Few video games have incited the firestorm of controversy that the Grand Theft Auto franchise has. And the latest release, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, seems set to provoke even more—just in time for Christmas.
San Andreas takes previous GTA themes and transplants them to the state of San Andreas, which contains three cities modeled on early '90s California. The story's antihero, Carl Johnson, has returned from Liberty City for his mother's funeral. But trouble shows up immediately in the form of a corrupt cop named Tenpenny (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) and old rivals who want CJ dead.
Gradually, CJ's exploits grant him control over Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas. Though he begins the game with only the shirt on his back, he'll finish (if you play well) as a kingpin with mansions, helicopters and firepower to defend his turf. Along the way he'll tangle with rival gangs, cops and even National Guardsmen—anyone who tries to stop him.
San Andreas takes roughly 100 hours to complete. But the cities offer so much room for exploration that players could spend another 100 eating at restaurants, dancing at nightclubs, shopping, working out, racing BMX bikes, shooting hoops and sky-diving. Not to mention playing the slots, betting on the ponies and pimping for prostitutes.
Violence = Respect
The game's paramount goal is earning respect. And respect is intimately tied to violence. It's the killing of police officers and rival gang members that gets you the farthest.
The violence is usually somewhat surreal, with an almost comic-book quality. Though blood pools beneath corpses, it's not as realistic looking as some of today's other popular games (such as Doom 3, for example). But make no mistake, violent crime is part and parcel of San Andreas.
Stealing automobiles is arguably the most important skill you develop. After you've stolen a car, just driving to the local burger joint can become a blood-fest. Expediency is paramount, and sometimes driving on sidewalks is the fastest way to reach your destination. The next thing you know, the maimed bodies of unfortunate pedestrians are hurtling through the air.
Carnage intensifies as you progress. Automatic weapons. Rockets. Baseball bats. San Andreas has an unnerving way of tempting you to pound some poor sucker walking down the street—just because you can.
Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll—and a Lot of Profanity
Before you have a chance to beat up, blow up or shoot anybody, R-rated profanity flows freely from Tenpenny's foul mouth. I winced at his coarse conversations initially; the more you play, however, the more you grow dangerously numb to it. In addition to the barrage of four-letter offenses (including the f-word), characters regularly call one another "n-ggaz."
Another R-rated element from previous GTA games makes an encore here as well: Prostitutes peddling their services. CJ can have sex with streetwalkers throughout the game (though the act isn't depicted), and that somehow boosts his health and strength. He can also drop off prostitutes to johns in various parts of the city. Along the way, he sometimes runs into tripped-out druggies and dealers. (Drug use is implied in the environment but never shown graphically.)
Finally, San Andreas offers the choice of 10 radio stations, which play explicit cuts from artists such as Tupac, Cypress Hill, NWA, Helmet, Danzig, Ozzy Osbourne and Guns n' Roses.
Let Freedom Ring?
Obviously, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is as violent, sexualized and profane as many R-rated movies and stickered hip-hop albums. What differentiates it from music and movies, however, is its interactivity. In San Andreas, you're not passively watching scenes of violence. You're participating in them. And "winning" requires killing, over and over again.
How does Rockstar Games president Sam Houser justify his company's game? He cites freedom. "As we have developed the Grand Theft Auto franchise, we have always stayed true to the original core ideas that are the fundamental basis of what the game is—these ideas of the freedom to go anywhere and do anything," he says. But the "freedom" he's talking about is a twisted forgery of the real thing: Freedom from any rules, from anyone telling us what we're supposed to be or do results in unchecked lust, anarchy and ultimately, death, all of which the game celebrates—in spades.