Wow. This really is the pinnacle of gaming on the PS2. Don't get me wrong, there will be the odd person out there who may not really enjoy this game, and of course all of those under a certain age shouldn't be playing this due to the mature nature of its content.
But for most everyone else, this is a game that will have you glued to the controller. Everything about this latest installment of the best-selling games series of all time will leave you breathless in excitement, right up until the end.
The game starts off in Los Santos in the early 90s as your character CJ returns home after being away for five years. His mother has been killed, his family is falling apart, and the city is in chaos. Crack dealing is rife on the streets. There is corruption throughout the city and the police force - especially one such Sergeant called Tenpenny (voiced by the ever excellent Samuel L Jackson).
Los Santos is huge. It is around the same size as Vice City or Liberty City, but it's only when you steal your first car that you realise just how big this game is. Drive around the city and it seems like any other game, but make your way into the hills and you will be blown away by the sheer enormity of it all. There are also two more cities to unlock as you progress through the missions, which makes the gaming map area around six times bigger than previous games.
The first few missions get you back into the swing of being a low-level homie. Your neighbourhood has been taken over by rival gangs and it's your job to sweep up the enemy with the only way you know how. Violence. Thankfully, the Rockstar North development team have used the Manhunt targeting engine in the game to make it much easier to target and blow people away. The usual weapons are in the game as well as some new ones such as the silenced pistol, sawn-off shotgun and stinger anti-aircraft system. The stinger targets aircraft and puts a red circle around them when it's locked on. Then it's just a case of fire and forget - goodbye cruel police helicopter.
The storyline that weaves through the game is one of its finest attributes. They really have put a lot into it and will have you going back to mission after mission just so that you can find out what's happening with CJ, his brother Sweet, the annoying Toreno (voiced by James Woods) and Woozy.
As you unlock new cities you have to learn the new streets and alley ways to help you get around as fast as you can without getting caught by the police. Another new aspect of the game is that the police don't just constantly appear when you have only one or two stars like they did in the original game. Once you hit three or four stars, you can be sure that you will have cops crawling all over you like bugs, but with one or two then you are left with the belief that you can get through the city without getting chased too much.
You can upgrade your character by doing flight, driving and motorbike schools; your stats rise as you complete lessons. Another way to upgrade is to get your health back up by going to get something to eat at one of the many food joints around the city. But if you eat too much, CJ ends up over-weight and slow as a week in jail. You can also go to the gym to bulk up your muscle, or work on the exercise bike to increase your stamina.
Another new aspect to the game is the ability to swim. All too often when playing the former games, you could find yourself driving along at full speed only to end up in the water after being smacked by a jump. Now, you can get out the car to swim, dive and generally explore even more areas thanks to this welcome addition to the gameplay. (It helps increase your lung capacity as well.) No longer do you fear the water - now you can't wait to get into it. There is even one fantastic mission involving a boat, a knife and a swim to get to it that will have you grinning from ear-to-ear.
Overall, this is the best game on the PS2. Its immersive world can be played anytime and even if you don't feel like doing missions, there are literally thousands of other things that you can be doing - from pimping and taxi missions to driving around the city and having fun listening to the excellent radio stations. Being a non-rap fan, I thought I would end up hating the music, but it fits in really well with the game. Still, I found myself playing other stations the majority of the time, but there really is music in the game to suit anyone.
There is a lot else that we could say about the game but that would spoil it for you. So go out and buy it, play it and love it. It's a sandbox of joy and pleasure. It's the finest game to come out of Rockstar North and Take 2. How they will ever beat this I just don't know.
Obviously, the very adult nature of the game means that no children should be playing this game. It really is very violent and deals with issues such as murder, assault, prostitution and drug use. If you are a parent, I would strongly suggest that you do not buy this game for your child, even if they use the age-old excuse that all their friends have it.