This latest installment takes place in 1992 in the West Coast-themed state of San Andreas. San Andreas is an island containing three cities. You'll begin the game in the city of Los Santos, which is based roughly on Los Angeles and consists of a mixture of ritzy downtown areas and the gangland ghettos of South Central. San Fierro is based on San Francisco, reproducing the real city's hilly terrain and ever-present fog. The game's third city is Las Venturas, which is a great take on early '90s Las Vegas, complete with a strip full of casinos and the surrounding desert. While one-to-one measurements against previous games in the series are difficult in practice, San Andreas definitely feels like a much, much larger place than Vice City ever did. But at the same time, the growth is handled intelligently. There are plenty of things to do both in and out of the cities, which makes all this real estate matter.
While Grand Theft Auto III was inspired by movies like The Godfather and Vice City took several pages from the Scarface playbook, San Andreas draws its inspiration from the ghetto and gangsta struggle films of the early '90s. Movies like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood are the clear influences here. In San Andreas, you play the role of Carl "CJ" Johnson. The game opens with Carl returning to Los Santos after spending the last five years in GTA III's Liberty City. But his homecoming isn't a happy one: He's returning home because his mother has been killed. Carl isn't on the ground for more than an hour before he's picked up by a pair of crooked cops and thrown right back into the middle of the street life he left Los Santos to avoid.
Your first order of business in Los Santos is to put your set back on the map. Your gang, the Grove Street Families, has fallen into disarray over the last five years, and its influence is minimal at best. So you, along with the three other leaders of the gang--the long-winded Big Smoke, the dust-smoking Ryder, and your stubborn brother, Sweet--set out to take back the streets from your rivals, the Ballas, who have turned to dealing crack to earn money and gain influence in the hood. You set out on a series of missions to take back your territory by starting with such small things as spray-painting over other gangs' tags (which is one of the many new types of actions that replace previous GTA games' more generic hidden-package collecting) to quickly moving up to drive-bys and other acts of extreme gangsterism. But there's a whole lot more to San Andreas than just set tripping.
Just when you think you're getting used to gang warfare, everything goes sour. We're certainly not interested in spoiling the game's many interesting plot twists, so we'll leave out the details. But suffice it to say you'll eventually need to get the heck out of Los Santos. You wind up in the country outside the city, where you'll encounter many more great characters and officially embark on your quest to put right what's gone wrong. Once you get out of Los Santos, you won't really have to worry about gang warfare for a while, and here the game settles down to present a more GTA-like feel.
Like the previous entries in the series, San Andreas features a fairly linear story that takes you through the game's areas. You'll start off restricted to Los Santos--something the story justifies by claiming that an earthquake has taken out the bridges and roads that link Los Santos to the surrounding areas--but it doesn't take long to unlock the other two areas. The game also throws in some pretty great surprises in the form of characters from earlier GTAs. These characters tie the GTA games together really nicely, so while San Andreas feels pretty different from the other offerings in the series, it still feels like you're playing in the same universe.