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GTA San Andreas

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By now, you probably know how this works. The new Grand Theft Auto game comes out in October, but only on the PlayStation 2. Xbox and PC owners have to wait a half a year or so for their versions of the game, and each always has the potential to be better than the original release. That's saying something, because we're already talking about one of the best games of 2004 and the best game in the Grand Theft Auto series. Once again, the wait is over, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is now available on the PC and Xbox. While both versions have aspects that are better than the outstanding PS2 game, visual weirdness on the Xbox and a handful of technical issues on the PC prevent either version from being the clear-cut best of the bunch.

Representing the hood never felt so good.

For those of you already familiar with the game, let's quickly discuss the differences between all three versions. The Xbox one has 480p support, but when enabled, the aliasing is out of control. Portions of the environment look so unbelievably jaggy that you'll wonder if your eyesight is failing you. At times it looks like you're playing a 3D game without putting on the glasses. But if you can get past that (it isn't quite as noticeable in standard resolution), the game generally looks great. Loading times on the Xbox don't seem to be much faster than the PlayStation 2 release, and for some weird reason, a loading message occasionally appears onscreen, even in situations where the load times are supposed to be hidden, like when changing your hairstyle. Control in the Xbox version is sharp, and just like the GTA Double Pack, your vehicle gas and brake controls have been moved to the triggers and made analog. This works well, but the flight controls, which have also been remapped to fit on the Xbox controller, are a little weird.

The PC version comes on DVD only and is packaged with a fully bound book that serves as the manual. It's definitely some of the coolest PC game packaging around. This version also has the potential to be the best-looking version of the game by a long shot. Support for higher resolutions makes the textures and characters look sharper and much better than either of the console versions. There's a draw distance slider that, when turned all the way up, almost totally eliminates the draw-in and fogging that's become synonymous with the series. Your Grove Street home looks much more like a run-down South Central neighborhood when you can see more of its surroundings. But all this graphical quality is offset by some serious problems with the sound. Testing on three different machines that exceed the recommended system specs got us three results. On one machine, we didn't experience any audio glitches. On another, the audio simply cut out a lot, leaving you to drive around with only music to keep you company. It's tough to play when you can't hear your mission descriptions. On the third machine, loading up a save game caused a loud grating noise--which sounded like the bike-riding audio mixed with a helicopter--to scream out from the middle of the Grove. We had to hop in a car and drive away from the area to make the noises stop. Also, the cutscenes occasionally desynched from the audio, making the lip movement appear to be way off.

Control in the PC version is full of options. You can decide to hook up a dual analog gamepad so that you can play it just like the console versions, or you can instead opt for mouse-and-keyboard control. Either method works, though we had several cases where the game would simply stop responding to any mouse input until we alt-tabbed out of the game, moved the mouse, and then jumped back in. This isn't exactly the sort of thing you want to have happen in the middle of a shoot-out. Mouse control also removes the lock-on aspect of the targeting, giving you easy access to manual targeting. The refined control the mouse gives you seems like an unfair advantage at times, because it's very easy to rack up one-shot kills by aiming for the head. If you have a smooth mouse hand, even the roughest firefights are really basic...provided the mouse doesn't die on you.

The Xbox and PC versions have some aspects that are better than the PS2 version, but they also have some that are worse.

Both versions have custom soundtrack support, though using it robs you of the great DJs that populate the game's radio stations. You'll still hear a lot of the funnier ads on the custom station, though.

Overall, each version of the game has its share of differences and minor issues, but the core game is fantastic, regardless of the platform you play it on. While the list of games that can list GTA as an influence grows longer and longer, there's still nothing quite like the real thing, and the "bigger, better" approach to sequel design definitely works in San Andreas' favor.

OK, all that information is fine and good if you've already played San Andreas. But if you're new to the loc'ed-out streets of San Andreas, there's much more you need to know.

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.

Carl Johnson is going (going) back (back) to Cali (Cali).

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 its 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 dealing crack to earn money and gain influence in the hood. You set out on a series of missions to take back your territory by starting with such small things as 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) to 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 suffice it to say 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 here the game settles down to present a more GTA-like feel.

Like the previous entries in the series, San Andreas features a fairly linear story that takes you through the game's areas. You'll start off restricted to Los Santos--something the story justifies by claiming that an earthquake has taken out the bridges and roads that link Los Santos to the surrounding areas--but it doesn't take long to unlock the other two areas. The game also throws in some pretty great surprises in the form of characters from earlier GTAs. These characters tie the GTA games together really nicely, so while San Andreas feels pretty different from the other offerings in the series, it still feels like you're playing in the same universe.

The San Andreas story is well written and packs in some really great surprises that tie the game to the previous entries in the series.

As in the preceding games, most of your progress is accomplished by completing missions for a variety of individuals. These undertakings are oftentimes similar to those you've seen in previous GTAs. You'll drive people around, take out specific individuals (an early mission gives you the straightforward objective of beating up a crack dealer, for example), perform drive-bys on your enemies, and so on. But as you proceed through the game, the missions get crazier and crazier. Along the way, you'll pull off a daring casino heist, steal some wicked military hardware, "take care" of plenty of Mafia bozos, and much, much more. The missions are a lot more exciting, on average, than they've been in some previous GTAs. Additionally, the game is a lot better at spelling out exactly what needs to be done. It does this with onscreen text that color-codes each specific piece of a mission differently. Yet while the basics of the gameplay--taking on and completing missions--are similar to past offerings, there are plenty of details to uncover, and there are plenty of new things to try.

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