As proud PC gamers, you may feel a little aggrieved to be reading this review now, rather than nine months ago when this game first reared its tabloid-baiting head on the PlayStation 2. I myself crumbled in typical lily-livered fashion, holding out until around last Christmas, at which time I decided that I couldn't wait another half a year for a game that all and sundry were raving about. And I had a blast with the PS2 version. I really did. But now I wish I'd had the patience to wait that half a year, because after spending time with this version I'd much rather be playing San Andreas through for the first time on my PC.
Unless you've been squatting in a Saddam-style hidey-hole for the past ten years, I'm going to assume you know what the GTA games are all about. But here are the revision notes for anyone who may have recently awoken from a coma: you're a career criminal in a fictional city (although one that's clearly inspired by a real-life metropolis) filled with people and vehicles, any of which you can kill/drive (delete as appropriate). You have the option of undertaking missions - some of which keep the story ticking along, some of which don't - but you are also free to roam around the city if you wish; the game world is very much your oyster. Embark on the sort of whore-murdering rampage that recently got Hillary Clinton's knickers in a public twist, or simply cruise around town looking cool - the choice is yours.
Rockstar North's latest sticks closely to the formula. The main departure is that instead of being given the freedom to roam around a single city, you get a whole state in which to indulge your gangsta leanings. Inspired by California (and a certain neon-lit corner of Nevada), the game world is huge. Fully five times bigger than Vice City, it's home to three cities and numerous small towns, with plenty of redneck-packed, hillbilly countryside in between.
But as with other GTA titles, you can't see everything right from the start. Wisely, Rockstar feeds you fresh slices of San Andreas as you advance through the game's story, opening up routes to new areas as you progress. The plot is pretty much thus: it's the early 1990s, and you're Carl 'CJ' Johnson, a Los Santos native who's spent the past few years thugging it up out of state. Dragged back to the 'hood by the death of your mother, you start running with your old homies once more. It's not the most interesting of hooks - although there's a pleasing amount of backstabbing, betrayal and brotherly love thrown in - but it works, and the promise of new areas to explore helps drive you on.
MENACE II SOCIETY
The core gameplay has changed hardly at all from Vice City. A typical mission might see you tasked with beating up a drug dealer. So you jump in a car, burn it round to the crack den and proceed to knock seven shades of shit out of your target with the baseball bat you looted from the corpse of an earlier victim. Other mission types include illegal street races, heists and lowrider bouncing contests.
But if you're thinking that this is simply a rehash of earlier GTA games with a bigger map, think again. San Andreas adds an incredible amount to this core gameplay, and it makes the game feel even vaster. For instance, CJ can get tattooed, have a haircut, bulk up in the gym and buy clothes. Hell, you can even trick out your ride in several garages dotted around the map. None of this is purely cosmetic: changing your appearance gets the cops off your back, while weightlifting increases the amount of damage you deal in a fight. We haven't even mentioned the numerous girlfriends you can squire, the burglaries, the fat stat or the properties available for purchase. There's a mind-boggling amount of stuff to do.