GTA: San Andreas is an open ended, expansive and player-style dependant experience roughly five times the size of its Vice City predecessor. While GTA III was set in Liberty City (aka New York) and Vice City was essentially Miami; San Andreas is clearly inspired by California circa 1992 complete with a twisting storyline weaving Boyz N the Hood-style gang warfare and corrupt cops, the Mafia, Triads and hippy drug dealers - to name but a few of the sordid locals in this seemingly living, breathing world.
The voice talent reads more like a Hollywood feature cast and includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ice-T, Peter Fonda, James Woods, Chuck D, Outkast's Big Boy plus stand-out cameos from the likes of George Clinton, Shaun Ryder (of Happy Mondays fame), and even Catalina and Tommy, who avid fans of the series will remember from GTA III.
You play Carl Johnson aka CJ (voiced by up and coming rapper Young Malay), who returns home to find his mother murdered, his homies in trouble and his 'hood in chaos. This is where you begin: Los Santos (LA) before further storyline missions eventually see you work your way up the food chain, traveling through the Countryside, San Fierro (San Francisco), the Desert, Las Venturas (Las Vegas) and on to the final missions that conclude the story. The storyline should take between 50 and 100 hours to complete - definitely value for money - but that's far from where this highly replayable game ends. There'll still be optional story missions to complete plus a vast amount of "100 per cent" tasks probably requiring a play guide. Then there's the basic, but fun, non-split screen two-player mode and loads of cheat codes to keep you occupied.
You'll control planes, trains and automobiles (plus pushbikes, motorbikes and even different aircraft) and master diverse gameplay styles such as shooting, driving, racing, dancing and flying to playing sports, gambling, moving in stealth and swimming/diving. The fact you don't die in water now is particularly useful, as is being able to climb over fences in a tight spot along with increased hand-to-hand fighting options.
San Andreas introduces stat points for various skills such as shooting, driving etc and attributes like, stamina, muscle, respect and sex appeal. Improved stats help you with tasks like recruiting gang members or getting a girlfriend and are earned during play although going to the gym and eating salad when hungry will help you bulk up. You can also change hair style, clothes and even tattoos - all nice touches, but you tend to stop fussing about when the novelty wears off.
Targeting is improved by new dual-analog stick controls with manual option, but graphics on the whole are average even though everything such as the character models, textures and landscapes have been tweaked and made more varied. You'll also either love or hate environmental effects like sun flares and smog.
The noteworthy pre- and early-90's classic soundtrack is delivered via 11 genre-based in-game radio stations with some hilarious ads and DJs. GTA: San Andreas is by no means a perfect title (its navigation map can be particularly annoying) but it makes roadkill of competition like the disappointing Driv3r and the admirable but ultimately unsatisfying Getaway: Black Monday. A landmark PS2 classic.