How do you follow up a runaway success like 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III? Rockstar North responded a year later with GTA: Vice City, a game that took the gameplay of its predecessor and expanded it considerably.
At the same time, Vice City gave the series an extensive and amazing stylistic makeover, drenching the experience in the sights, sounds, and attitude of Miami, Florida from the mid-’80s. So where do you go from there? You take it statewide.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas expands the series’ concept to encompass three entire cities, as well as the countryside between them. The gameplay similarly expands, packing in some explosive set pieces and amazing action-movie-like thrills while maintaining that same remarkably fun, freefom GTA feel.
In short, Rockstar has done it again. San Andreas definitely lives up to the Grand Theft Auto name. In fact, it’s arguably the best game in the series.
This latest installment takes place in 1992 in the West Coast-themed state of San Andreas. San Andreas is an island containing three cities. You’ll begin the game in the city of Los Santos, which is based roughly on Los Angeles and consists of a mixture of ritzy downtown areas and the gangland ghettos of South Central.
San Fierro is based on San Francisco, reproducing the real city’s hilly terrain and ever-present fog. The game’s third city is Las Venturas, which is a great take on early-’90s Las Vegas, complete with a strip full of casinos and the surrounding desert.
While one-to-one measurements against previous games in the series are difficult in practice, San Andreas definitely feels like a much, much larger place than Vice City ever did, but at the same time, the growth is handled intelligently. There are plenty of things to do both in and out of the cities, which makes all this real estate matter.
While Grand Theft Auto III was inspired by movies like The Godfather and Vice City took several pages from the Scarface playbook, San Andreas draws its inspiration from the ghetto and gangsta struggle films of the early ’90s. Movies like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood are the clear influences here.
In San Andreas, you play the role of Carl “CJ” Johnson. The game opens with Carl returning to Los Santos after spending the last five years in GTA III’s Liberty City. But his homecoming isn’t a happy one–he’s returning home because his mother has been killed. Carl isn’t on the ground for more than an hour before he’s picked up by a pair of crooked cops and thrown right back into the middle of the street life he left Los Santos to avoid.
Your first order of business in Los Santos is to put your set back on the map. Your gang, the Grove Street Families, has fallen into disarray over the last five years, and their influence is minimal at best. So you, along with the three other leaders of the gang–the long-winded Big Smoke, the dust-smoking Ryder, and your stubborn brother, Sweet–set out to take back the streets from your rivals, the Ballas, who have turned to deal crack to earn money and gain influence in the hood. You set out on a series of missions to take back your territory, starting small with things like spray-painting over other gangs’ tags (which is one of the many new types of actions that replace previous GTA games’ more-generic hidden package collecting here), but quickly moving up to drive-bys and other acts of extreme gangsterism. But there’s a whole lot more to San Andreas than just set tripping.
Just when you think you’re getting used to gang warfare, everything goes sour. We’re certainly not interested in spoiling the game’s many interesting plot twists, so we’ll leave out the details, but it should suffice to say that you’ll eventually need to get the heck out of Los Santos. You wind up in the country outside the city, where you’ll encounter many more great characters and officially embark on your quest to put right what’s gone wrong. Once you get out of Los Santos, you won’t really have to worry about gang warfare for a while, and the game settles down into a more GTA-like feel.