On October 25, 2004 I spent my evening waiting in line with many other avid gamers for 7 o'clock to roll by and my local EB Games to begin selling Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for the PS2. It was an eye-opening experience for me. You'd have thought that Elvis himself was back from the dead for another comeback tour. It was electric. And although I had played video games for a long time, I had never considered it mainstream until I stood in that line between a 40-ish year old man and a wide-eyed mother sent to pick the game up by her sons. This truly was an event. This was a Springsteen concert for the gaming crowd. This proved to me that gaming had finally come into its own and was truly accepted as a medium in our society. And looking back on it, I don't think any other game could have done it; not Halo, not Metal Gear and not Final Fantasy. GTA has become more than a game. Everyone has heard about it; good or bad. GTA has defined a generation and is solidly ingrained within our culture. It may take place in the 80's or early 90's but it has always been a barometer for our current trends. How many other games can claim such a mass appeal and reach? How many other global events can? GTA has changed us as a culture and experiencing it again on the Xbox has made it even sweeter than ever.
There are two groups of people that will read the Xbox reviews for GTA: San Andreas; those who have waited to buy it on the Xbox and those that are waiting to buy it again on the Xbox. Whichever group you fall into, the story hasn't changed. You are still following 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-by's, travel anywhere, burglarize houses and so much more? None. But San Andreas does it all and does it brilliantly. On the PS2 it was almost mind-numbing to see San Andreas run. How could a game look so good on a system that was thought to be at its limits? Regardless, gamers knew that much like the GTA3 and Vice City ports before it, the Xbox version of San Andreas would look even better. So how does it fare?
Sound-wise, San Andreas on Xbox is very similar to its PS2 counterpart. The radio stations sound loud and crisp but some of the in-game voiceovers sound muffled. This is common when in a car (with the radio blaring) but also during cut-scenes. This may be attributed to the simple fact that all music levels seem much higher than voice levels. A little tweaking in the Options Menu would fix this, but then the music wouldn't sound as loud! As with the two previous GTA ports to Xbox, custom soundtracks are supported. While driving around it is also possible to toggle songs forward and back and also to switch user soundtracks on the fly. Oddly enough, my custom soundtracks have never sounded so good in any game before. Whatever audio settings Rockstar sets its EQ's to, they sound great!
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.
The Xbox version doesn't look as different from the PS2 version as it should! There, I said it. While GTA3 was leaps and bounds sharper and more detailed on the Xbox and Vice City's draw distances were greatly improved, the line between PS2 and Xbox is a lot blurrier where San Andreas is concerned. To begin, the Xbox version suffers greatly from he same cutscene pop-ups that Halo 2 is famous for. In both cases, I believe the game is trying to load its levels while playing in-game CG cutscenes. The trade-offs is a slower level load-time versus scenery that appears with a slight delay. While this never detracts from the overall experience, it is noticeable whenever palm trees are present in the background or shadows are rendered to telephone poles. In-game graphics aren't played by this at all except when the "cinematic camera" is used. Apart from that small nitpick, the Xbox is a lot brighter than the PS2 version. On Sony's console, every texture seemed shaded to a certain extent to add depth to walls and cars and chairs. On the Xbox, lines around items seem crisper (in 480p anyways) with less "contour" used around them. It makes every item in San Andreas seem brighter but at the same time sometimes shows how bland a texture really is. On PC textures seem even more generic. But considering the size of the game, a few bland textures here and there mean nothing. The simple fact that you can use the camera to zoom in on every magazine cover, painting, restaurant menu, etc and see its rich detail will make you love your Microsoft console. The Xbox also adds more detail to hands and to signs (at least it seems like they are easier to read) and handles lighting with greater ease. The draw distances have also been considerably improved and it's breathtaking to stand on a high mountain and look out at the cities below it (and then jump off with a parachute). On any console San Andreas will never be mistaken for Doom 3, but then again, we are talking apples and oranges. As it stands, San Andreas is amazing to look at and I can't imagine the amount of work that went in to creating every vehicle, pedestrian, sign, restaurant, hill, court, fence, light, etc found throughout a city that is 5-6 time larger then Vice City. I can only think of Morrowind as having a larger playing field and all things equal, I prefer GTA's.
On the Xbox, a much talked about new feature that has left more questions in its wake than answers is the 30 second replay. In a nutshell, you can access a 30 second replay of your last events from the Options Menu. You cannot save the replay or control it very much except for swinging the camera angle around. It's a nice little add-on, but it doesn't feel fully fleshed out. It also shows some graphical glitches from time to time: like tires sinking into the pavement when using a bicycle or the dreaded palm-tree pop-up issue. Also, when the 30 seconds are up, you are left controlling CJ again. It would have been nice to return to the Options Menu and be able to watch it again. And truth be told, 30 seconds is not a long time when you consider some of the things you are capable of doing in San Andreas. An option to save the replays should have been mandatory (the Xbox has a hard drive for a reason), although you can take unlimited pictures in this version though. Another option to edit and upload clips to the Xbox Live community (a la Driv3r) would have been amazing. I'm sure capture cards will be used and we'll still see clips pop up eventually.
The last great difference between the PS2 and Xbox is, was and will always be: control. While Xbox owners have always found the triggers mandatory for racing games (imagine playing Forza using the A, B and X buttons) PS2 gamers have always preferred (or settled) for the X, square and triangle to get their Gran Turismo rides around the tracks. The choice is simple, but can really make or break a game for Xbox owners it seems. Fear not, when in a vehicle you will be using the triggers to control acceleration and braking. Even when on the bicycle you will be pumping the right trigger to pedal faster (I was a little worried about this, but it feels very natural). The Xbox controls are different from the PS2 version, but also different from the 2 previous ports. You can customize the Y-axis of the right thumbstick (which plays much better and smoother than the PS2 version) but that's about it. The controls are well handled though and feel natural after a few minutes. The black and white buttons are heavily used in various control schemes (cycle weapons, look behind/left/right, zoom in/out, rudder left/right) and do take a little while to get used to. Especially the "look back" function which is achieved by pressing both buttons while in a car! Good luck.
So is San Andreas the perfect game? Well, close to it. There are not many things that can be said against it once you realize the breadth of its scope. It is an M rated game and makes exceptional use of its rating. You won't really find anything more violent than previous GTA outings (chainsaw anyone?) but it should be noted that San Andreas does feature, for the first time, an African-American in the title role. The character is not a caricature or a collection of stereotypes however. CJ is written and played out with unyielding authenticity with real issues and problems. And if listening to Dr. Dre and NWA in general makes you queasy because of certain words, expect to hear them and hear them a lot. It took a lot of balls to write these parts as true to life as possible and it may have felt like a flood gate had opened at certain points, but it never felt like it was used simply for effect. These are characters in a certain time and place and their language, as shocking as it may be to some, would feel like a cop-out if it was written otherwise. Take from that the following: parents, 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 platform you play it on, San Andreas must be experienced at all costs. It might not always be pretty, but it sure is fun.