No game has defined this generation of consoles and video gamers -- like the 2001 "Grand Theft Auto 3" for the PlayStation 2. Until its under-the-radar release, most PS2 games came across as updates of earlier software with better visuals.
But "GTA" introduced the idea of a larger world where violence was an option that had palpable (and sometimes graphic) consequences, a console video game universe alive with real people with evolving, real stories. Gamers embraced the title (which has sold more than 5 million to date in America) for its smart game play, while the media and, later, congressional committees, picked up on the game's hard violence, including carjackings and vicious gunplay.
Publisher Rockstar followed its controversial success a year later with "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," a more fully developed script set in 1980s Miami. "Vice City" clocked in with around 7 million sales, officially making it the flagship franchise of its generation but, again, generating controversy over some of its violent effects.
And now, after two years of development and hype, Rockstar on Tuesday unleashed its magnum opus, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." In one of the few instances in video games, the hype was way under the mark: "San Andreas" is the masterpiece of its generation of consoles, embodying the trends of this generation of technology and bridging the jump (mostly next year) to the next-gen Xbox 2, PlayStation 3 and new Nintendo machines.
"San Andreas" expands its scope to include not just a whole city (as in "Vice City") but an entire state. The setting is a fictionalized California, renamed San Andreas. The game begins as former angbanger CJ returns to Los Angeles stand-in Los Stantos for his mother's funeral.
It is the early 1990s, around the time the city's race problems are about to boil over. On his mission to seek revenge and, unfortunately, return to "the life," CJ will visit not just re-creations of San Francisco and Las Vegas, but many small townships on the highways between them.
Everything in the game is bigger than before. It's not just the inclusion of multiple cities, but the game play itself. Almost everything about CJ's life is under the gamer's thumb, from his appearance to the pursuit of respect, a currency worth far more than bullets and money. CJ can work out at gyms to increase his physique and athletic ability (which does actually affect his fighting prowess), monitor caloric intake to avoid becoming fat, go out on dates with young women and recruit gang members. Under a lesser developer, all these extras might have spiraled out of control, but Rockstar keeps everything manageable.
Yes, you can still carjack. In fact, there are more vehicles just itching to be taken out for a joyride in "San Andreas" than both previous games combined. "San Andreas" expands your garage from cars, motorcycles and boats to include SWAT tanks, helicopters and even airplanes -- which you can jump out of in midflight.
"San Andreas" is just as violent as previous chapters of the game, if not more, but unlike "Vice City," it never feels gratuitous. These are tough characters living in tough times. Under the constant threat of violence from rival gangs or dirty cops, CJ fights simply to live another day. Thankfully, the novelty of mayhem for mayhem's sake has worn off. Even though random violence is always an option, CJ's plight is just too engrossing and sympathetic to sully with repetitive drive-bys or vehicular manslaughter.
However, as wonderfully rendered as "San Andreas" is, the game still suffers from some technical problems found in "Vice City." Frame rates are still sometimes a little iffy, especially when the screen is thick with action. There are still some collision problems where objects pass through each other. And most frustratingly, the acuity of your Artificial Intelligence-controlled compatriots is sometimes questionable. It's not as big of an issue as in "Vice City," where entire missions were blown by ridiculous AI instructions that put your partner in the path of danger, but it's disappointing to see.
"San Andreas" continues the "GTA" trend of corralling top voice talent from Hollywood, but it's not as distracting as the star-struck "Vice City," which included Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper and Burt Reynolds. "San Andreas'" actors are much more at ease in their roles, and their characters blend easily into the game. Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Penn are funny and menacing as corrupt cops Tenpenny and Pulaski who pull CJ back into his gangbanger ways. Ice T is excellent as rapper Madd Dogg, James Woods is slickly evil as Mike Toreno, and, even though his character is the only one that feels out of place in the game, David Cross is sidesplitting as the goofball Zero.
'90s sound track
Rockstar nails the uneasy 1990s Los Angeles ambience with the game's licensed soundtrack. Each ride's radio pumps appropriate jams from such rap artists as Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre and seminal gangsta rap group NWA. As enthralling as it is to roll deep through these digital hoods with Dre, the game's best track is "Rebel Without a Pause" from still-vital Public Enemy. (PE's Chuck D hosts the in-game classic rap station.) But hip-hop is not the game's only flavor. Other radio stations blare country, classic rock, house music and contemporary R&B. The talk radio station is back, too, and features comedian Andy Dick as a hilariously prissy gardening show host.
"San Andreas" is Rockstar's triumph. What could have devolved into a revolting parody of the life of a streetwise young African-American man in the early '90s is instead treated with surprising realism. For gamers above age 18, it is required playing. Just as "Grand Theft Auto 3" unveiled what the PS2 was capable of, "San Andreas" moves toward the next generation of consoles and the kinds of evolving human tales waiting to unfold.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun