It’s no secret that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the most highly anticipated games of the year. With the firestorm of controversy and popularity that GTA: III and GTA: Vice City have garnered, the stage is set for the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series to send the gaming public and your local congressmen into a frenzy once again. While Grand Theft Auto: III was a smashing success among gamers and critics alike, GTA: Vice City was criticized by some as not doing enough to advance the genre that Grand Theft Auto seemingly created. It’s because of this that Rock Star North has made a whole host of improvements and enhancements to their latest open-ended action opus.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, or GTA: SA from here on out is the latest installment in the highly popular GTA series from Rock Star Games. As with the previous GTA titles, the player will find him or herself in the role of an anti-hero doing what he can to get by in the seedy underworld of one of our nation’s bustling metropolises. Carl Johnson, AKA CJ, has just received word that his mother has died under mysterious circumstances. He’s quickly summoned from the big city and must return to his hometown of San Andreas. No sooner than his first moments “back home,” CJ is framed for the murder of a cop and finds himself on the run from the long (and crooked) arm of the law. CJ is now out to make a name for himself, build a criminal empire, and even solve the mystery of his mother’s death. If it sounds epic, that’s because it is. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a monumental game that goes above and beyond the expectations of even the most rabid fanboy.
If you’ve read our previous coverage of GTA: SA then you’re already familiar with some of the changes that Rock Star has introduced. If you haven’t (shame on you!) you’re in for quite a surprise. While the idea of a wardrobe has already been seen in Grand Theft Auto, San Andreas has several different outfitters for our aspiring social deviant. With everything from casual wear, to sporting clothes, to the sleekest threads around, whatever mood the player finds themselves in there’s clothing to match. This time around however, the clothes CJ wears will affect his standing in society. Dress to the nines and your “street cred” will increase and the citizens of San Andreas will react accordingly. The same goes for your hair-do. Whether it’s corn-rows, flattop, afro or bald, you can customize your look in GTA: SA unlike any Grand Theft Auto before. CJ can also alter his physical appearance by eating right and exercising. Let yourself go and you’ll soon find those new clothes feeling a bit snug and you won’t be able to keep up a sprint for long. Not to worry however as San Andreas is not without its fitness clubs. Use a gym and CJ can whip himself into shape and increase his fighting skills to boot. Hand to hand combat also now has a place in the Grand Theft Auto universe. Depending on the gym he trains in, CJ can learn a variety of fighting techniques that he can use against those who stand in his way. As much as I’ve rambled on about these features, they’re admittedly a very small part of the overall game. In fact, if you don’t mind the citizens of San Andreas referring to you as “little man,” you never have to set foot inside of a gym or “Cluckin’ Bell” at all.
Some of the other annoyances of the previous Grand Theft Auto series have also been changed. For example CJ has apparently taken a swimming lesson or two as now contact with water no longer means death.
What good are these changes however if the Grand Theft Auto gameplay that we have grown to love is not faithfully recreated? Fortunately for us it has been, and it feels as fresh and satisfying as ever. The game is just as violent, gritty and completely over the top in terms of violence and debauchery as was expected. Rock Star definitely hasn’t backed down amidst all of the pressure their preceding games have received. The player is still free to either follow the game’s main story or take matters into his own hands and wreak havoc throughout the city.
Vehicles have always been a major part of the Grand Theft Auto series and San Andreas has taken things to the next level. Bicycles, jets, tractors, military vehicles and all of the obligatory automobiles are all present and handle better than ever. While the control of the vehicles has in fact been tweaked, there is also a new “skill system” introduced that enables players to gain skill in a particular vehicle to improve its handling and control. Gain experience on a motorcycle and you’ll be able to stay on two wheels longer and won’t be thrown as easily. Rock Star has remembered that this isn’t an RPG and players won’t have to worry about distributing skill points. Everything is handled behind the scenes freeing the player to focus on more important things, like building the greatest crime empire since?well, since the last Grand Theft Auto.
Targeting is another area in Grand Theft Auto that has always been a sore spot for me. While it was never particularly buggy, I found it awkward and cumbersome during hectic firefights. Rock Star has taken the system and made some changes for the better. Just as the control of vehicles tightens up the more you use them, the same rings true for firearms. The behind the scenes skill system ensures that with practice, CJ becomes a lethal killing machine. The targeting-things-you-already-killed “bug” has also been squashed making targeting and switching targets in GTA: San Andreas easier and more fluid than any of the previous versions.
While the settings in the previous Grand Theft Auto games have always been expansive, the city of San Andreas this time around is enormous. With landscapes ranging from a typical inner city, a Las Vegas strip look alike, to the laid-back country side reminiscent from a scene in Deliverance, San Andreas is without question the most ambitious Grand Theft Auto yet.
Let this be clear to all: the amount of things to do in the cities of Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas is absolutely staggering. Enter your low rider (which you can upgrade and customize to your liking) in a “bouncing” contest, run in an illegal street race, shoot a realistic game of pool that’s better than most stand alone budget titles, shoot some basketball, or try your hand at some classic arcade games. There is so much to do in San Andreas that we couldn’t possibly list them all in this review. However, even with all of the side quests and distractions, less experienced GTA players may at times find themselves in a “what now?” state of mind. Once they realize that the answer to the question is “whatever you want,” players will undoubtedly lose themselves for dozens of hours just exploring San Andreas’ incredibly large land mass. These different locations don’t just serve to take up space either. Every different part of San Andreas is incorporated into the main story to create a virtual world that is more alive and expansive than some of the deepest role playing games available.
Aside from all of these new and improved features, San Andreas’ strong suit is undoubtedly its cinematic narrative. Just like the previous Grand Theft Auto realizations, San Andreas paces like an incredibly well scripted and crafted action movie. The plot is thick and full of twists, and without spoiling too much, will introduce a bevy of colorful, memorable, and familiar characters and moments that surpass anything seen in recent memory. Things never get old and stagnant and Rock Star makes sure to keep the game’s plot moving?as long as you want it to. As a testament to the effort put forth in San Andreas’ campaign, things only get better and more intense the longer you play.
The sound effects in GTA: SA are once again serviceable. Nothing stands out as extraordinary, but nothing really hurts the game either. The various radio stations that have become almost a game unto themselves make a triumphant return. With an eclectic selection ranging from Dr. Dre to Jomanda and Lynyrd Skynyrd to Stone Temple Pilots, there’s probably something for everyone on San Andreas’ airwaves. While it may have seemed impossible possible to improve upon Vice City’s voice acting, San Andreas has managed to do so. With star studded appearances by James Woods, Samuel L. Jackson and others, the acting in San Andreas is undoubtedly the best I’ve ever heard in a game and does volumes to make the experience that much more immersive.
GTA: San Andreas’ graphics are improved over the previous titles in the series. While they are not ground breaking, they’re familiar and better than they have ever been. The draw distance on objects that are ahead of the player has been increased. Instances of “popup,” or when objects suddenly appear in front of the player, have been somewhat reduced. While clipping is still a rare annoyance and many of the textures are less than detailed, none of the graphical shortcomings ever detract from the experience. Certain aspects of the graphical presentation have been improved. When attaining high speeds in some of the game’s speedier vehicles, a blur effect is used to simulate the rush. Weather effects are also outstanding, helping to lend an air of authenticity to the game’s settings. As with previous Grand Theft Auto games, the frame rate does take a hit when there is a lot of action on screen. This is really a limitation of the Playstation 2’s hardware however, and Rock Star should be commended on pushing the platform to its limits once again.
While Rock Star has managed to do so many things right, San Andreas isn’t entirely perfect. Fans have longed for a viable multiplayer experience in this series from the beginning and Rock Star has yet to deliver. There is actually some multiplayer action to speak of, but it’s so limited in scope that it’s hardly worth mentioning. At various points in the game, the player can locate an icon that allows another player to enter the game simultaneously. Both players must stay on the same portion of the screen at the same time. A full-fledged co-op mode is still not present despite my nightly ritual of praying to the gaming gods. Are you listening up there? Co-op please!
San Andreas also uses the old save point feature from the previous GTA games. The player is only allowed to save his progress at his “safe houses.” This is something that I’d definitely like to see changed. In my opinion there’s no excuse to not have a “save anywhere” feature included. It’s quite frustrating to sit through the same cut scene again and then drive several minutes across town to redo a mission that you’ve just failed. You should really be able to load up your last save and be right in the action again. It’s a minor quibble, but a convenience that gamers surely deserve considering San Andreas’ high level of difficulty.
The mini map in the corner of the screen is still too small and still too difficult to read on non HDTV’s. Could we please have a directional arrow of some sort on the top of the screen so the player doesn’t have to take his eyes off the road every four seconds to check his bearings? With all that Rock Star has done, it’s a shame that they haven’t fixed these small and seemingly easily correctable nuisances. It’s also worth mentioning that those gamers who didn’t enjoy the earlier Grand Theft Auto installments won’t find enough changes to likely sway their opinions this time around.
The fact remains that without question Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the biggest and best GTA to date. Rock Star has reached higher than any game developer has before and has managed to catch lightning in a bottle. They’ve taken the proven formula of open ended gameplay combined with a tight, cinematic story and crafted a gaming experience without equal on the Playstation 2 console. With an incredibly well acted script, deep immersive story, action filled gameplay and the ability to do things the way you want to do them, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas can be soundly recommended as one the best video games available and should be on any gamers “must have” list.