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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
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Unlike Liberty City and Vice City, which were deemed to be singular municipalities, the setting of the latest Grand Theft Auto, San Andreas, is considered an entire state, based roughly on California. The game actually includes three different cities. Players start the game off in the ghetto of Los Santos (Los Angeles) and eventually make their way into San Fiero (San Francisco), and Las Venturas. Each city in San Andreas includes easily recognizable landmarks inspired by the real-life cities on which they're based. You'll see monuments resembling the Watts Towers in Los Santos, major bridges in San Fiero, and lavish casinos lining the strip in Las Venturas.
The time period is the early 1990s, so the game takes a lot of its plot cues from gangster movies of the same era, like Boyz 'N Da Hood and Menace 2 Society. You'll take the role of Carl "CJ" Johnson, a young man who had been living in Liberty City for five years to escape the gangbanging lifestyle he grew up with in Los Santos. The game starts off with CJ arriving back in Los Santos just after the mysterious death of his mother. Before long you're picked up by a corrupt Los Santos police officer (played brilliantly by Samuel L. Jackson) and blackmailed back into gang activity.
Eventually you'll build up the influence of your old gang, the Grove Street Families, back up to its previous level and beyond. Like the previous games, you'll do this by taking on missions from a variety of different people. These missions range from doing drive-bys on rival gangs to stealing weapons from local military bases to bouncing with the Latino gangs in a hydraulic-powered lowrider. The range of different things you get to do is even wider in San Andreas than it was in previous games.
As in Vice City, San Andreas features a star-studded, period-specific soundtrack. As you'd expect, the track lists are dominated by rap and R&B artists like Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Boyz II Men, and Bell Biv Devoe. A good array of classic rock, alternative, and country is also included to balance out the variety in the in-game radio stations. Another all-star cast of Hollywood actors fills out the voice roles in San Andreas. Joining Samuel L. Jackson are Ice-T, Peter Fonda, James Woods, to name a few.
Some interesting role-playing elements were added to San Andreas. You can customize your character's strength, stamina, and other aspects by working out in a gym. You can have your character lift weights for strength boosts, ride an exercise bike to build stamina, and even spar to learn new fighting moves. Eating too much food will make your character visibly fat, and your skill at driving certain vehicles or using certain types of weapons will increase as you go through the game.
It remains to be seen how much controversy Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will garner in the court of public opinion, but given the game's bold depictions of gang warfare and minority struggles in urban areas, it won't exactly be flying under the radar of social critics. The edgy content certainly doesn't appear to have negatively affected consumer interest though, with analysts forecasting millions of units in eventual sales for the game. The game has also been a smash hit with the critics as well, judging from the first batch of reviews. So, what's next?
The Grand Theft Auto series has certainly come a long way from its humble roots. Already some are speculating about the next big step for the series. A new graphics and game engine? That's a given. What about online play? Would it be massively multiplayer? Only the developers at Rockstar Games have an idea at this point as to where the series is heading, but given the satisfying evolution the series has undergone already, it's a safe bet that the creators won't be satisfied to rest on their laurels.