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'Grand Theft Auto' back with a vengeance

An interactive ode to gang banging, California style, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" is sure to outrage parents and endear itself to video game fans in equal measure. Review by MSNBC's Tom Loftus.
As always, "Grand Theft Auto" pays attention to the details, from gang colors to the swaying palm trees in the distance.
As always, "Grand Theft Auto" pays attention to the details, from gang colors to the swaying palm trees in the distance.Rockstar Games

As the last rays of sunlight fade on the ghetto alleyways, ratty looking palm trees take on the form of sick old men and there's menace in the air. But you're ready; the car you just 'jacked is tuned to Radio Los Santos and on the air Snoop Dogg boasts of “a 187 on an undercover cop.”

It's baaaaack.

"Grand Theft Auto," the video game series reviled by parents for senseless violence and celebrated by gamers for pretty much the same reason launched its latest installment last week.

An interactive ode to gang banging, California style, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" covers a vast territory: from the neighborhoods of East and South Central Los Santos (Los Angeles) up north to the hedonism of San Fierro (San Francisco) and East to the ritz and mafia connections of Las Venturas (Las Vegas).

Imagine Disneyland's "California Adventure," but with AK-47's.

Senseless violence
Like 2002's "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" which set its tale of drugs and decadence among the the scenes and sounds of 1980s Miami, "San Andreas" is heavily indebted to another crime-ridden subculture: this time, the black and Latino gangs of 1990s California.

The game's creators have mined the era with the enthusiasm of pop culture anthropologists. Eleven radio stations boom a mixture of West Coast rap, New Jack Swing and early house. Gang members sport doo-rags and oversize t-shirts. The graffiti tags your character creates bears a real-world California influence. And the voice acting, as you might expect, is peppered with street slang and plenty of bad language.

Rockstar Games

The immersion works. Rockstar Games, the creators of the "Grand Theft Auto" series, are masters in melding local color with a story arc of power, loyalty and gobs of ruthless violence. Backed by some of the finest scripted scenes in gaming, "San Andreas" is almost operatic in tone.

Like a lot of operas, however, "San Andreas" has a high body count. This is a very violent game:

Drug dealers are beaten with bats.  Pedestrians are flattened by cars.  Drive-by shootings, car-jackings, crack use and numerous other crimes which continue to make parts of America pure hell to live in have here been turned into fodder for entertainment. And, as part of the nod to realism, characters in the game call each other the N-word.

None of this is appropriate for young players. "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" is rated "M" for mature for a reason. Parents who buy this game for their children should have their heads examined.

Richly developed world
The "hero" of "San Andreas," a small-time gang banger called Carl Johnson, faces the same challenge Tommy Vercetti faced in "Grand Theft Auto 3."  He's a gutter punk who craves respect.

The goal is to move Johnson out of his life on a dead-end street in Ganton (read: Compton) and into the criminal highlife.

Cut-scenes (non-interactive movie elements) set the stage for each task that will move Johnson one step closer. For example, after an early scene where his "homies" bemoan the plight of their neighborhood, Johnson is assigned the job of taking the baseball bat to crack dealers.

The thrill of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," as in previous versions, is how the game expands in scope from crack dens to penthouses. As the plot builds, the challenges increase. Johnson moves from car jacking to piloting Lear Jets. And the action takes Johnson from the city of Los Santos up north to San Fierro where some of the best game play revolves around navigating the city’s hills.

As always with this series, much of what's worth exploring lies outside the plot. In the richly developed world of "San Andreas," not only can Johnson swipe any car, motorcycle or plane, he can also scale walls, hop fences and swim. Taking a trip off the beaten path can yield some interesting side plots such as engaging in a game of one-on-one basketball, visiting strip clubs, racing motorcycles and collecting safe houses.

Or you may just want to spend time cruising the streets listening to the radio.  Music and DJ radio patter has long been the heart and soul of "Grand Theft Auto" and "San Andreas" offers 11 radio stations playing West Coast gangsta rap, early 1990s House music and even country.

The roam-at-will freedom comes with costs. "Grand Theft Auto" fans are by now familiar with the loading time between episodes. And while the graphics do a particularly fine job of catching that hazy California sunlight the game can fall short at times. Faces are boxy, for example.

"San Andreas" has some surprises up its sleeve, however. Listen long enough to the radio or engage with any number of NPC's (non-player characters) and you may hear some commentary about race relations, poverty and dead-end jobs mixed in with the swearing, threats and sexist garbage. Radio ads mock everything from video gamers (equating the hobby with another solitary activity) to adult males who have too much money and no brains. 

On a certain level -- the universal level that recognizes that power, sex, loyalty and violence always make a good story -- "San Andreas" works. It may not be on par with "The Odyssey" or even “The Warriors,” but the story it tells has been told for eons. And that’s why, no matter the outrage, it will sell.

But no matter how good the game play, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" is at its core a violent and mean-spirited game that rewards homicide, embraces racial and sexual stereotypes and uses real-life child-on-child violence as inspiration.

Granted this is "only a game," but the lifestyle it portrays, no matter how artfully, is too real for too many members of the video game generation.