What more can be said about Grand Theft Auto that hasn't already been addressed? This dilemma isn't just for critics and the media alike; this is the problem Rockstar is faced with in creating a follow-up to the series that Time magazine called 'art' and teachers decry everywhere; the game that students and professors can agree with. The gaming industry is one that banks on innovation, and with the GTA namesake always residing on the verge of over-exposure, there's no shortage of critical pressure on Rockstar North to deliver something bold and different without straying from the things that made the original 1998 installment an addictive, digital experience. Fortunately for series loyalists and avid action types, San Andreas offers a solid testimony that Rockstar is anything but content to rest on its laurels.
Ultimately, San Andreas embellishes a much higher caliber than Vice City in nearly every department. It goes without saying that the graphics have been improved, albeit in subtle touches that some could easily miss without a closer inspection. For example, vehicles renders now sport a more glossy, metallic look; a significant improvement above the previous two installments; characters are comprised of a much higher polygon counts while the fields and countryside (yes, the countryside) details have been bumped up substantially, including all kinds of foliage and brush. Every city locale looks and feels unique whether you’re in the grimy, mildly smoggy LA doppelganger of Los Santos (It’s not all that smoggy! – Ed.) to the unsullied streets of San Fierro to the arid desert air of Las Venturas; more often than not, a lost player can easily identify which of the three major cities based on the general atmosphere alone.
Much ado has been made about the change from a single island city to a county-sized area. And rightfully so, San Andreas' world is so huge, it practically justifies the reason the player’s access is limited to Los Santos before opening up either of the two playable cities. Highways, byways, dirt roads and inlets essentially populate the complex geography of San Andreas, connecting farmland, factories, and smaller towns with such names like 'Angel Pine' and 'Montgomery.' Forests and even mountains are also present, but oddly have a conspicuous lack of wildlife. Losing your sense of direction in the countryside can be as much of a hindrance as a pleasure, however, the ability to lay down your own marks on the map ensures that you're never TOO lost.
Retaining the classic GTA gameplay formula and increasing the size of the overworld may have been enough to make for a decent sequel, but San Andreas' appeal extends beyond a broader environment and an improved graphic engine. Among some of the minor touches incorporated into the latest installment include a tweaked targeting system which now registers an enemy's vitality. Ultimately, Rockstar has expanded the mechanics as well as the player’s variety of abilities and features, albeit shamelessly lifting key elements from existing titles including Manhunt's stealth kills; the survival mechanics and importance of eating in Metal Gear Solid 3; Fable's emphasis on stats and character customization and even The Sims' dating logistics. Although it sounds derivative on paper, Rockstar masterfully combined all the aforementioned elements to create a massive, compelling game that's bound to keep you coming back for more -- that is, if you ever manage to leave it at all.
Something must be said for the game's presentation as well, which succeeds on several levels, not the least of which is tying all these elements together in a believable - or at least, coherent fashion. Packages, for one, have been replaced by spray-painting over the graffiti of rival gangs, and hearts once scattered about the map are now absent altogether. The game also benefits from a marquee of remarkable voice talents including popular celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson and David Cross, offering an excellent performance in what inarguably is the most exciting story in the franchise to date. The characters are so compelling, the occasional shifts in the story, ultimately leading to a transition out of Los Santos will be jarring to some players. However, it's worth the payoff as the plot isn't afraid to pull a nod and a wink toward GTA III and Vice City, ultimately establishing the franchise's vision as a "universe", rather than just a series of independent games strung together by common themes.
In the end, GTA: SA isn't perfect, mirroring a few of the same quirks (i.e. auto-targeting) and graphic glitches as its predecessor, Vice City. But, with a bevy of positive elements ranging from the absence of load times, an abundance of side quests explore and yes, Peter Fonda - San Andreas is unquestionably worth the price of admission.