There's no use in arguing about it -- the Grand Theft Auto series for the PlayStation 2 is currently the driving force behind the video game industry. So it's understandable that new instalments come under heavy scrutiny -- after all, how many titles are influential enough to re-define game design almost overnight?
In examining the latest entry in the amoral series, one fact is clear: though the game is absolutely enormous, it just isn't as effortlessly innovative as its brilliant predecessor, GTA: Vice City.
The exterior environments of San Andreas -- ranging from sun-drenched ghettos and fog-choked docks to mountainous terrain -- definitely seem more solid and polished than Vice City's repetitive slums. But some areas still have a sloppy, unfinished look to them; interior environments are often bland and featureless, or suffer from heavy texture banding and dithering.
When it comes to the soundtrack, San Andreas generally lives up to its rich musical heritage. The game's radio stations cater to genres like hip-hop, country, techno, funk, soul and alternative rock, with a definite focus on gangsta rap. True to the time period, the soundtrack boasts plenty of '90's hits -- standouts include Ice Cube's [Today] Was a Good Day, En Vogue's Never Gonna Get It, Boyz II Men's Motownphilly, Eddie Money's Two Tickets to Paradise, Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus, Danzig's Mother, and Bobby Brown's Don't Be Cruel.
Taken as a whole however, audiophiles may find that San Andreas's soundtrack lacks the diversity and charm of Vice City's rich 80's portfolio. Sure, there are no-brainers like Cypress Hill's How I Could Just Kill A Man, but many of the selections (such as Guns 'N Roses' Welcome to the Jungle, natch) come off as conventional and somewhat uninspired.
San Andreas also improves its melee combat by adding combos, blocking, and special attacks. And in a welcome addition, CJ can climb over obstacles like fences and walls, which is a major time-saver when it comes time to dodge the cops. And CJ's new swimming ability is a long-overdue addition to the gameplay, and makes the process of piloting boats far less frustrating.
The Grand Theft Auto series is notorious for its infuriatingly difficult missions. Knowing this, many players are content to bypass them entirely in favour of blasting cops. In a nice touch, some missions require squad tactics, which frequently take the form of drive-by shootings. These high-speed drive-by battles are particularly cool; one mission (straight out of Terminator 2) is a roaring motorcycle-based shootout set in a huge network of drainage ditches.
In addition to the shooting and driving missions, players will discover some stealth-based operations, where CJ must silently loot a house or sneak past guards to find a particular item. While these stealth forays help break up the monotony, they're not polished enough to qualify as much more than novel distractions. There are even side missions that take the form of dancing competitions, and they're good fun in the button-tapping tradition of PaRappa the Rapper. While the sheer variety of missions is certainly impressive, this jack-of-all-trades is a master of none.
Though the simplistic mini-map worked just fine in pancake-flat Vice City, San Andreas's complex multi-levelled environments make navigation a far more laborious process. It's too easy to lose track of your destination amidst the blurry, hard-to-decipher icons crowding the radar. We suffered through it with Vice City, so why are we suffering through it again with San Andreas?
Compared to Vice City's stilted movie scenes, San Andreas's in-game cinematics are a definite step in the right direction. But because the cinemas feature polygonal actors who lack nuanced facial expressions, you shouldn't expect Masterpiece Theatre.
Samuel L Jackson and Chris Penn are able to wring some energy from their roles as corrupt city cops, and James Woods shines as bright as ever, but many of the supporting voice actors just sound uncomfortable and unconvincing -- perhaps the witless dialogue and stereotypical situations are to blame? And despite some amusing one-liners, protagonist CJ (voiced by rap up-and-comer Young Maylay) just can't match Vice City's darkly charismatic Tommy Vercetti (voiced by the great Ray Liotta). In fact, it almost seems that Vice City's wicked sense of humour was its biggest strength.
Though San Andreas sports some amusing moments -- as usual, the goofy radio spots get the biggest chuckles -- its tone is alarmingly straightforward at times. Unlike Vice City's subversive sense of humour, San Andreas does less parodying and more parroting. Where Vice City relentlessly mocked 80's fashion and music, San Andreas wallows in 90's nostalgia while regurgitating a foul stream of profanity. Yes, characters drop the n- and f-bombs regularly, but not in any clever or amusing way. Profanity can be great fun, guys, but is it asking too much to have solid character dialogue to back it up?
While San Andreas is sure to show GTA players a great time, it's not quite the revolutionary experience some diehard fans may be anticipating. Some of the game-play improvements are totally evolutionary, but others are utterly disposable; lifting weights to increase your attack damage is one thing, but having to constantly visit fast food joints in order to stave of starvation is simply sloppy game design.
In the end, San Andreas's chief advantage over Vice City is size. And for many players, that's good enough. But another group of fans will come to quietly understand that, at least for the time being, Vice City remains the high point of the GTA series.