GTA4 is almost upon us! When people are weighing up the pros and cons of the new game, the standard they’ll be holding it to will be the pièce de résistance of the series so far. A sandbox game so large it has airlines that travel between its three separate cities; 2004’s epic Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
It’s 1992. Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson has been living in Liberty City for five years when he gets a call from his home city of Los Santos to say his mother has been shot and killed. CJ flies home for the funeral, and between the airport and his childhood home CJ’s cab is pulled over and he’s arrested by a familiar group of cops led by the malicious Sergeant Tenpenny. Tenpenny tells CJ he intends to frame him for the recent murder of a police officer – so recent it hasn’t been reported yet. The cops take his money and dump him in the heart of a rival gang’s territory. CJ arrives home with only the small change in his pockets, finds crack being dealt outside his mother’s house, his old gang – The Grove Street Families – splintered into weaker factions, and his friends hostile and untrusting after his long absence. The cops warn CJ to stay in Los Santos until they need him, so he begins to straighten things out with his friends, and in the process change things for the better on Grove Street.
System: PS2, PC (Windows), Xbox
Genre: Action, Driving, Shooter
Release dates: October 26th 2004 (USA), October 29th 2002 (EURO)
Players: 1, (2 for short periods)
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Rating: M for Mature with Blood, Strong Language, Violence
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While GTA3 used cunning design to pack a lot of city into a small space, San Andreas has no such constriction. In reproducing Los Angeles, San Francisco, some mid-western US style hill country, a portion of the Colorado desert and Las Vegas, Rockstar put together a game six times as big as Vice City.
Watch a San Andreas trailer from 2004:
What Can You Do?
If you were a kid at a playground, you’d rate an actual sandbox on the number and quality of its toys, right? If it was just sand, that would be…sort of dull. You can make a pile and you can dig a hole, but beyond that you’re going to have to stretch the imagination to get more out of the experience. In the years since GTA3 debuted, games with a free-roaming element had sprung up all over. Many took inspiration from different aspects of the GTA formula, but few took matters beyond a basic variation on ‘drive from A to B, shoot stuff at B, return to A, possibly pursued by cops / gangsters / supernatural flaming dragons’. The free-roaming aspects were merely scenery…wider linear levels, if you like. When you absolutely have to go from A to B because there’s nothing else to do, it doesn’t help if you can get there via the rest of the alphabet in any order you like – that’s still linear gameplay. Games like Mafia, Driv3r, The Getaway and True Crime: Streets of L.A. all drew from the GTA wellspring with varying degrees of success, but none matched the complexity of the game environments or level of interactivity. So it was expected that when the next game in the Grand Theft Auto series arrived, it would be this area that would once again set it apart from its imitators. I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say that expectations were universally exceeded.
Grove Street: Where It All Begins
Finding Your Feet
San Andreas doesn’t open up all at once. Tenpenny’s request that you stay in Los Santos was not an idle one – step foot outside the greater city limits and the long arm of the law will come to pluck you back, conscious or not. Los Santos is enormous, a 1992 faux-Los Angeles charged with just as many social problems and gang-based violence as the real thing. Luxurious mansions on the hills above the town overlook the glitz of theater-packed strips and ghettos and slums. A ‘VINEWOOD’ sign echoes the iconic ‘HOLLYWOOD’ landmark.
CJ is fully customizable character. Within walking distance of Grove Street (hahaha walking) there is a barber’s salon, a tattoo parlor, a clothes store, a pizza restaurant and a gym. The barber’s store allows you to change CJ’s hair and beard style. The tattoo parlor allows you to give CJ any of a large gallery of tattoos. Clothes stores allow you to build up a huge wardrobe that will be available in all your safehouses. CJ has to eat to recharge and maintain his health, and he’s urged to develop some muscle to gain respect, and this is where the gym comes in. Eating right and working out increases stamina and strength, and the gym’s resident fighters are happy to give lessons, meaning CJ can run further and punch harder – all good things when CJ is looking to get Grove Street Families back on the map of Los Santos. You can buff him up to bodybuilder proportions, or fill CJ up on pizza and never work out, and his fat levels will go up, his stamina will go down, and you’ll see his shape change as he gets fatter, and his battlecries will change; “Fat fool got a gun, bitch!”. With these huge additions to the series, San Andreas has very strong RPG flavor, but it’s optional – the leaner more muscular CJ makes the missions easier, but fat CJ can still get things done.
Almost everything CJ does in San Andreas is rated on a system of skill scales. All the scales start at zero, but as he drives, cycles and shoots his experience means new skills become available. Extensive driving leads to more stability, better control and a few bonus moves like revving starts, and all the vehicles become more easily controlled as CJ’s experience grows. Shooting skill is worked out on a per-weapon basis, so CJ will start using a 9mm pistol and his skill will improve, but he’ll still be a novice his first time with an Uzi. Increased skill leads to bonuses like dual-wielding and the ability to strafe. As the game progresses these abilities unlock and add depth and complexity to the gameplay at a steady and easily-learned pace.
To begin with, CJ is single, but his clothes, figure and the car that he’s driving all affect his Sex Appeal, and this affects comments he receives from people in the street, and progress with his girlfriend or girlfriends. The first potential girlfriend in Los Santos is introduced through a story mission, but others through out San Andreas are incidentally introduced. To make progress with a girlfriend CJ needs to take her on regular dates to places she likes and feels comfortable in. Close girlfriends can unlock bonuses for CJ, including use of their car or the services of their businesses, but these avenues of gameplay are completely optional. The enormously controversial ‘Hot Coffee’ mini-game involved a rhythm-based button-sequence challenge to simulate sex after a series of successful dates. It was removed during development, but for some reason remained on the game disc and was still accessible in the PC version of the game with a hack or patch.
They Ain’t Delivering Pizza
Sitting atop the character property scales is respect. When CJ arrives in Los Santos he has zero respect, but the more missions he completes, the more respect he gains, both with his own gang, and with others. Greater respect leads to the ability to enlist larger numbers of gang members to assist you with missions and assaults on rival gangs.
Beyond the interactive elements that affect CJ directly, there are an enormous set of features that exist as side missions, side…games… call them what you will, it’s all Stuff You Can Do. Talking about all of them would fill a small book, but here’s one you can access right from the start. At the end of Grove Street is a bar. Inside and off to one side a hustler stands next to a pool table and a couple of videogame machines. If you want to ‘make it interesting’ you can bet and play pool. While the look and feel of San Andreas doesn’t bear up too well to such close-range focus, the mechanics of playing pool are complete – variable viewing angles, a shot indicator, analog strike strength, and you can even apply spin by controlling where you hit the cue ball. There are fully-fledged pool games on the PS2 that are less well thought out than this. Over in the corner, the games cabinets feature fully playable 90s style arcade games. Running past that again, that’s you, the game player, playing a video game and controlling a character on the screen in a virtual world, and making him play a video game. The recursiveness is almost delicious. These are just two possibilities, and the full spectrum of minigames includes off-track betting, shooting ranges, advanced driving school, dancing at clubs or the beach, gambling at casinos with stakes from $5 to $1 million, flight school, trucking missions, train-diving missions, martial arts, illegal street racing, popping low-riders on their hydraulics, basketball, boat school, vehicle import/export, photography, graffiti tagging, hidden ‘packages’ in the form of oysters (which improve your Sex Appeal) and horseshoes in Las Venturas (improve your gambling luck), tricking out cars with nitrous, rims and paintjobs…I’m sure I’ve missed some activities out. There is a lot to do here.
I Know You Got Soul
Weapons and equipment in San Andreas are hugely varied, and crop up from unusual locations. Some are mission-based, others can be found lying around. You’ll play with knives, clubs, pistols, machine guns of every stripe, shotguns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, and a bunch of equipment picked up and used in the same manner as the weapons – night vision goggles (with more than a nod to the Splinter Cell games), parachutes, flowers ( a ‘weapon’ that can be used on your girlfriends) and much more. The weapons usage mimics the lock-on and cycle through targets system of previous games, but with the addition of the controllable camera, the problems with being attacked from behind are improved upon. There’s also a smooth transition to a manual aim system if you move the weapon away from the locked target, meaning firing can be a combination of lock-on and then precision aiming.
No, You May Not ‘Pimp My Ride’
…And They’re Off
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a long game. You’ll pass from Los Santos into the open hills and forest of the back country, into progressive San Fierro, into the sandstone stacks of the dusty desert and from there into Las Venturas. Each stage has its own set of missions to complete, from many different sources as the plot progresses, and no two missions are the same. You’ll race, shoot, fly, parachute, escape from the police, speed on boats, break into secret government bases, smuggle, become a cat-burglar, and even experience the adrenalin-pumping thrill of valet parking.
There are hundreds of missions, and with that many, it’s not surprising that not all of them are directly related to the plot, but even the main line of jobs veers off into unexpected directions at times. When you find yourself gunning a stripped-down All Terrain Vehicle through the desert at sunset to infiltrate a secret government base ‘Area 69’ and steal a research project based on alien technology, you’ll wonder just how you managed to get there from the very serious beginning of the game when your character was coming home for a funeral. But I can assure you, while the game careens off into the ridiculous, it certainly comes back again for the big finish.
The level-building philosophy that brought you the faux-Miami of Vice City has been applied across the whole of the San Andreas. Los Santos is a moody, surly-skied Los Angeles, San Fierro is a cheerily progressive San Francisco, and Las Venturas is just as decadent and neon-crazed as Las Vegas. The game cities share geographical layout and monuments with their inspirational parents – San Fierro has its own version of the Golden Gate Bridge, and ‘The Big Pointy Building’ mimics San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid…but only the game version handily includes a parachute for spontaneous base-jumping. Las Venturas has its own ‘strip’ with garishly decorated casinos, palm trees, hotels in every style you could imagine and a smattering of sex shops. All three cities are modeled so closely on the real-world that they will induce digital Deja-vu when you visit the places that inspired them.
As you progress, you’ll be treated to the marvellously atmospheric radio stations that play in every vehicle in the state; early 90s tunes from big artists. Each city has stations that suit it best – the rap stations feel right on the mean streets of Los Santos, country music ballads will sound better when trying to pull off handbrake turns in a Backcountry tractor, the dance and indie stations evoke the up-to-the-minute scene of San Fierro, and the soul and new-jack swing matches the toupees and casinos of Las Venturas nicely. For some reason the biker-style rock of K-DST ‘The Dust’ always sounds better when piloting a throaty-engined World War 2 era fighter plane through the clouds. That could just be me, though.
That Pollution Sure Is Pretty
While a comparative unknown provides CJ’s excellent voice – Young Maylay – the rest of the cast is star-studded. Tenpenny is voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda plays hippy ‘The Truth’, the rap roots are given some boosting by The Game and Ice-T, 90s indie rock is represented by Shaun Ryder of band The Happy Mondays, and a liberal helping of the voice artists from GTA3 and Vice City make cameo appearances.
Fun Factor: 10
If like playing games, you’ll like San Andreas. If you love games, then you’ll love San Andreas. It’s that simple. For people who aren’t fans of the gratuitous real-world violence aspects of the game, there’s still something for you here, but you’ll be missing out on a lot of unlockable stuff that comes after some cap-popping. There are so many games within this game, and so many ways in which you can interact with the evolving game world, be it with a new vehicle, new suit, new weapon, new plane, new game, new skill, new tactics, new city…there is a lot to play with, and all on whim, so there’s no reason not to have fun. Bored of the mission you’ve tried twice? Pick up a plane and parachute into the desert. Gamble all your money away at roulette. Try some stunts. Look for collectibles…damnit, I’m writing a list again. But seriously, it is hard to write a review for a game this large without devolving into lists. Simply put, there is a lot to play with, and it’s all fun.
At first glance the graphics of San Andreas make up for the crudity of some of its individual elements with its sprawling maps and complexity that approaches real-world levels. But the unprecedented size and complexity is paid for with draw distances which drop to painfully short range at times, and the epic vistas that should have greeted players on their first flights over San Andreas are cruelly obscured by instantly occurring clouds. The moody, atmospheric environment of Los Santos can also occasionally get too gloomy, occluding vital details and making the short draw distances plain – but while this is clearly an issue, Rockstar did some work to make it seem natural – the other cities have different colored graphics-fog – San Fierro’s is a misty white that suits the city on the bay, and Las Venturas’ views are blocked by a sandy desert haze. But the sheer awe-inspiring size of the gameworld belittles all of these difficulties. San Andreas is a visual smorgasbord, a marvelous buffet of playing environments, all of them wonderfully immersive and atmospheric.
Rockstar improve, yet again, on the standard they set themselves. There are more radio stations, with even more hours of top-notch music, with DJ narrative and news that reacts to events in the game as they pass, from the aftermath of the more explosive missions, down to accurate comments on the weather. The voice acting is phenomenal. Non-player characters will stop to chat to each other in the street, and discuss things like the state of the neighborhood or a new local club.
There is a lot of innovation here, overlaid on the tried and triumphant GTA formula. While the role-playing elements of eating, exercise and skill-building could have been an annoyance, the skill-building is integrated fairly seamlessly into the main plotline, the exercise is desirable but optional, and as for food, CJ seems to get by on a meal every couple of days, and a hunger warning pops up with enough notice to get to a restaurant before his health drops too far. So it works out to simply be…extra detail; another layer of verisimilitude on an already engaging and believable game world. The feeling of freedom, already signature of the previous GTA experiences, is unparalleled.
Where the previous games innovated successfully, San Andreas scales them up accordingly. Where they fell down, San Andreas goes some way to remedying the problems – CJ can swim, he can climb, the camera angles can be controlled, the weapons system is less basic, and the game is packed with interior spaces, side missions and minigames. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is GTA3 after three years of continual improvement.
Replay Value: 10
This game is enormous. Finishing San Andreas and choosing to start again from the beginning is a big choice to make. There’s easily a hundred hours of play here, factoring in only a few of the side missions and minigames. For 100% completion you’d be looking at much longer. It’s an epic gaming experience though, and there are so many ways to make your way through it that no two playthroughs will be the same. Which means that putting aside the possibility of being daunted by starting from scratch, you could play this game over and over again and not get tired of it. The game world is so interactive and full of so many choices that you can make, the replay value is immense.
To sum up, the PS2/Xbox era Grand Theft Auto games created and then rode a wave of innovation, continually improving upon and tweaking a winning formula so that while it may have remained familiar, it never got old. To balance increasing size and visual complexity, the geometry remained somewhat blocky and draw distances dropped as the developers pushed the consoles of the time to the limit.
Now, with the PS3 and Xbox 360 offering vastly increased storage spaces and superior graphical power, the stage is set for Rockstar Games to raise their own bar yet again, with Grand Theft Auto IV.
Things Will Be Different
Stay tuned for the videogamesblogger.com review of GTA4!
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* GTA1 and GTA2 are available for free legal download for PC. See the links in our reviews for details.