Yes, that's right. CJ needs to stay in shape if he's to perform at his best, which is a new feature for the GTA series. The game keeps track of a lot of different statistics that increase and decrease as you play. Your physical fitness is the most overt statistic, as you're able to work out in gyms to improve your muscle and stamina ratings, and you'll have to occasionally eat to prevent your muscle stat from occasionally draining a bit. Eating, however, can increase your fat statistic. CJ's body shape will change depending on what you do and for how long. While this might sound like a whole lot of busywork, it's actually a very small part of the game. And the best way to handle it is to spend a few minutes working out in the early parts of the game to build up your muscle (giving you a bonus to your melee attacks) and your stamina (which dictates how long you can sprint before getting tired). Then you should eat occasionally to maintain your ratings without gaining too much fat. You really don't have to spend too much time on it, and earning the ability to sprint for long periods of time makes getting around (and getting away) much easier.
The game also tracks a lot of other statistics. Respect is a big one, as it's what you'll be earning the most of as you complete missions. Not all missions earn you money, but almost all of them are good for a slight respect bonus. A higher respect rating lets you recruit more and more gang members, which is another new addition and a nice perk, but it isn't something that comes in handy very often. You're also rated in a lot of different vehicle categories, like driving, riding motorcycles, bicycling, and piloting aircraft. As you use a vehicle, your skill with it slowly increases, which seems to tighten up the controls a bit. In the case of motorcycles, it also makes it less likely that you'll fly off the bike in a wreck. Meanwhile, your improved bicycling skills translate into higher bunny hops. Similarly, you're given stats for every type of firearm in the game. You'll start with poor skills with all weapons, but don't let the tag of "poor" fool you, because CJ's skills feel roughly the same as Tommy Vercetti's when you first squeeze the trigger. After getting in some time with a weapon, you'll upgrade it to "gangster" level, which extends your lock-on range with it, speeds up reloading, and, in some cases, lets you walk around while aiming. Upgrading your skill with a weapon to the highest level, "hitman," takes a relatively long time, but it extends the lock-on range and speeds up reloading even further. Additionally, it also opens up the ability to dual-wield some one-handed weapons. Unloading two full clips of submachine-gun ammo is extremely satisfying here.
Increasing your weapon skill makes mowing down foes pretty easy.
Probably the best part about the game's stat system is that it's all extremely subtle. It would be easy for something like exercise and eating to monopolize the game, but in practice you really don't have to think about it. All you really see is a quick pop-up in the upper left-hand corner of the screen whenever a stat changes, and if it's changed enough to make a big difference, the game offers a text description of what has changed and what that means for you. You will have to think about your stats a bit when you come across the first flight mission, as the story won't proceed until you've gone through flight training. The training program is frustrating, but once you pass it, the flight controls seem to tighten up a bit, and you'll have had enough practice to make it through most of the flight missions without too much trouble. The other time you'll think about stats is when you first take on a mission that requires swimming. If you haven't leveled your lung capacity up to a certain point, you simply won't be able to continue. Up until that point in the story, though, you won't have needed to go underwater at all. So before you can take on the mission, you'll have to spend some time going underwater and resurfacing until you've developed the lungs required to swim out to a boat so you can silently kill everyone on board.
But enough about statistics. The important thing about GTA: San Andreas is that it's insanely fun to play, regardless of how you decide to play it. The missions are less frustrating this time around. There are still plenty of challenging objectives for you to meet, but the game does a better job of pacing the missions and keeping you informed about what you're supposed to do next. As a result, players who might not have been able to complete Vice City will have a better chance of finishing San Andreas' story. But at the same time, the game never really feels like it's too easy. Experienced players should be able to make their ways through the epic tale in 35 to 40 hours, though if you've been playing Vice City every day in anticipation of this game's release, that number could conceivably fall as low as 25 to 30, which is a pretty lengthy adventure any way you slice it. On top of that, players who stick to the critical story path and ignore all the side stuff will finish the game with a completion percentage somewhere in the 50s. So, obviously, there's a lot more to San Andreas than just getting out of the hood and building a criminal empire. Even players who devote all their time in GTA to causing mass destruction will still have a great time here, though they may want to play through the story long enough to unlock the game's other areas. And this time, at least in the console versions, you'll be able to start trouble with a friend.
One of the many interesting wrinkles in GTA's gameplay is that it now offers a two-player cooperative mode on the Xbox and PlayStation 2. Now, before you get too excited about this, you should know that you can't actually play the entire thing with a friend. Instead, you'll run into little two-player icons in certain spots in the gameworld. Walking over one with a second controller plugged in lets you start up a series of special objectives that work sort of like the rampage icons in previous GTA entries. You and a friend will be able to wreak havoc in a car or on foot, though the game requires that both players remain on the same screen. While the concept of a multiplayer mode in GTA is pretty mind-blowing, the implementation here makes it more of a fun little addition that, along with all the other crazy things you'll come across as you play, contributes to the feel that the game has a million different things for you to uncover. However, PC owners aren't really missing out on much here, as the two-player stuff is a very small part of the overall game. OK, while there aren't quite a million side missions in the game, it seems to come pretty close, offering everything from a basketball minigame, to pool games played for money, to arcade machines that pay homage to classic games like Gyruss and Gradius.
There's a lot of variety to San Andreas' gameplay, and most of its features are very well constructed.
Some of the missions that have been with the series for years reappear here. When you enter a police vehicle, you can hit a button and take on some vigilante missions. The same thing goes for fire trucks and ambulances. If you get into a moving van at night, you can embark on a home-invasion mission, which is a stealth undertaking that requires you to enter a home and then make off with some goods...without making noise. Walking when crouched is the order of the day here. You'll also find an assortment of races, ranging from the good old dirtring to well-hidden mountain-bike challenges. Another interesting facet of the game is that you'll get to hook up with a variety of women. The story requires you to dabble in the dating system, which sets you up with specific women at different points in the game, but there are plenty of other girls you can take out, if you have the look and style they're searching for. Dates are usually pretty simple: You pick up the girl, and usually she wants to eat. It's up to you to drive her someplace. If she's thinking lobster, but you're thinking Burger Shot, the date's not going to go particularly well. However, there are a variety of nice places to go. You don't usually take any control during the date other than driving her to the location and back to her house. But if she wants to go dancing, the game launches into a simple Dance Dance Revolution-like timing minigame. In an awesome touch, this same type of minigame appears when you enter a lowrider-hopping contest, which is a good way to earn a little extra cash.
The Grand Theft Auto series has always been rather stylish, visually speaking. Vice City did an amazing job of capturing both the look of Miami and the feel of the mid '80s. San Andreas has to live up to that standard while creating four unique landscapes: one for each city and one for the countryside between cities. Fortunately, the game does this very, very well. The parts of Los Santos that you call home have a very realistic ghetto look that fits perfectly. The other cities also look a lot like the towns they're modeled after, but the most dramatic difference occurs when you leave town. The countryside is unlike anything you've seen in previous GTA games. The winding country roads, the small towns that pepper the landscape, the plethora of off-road action, and the abundance of nice-looking foliage make these areas look pretty amazing. Outside of Las Venturas, the area is much more desertlike, which also looks really great.
The architecture looks great, and the game has some new effects to match. The old "trails effect" from Vice City and GTAIII is history. Now, you'll see everything pretty clearly, and when you're in warm areas, the game even has a nice heat-shimmer effect. When you're moving at or near top speed in a car, the screen blurs a bit, which does a fantastic job of conveying an extreme sense of speed. Also, the game takes on a grainy, filtered look when it rains, which also looks really good. The character models throughout San Andreas look great as well, though some aspects, like the characters' blocky hands, look a little weird at times.
A widescreen display really helps you see more of the action, which is handy in a shoot-out.
The sounds of San Andreas are, as you'd expect, many and varied. The game does a really strong job with things like engine noises. Vehicles like jets, fast cars, and motorcycles all deliver deep, throaty tones that make them sound as fast and powerful as they really are. Gunfire sounds about like you'd expect, and the surround support does a fine job of positioning the audio properly. Additionally, you'll surely notice how the quality of the voice work has improved since Vice City.
In a story-driven game like San Andreas, the voice cast has a profound effect on the story's impact. Rockstar has assembled a fantastic cast that, down to a person, does a great job with the dialogue. While there are definitely some recognizable names on the talent list, the game doesn't go overboard in this respect, casting a relatively unknown rapper by the name of Young Maylay in the role of CJ...who delivers an excellent performance. MC Eiht, an inspired inclusion to say the least, does a great job with the role of Ryder. Samuel L. Jackson does some fine work in the role of the dirty cop, Officer Tenpenny. Comedian David Cross is pretty funny in the role of the nerdy hobby store owner, Zero. Peter Fonda is very strong as a hippie/conspiracy theorist known only as "The Truth." Charlie Murphy, best known for his appearances on Chappelle's Show, does well in the role of a pimp named Jizzy B. Even Ice-T turns up as a rapper named Madd Dogg. But the best role in the game goes to James Woods, who is absolutely incredible in his role as Mike Toreno. To mention too much about his role in the story would give away a plot point or two, but your time spent with Toreno--both in the cutscenes and in the actual missions that surround his segment of the story--is some of the best and most uniquely rewarding that San Andreas (and, therefore, Grand Theft Auto) has to offer.
The cast in San Andreas does a really amazing job of delivering the game's great dialogue.
The in-car radio was one of the most effective tools that GTA: Vice City used to make the game feel like it took place in the '80s, as having hours and hours of great music to choose from was among the game's most noteworthy features. San Andreas contains some pretty strong radio stations, but the overall selection is a little too scattered. The rap station, Radio Los Santos, is the most fitting, at least for the gang-related segments of the game. With songs from Dr. Dre, Compton's Most Wanted, and Tupac Shakur, this station does a good job of sounding like Los Angeles radio circa 1992. The other stations, however, don't set the tone nearly as well. There's a classic rock station, a classic rap station (Did classic rap radio even exist in 1992? Heck, does classic rap radio exist today?), a country station, an alternative station, a funk station, a talk radio station, and so on. While the rap and alternative stations do passable jobs of delivering the music of the era, you'll probably be able to quickly rattle off 10 or 15 songs you would have liked to have heard instead, which is where the custom soundtrack option comes in handy. With the inclusion of things like a country station and a classic rock station, it almost seems like the game's developer felt the need to offset the thuggish subject matter. The end result is a soundtrack that isn't quite as cohesive as Vice City's.
One neat thing is that the radio sounds differently depending on which vehicle you're in. So, for example, the radio will sound appropriately tinny on a dirt bike. You can even go purchase a bass boost for your car at the mod shop, but considering the disposable nature of vehicles in the Grand Theft Auto games, we recommend you save your money. Also, it's worth noting that the radio stations are the same, regardless of where in the gameworld you are. It would have been neat to have seen some of your station selections change as you drive from one city to the next.
You'll hear some familiar voices on the radio, including Chuck D as the Forth Right MC.
The DJs on the radio do a good job, and the radio commercials feature the same style of tongue-in-cheek humor you've come to expect from the series. Some celebrities even make appearances as DJs. For instance, Public Enemy's Chuck D plays the DJ of the classic rap station, George Clinton mans the funk station, and Axl Rose turns in a low-key but appropriate performance as the DJ of the classic rock station. The talk radio is, for the most part, pretty good. The most impressive thing about the talk station is that the news breaks update as you play the game. So you'll hear updates about, for example, a "mysterious" ship full of dead bodies found floating out at sea shortly after that swimming mission of yours. Lazlow returns with some great "celebrity" interviews, but you'll also hear a sports show, a matchmaking program, and a gardening show, whose host is played by the never subtle Andy Dick.
Usually, when a game tries to do a million different things, it's an overambitious hodgepodge that can't manage to get its different parts down cold. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has you doing many, many more things than any previous GTA game, and while some of them do work a little better than others, the strength of all these different elements--too many to count--makes for a powerful package that doesn't disappoint, despite the extremely high standards that Grand Theft Auto established and that San Andreas needed to live up to. With its strong story, well-written dialogue, terrific voice cast, impressive graphics, and extremely entertaining and varied gameplay, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a stupendous thrill ride that shouldn't be missed.