Finally the PS2 has its definitive game
The third change I mentioned there is both a strength and a weakness. The minigames are now getting annoying. The driving school is a good idea- since in the cities proper there's often little space to practise advanced techniques without getting hit by a truck- but making it compulsory for 100% is a bit much. How relevant is it that I can drive across San Fierro and back in less than 80 seconds, or that I can drive on two wheels for 25m? The answer is its not, because there isn't a single mission that requires either of those things. The ambulance and fire truck missions make an unwelcome return- its a fun idea to actually be able to do stuff with special vehicles- ambulances, fire trucks, taxis- which are too slow and weak to be of any normal use, but making it a must-do for completion is out of order. In this case its even worse than the driving school- you don't have to just sort of do it and no more, you are expected to complete Level 12 in each case. Yes, that does mean having to ferry 12 people to a hospital in a 3-seat ambulance in less than 4 minutes. Even within the missions, the 'catch him when he falls' dynamic is abused like a dead dog, seeing several increasingly stupid scenarios (which I won't give the legitimacy of a mention here) which just look like Rockstar had a new toy and needed to fill some missions, rather than being of any actual value. Or how about putting the 'catch him' minigame right at the end of a mission, where if you don't catch the idiot in question you have to replay the half-hour of extremely difficult killing just to fail again. You could probably have stuck another point on the score if it wasn't for the overuse of rubbish minigames.
The main gameplay itself, however, could not be any further from the tripe that is the minigames. As a PC veteran of Vice City, GTA 2 and many FPS games, I was expecting one of those horrible right-analog stick aiming systems, that tries to pretend that a gamepad is a mouse. Luckily most weapons (except for sniping where you need manual control) have the use of a 'lock on' system- you just press R1 and it highlights (and keeps your crosshairs on) whatever it is about to kill. You can then cycle targets (if it hasn't chosen your preferred one) before firing. It doesn't unbalance the game either- it has a limited range, and all it does is allow you the same sort of 'sighting to killing' reaction time that all the enemies have. If I have some guy taking me apart with an M4, I don't want to have to fiddle with a joystick to draw a bead on him, I want him DEAD. NOW. This system ensures that you will rarely if ever die because the PS2 doesn't use mouse and keyboard.
The driving itself is pretty much unchanged from Vice City- PC or PS2. Some of the motorbikes have changed in performance slightly, but the Freeway is still your muscled roadster, the PCJ still a speed freak, and the Sanchez is still the best (although the new FCR-900 bike isn't bad either). While we're on the subject of motorbikes, the police have them. This was another request from the GTA community who were a bit bored of being able to escape the long flabby arm of the law just by going down a narrow alley in a Sanchez. Although they won't go for the more advanced stuff- driving over the roofs of oncoming cars, driving up stairs- the police motorcyclists will generally be more of a thorn in your side than their car-driving comrades. If you can get your hands on one (not hard, they're everywhere but you'll have to kill a cop) the police motorbikes are actually quite good to use.
Don't expect Half Life 2-standard graphics here, but for their blockbuster shooter game Rockstar have managed to drag every shred of PS2 power kicking and screaming into the process. The graphics are slightly improved on Vice City- the explosion effects look slightly more explosiony, and many of the new vehicles are a lot more detailed. However the greatest technical achievement by far is the complete lack of loading times. Once you start the game, you can go as far as you like, and there will not a a single pause to load the next part of the scenery. Even the latest and greatest PC games can't manage this, so how Rockstar managed to do it on a five-year old console is beyond me. What matters, however, is that they did it, and it greatly enhances the 'go anywhere, kill anything' freeform style of the game. If you think San Andreas is anything but the best PS2 game in existence, wait until you escape from the police on a pedal bike, and manage to dodge oncoming patrol cars to take off in a plane only to be shot down by National Guard Harriers. Or, depending on what vehicles you unlocked, you could shoot them down.
With the new character customisation and stats, GTA has taken its first tentative step towards becoming an RPG. I don't mean in terms of special abilities, random battles and cliché storylines, but what else do you call a game which allows you to define your character's appearance, improve your skills with particular weapons as you use them, and increase your strength, stamina etc. to improve your general fitness? This is actually quite well done, and apart from the occasionally annoying gym trips (annoying as in you're in the middle of a desert and it tells you you need to go to a gym or your strength will decrease) adds a lot to the gameplay.
If any of you are wondering, yes San Andreas is coming to the PC and Xbox (due for a June release here in the UK), the PS2 got it in October 2004- 8 months before you refusenik types. And, since Vice City, GTA has basically been a PS2 series. Even now, a few months from its multiformat release, it is worth going out and buying a PS2 (preferably not one of the slim ones) just to get your hands on this game earlier than everyone else. It's that good.
[Author's Note: As with some of my other user reviews, this one was originally submitted to another site a couple of years ago, and I've just crosspasted it]