I knew I shouldn't have, but I just couldn't help myself. I read that the new "Grand Theft Auto" game, San Andreas, hit stores yesterday, and so I stopped by Fry's on my way home. After a quick, nutritious meal from Taco Bell, I fired up the game and started driving around the streets of San Andreas.
For those not familiar with the series, each recent "Grand Theft Auto" game has had a theme and is loosely based on a real location. GTA happened in Liberty City, which is based on New York City with a kind of "Sopranos" atmosphere, in an unidentified time which feels like the late 80s or early 90s.
"Vice City" takes place in I-can't-believe-it's-not-Miami, and not surprisingly feels a lot like Miami Vice, complete with neon lights, polyester suits, and big old "brick" cell phones.
So the latest installment, San Andreas, is a fictional area that's pretty much California crammed into a 20 mile x 20 mile square. You start out in "East Los Santos" as a black gang member, and it tracks 90s gangsta movies. Most of the early missions give little or no cash, but you get "respect" points as you try to acquire more territory for your gang, and gear up to heavier hardware for an eventual takeover of East S.A.
The game is a lot grittier and more realistic than Vice City or GTA, in keeping with the setting. The cars have more detail, are usually damaged when you get them, and the camera is moved closer to the car so you can see it better. The handling on the cars is more realistic, and the big, American cars you're driving in the beginning of the game drive like the beasts they are. If you get one sliding it happens slower than in GTA, but it's not nearly as easy to recover from.
Combat on foot is better than in GTA or Vice City, but it's still annoying because the camera never seems to track where you want it to, and you spend a lot of time trying to find the bad guys while they're shooting at you (because, naturally, they have no trouble finding you). A nice change is that your fellow gang members back you up in a lot of these conflicts, so you don't have to carry the whole load. Still, the best answer in most conflicts is, like in previous versions, to run everyone over with your car.