Much as I love my mum and dad and respected my teachers at school, it's still hard to come to terms with the possibility they might have been shielding me from the truth of the world.
Compared with them, I'll admit I'm not really much of an educator, but I would like to advocate the teachings of the late, great Tony 'Scarface' Montana for all children at an early age. Surely, ne'er a wiser mandate for living has been spoken than, "In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women."
If that's the truth about the world (and it probably is), then Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the perfectly written small print. It's the tale of men who push themselves hard, and their enemies harder, to get what they want. Whether you're driven by ambition or a victim of it, you'll find San Andreas to be more than just a game. It's the ultimate catharsis, period.
Anyone who's played or even heard of Grand Theft Auto probably has high expectations of San Andreas. But even the most cynical sequel-weary gamer will be taken aback by just how monumental Rockstar's latest masterpiece is.
It all begins in the late 1990s when Carl 'CJ' Johnson returns to his gangland home in Los Santos following the slaying of his mother. The quest for revenge is short-lived however, as the crooked Officer Tenpenny frames CJ for a cop killing and blackmails him into running errands. Behind all this, the Grove Street gang and the Ballers are embroiled in a full-on gang war. San Andreas is about to explode and you're going to light the fuse.
Now that's a way more incendiary tale than Vice City could weave, and although I still drive down its Miami-style boulevards with fondness, San Andreas is really where it's at. Imagine Liberty City and Vice City combined, then doubled in size, soaked in loads more graphical detail and given a darker, more adult atmosphere. This isn't just a city - it's an entire US state.
CJ's journey begins in Los Santos. Based on the urban nightmare of Los Angeles' ganglands like Compton, pimps, pushers and playerz dwell on every street corner and they don't mind taking a pop at you if you stray from the safety of Grove Street. Skilled bullet-dodgers (50 Cent should not apply) have the chance to admire famous landmarks like the Los Santos (Santa Monica) pier and the Vinewood (Hollywood) sign dominating the skyline. It's very dirty, unpleasant and extremely menacing, but you still won't ever want to leave.
At least not until you've got about 20 missions under your belt and you move on to the second area, the San Andreas countryside. Up to now, the GTA series has always been set in cities, but that's all about to change. Being dumped in the middle of nowhere is totally unexpected and unlike anything you've seen before. I felt a real sense of loneliness as I wandered through the wilderness, looking for a road. It took five minutes before I even saw another person. The roads and towns are few and far between, making this the kind of place you don't want to be on foot.
Cleverly, Rockstar North plays on this feeling of isolation, but also on the sensation of freedom as you romp through the countryside on a scrambler or quad bike. The seemingly endless open roads are also perfect for lengthy A-B truck driving and racing missions, and the game plays up to these strengths.
Of all the environments in San Andreas, San Fierro is probably the most traditional in a GTA sense. It's an accurate recreation of San Francisco, with hilly roads, coastal bridges and working tram system. If you've seen the movie Bullit, you'll get the idea how it's perfect for car chases. This is probably also where you'll experience swimming and diving for the first time. Unlike Mr Tommy 'it burns' Vercetti, CJ doesn't mysteriously die on contact with H20, making for some very original mission objectives. The swimming controls are easy to learn, although you have to keep an eye on your oxygen meter.