Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Quality or quantity? A short but good game or a long but average one? A bunch of tasty apples or a orchard of mediocre ones? Well, how about quality and quantity? Wouldn’t that be great? Rockstar has the same idea.
The fifth game in the Grand Theft Auto follows the story of Carl Johnson – or ‘CJ’ – in the 1990s West Coast state of San Andreas. An island containing three separate cities and the countryside between them, you’ll visit parodies of Los Angeles (Los Santos), San Francisco (San Fierro) and Las Vegas (Las Venturas). Returning to Los Santos from GTA III‘s Liberty City to attend his mother’s funeral, CJ meets up with both the corrupt police and his old Grove Street gang members, dragging him back into the criminal underworld of the city. Drawing inspiration from the ghetto and gangsta films of the early ’90s, the game sees you setting about restoring your gang’s reputation and standing within the city, rising up the ranks and gaining respect while you do so.
What immediately sets this GTA apart from both its predecessors and its competition is its sheer size. Vice City was big, but San Andreas is absolutely colossal. The actual game world in which we play out CJ’s story is over five times larger than Vice City. What’s more is that there’s even more to do outside of the main missions, making this simply one of the largest games ever created. Not only does it extend over vast rural and urban areas, but the whole landscape is packed with more people, more weapons, more vehicles, more interactive items and more side quests than ever before. Bored of the main missions? Then why not play basketball, pool, videogames (how ironic is that?), go parachuting or basejumping, take a scenic flight around the countryside, go to the gym, bet on the races, date your girlfriend, modify your car, hunt for hidden items, earn a wage as a taxi driver, start a turf war, go dancing, take up photography, buy some new clothes, have a hair cut… The list is endless. I just pity those who have to write the strategy guide for this thing.
The game world is packed with so many new features that I dare not even touch on them in much detail for fear of ranting on forever. What’s probably more important are the new additions to the core gameplay and how they affect the way we play GTA. First on the list is a new dynamic nature of your character. Instead of just staying as the same old guy throughout, CJ has a set of simple characteristics such as respect, muscle, weapon skill, sexual attractiveness and so on. Similar to Fable, you actions affect these attributes, which can simply viewed with a tap of L1. Respect, for instance, will change the way other gang members see you and their willingness to follow you into battle. Running everywhere will boost your stamina and muscle, while using a car to travel will increase your car driving skill, but will result in you gaining fat. The introduction of factors like the varying weight of CJ could have had us nursing the poor guy all the time, running to the gym after every meal to prevent obesity, but Rockstar have handled it in a way that allows the player to carry on as usual, whilst keeping it noticeable and beneficial. Sure, if you eat a ton of food you’ll be laughed at by everyone, but most of the time it provides a welcome extra layer of progression for the player to follow throughout the game.
After Vice City, Rockstar went away to produce Manhunt, the 3rd person stealth title that became extremely controversial, yet housed some original and stylish touches that have undoubtedly been an influence in San Andreas‘s creation. The shooting system in GTA has been completely overhauled to reproduce the slick method that Manhunt employed. Firstly, the auto-aim is now significantly more accurate, selecting the most obvious threat almost all of the time. The aiming system also allows the player to lock-on to a target, but then move the reticule off and aim manually if needed. There’s a very fine line between a strong auto lock and the freedom of a manual aim, but San Andreas seems to have it dead right. Players can also now crouch when moving and strafe effectively, as the control method changes to one that is more suited to first person shooters when you bring your weapon to bear. The combination of all of these improves the gunplay mechanic dramatically, making for a more flexible and accurate system that you can learn to rely on.
Manhunt‘s influence doesn’t end there though. Stealth play has also been introduced for the first time, almost mimicking Rockstar’s venture into the genre. Creeping up behind someone with a weapon like a knife results in CJ’s hand being raised, with your target’s throat being cut on execution of the move. CJ can also use the shadows to hide from opponents in, again like James Cash in Manhunt. The stealth element isn’t often used and it isn’t as clinical or complicated as other games which focus on gameplay like that, but it does provide yet another way of completing the missions which you’re set.
Other more minor additions include the ability to burgle houses, which is effectively an expansion of the ‘R3’ missions, triggered once a certain type of van is found. The number and variety of weapons has also been improved, while the ability to dual wield some is another welcome addition. Gang turf wars are yet another new feature, allowing you to capture various parts of the game world and claim them as territory for your gang. Each section is fought over is three small engagements, with the land then being occupied by your gang if you survive. Of course, your enemies attempt to take these areas back from time to time, so you’ll have to be aware of the challenges to your empire. What else is worth a mention? While boats return and the ability to swim is introduced for the first time, planes are now fully featured, including fighter jets to accompany those military helicopters that became such a valued prize in Vice City. The AI has been improved again, with your opponents using cover better and the police employing helicopters and motorbikes effectively.
For all the new features that San Andreas introduces, it’s the core GTA gameplay that draws so many people back time and time again. Like its predecessors, it allows the player to progress at their own rate, taking their time to see all of the sights or just going for every mission straight away instead. The series’ trademark elements return along with the superb vehicle handling, while there’s now even more to explore and discuss with friends and colleagues about what you’ve discovered. The missions are well thought out and imaginative, making use of the huge playground that is San Andreas. The variety of the action on offer sets it apart from the competition and ensures that you never know what’s coming next.
However, San Andreas isn’t perfect and to be honest, nor should we expect it to be. One tiny nuisance that could potentially annoy is the amount of back tracking you have to do when you fail a mission. Instead of allowing you to quickly reload at the start of the mission, you have to load up your game again (if you want to retain your weapons) and then find your way back to the start point. Why they can’t just allow you to restart at the beginning is beyond me. Some of the harder missions will have you kicking and cursing, turning off your PS2 and swearing never to play it again. Yet we all know that the next day you’ll be back, trying to complete that mission again and again until you do. Such is the lure of GTA‘s gameplay that you’ll be drawn back and forgive it for your absence. In its defense, San Andreas does offer more to do if you can’t complete a certain mission and because your character stats develop, the next time you attempt it you’ll probably be better at driving, shooting and so on. Frustration can lead to all games being left on the shelf for eternity, but GTA‘s charm and variety will just entice you back time and time again.
Visually, GTA has always been striking while never appearing to be revolutionary. The same applies to San Andreas, whose cartoon-styled rendering is immediately recognisable to anyone who has played the last two outings. While on the face of it the actual graphics don’t appear to have been altered much since Vice City, the difference is really noticeable when you begin to explore San Andreas. The draw distance has been increased up to four times in some places and there are no loading times between separate areas of the map, which I might remind you is over five times larger than Vice City. The general detail and quality of textures has also been increased, but admittedly it isn’t quite the smoothest looking game around. Some have mentioned that the frame rate is quite erratic, but I’ve never even noticed this and it seems to run at a healthy 30 frames per second almost all of the time. Where San Andreas does impress is in its artistic flair. The PS2 doesn’t allow it to create huge environment and extremely polished graphics, so Rockstar have injected the game with gallons of style which sets it firmly apart from the competition. San Andreas is full of rich colours and visual effects, giving each part of the landscape a unique flavour that you don’t get in similar games. No, it doesn’t look as good as Halo, Far Cry or whatever, but for a PS2 game it’s probably the best balance of size and polish that you could expect.
When it comes to audio though, San Andreas excels way beyond almost all games, featuring a huge range of sound effects, music and voice acting. The radio stations return, this time with a mixture of ’90s hip-hop, rap and rock. There’s also the obligatory chat show station which is undoubtedly contains some of the best humour ever committed to a videogame, plus adverts and news forecasts across all of the channels. The voice acting is the icing on the gargantuan cake that is San Andreas, featuring the likes of Samuel L Jackson and Chris Penn. From idle pedestrians all the way up to main characters, the dialogue is superbly done and always varied, adding layer upon layer of atmosphere and tone to the game.
San Andreas‘ replay value is really immeasurable. You could probably finish all of the missions in about 10 to 20 hours, but then you’d miss the point of GTA; it’s a world for you to explore, play with and enjoy. The game offers so much in such vast quantities that I wouldn’t be surprised to read 100 hours as its typical lifespan. Most people probably play about 5 hours a week, maybe more, so you’re looking at months of gameplay for only double the price of the 2 hour DVD film. Playing San Andreas is an investment of your time, but it’s a game that you can play in little short bursts or long sittings and ultimately pays dividends in terms of pure entertainment.
You know, it’s hard to believe that San Andreas is actually this good. Sure, there’s some occasional backtracking and it doesn’t look like Far Cry, but these negative points are like a couple of rubber ducks facing a tsunami of positive ones; they just pale into insignificance. Rockstar constantly go the extra mile to provide an entertaining and fundamentally different videogaming experience. GTA doesn’t just take standard elements and execute them well, but innovates and pushes the boundaries of what games can do. Take humour for example; hardly any other games even bother using it, but Rockstar thrives in it and makes San Andreas an altogether more enjoyable game to watch and play. GTA is the series that those who are “too cool to play games” play and as much as that’s a clichÈ, it’s so true. “Games are for geeks”, someone said to me the other day, to which I responded, “but what about GTA?” The simple reply was “Well, that’s different”.
Rockstar have taken a tried and tested formula and expanded on it in every way that they could think of. It has such an enormous amount to offer (did I even mention the two player option?) and carries everything off with such confidence and style that it’s hard to fault. The GTA series has always been excellent, but San Andreas takes it to a new level. But then again, there was never any doubt, was there?