Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

User Rating: 9 | Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas XBOX

An intriguing addition to the renowned GTA game series - and another title deserving of the Grand Theft Auto label - GTA: San Andreas is an equally coarse version of the crime-ridden gaming pleasures, and not only in the series's rusting cars and run-down slums. This game is really dark, in pretty much all its factions.

You are Carl "CJ" Johnson, a loud, black criminal in the streets of "The Grove," his estranged home that he left for dead after things got exceedingly messy many years back. Along with a moronic haircut (which you can customize at your local barber shop) and cheap clothes (also customizable), CJ has a semi-humorous, go-getter personality that makes up for his poor, weak appearance; I advise you to get him into something cool and change his pathetic haircut, though. The music is also inherently black, which is understandable, but they didn't have to make every station (all except about three) blast terrible, not to mention extremely annoying, rap music. For that, the sound rating takes a blow down to 7. It would be even lower if not for the return of Lazlow and Fernando on the chat radio station, called WCTR in this version. There is also a humorous new chatter show called "Gardening with Maurice (who is indeed male)" on the station, but the three guys are the only things that save even that station from failing miserably in comparison to GTA's past radio comedy. I suggest you pop in some of your favorite CDs, copy them to the Xbox's built-in hard-drive, and switch your station to User Track Player, because the radio is not even half worth the time Rockstar put into selecting its banal and redundant tracks.

However, the street sounds (radio stations aside) of GTA: San Andreas are actually quite pleasing. You'll hear dying groans and gunshot battle cries just as in the previous titles, and cars' engines hum a relaxing tune as you're cruising through the three sections of San Andreas (if only the drive-by shooting was as good). The scenery and graphics are also pleasurable and naturally quite detailed, but I had a problem with the numerous and vast areas dedicated to pure mountainous and desert terrain. You can't do much more on such terrain than a few cool jumps and a head-first plunge off the highest hill in the game on a compact Sanchez (which, I admit, is pretty fun).

As for the controls: driving is pretty smooth, and performing tricks and jumps has never been so fun. Flying planes when first starting out is near impossible (you press the white or black button to move the rudder, which is used in turning; talk about inconvenient), but it's pretty gratifying to aerially scan the city once you get the hang of it. The helicopter is also a pain in the butt, but you get used to it a lot quicker than the plane controls. It's not as easy to propeller-chop pedestrians to bits and pieces as it was in GTA: Vice City, though, which is a shame. :P The controls are indeed so annoying that they've hindered me during quite a few missions. The play control rating is sort of low. It's cost me my precious SMG an unnerving amount of times.

The aiming and shooting systems of San Andreas are also awkward and take some getting used to, but are conversely a treat to master. At least you won't bang your head on your desk for the majority of the game, although when trying to fire from a car (which requires one to somehow acrobatically press the white/black button as well as "B" on top of trying to drive with "R" at the same time), you might as well just pass what you're trying to shoot and fire when they come into view while holding still. And while the Xbox controller's layout has always been less than convenient, the use of the white and black buttons to change weapons is a joke, which is especially noticeable when trying to mow down gang after gang in order to take over more turf for your own Grove Street homies (though you have to defend it decently often, and get pretty much nothing out of it besides pretty and completely useless green squares on the map over areas you own).

The extent of the content of this game is so profound that I didn't have even a remote clue where to start playing. While there is indeed a set path to follow, many extras are thrown in to make this one of the most engaging and addicting new games I've played in a number of years. There are "tags" (gang graffiti) scattered all throughout the first area of the game, 100 in total, and a spray can used to spray over them with "Grove Street." Horseshoes can also be found like hidden packages were in GTA 3 and Vice City, though there are only 50 of them. And taking certain photographs with the available camera will add to your plethora of collectibles. There are a decent number of strip clubs laid throughout the game, and you can have a few attractive girlfriends at the same time. Hot coffee anyone? ;P

The graphics are pretty much exceptional, but that's quite normal with the Grand Theft Auto series. In terms of CJ himself, he's pretty awesome-looking if you dress him up as a pimp in a leopard hat, especially if you work him out at the local gym (yet another new feature) and give him some cool shades to spare him from the sometimes-blazing sun and glaringly bright buildings.

This was a good game. Sometimes even when I got temporarily sick of San Andreas, I turned my Xbox back on and played it again within a few minutes. That could mean a number of things, but we'll say it's because the game's quite addictive, and not bad at all. ;D I just wish I could find what I'm missing that hinders me from completing it 100%!