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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; Virtual PC for Mac Version 7

Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page F09


The year is 1992, and life stinks for Carl Johnson. His mom's been murdered, his family is in disarray, his childhood friends have turned against him, and corrupt cops are framing him for a murder somebody else committed. In other words, it's time to go for a drive and wreak as much havoc as possible.

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As in earlier Grand Theft Auto games, San Andreas consists of a series of missions; completing each reveals more of Johnson's backstory while bringing you closer to solving his problem. The missions here include the old standbys -- you drive people around, pick stuff up, stage drive-by shootings -- but as you move deeper into the game, you're given such increasingly complex assignments as staging casino heists or whacking Mafia members.

The violent story unfolds on a much bigger set than in earlier games; unlike previous GTA games, you're no longer confined to one major city and instead roam among three major metro areas. (Rockstar says the total landscape is six times the size of Vice City). Your transportation is no longer confined to cars, either; your choices to get from Point A to Point B include bicycles, motorcycles, dune buggies and even helicopters and planes.

The most clever element in San Andreas, though, is the way it tracks Johnson's fitness for all the running required -- he's always sprinting away from cops, gang members and other miscreants -- and allows you to strengthen or weaken him with the right routines. Hit the gym, and his endurance will go up; have him eat salads instead of fast food, and he'll drop a few pounds. Get him in better shape, and he'll be able to climb over higher walls and outrun the police more often -- and his looks will change accordingly. Very cool.

San Andreas exhibits the same stylized look and feel of earlier GTA games, but with more detail -- it looks as good as any game can on the four-year-old PS2. Every gang member sports his own colors and wardrobe, and the buildings have enough individual quirks that you're never going to get lost.

-- Tom Ham

PlayStation 2, $50


Even the most passionate Mac user may occasionally need to run Windows software. Microsoft's Virtual PC 7 creates a computer-within-a-computer that can run Windows apps -- it just can't do the job that quickly.

Virtual PC 7 includes Windows XP Professional and can run virtually any Windows application; you can also install other versions of Windows or even Linux. (An upcoming $129 edition won't include any operating system at all, letting you install one on your own.)

The downside of Virtual PC's versatility is speed: Since it has to simulate an entire hardware PC, it can only run Windows programs at a fraction of the speed of a real Windows machine. Microsoft says this version runs 10 to 30 percent faster than the previous version, but real-world speed tests were a mixed bag. On a 1.25 GHz PowerBook, Virtual PC 7 took longer to boot Win XP and start applications than its predecessor, while a mapping program drew maps faster.

The more significant achievement in version 7 -- the first since Microsoft bought the program from its earlier developer, Connectix -- is the fact that it now supports Macs running on G5 processors. Other enhancements include easier printing (you don't have to mess with Windows printer drivers) and faster shutdown. With a fast processor and plenty of memory -- at least 512 megabytes -- the program is tolerable for occasional use.

For users of G5 Macs, Virtual PC 7 is the only game in town, but G3 or G4 owners who already run version 6 need not bother dropping $99 for an upgrade to version 7. And if you need to run Windows programs more frequently, you might be better spending $250 on a bare-bones PC. -- Kevin Savetz

Mac OS X 10.2.8 or newer

(10.3 for G5 users), $249

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