The most eagerly awaited video game release of the year is no doubt Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and as the latest in the enormously popular series, it doesn't disappoint.
This time around the carjacking, gun-shooting, hyperviolent action is set in the early 1990s, with a story inspired by Boyz In The Hood era inner-city movies. You're gunning to be the biggest gang boss in San Andreas, and you've got a huge cast of buddies, endless racks of weaponry, and a gigantic map at your disposal. Plus, of course, the advantage of living in a city where nobody locks their doors and everyone leaves their keys in the car.
As with prior releases, it's got a top-notch vocal cast, everything you need for a great early 1990s feel: Ice-T, Debi Mazar, newcomer Young Maylay as main character C.J., Samuel L. Jackson, Chuck D, even Axl Rose.
Where the GTA games have always shined is replayability. You can run through it for hours and hours without once going through a story mission, and even when you get through the massive plot, you can go for hours more exploring the world. It's packed with secrets and ground to cover. This is one of the most enormously detailed games ever released; I'm stunned they fit it into one DVD. New additions to the gaming scenario include spray-painting graffiti, three martial arts styles, a dating minigame that in itself can take up all your time (and heaven help you if girlfriend #2 catches you on the town with girlfriend #1).
In a way, this points up the biggest flaw in the GTA series: After 2002's Vice City, it reached the logical limit of its idea. Everything in San Andreas is just filling in blanks. It's like there's nowhere else to go in the series - I mean, they have running plots about keeping your character in shape and eating hamburgers - and some of the potentially interesting expansions, like a limited multiplayer ability, get short shrift.
But you know what? That's quibbling. At the end of the day it's still about running all over a game city that gets bigger with every release, stealing, shooting and running over everything in sight. The clever and sneaky can even fly a jetpack, spraying death from above with an Uzi while humming "Ride of the Valkyries." If that's not video game nirvana, I don't know what is.