It's without a doubt the most clichéd of all hardboiled crime story clichés: the low down, dirty double-cross. The two previous games in the Grand Theft Auto series each began with a double-cross—my girlfriend referring to me as "small time," then shooting me during a bank heist in GTA III; Tommy Vercetti taking the blame for a bad drug deal in Vice City. San Andreas, the third game since the series went 3D (and launched the GTA-ification of the industry, for better or worse), doesn't open with a double-cross, but starts in a darker, more mature place: with the death of the protagonist's mother. There's even a funeral scene, complete with some nasty bickering among the surviving family members.
That funeral scene, along with a touching moment when a grieving son walks into his now empty childhood home and looks at his dead mother's photograph, are surprisingly emotional moments, moments that had me checking the disc to make sure that I'd loaded up the right game. Has GTA gone all Dr. Phil on me? I wondered. Both scenes are landmark moments for the series because they're indicative of a subtle, yet all-important content shift away from the caricature and cartoonish-ness that plagued the previous games. Indeed, San Andreas has something that GTA III and Vice City sorely lacked: a touch of emotional gravitas. There's less satire here, more heart. While the game still revels in thrill-kill missions and its trademark Mad magazine aesthetic—one of the betting parlor ponies is named Air Biscuit (oh, what a knee-slapper!)—I'm happy to report that there's evidence in San Andreas that the GTA series is finally starting to grow up.
Carl Johnson, a.k.a. C.J., returns to his hometown "hood" of San Andreas (a fictional early '90s hybrid of L.A., San Francisco, and Las Vegas) to bury his dead mother and quickly finds himself involved in a burgeoning neighborhood gang war. It's the usual GTA Horatio Alger-style set-up: C.J., like his predecessors in GTA III and Vice City, is a nobody who wants to be a somebody—only this time around the star of the game isn't a mobbed-up white guy, but a West Coast "homie," more accustomed to drive-bys than whackings.
Playing as C.J., I started the game penniless, living in my mother's house, sleeping in my childhood bedroom. In this rags-to-riches narrative, I found myself literally in rags, unable to even shop at Binco, the crummy discount clothing store down the street. Earning money in the early stages of the game is surprisingly difficult, thanks to the fact that the first missions rewarded me not with cash but with "Respect" (more on this later). I drove taxicabs and ambulances, and even worked as a bike messenger just to put a few dollars in my bank account. Haircuts, tattoos, sneakers—no matter what I wanted or needed, San Andreas made me hustle for it.
Of course, this being a Grand Theft Auto game, instead of driving a cab I could have simply mowed down hundreds of pedestrians, then collected the little bundles of cash that hovered eerily above their corpses (and risked peeving the cops, who are much more tenacious in San Andreas than they were in Vice City). But I've never approached the GTA games in this fashion; only a sociopath would. I learned long ago that I get more—much more—by respecting the game world, by treating the city like I would a real city. I try to drive carefully, taking pride in my ability to avoid getting into accidents. I dislike running over people (though it's inevitable at times). Depending on my mood, I might even stop at a traffic light and fiddle around with the radio, looking for a good song.
I started the game the same way I started the previous GTA games: hopelessly lost. San Andreas is easily the largest, most detailed, and most confusing GTA landscape yet. But after spending countless hours meticulously exploring the city (and countryside) block by block and acre by acre, I began recognizing familiar landmarks. After about a week, a change had come over me; I suddenly knew every back-alley, every shortcut, every nuance of the game world. I wasn't lost anymore. What was once overwhelmingly confusing now made perfect sense to me. That transition from being hopelessly lost to knowing where I was at all times is probably the most gratifying aspect of any Grand Theft Auto game for me. On a more abstract level, it's a real-time transformation from "foreigner" to "resident," an experience that only a GTA game can give me.
Unfortunately, the missions are still my least favorite part of the game. They're basically of the drive-someplace/shoot-something/drive-someplace-else variety, and after most of them, when the words "Mission Passed" appeared on screen, I usually felt only a sense of relief that I didn't have to ever do them again. The true allure of a GTA game, in my opinion, can be found between the missions. Routines develop naturally in San Andreas. Here's a typical San Andreas day for me: go to the gym, pick up cash from one of my assets, stop by the Inside Track Betting parlor to gamble, take my girlfriend out dancing, get something to eat at a restaurant, stock up on bullets at Ammu-Nation, drive to my usual secret spot for body armor (because I'm too cheap to spend $200 for armor at Ammu-Nation), sign up for one of the low-rider races, defend my territory from a take-over attempt from a rival gang, etc. Rhythms and habits get established in the game—rhythms and habits that have very little to do with furthering the core narrative, and everything to do with simply reveling in the verisimilitude of the game world. Indeed, all of these day-to-day activities, when taken together, add up to a kind of virtual lifestyle.
San Andreas has made one revolutionary advancement in the gameplay department: it's now a full-blown role-playing game (RPG). I can customize C.J. to my liking, buying clothes, hats and sneakers for him. I can get him tattooed, and even give him cornrows or a goatee. If I eat too many fast food meals and don't hit the gym often enough, C.J. will visibly gain weight. My "progress" is tracked via a series of meters; "experience" is gained simply by doing things. Driving skills, for example, are improved by spending more time wheeling around the city. If I used the shotgun for the duration of a few fire fights, my skills with the shotgun were automatically upgraded. And Respect is earned by conquering territories occupied by rival gangs. Sure, it's a relatively crude system by traditional RPG standards, but it's a step in the right direction for the series. Not only does it make me feel like the story being told is my story, but the RPG dynamic also impacts gameplay in an interesting fashion. If I was having trouble with a particular mission, I simply spent time improving whatever skills were relevant to that mission (driving, shooting, etc.), then took another crack at it.
When Vice City was released two years ago, I stood in line at my local EBGames anxious to get my hands on the game. I certainly didn't feel that same level of excitement for San Andreas. (I pre-ordered, but actually forgot to pick it up on release day.) Maybe I was still a little burned out from my marathon nights with Vice City. Or maybe it was the fact that the San Andreas previews didn't impress me much; it looked like more of the same, nothing more than a West Coast version of Vice City. But after spending only an hour or two with the game, San Andreas managed to pull me in into its orbit and has held me there for a couple of weeks now. This is arguably the most important videogame this year—yes, even more important than Halo 2—not only because it's a superbly crafted videogame, but because it's also a bona fide sociological artifact, one that manages to effectively evoke a specific time and place in American history—in this case, a hot and hazy California during the nascent days of hip-hop culture. San Andreas is also one of the few videogames to boldly feature an African-American as a hero (or, more appropriately, an anti-hero). Beyond that, the GTA series continues to function as a gathering place for A-list artists, writers, musicians, and actors. Only a GTA game can bring together Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, and Chris Penn; only a GTA game would dare to mix Dr. Dre, Kiss, and Merle Haggard on the same soundtrack. Indeed, this is more than a videogame; this is a great confluence of mediums and talents, a veritable pop culture divining rod that makes me imagine a future where GTA-caliber games are commonplace, where videogames are no longer marginalized, but like film and television, have become the medium of choice. And for this glimpse of the future, we should all be grateful.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.