive, play basketball, date, pimp your ride, play DDR-type games, play mini videogames, work out, eat out, get tattoos & haircuts, buy clothes, take over a neighborhood, be wanted by the cops, do drive-byes, travel anywhere, burglarize houses and so much more? None. But San Andreas does it all and does it brilliantly. Running on the PS2 it is almost mind-numbing to see San Andreas in action. How can a game look so good and so massive on a system that is starting to show its age and is thought to be at its limits? Regardless of how they did it, even on PS2, San Andreas is a sprawling treat for the senses. Yes, you will run into long load times from time to time and entering/leaving buildings can be a little taxing on the old nerves once in a while, but the wait is more than worth it. Once in a level, the PS2 streams the scenery by very quickly and actually doesn't suffer from the small pop-ups that the Xbox version seems plagued with.
Sound-wise, San Andreas is a funny, quaint, rude mix of songs, commercials, voice-overs and noise. In all cases, if you closed your eyes, you'd never know it was a video game playing. The only (slight) hiccup comes from the voice-overs which are mixed a little lower than the radio stations. This is mostly noticeable while in a car where you'll sometimes miss a great line here or there, but that just goes to show how clever the dialog really is. A little tweaking in the Options Menu could fix this, but then the music wouldn't sound as loud!
Voice-work and music selection has always played a paramount importance in the GTA series. While the music has always been quintessential to setting the tone and vibe of an era (and sell CDs as well!) the voice work has always been without equal. From Hollywood talent to simple pedestrian one-liners, the audio portion is always well written and well delivered. In this iteration you will find The Game, Ice T, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Chris Penn, James Woods and Debi Mazar lending their vocal muscles to the cause. While Vice City will always reign at the supreme as The Perfectly Cast voice acting with its clever choices (Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds, Philip Michael Thomas, Jenna Jameson and Lawrence Taylor) San Andreas is no slouch. CJ may not have the clever one-liners and maniacal determination of Tommy Vercetti but he does sound authentic and believable.
And here is the part where I make enemies: I know San Andreas was released on PS2 first and that's how we all experienced it, but in my opinion, the game controls much better on the Xbox. There, I said it. When driving a vehicle, I like to use the Xbox's triggers to control acceleration and breaking. And for that reason, and that reason alone, the Xbox's controls seems much better implemented to me. On the other hand, looking behind/left/right and using a rudder in a plane is much easier on the PS2. Don't even try to understand the Xbox's control decisions there. The only other real difference between the two is the camera control with the right thumbstick. You have much more freedom on the Xbox than you do on the PS2, but at no time is this ever a hindrance.
So is San Andreas the perfect game? Well, close to it. I've played the Final Fantasies and the Gran Tourismos and once finished, it's sometimes hard to go back to those titles. GTA on the other hand keeps calling me home again and again. When I don't want to follow the story, I try to get my wanted level up. When I'm sick of driving cars, I steal a plane and jump out of it. The point is simply this: You can do anything in this game! And yes, it is an M rated game and it does make exceptional use of its license with its violence, sexual content and language. But once you've seen one chainsaw, you've seen them all right? But parents take note: your children will in one form or another be exposed to this game and its content. They will hear words and repeat them out of context. Consider that a precursor to a nice family discussion.
In the end, San Andreas eclipses every other game that has come before it simply because it is more than simply a bunch of code on a disc. San Andreas and the whole Grand Theft Auto series is truly a phenomenon that tests the boundaries of our society by gently pushing at the limits of our collective fabric. It puts forth ideas that we shy from and lets us explore them in a safe and controlled environment. Does San Andrea go too far sometimes? Yes and no. It gives us the freedom to do anything WE choose. But these are our decisions. And for this reason it stands alone as an unprecedented achievement. Regardless of what console you play it on, San Andreas must be experienced at all costs. It might not always be pretty, but it sure is fun.