Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Of course, all the updates in the world to the surrounding elements wouldn't mean a thing if the core storyline wouldn't hold up this time around, and thanks to a little consultation from DJ Pooh (who has helped pen the Friday movies with Ice Cube), the thug-heavy gangsta epic is rife with interesting characters and even a smidgeon of character development in CJ, which is something the series hasn't really tackled yet. Sure, the storyline still boils down to you running errands for a variety of fat-pocketed benefactors, but the scope of the game expands in such a way that each progressive leap in major plot points or transplants in geography widens your view of the game world. It's not quite as fresh as GTA3, but I doubt any game ever will be again.
There's still Vice City's lack of getting to know a small section of the world intimately bit by bit that GTA3 did so well, but with a game this big, it's not really fair to not allow at least some access, after all, one of the guilty pleasures of the series since it made the jump to 3D has been to try and overcome the light limitations that the game sets on how much you can explore (in this case, most planes are locked, and traveling too far will instantly kick you up to a permanent 4- or 5-star wanted level until you're finally iced for getting too curious).
With the bumps in storyline, size, depth and options, there was of course the inevitable increase in graphical detail too, though this is less of a leap than the other sections. The reflections on the cars and increase in level of damage modeling (as well as variety) on vehicles is damned impressive, even to the very end, and the much-ballyhooed increase in draw distance and types of weather are welcome, but the game more or less looks and feels like you'd expect.
Characters in the game (and cutscenes) still have opposable thumbs and glued-together fingers, making for some unintentionally funny jabs and motions during scenes, but the detail in the motion capture (and, I'd imagine hand-worked keyframing) does a fantastic job of getting some of the more subtle mannerisms like shrugs, head cocks and overall body language better than I would have thought such simple models could convey. Hopefully with the jump to the next generation of consoles, we'll see a marked improvement in how the characters are presented, but for now this certainly works.
All of this detail also means an increase in the instances of framerate hitch. They're usually short, but they're annoying, and the same lagged draw-in that plagued the last two games is still here -- noticeably better (or at least more refined) than in Vice City's -- but still present. Alas, it seems our little black brick just can't keep up. Luckily, instances of things like fences and walls drawing in after you hit them are nil (or at least I didn't run into them).
There's also the matter of the audio. The effects work is fantastic, and as always the voice acting as a whole is probably the best videogames have ever seen, but there is the issue of language. Granted, this is a mature game, but the number of expletives uttered during the course of the game from nearly everyone would make Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino blush. It's almost as if Rockstar got tired of everyone confusing this game with something that was for kids and went balls-out to make sure that no parent would let their kid's precious ears be damaged by the words that spilled from these characters.
Which, of course, is fine by me; one less parent seething with righteous indignation is a nice step in the right direction, but in case it hasn't been made abundantly clear, let me spell it out for you: this is not a game for children. Hell, it's a bit much for me, and I cuss like a sauced longshoreman at a swearing contest. The cartoony feel of the game and the tongue-in-cheek pokes at 90's pop culture are rife, but things are definitely heavier, and there just doesn't seem to be as much historical reference as there was in Vice City.
There's also the issue of music. Right around the turn of the century, my old roommate, the lovable svelte Dave Z, and I were trying to peg a certain sound for the 90's. It's exceptionally difficult not just because there were so many styles, but because it seemed every couple years a massive shift would take place as the mainstream sound changed. The 80's certainly weren't a singular sound, but the advent of synthesizers made for a pretty unique decade-wide sounds.
The 90's on the other hand drifted from grunge to gangsta rap to power pop to boy bands and bubblegum pop, and plenty of smaller bits of musical flux in between. With the killer job Rockstar and Epic did with the last game's soundtrack, I held out high hopes for something that would let me geek out and secretly sing along to some of my guilty pleasures. Unfortunately, no radio station, save for perhaps the Classic Rock and Los Santos-specific bits really seemed to do their respective genres justice. Where was the Nirvana? The Sub Pop bands that created grunge? The progressive techno that paved the way for some of the tracks on GTA3's RISE FM station? What about the huge albums that sold like crazy but nobody apparently bought? Ace of Base? Garth Brooks? The boy bands? Granted, the game takes place in the early 90's, but the last game seemed to span most of the decade musically.
The radio stations also seem woefully skimpy, and you'll probably wear out a station after just a few hours. There are some nice little extras like the news reports on the Public Radio station talking about things you just did, but largely you're going to hear the same four or five songs over and over and over again through the course of the game -- especially if you don't like one or two stations. It's not horrible, mind you, some of the tracks are songs I haven't heard in years and yelped like a little girl upon hearing for the first time, but again, you'll hear them plenty often after that.
Audio issues aside, this is easily one of the most comprehensive action games ever made. It services so many different parts of "ooh I wanna do that!" gamers' addictions (check out the previews for more on that) that it's hard to find someone not liking this game. Major issues were cleaned up a bit (and hey, there's always improvements that can still be made to stuff like targeting), and the sheer number of references to characters, events and places in previous games (not to mention the reoccurring characters that go well beyond cameos) is enough to make this a must-buy for any GTA nerd, but more importantly, it's a hell of an experience, and if you're old enough to buy it, there's no reason why you shouldn't do so as soon as your little game geek legs can get you to a nearby store.