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Despite its many achievements, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will likely go down in history as the game that introduced "Hot Coffee" to the world. You know, that whole pseudo-scandal which promised to corrupt our children via the awkward humping of crude, polygonal humanoids? Forget the fact that this content could only be accessed by third-party hacking devices, along with the M for Mature rating right there on the box. Hell in a handbasket!
It's a shame, then, because San Andreas stands as the one entry in the series where the full Grand Theft Auto experience truly came together. Of course, Grand Theft Auto 3 and Vice City certainly deserved to set the world on fire, but giving San Andreas an additional year to stew in development made one a hell of a difference. Now that our eyes have absorbed current open-world wonders like The Witcher and Assassin's Creed, the Renderware-powered San Andreas may seem slipshod and clumsy, but its technical competence stands far above the previous two games, making the many options of its sandboxy gameplay far easier to wrangle. (Which is probably why it's the only game of the GTA3 trilogy I've ever been able finish.)
Though San Andreas dials back a bit on the amount of player freedom—I'm sure you all remember those missions where you couldn't kill a target until the game removed its invincibility flag—it remains Rockstar's last take on the "old" Grand Theft Auto: a mostly silly mayhem simulator more interested in movie references than statements on the human condition. And the amount of flexibility found in San Andreas' world extends to the protagonist as well. CJ has his own goals and motivations, and makes for a much more sympathetic hero than the previous two games' sociopaths, but still, his "character sheet" (to use Dungeons & Dragons lingo) contains more stats than a Dark Souls character. Rockstar might have gone a little overboard—both diet and exercise play an important part of CJ's development—but as you get through more of the story, CJ's talents naturally improve, making those dozens of hours poured into San Andreas just a little more rewarding.
More than ten years later, the whole "map littered with hundreds of icons" has become de rigeur for open-world games, but in 2004, the idea of endless activities in a digital world still made for a compelling premise. And Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas holds no shortage of things to do. CJ can take over territory by clearing it of opposing gang members, giving the world a feeling of persistence that past GTA games didn't have. All of the standard vehicle missions are there, of course, along with new additions like driving trucks, trains, and (somewhat regrettably) escorting sex workers to visit their Johns.
San Andreas also contains a few goofier side-missions, like Dance Dance Revolution-style dance contests (with humans and cars), standard sports like pool and basketball, casino games, and even a few fictional old-school arcade games. But before this article devolves into a list of San Andreas' many, many features, the most welcome addition to San Andreas came in the form of flight. Though its handful of aircraft wasn't exactly easy to maneuver (or land, for that matter), making San Andreas' skies a whole new playground made the possibilities for chaos seem endless. And really, has there ever been a better means of travel in a Grand Theft Auto game than that frickin' jetpack?
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas should also be lauded for filling its cast with primarily black characters—a rarity for any game, let alone an entry in one of the most popular series of all time. Though the gangsta genre movie pastiches and extreme violence of San Andreas don't exactly make it an accurate reflection of the Black Experience, I'm sure plenty of people of color were psyched to play a game full of people who looked like them—or, at the very least, they appreciated a merciful break from the series' fixation with the Italian mafia. I know I did.
14 years after Grand Theft Auto 3 officially made the series a Very Big Deal, and Grand Theft Auto's popularity hasn't waned; the fifth entry, released just a few years ago, sold 52 million copies to date. It's definitely refreshing that Rockstar now tells their own stories rather than borrowing from everyone else's, but the grittier, uglier tone and scripted missions of recent sequels make them feel like completely new beasts when compared to Grand Theft Auto PS2 trilogy. But even if the shift in tone and design has disappointed former fans of the series, at least one fact remains: We'll always have jetpacks.