Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: 10/26/2004
Color me biased, but I have always been a big fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. My friends and I used to stay up all night passing the controller around in the top down game just to compete on who could create the most havok. I even liked the London expansion. When GTA3 was announced I sat around with a couple of other guys on a message board and talked about how it couldn’t be done in a 3-D world without dropping some of the things that made the top down games great. Rockstar proved me wrong. GTA3 took the world by storm and shook off previous ideas of what the limits were for an action game. I mean they even made London fun!
The years since have seen imitators that haven’t yet been able to really touch the level of depth to the humor and style that the GTA games present, can you name any of the imitators that let you kill a hooker like you could in GTA? Didn’t think so. Vice City was a larger and more solid game with a great stlye that improved on some things and introduced some new gameplay elements, however the game recieved some critism for feeling too much like the first game without much in the way of new material. That and most of the people playing the game had no idea the 80’s even existed. Rockstar took this to heart and has taken their time developing San Andreas, and through what they revealed in several press releases what looked to be the most ambitious GTA game yet. San Andreas would not only be a third city as it was in the first title, but a complete state! Media releases are one thing, but how does the actual game hold up?
I would love to go on and on about different parts of the story in the game…but I wont. The story is too damn good to spoil (except for the pieces I’m about to spoil for you). To reveal what has already been said elsewhere and in press releases in San Andreas you control the main character Carl Johnson, aka CJ. CJ is returning home to Los Santos (one of the three major cities in San Andreas) for the funeral of his recently murdered mother and to find out why she was killed and who commited the crime. Along the way he’ll have to deal with crooked cops, try to gain respect from fellow gang members, and crazy ex-girlfriends.
What can’t fail to be mentioned here is how strong the voice acting is for the game. While the script for how the story unfolds in the game is excellently done and the cut scenes are well set, with bad voice acting even a great story would have come across as just average. At some points in the game you can tell when CJ is frustrated with some people just by the tense tone of his voice even if what he is saying is friendly enough.
Another thing that keeps the story fresh and continously entertaining is the level of humor that is persistant throughout. The beginning of the game is more serious than any past GTA game but it also sets the tone for why CJ feels the way he does. Much of the humor in the game comes in the same form it has in the previous games, the bizarre cast of characters that CJ interacts with. This game isn’t much different from the rest of the series in that regard, there are many unique characters that are wild but not so out there that they are not unbelievable, and all of them are very well developed throughout the course of the game.
If GTA3 was a take off on The Godfather and if Vice City took inspiration from Scarface than San Andreas could be said to take inpiration from Boyz in tha Hood, but that wouldn’t be doing it justice, it would be a mix of that movie and CB4, and a few others, like Ocean’s Eleven. Overall it’s a great plot with some large twists and turns that is deeper than what you will find and most other action games available.
One of the things that hasn’t changed very much from the previous title is the way this game looks. Anyone expecting a large leap in terms of graphics for this title will be disappointed, though many fans will be happy that the trails effect has been removed. On the surface when you just boot the game up there may not seem to have been a large change, but there have been several changes made overall.
For example, San Andreas is huge. Gigantic even. Unlike Vice City or GTA3 there is absolutely no loading time when going from one area to another, it is all perfectly seamless. As someone who has spent some time on the West Coast another thing that I found impressive was how the areas so closely resembled the real life cities that they are representing. It’s hard to put into words accurately but driving around the towns reminds me of some of the places I grew up in, and each of the three major cities feels different than each other. Like how Los Santos has a noticable pullution filter over the city that is most notable when you are flying over the city in a haze of smog. I almost wish they had done the same for Los Venturras, have you ever flown over Vegas or Reno? Bleh.
The character models are a bit better but the most noticable thing that sticks out in my mind during cut scenes is how weird and blocky the hands look. It reminds me to much of the oven mitt commercials for Arby’s. While the models may not be a huge jump, CJ’s model is now fully customizable. You can buy clothes which in turn effects the sex appeal rating and respect from your gang depending on whether or not your wearing Grove Street’s color. In this area there are a ton of different clothes to choose from, as well as chains, pants, shoes, hats, and sunglasses. No streaker option is available. You can also get CJ’s hair cut or get a tattoo, both of which also have a ton of options to choose from insuring that your CJ will not likely look like anyone else’s CJ. It’s like Barbie! Okay, forget I said that. There’s also working out with has a visible effect on Carl’s appearance. Eat a lot of fast food and get fat. Work out at a gym to stay in shape. Working out will buff CJ out which also has an effect on sex appeal and respect. In turn it will also effect what people say to you on the streets, with people complimenting CJ if he’s buff and insulting him if he is fat.
Cars are also customizable as well with a whole rang of paint jobs, rims, and just about ever other accesory needed to pimp your ride. A good car will really boost CJ’s sex appeal stat, not so different from real life, eh?
Other noticable changes is the amount of countryside in the game. While the previous games didn’t have much to do with grass and trees outside of a city park, there is a TON of countryside this time complete with backwater towns, mountains, forests, deserts, etc. The countryside is a great addition as traveling on the highway between cities really captures the feeling of traveling down a real highway, meaning you’ll keep asking yourself if you are there yet until you threaten to pull the vehicle over. For it’s first appearance in the series the countryside is awesome with tons of backtrails and dirt roads that you can steal an ATV for and drive around on for a long time. The weather effects have been given a boost, watching mist gather while your running through the forest is great (keep an eye out for the rumored Bigfoot) and the sandstorms in the desert are rough. When driving a car at top speed the game will blur like many of the newer racing games do to add the effect of speed, it also does this when you are falling at a great speed. It is a cool effect though sometimes I wish it could be turned off.
There is still pop up like there was in the last games though not as bad, and sometimes the up close texture details of a building take a second to load, though most if it is less obtrusive or not as noticable as in the previous GTA games. The game may not look as good as some other recent releases on the system, but considering the size and scope of the game, I honestly cannot imagine them making the game look any better on the PS2 without cutting other things out.
As I mentioned earlier the voice acting is some of the best I’ve heard in a video game, ever. The other GTA games had great voice acting (well…the 3-D ones, the 2-D ones were just grabled noise), but I think this one out does them all in terms of voice acting. Much of the voice acting is even more suprisingly done by relatively unknown people, though there are some notable celebraties such as Samuel L. Jackson as Officer Tenpenny and Charlie Murphy as Jizzy B. There are no weak voices here and it really helps the game.
Weapon effects sound is recycled from the last game, which is okay by me because they sounded fine then and they sound fine now. Engine noises have been revamped, most noticably with planes and motorcycles. Now it’s a deep growling engine noise which sounds much much better. The radio stations have always been a staple of the series and are back as well as the hilarious commercials. The selection of music fits the times (early ninties) and there is a good variety of stations that fit into the game. While some may argue that a Country station doesn’t exactly fit into a gangsta themed game, when you are out in the country and steal someones pickup truck/tractor/combine harvester and the radio is blaring country when you steal the vehicle it adds more believability to the game than stealing a tractor that’s for some reason blaring hip-hop (no offense to the hip-hop listening tractor driving community, of course). Personally I love just grabbing a motorcycle and turning on the old rock station and driving around on the highway. Another improvement is that the radio stations sound different in different vehicles. The radio sounds tinnier in a motorcycle compared to a car and you know the customization I mentioned for the cars earlier? Well you can add a bass boost to your vehicle as well for when you want enough bass to shake the rust of your vehicle. Vehicles in the game to get dirty and gain rust over time if you keep them, but you can always take one through a car wash to clean it up again.
The soundtrack and voice acting has always been strong in the past PS2 games and San Andreas keeps that going with even better voice acting, sound effects, and soundtrack.
The controls remains mostly the same as the easy and fairly intuative controls featured in Vice City with some improvements.
You control CJ with the left analog stick, camera with the right, X to run, tap X to sprint or pedal a bike faster, square to jump/climb fences, triangle to steal cars, circle to shoot, R1 to target, L2-R2 to cycle through weapons, L1 to view stats and also shoot when targeting, and L3 (push in left joystick) to crouch for stealth (you read that right, stealth!). The D-Pad let’s you respond to comments positively or negatively by choosing left or right while targeting, and using up and down to recruit and give commands to gang members. In a car the controls are what you’d find in most racing games, X to accelerate, Square to brake/reverse, R1 to handbrake.
The newest features in the control department are in the form of targeting and stealth, both of which are obviously influenced by another Rockstar game, Manhunt. Targeting will now bring up a three triangle reticule on the target that also shows the targets health, green is good, red is almost dead, and black is dead. You can switch targets with L2 and R2 while locked on, and manual aim with the right joystick. This time the game does a much better job locking onto people who are a threat to CJ (ie the ones who are shooting at him) than some old lady crossing the street. It feels much better than the targeting system in Vice City however it’s not without flaws. There will be times when I’m moving the camera around CJ to look for threats and when I see one I’ll press R1 to lock on, but CJ will only target what is in front of him. Maybe it’s because I’m too used to other third person shooters but it took me a little bit to adjust to this and remember to turn CJ towards the threat.
While crouching CJ can take cover behind low walls and is less of a target. By moving the left joystick while targeting you can also roll while crouched which I’ve found very usefull for getting the drop on enemies. Crouching also lets CJ walk around more quietly and sneak up behind people. If he’s armed with a knife he will raise the knife above his head which signals that you can perform a stealth kill. Like Manhunt CJ can also hide in the shadows and will go gray on the radar when he is hidden. Swimming is finally in the game. No longer will falling into a swimming pool cause you to drown in a foot of water. You can dive and swim feely.
As far as vehicles go there are several different types of cars, motorcycles, planes and helicoptors CJ can use that control in different ways and each individual vehicles feels different from each other. While some are very similar vehicles there is also a big difference in the handling of fast, speedy car and a box-like van, or from a single prop plane to a jet.
The best thing about the new control setup is that the more you do something the higher your stats will increase and you’ll be able to do it better. For example, having a higher driving or flying stat noticably increases handling for those vehicles, or the more you shoot with a specific weapon the better you will be at that weapon including gaining the ability to dual wield some weapons. I’ll go into more detail in the balance section but needless to say this is a great addition.
The new use of the D-Pad is fun as well. Responding negatively to comments has gotten me into a couple of fights, some woman insulted me and when I pressed the negative response. CJ shot back with a comment on how ugly the woman was and then it was on. I wish they had implemented the response feature in more than just a couple of missions but it’s still a fun feature. The gang recruiting and overall gang system is a huge upgrade from just seeing what gang is most angry at you on the stat screen. Now if you have gained enough respect you can recruit several gang members to go with you and start a war in another territory which give your gang more territory, respect, and you earn money based off of the amount of territory you’ve conquered.
If you’ve never played GTA before the game walks you through the controls for the first couple of missions, and for the most part the controls are fairly intuitive. The aiming still doesn’t feel as good as it could be but it is a step up from Vice City.
For such a large game that mixes in several different genres of gaming this is one of the most finely balanced games I’ve played. San Andreas is easier than Vice City and GTA3, but mostly because there aren’t very many frustrating missions that make you want to throw your controller at the wall. At the same time that is not to say that the missions are simple. They’re not. In fact the missions are much more complex than what has already been seen before in the series and overall much, much better. Several missions have such a cinematic feel to them that it feels like you are taking part of an interactive action movie, and most missions have several different layers to the mission in order to complete an objective instead of having a straight forward drive here and shoot this objective. Without trying to ruin things too badly an example of this can be seen in a mission where you start out gunning people on a boat down from a helicopter, crash in the water, then swim onboard and stealth kill people which turns into a gun fight, and that leads to a one on one swordfight. There are a lot of missions of that scope throughout the game. There are so many new things they have added to the missions such as a dating sim, stealth, DDR style lowrider competition, etc, etc, that even though you’ve been playing the game for hours the variety of missions will keep introducing you to new concepts.
Much of what makes the game less frustrating are new features such as different color coded markers for different objectives, the new aiming system, the ability to place your own marker on the map (sadly you can place only one), clearer objectives, and if you do fail a mission they have replaced the cab that takes you to the start of a mission again with a ‘trip skip’ feature that lets you skip part of a mission instead to closer to where you left off at. Mostly it’s just skipping long driving sections, which is especially welcome as some missions have you drive through the countryside from one city to the another and that would force you to redo 10 mintues of mostly driving. I’m very glad they added that feature. That’s not to say that there are no frustrating missions (Flying school in particular is an unforgiving pain in the ass) but for the most part the the missions are more complex while at the same time more clear about what you need to do in order to pass the mission, but not so much that it is holding your hand through them.
Other than that the AI seems to have gotten an aiming upgrade as well as enemies seem more accurate (or I’m hallucinating), but for everything else the AI is mostly the same. The AI of your fellow gang members and various is alright but they can’t really be relied on to watch your back. In a gang fight they’re usefull just so that the other gang isn’t just shooting at you. Police AI is about the same as in Vice City, they’ll set up roadblocks to stop you, descend from helicoptors (or just shoot you from them), or even send fighter jets after you, but they also feel easier to lose, especially if you take it out to the country where I’ve gone from 4 stars to no stars, something I wasn’t able to do previously.
Another huge addition to the game is the stat system. Like I said above the more you do something the better you become at it. If you are strong enough you can learn new fighting moves, if you spend more time driving cars will be easier to handle, etc. The stat system also goes beyond that, if your respect stat is high you can recruit more gang members, if you are dating someone there will be a progress stat, once enough progress is made you’ll end up going into her house for ‘coffee’. Respect is hard to earn as well, barely moving even though CJ does some suicidal things for his friends. The stat system keeps track of everything, but at the same time it is also very unobtrussive. Most of the time you will not even notice when a stat goes up or down except for a small notice in the upper left hand of the screen notifying you that something changed. If something changes enough the game will give you a text box letting you know what that means for you. For most of the storyline you don’t even have to worry about the stats, they’ll just go up naturally as you progress through the game. Sometimes you will have to do something to build a stat up such as your swimming stat to increase your lung capacity, but it is generally an easy thing to accomplish and something you generally only need to do once.
The best part about this is that you play the game how you want to. If you want to have better car handling you can go to the driving school anytime to take care of that. Want more fighting move or to spar? Go to the gym, work out and get trained. These aren’t really nessicary things to do but it’s a great addition to customize your character even farther and helps a player really immerse themselves farther into the game.
There isn’t any incentive or reward for playing the story missions over again once you beat the game, however I plan on replaying the game again sometime already because the the story is interesting enough that I wouldn’t mind going through it again, and there are some of the mission from the first and second halves of the game that I’d do again just because they were that much fun to play.
Outside of main game there are a huge amount of mini games, side missions, hidden items missions, exploring, two player modes, in addition to just causing tons of havok that’s worth coming back to the game over and over again.
How can you be very original in the 5th game in a series? Rockstar shows us how. GTA took concepts like property ownership and plans from Vice City and turned them into fully realized options, they added DDR, dating sim, RPG like stats, gang wars, picture taking, swimming, stealth and so much more and fit it into the GTA universe. Not only that but they made it seem like natural additions into the GTA world. San Andreas maybe the most ambitious game this year in terms of size and successful blending of different genres and new features. I have never seen a sequel stay so true to the original gameplay while still cramming so much new content in.
I haven’t been able to put it down, otherwise this review might’ve gone up even earlier. Hell I haven’t done much other than play this game. They should slap an FDA warning on the case warning about the sleepless nights this game is likely to cause people. As explained earlier the missions are not only more exciting but also more diverse, as with the story you want to know, no you got to know what will happen next, and you feel like you’ve accomplished something after some of the longer missions.
Digital crack, thy name is San Andreas.
This is where the game will turn some people away. The game is graphic, vulgar, and I love it. However it’s obviously not a game for younger gamers or for the overly sensitive. It doesn’t end there either as some people who may have liked the previous two games might not enjoy this game’s gansta style. Admittedly the game does move past revolving exclussively around CJ’s gang after you leave Los Santos, there is still a good 6-8 hours of drive-by’s, helping wanna be rappers, and a lot of the use of the N word that might turn away gamers who aren’t into that sort of thing and do not want to sit through that many hours of it.
There is so much content to the game. All of the old R3 vehicle missions are back with some new additions, for those who do not know what those are you can do side Taxi, Fire Truck, Ambulance missions and more by hopping into one of these vehicles and pressing the right thumbstick down. There is a multiplayer option this year, when stepping onto an icon you can press start on a second controller to do either 2 player rampage missions or just driving around, however you have to stay on the same screen. Mini games such as basketball and rip off old arcade games, poperty ownership missions, collection missions, races, spraypainting your gangs tag (which has replaced the 100 hidden packages, and fits with the theme of the game better), ecetera, ecetera.
That’s just scratching the surface, so far in San Andreas it’s not so much of what you can do as what can’t you do. Most of it is just extra content, beating the story will only leave you at around 50% completion, and that alone is over 20 hours of gameplay.
Overall Score: 93/100
Final Score: 9.5/10