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Monday, November 08, 2004

 

GTA: San Andreas

Around the time I found myself in the river with police copters circling overhead, I wished I had gone to the tattoo parlor instead. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Just roam around the city with a car full of associates looking for rival gang members to shoot. What started as a simple drive-by quickly became a killing spree. Before I knew it, we had the entire Los Santos police department and a SWAT team on our tail. Now my friends were dead and I faced with a choice: drown or die trying to reach the Las Venturas shoreline.

'Course I swam for it, mofo.

Is GTA: San Andreas chock full of violence and cruel stereotypes? Sure, but so were the others. The game, relocated from its predecessor's alternative reality Miami to a Boyz in the Hood-era LA, is bigger and badder than Vice City. The difficulty level has also been raised several notches. After CJ, the game's gangsta protagonist, woke up in a hospital, I beat the drive-by mission. Now I'm stuck on the level where he and a Doughboy knock-off decide to raid a military armory guarded by reservists armed with machine guns and Humvees. And this is was one of the game's introductory levels.

While San Andreas is in dire need of easy setting, it remains an unequivocal masterpiece. Improving on the already near flawless (overlooking graphics) Vice City, it adds a slew of little touches that vastly add to the gameplay. CJ can interact with people in the street and spray-paint over the tags of rival gangs. Vehicles can be customized with hydraulics and bass-thumping stereo systems. In addition to dodging bullets, CJ has to worry about his sex appeal and respect level while staying fit and eating meals. While this was the most tedious element of the Sims, in San Andreas it's actually fun. If the character eats too much, he gets too flabby. Not enough, too thin. If he wanders into a taco joint and goes on a binge, he pukes on the floor. CJ can also be modified with clothing, tattoos and haircuts.




The plot has also been upgraded. Unlike the protagonists in other installments, CJ isn't so much a one-dimensional thug as a hardknocks parole out to avenge his mother's death. In one mission, CJ hunts down a crack dealer in an effort to clean up his neighborhood (and get potential recruits off the pipe in the process). Other characters are allowed more depth and not every moment is played for laughs. Much like appearances by Ray Liotta and Dennis Hopper in Vice City, a slew of and mostly b-grade celebs turn out for San Andreas. Samuel L. Jackson, the heaviest hitter, lends his voice to corrupt cop out to manipulate CJ into doing his dirty work. George Clinton, David Cross, Chuck D, Andy Dick, Peter Fonda (?), Ice T, Bijou Phillips, Chris Penn and Axl Rose all make appearances.

Most of the praise goes to sheer scale and detail of San Andreas. The playing field is six times larger than Vice City and tosses three more cities into the mix. Along with LA (San Andreas), bizzaro world versions of San Francisco and Las Vegas factor in. Much like Vice City, the game is loaded with era-specific pop music. One station is devoted to alterna rock while another dishes out a steady stream of The Chronic.

But San Andreas still falls victim to the same irritating quirks of the other installments. If you character dies, he's forced to restart the mission, sans weapons. Stealing a car and driving all the way back to the beginning can be an exercise in irritation during more difficult levels. A "save anywhere" feature would make the game run much more smoothly. The targeting system also still needs work.

But these are minor complaints for a game that allows you to fire a bazooka at the Hollywood sign (er, the "Vinewood" sign).

GTA: San Andreas: 9 out of 10 perpetually bouncing lowriders.

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