Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
With San Andreas, Rockstar full subscribed to the idea that bigger is better. The world is massive. It covers an entire state, containing not only three cities, each bigger than the ones in previous games, but also quite a lot of real estate in between, including forests, a desert, and many small towns. The soundtrack isn't as good as Vice City's, but still included a large variety of enjoyable music. They also improved the streaming technology, allowing you to go from anywhere outside to anywhere else without a single loading screen. It's quite an impressive feat, and really increases the scale of some of the bigger chases you can get into. There's a larger variety of vehicles you can use, including special ones like bicycles, tractors, and jetpacks, and there are many more indoor locations you can explore. The biggest gameplay change was the addition of a variety of role-playing elements, giving you full control over your character. CJ is always the same person in the story, but you can work out to make him buff or eat a lot to make him fat. There are several different clothes stores you can use to change your look (and how people react to you), and multiple girls you can befriend and date, giving you various bonuses for doing so. At the beginning, CJ is pretty bad at driving and shooting, but using the different kinds of vehicles and guns improves his performance with both.
With so much to do, the game could have gotten too big for its own good, but fortunately it didn't. It does an excellent job of balancing everything and easing you into it, keeping you focused on one major issue at a time. What was interesting was the distinct feeling and atmosphere in each of the three cities. The take off of Los Angeles is where everything starts and ends, and is full of the gangland warfare prominent during the time period. A lot of people can't get into that, but I thought they pulled it off pretty well. Taking over territory was an interesting diversion (as long as you didn't do too much of it the first time around, since all of your progress gets erased), and some of the things that happen near the end, like a riot in the city, are handled pretty well. Even if you don't like that culture, there's some more traditional Grand Theft Auto stuff in the other cities, where you tend to deal with other sorts of criminals, like a blind Yakuza in the driving-focused fake San Francisco and Italian Mafia in their version of Las Vegas, which includes a really cool, optional casino subplot.
CJ is a really well-rounded, likable character. He's not as independent as Tommy Vercetti, but he's a more sympathetic guy. The story follows him as he tries to help his family and rebuild his gang's status, while going after a pair of corrupt cops who have wronged him from the start. Some familiar faces show up, and the cinematics felt even more authentic once the developers learned they could get away with cussing. The missions are more elaborate than ever, and the game is filled with great moments, including countless spontaneous ones just screwing around with a friend in co-op. Some people complained that the RPG elements got in the way of the game, but that simply wasn't true, they almost always felt like an enjoyable addition, becoming a hassle on only a few small occasions. San Andreas was as big as it could get, but now it looks like Grand Theft Auto IV will be a more contained, tighter experience.