The latest entry in the Grand Theft Auto series was developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games in October of 2004 for the Playstation 2. As of its release, it was rated M.

Grand Theft Auto III brought the GTA franchise to the current generation of consoles with a 3D city that lived and breathed around the player, following a story of lies and deception, pitting gangster against gangster against the player. It was widely hailed as one of the biggest and most important games ever made.

The next game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, brought the game to Miami-esque Vice City. This time around, the main character was no longer a nameless silent protagonist, but was instead voiced by Ray Liotta, who was more or less reprising his role from Goodfellas. The plot of the game was lifted straight from Scarface, but it's also more than that, being as much a parody of every other '80s gangster movie. Vice City added some important gameplay features, too: added destructability of vehicles (e.g. the ability to shoot out tires), motorcycles, and helicopters.

San Andreas moves the game to the fictional state of the same name, which is sort of modelled after California. There are three cities in this game, each approximately the size of GTA3's Stanton Island. These are seperated by some suprisingly extensive wide open areas, ranging from flat open highway driving, to twisting mountain passes, to a bit of desert driving. The three cities are Los Santos, based on Los Angeles, San Fierro, based on San Francisco, and Las Venturas, based on Las Vegas, and the player is granted access to each in that order, much as the previous games have limited access to parts of the map early in the game.

This game has been accused of being just more of the same, but Rockstar has added enough new content to keep the game feeling fresh. Starting with Vice City's feature set, San Andreas also adds a Sims-like skill system, encompassing the various weapon and vehicle types; the more you shoot the SMG, the better you get at shooting the SMG. Also, a food system has been added: a player must eat from time to time, or they will start gradually losing energy. Eat too much, and you'll get fat. You can also work out in a gym, and get buff (this will also increase the power of melee attacks).

Where GTA3 and Vice City were about the mob and other gangsters, San Andreas is about street gangs, LA-style. You play as Carl "CJ" Johnson, a former gang-banger who has fled Los Santos and has been living in Liberty City. In the early '90s, however, Carl learns his mother has been killed, and so he returns home to settle old scores and re-join his old gang. The villain of this piece is one Officer Tenpenny (voiced by none other than the Man himself, Mr. Samuel L. Jackson), a corrupt cop who harasses CJ almost from the opening scenes, and gets him to do his bidding from time to time.

Time is spent doing missions in the style of the previous games, claiming territory from enemy gangs, and generally being a menace to society. Good clean fun. Some old faces and voices return from previous games: some people from Vice City looking a little older, and some from Liberty City looking a little younger. Lazlow appears in the radio broadcasts, though only briefly; he is still credited with writing scripts though, as ever.

The radio stations are as good as ever, offering hip-hop, funk, country, classic rock, house music, reggae, soul, alternative, a "rare grooves" station, and, of course, one talk radio station with a variety of shows. As in Vice City, essentially all of the tracks played are licensed. The alternative station has Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle, which was used in one of the promo commercials for the game, and makes for a fitting theme to the whole thing. Other notable names on the soundtrack are Tom Petty, The Who, Rage Against the Machine, and Willie Nelson. Also, the directional pad is no longer used for movement (which caused a bit of consternation at first, as I liked to steer with it, but I got over it), freeing up four buttons for other things. Up and down cycle through the radio stations now, allowing one to go backwards through the list, a feature dearly missing from the previous games.

All in all, San Andreas shapes up to be arguably the best in the series. The map is huge, the storyline is interesting (and handles the subject matter respectfully), and the gameplay is as fun as ever. A new must-buy for the PS2.

A few things I missed in the first draft:

There are two new and important gameplay features this time around. The first is the ability to climb: run at a fence or wall and hit jump, and CJ will climb over or onto it. This massively expands the places you can get to and wreak mayhem from. The second is the ability to swim. No longer is taking an accidental dive into that inconveniently placed river an instant death! CJ will bail from the vehicle and tread water; he can even dive underwater.

The combat system has seen a slight overhaul. CJ has the ability to bring up a normal targeting reticle and shoot whate'er he like; the old lock-on system has been retained, too. Also, if CJ can sneak up behind someone with a melee weapon, he can kill them stealthily. This is of little practical use, but is still damn cool.

A whole slew of characters from GTA3 and Vice City make appearances, perhaps most notably the nameless and voiceless main character from GTA3 in a couple of brief (and hilarious) cameos, as well as Catalina (the woman who shoots said main character in the opening scene of GTA3). The cast list also mentions some familiar names like Kent Paul, Ken Rosenberg, Salvatore Leone, and Maria La Torra. Celebrities whose voices make appearances include the above-mentioned Samuel L. Jackson, Ice-T, and Peter Fonda.

The DJs of the various in-game radio stations have a couple of well-known names. Bounce FM: the Funk has George Clinton and KDST, the classic rock station, has Axl Rose.

The various weapons are largely the same, with a few new additions. In melee weapons, there is now a shovel. For shotguns, there is now a sawed-off shotgun (two blasts, then reload). All of the old standbys (basic pistols, uzi-like SMGs, AK-47s, molotov cocktails, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, &c) are still in the game.

The balance of cars is not radically different. There are fast cars and slow cars; cars with good handling and cars with poor; tough cars and light cars. There are a few completely new things, however. These include: campers, four-wheelers, Vanagon-like vans, tractors, combine harvesters (which behave as you might expect when used in a crowded area), and cement trucks. The selection of motorcycles has been expanded from Vice City's fairly paltry colllection (a Vespa clone, a dirtbike, a crotch rocket, and a couple of choppers). Some of the new bikes include a police motorcycle, a crotch rocket with a lower horsepower (identical in appearance, but not in sound or speed, to the faster model), and a cruiser. I expect there are additional helicopters, aircraft, and boats, as well, but this noder has not progressed far enough in the game to find out. (Update: And now that I have, I can indeed say that there are many, many more types of aircraft, including a Harrier-type fighter jet, which is absurdly fun to play around with.)

Also added are bicycles, which are suprisingly fun to play around with, though it's hard to go up hills. These include a BMX trick bike, a mountain bike (which can go into lower gears), and a normal street bike.

As grabakskd was good enough to remind me, you can now hook up a trailer to the Linerunner semi-truck and do some real long-haul trucking. ("Trivial but cool," as grabakskd put it.)

Update 7/20/05:

The ESRB has revoked San Andreas' "M" rating (Mature, ages 17 and up) and replaced it with the dreaded, Wal-Mart rejecting "AO" rating (Adults Only, ages 18 and up).

This is due to a "sex" mini-game that was included on the game disk, but removed by Rockstar before the game's release and normally inaccessable to players. Certain clever folks found ways to access this content using more or less clever hacks, and the attention eventually found its way into the general public. The outcry (Think of the children aged exactly seventeen years old for whom this content is inappropriate and rated too low!) caused the ESRB to either take action or consider itself a laughingstock.

The ESRB's action was simple: Either Rockstar Games would have to remove the content from the game to continue selling it under the "M" rating, or it would have to sell the current version under the "AO" rating. Rockstar has opted to do both, allowing retailers to sell whichever version they choose.

Another curious thing the ESRB did was tell Rockstar they had to release a patch for the PC version of the game to disable the ability for the third-party modification that enables this sex mini-game to work. This is an amazing move of pure politics, as installing the patch would of course be purely optional, and even if one did install it, they could simply reinstall the game from scratch.