I, like most teenage boys in the early 2000s was obsessed with Grand Theft Auto. I spent many days both by myself and with friends exploring every inch of Liberty and Vice Cities. Not only did 100 percent both games, me and my friends frequently improvised our own fun in the games such as trying to run from one end of Vice City to another with a six star wanted level. Needless to say I was on board for whatever the next game had to offer. My excitement hit stratospheric levels when I read that the next GTA, dubbed San Andreas, was to take place across an entire state that included 3 cities plus vast countryside I between. The individual cities of the previous games were already huge and chock full of things to do so the mere thought of three of them packed into one city was dizzying. About a month after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released to rave reviews, a sixteen year old me bought it expecting to be blown away. For the next several months I was.

It should be noted that I am revisiting San Andreas on the PC despite having originally played it on the Playstation 2. I still have my PS2 copy of the game but I don’t have a system to play it on. I did dust off my old PS2 while I was back home visiting my Mom and the first thing that struck me when I popped in San Andreas was how *** it looks. Even back then its graphics were subpar but now it looks downright repulsive. The character models look like a bunch of boxes taped together, the animation is spastic and the textures are all muddy. Worst of all is the draw distance with objects frequently popping in right in front of you. Sometimes it gets so fogey that for a split second I think that I accidently put in Silent Hill by mistake. This problem is remedied on the PC which has a handy draw distance slider that alleviates this issue. Also, being able to aim and shoot with the mouse is vastly preferable to dealing with the finicky lock on system that the PS2 has.

With the draw distance turned all the way up it becomes much easier to appreciate just how ambitious this game was. Even now its scale is impressive; in 2004 it was mind boggling. I remember thinking back then that even the first city, the Los Angeles parody Los Santos, could have stood toe to toe with Vice City and that was only a portion of what San Andreas had to offer. The first time that I ventured out into the surrounding woods I was enthralled. Nothing like this had been attempted in GTA before so I just drove around aimlessly on a dirtbike through the trees with the classic rock station blaring. There really wasn’t much going on in terms of gameplay but the world was so huge and open that I quite literally got lost in it. I had to consult the in-game map to make it back into the city to continue the story and it took quite some time to even get back to the highway.

The game is so large that it at times felt more reminiscent of Bethesda Softworks current gen epics like Skyrim and Fallout 3 than GTA.  This feeling is further enhanced by the surprisingly deep character customization. Unlike any GTA before or since, San Andreas’s protagonist Carl Johnson has stats for everything from weapon skills to body fat. This in addition to the extensive clothing and hairstyle options really made me feel like the character I was controlling was MY version of CJ. One might think that this level of customization would detract from CJ ‘s role in the story but this isn’t the case. In stark contrast to the blank slate Claude Speed and the sociopathic Tommy Vercetti. CJ is a very well rounded and sympathetic character. He deeply cares about his family and that ultimately is what drives him through his criminal escapades. He’s cool witty and just a charming endearing guy which makes it much easier to connect with him even when the story has him mowing down large numbers of people. GTA IV’s protagonist Niko Bellic was even more sympathetic and well-rounded but I ultimately not feeling as connected to him because I wasn’t able to leave my mark on him to the degree that I was able to with CJ.

I’ve always loved Rockstar’s writing, in fact I’d go as far to say that Dan Houser is one of the best satirists out there right now. San Andreas certainly doesn’t fall much short on this front. I loved it at 14 but at 24 I appreciate it even more. A large part of that is because in the intervening years I had seen movies like Boyz  n the Hood so I knew the genre tropes the game was lovingly spoofing in the beginning section of the game. Being an Italian kid from New Jersey, the mafia tinged stories of the previous two games were practically in my blood. The story of San Andreas to me however was more alien to me but the writing was so good that it didn’t take long for me to get sucked in. I remember feeling a genuinely shocked and hurt when Big Smoke and Ryder betrayed me because I had really grown to like them.

Prior to this the story is relatively grounded, albeit with larger than life characters. Afterward things go completely bonkers and I just loved it. Some of my personal favorites include torching a field of pot with a Peter Fonda  voiced hippie, bulldozing an occupied porta pot into a hole and filling it with cement, breaking into a top secret military base to steal a jet back and an elaborate Ocean’s Eleven style casino heist. With this much variation there are bound to the duds like the infamously awful zero missions in which you  pilot an RC plane and helicopter with super finicky controls.  Overall though, the good missions vastly outnumber the bad, which is a not an easy feat to pull off in a game as big as this. Even more remarkably, despite these wacky escapades the story still maintains a modicum of coherence. This is largely because of Officer Tennpenny who chases you throughout the game. Voiced to perfection by Samuel L. Jackson, he’s as ruthless as he is crooked and the best villain the series has had to date.

The games sprawling and unfocused nature is a big part of why I love it so much. Detractors of this game often cite this as a negative and to be fair every single gameplay element that San Andreas attempts has been done better n other games. However, no other game has fused so many disparate elements into one package. San Andreas proves that sometimes, the jack of all trades master of none approach can work for a game. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the more grounded and focused Grand Theft Auto IV, I prefer San Andreas’s epic sprawl. This sprawl facilitated some great times with my friend’s goofing off in this games world, from driving various vehicles off the games mountain, to trying to land the largest planes in the game in the middle of a busy city street. The previews that I have seen for Grand Theft Auto V seem to indicate that Rockstar is returning to the same crazed ambition that made San Andreas so endearing with a colossal game map, three different playable characters and even the ability to explore the depths of the ocean.  September 17th can’t come soon enough