If there’s one gaming series that has a tough time staying under the mainstream radar, it’s Grand Theft Auto. Each iteration in the series is accompanied by one massive controversy or another, and while there’s no doubt they’ve boosted sales, they have also branded the GTA games as innocence-robbing murder simulators. Between the general upset over the lead character’s ability to invade people’s homes and the whole “Hot Coffee” fiasco, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is no exception to this rule. The kick is that, controversy aside, San Andreas rerepresents a refinement of all GTA gameplay before it and offers a truly excellent experience.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas kicks off in the early ‘90s as the street-smart Carl Johnson leaves Liberty City and comes back home to Los Santos to attend his mother’s funeral. His brother and fellow gang members are none too excited to see him, however, given that he skipped town five years prior following the gang-related death of his brother. What’s more, Officers Tenpenny and Pulaski, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Penn, pick up Carl on his way home and essentially tell him that they’re framing him for the murder of another cop. This forces Carl to spend much of the opening stages of the game attempting to work his way back into his family and friends’ good graces while keeping the corrupt Tenpenny happy by doing his dirty work. Without giving away any of the many plot twists, Carl eventually finds himself crisscrossing the entire state of San Andreas in an attempt to save his family and clear his name.
It all starts off in Los Santos, however, which is a relatively faithful videogame version of Los Angeles if there ever was one. From the ghettoes to the multi-layered overpasses and the Hollywood Hills-style celebrity mansions, the game takes our silver screen impressions of the city and transforms them into a living, breathing thing. Carl will also find himself taking road trips to San Fierro, a rolling-hills-and-waterfronts reproduction of San Francisco, while Las Venturas acts as the game’s resident recreation of Las Vegas, complete with a main drag littered with towering hotel/casinos and neon lights. Exploring these cities is enough of a thrill in itself, but when you factor in the wild forests and deserts of the San Andreas countryside, you come to realize what a colossal sandbox Rockstar has handed to you. What’s more, by pulling the main character away from the confines of a single city and into the countryside and neighbouring towns for the first time, the GTA experience takes on an almost epic feel, allowing you to feel that there’s more just beyond your street, your neighbourhood, your city. It’s a brilliant move that arguably defines the San Andreas experience as a whole, and stands as its most notable achievement.
That being said, many of the Grand Theft Auto standards are still in full effect. You still spend most of your time carjacking and shooting, so players looking for a radically different gameplay dynamic will have to keep looking. No, San Andreas is very much a dyed-in-the-wool GTA title, but there are enough significant differences this time around to maintain the interest of those who beat the original GTA 3 and Vice City to death.
For starters, San Andreas takes the RPG-lite system found lurking under the hood of Vice City and brings it to the forefront while fleshing it out in terrifically engaging ways. As an example, your proficiency with each and every individual weapon is tracked and ranked, and as you get more practice with each one, your skill in its use goes up. Use a machine pistol well enough and long enough, and you’ll be able to dual-wield and reload like a beast. Similarly, you also have stats related to swimming, which is another great ability given to the player. Do it more and more often, and you’ll be able to swim underwater for longer periods of time without having to come up for air. While the latter doesn’t really affect gameplay in any major way apart from one mission in particular, it’s something that allows the player much greater freedom to explore the world.
What does affect gameplay in a more tangible way are the stats related to strength, stamina and yes, even body fat. Put simply, Carl needs to eat. Not a lot, mind you, but if you don’t feed him every couple of days from any of the chicken or pizza places littered around San Andreas, he’ll become skinnier and skinnier, thus making him almost useless in hand-to-hand combat. On the flip side, feeding him too much will gradually turn him into a tubby ball of goo that won’t be able to jog more than a few feet without starting to huff and puff. To make Carl all that he can be, you’ll need to balance his occasional need for food with the occasional visit to a gym where he’ll be able to use workout bikes and weights. This helps to gradually bump his strength, which allows him to do considerably more damage in fistfights, and his stamina which enables him to run further and further without having to stop and gasp for air. And as aside, Carl is capable of climbing onto and over things, giving him much greater ability to explore his environment than previous GTA anti-heroes.
For those who want to make Carl a much stronger reflection of what they’d like to see, players are also able to take Carl to barbers and tattoo artists to give him a new ‘do and some ink. Similarly, numerous clothing stores are more than happy to take your ill-gotten cash in exchange for any number of pants, shirts, shoes, hats, shades and jewelry, which allow you to outfit Carl any which way you like, with hundreds of possible clothing combinations. This means that you can have anything from a buff, bare-chested, tattooed and cargo-pants-wearing Carl running around with gold chains around his neck, to a three-hundred-pound Carl wearing nothing but some tighty-whities and some Groucho Marx nose-glasses. It’s an interesting addition to the series that allows die-hard players to invest as much time customizing their avatar as they’d like, while those who want a more casual experience won’t suffer too much for letting it all slide.
While the now-standard ambulance, firetruck and police side missions all make a return appearance, a new one joins their ranks in the form of home invasions. Hop in a cube van, wait until 6 p.m. and hit the special mission button, and you’re all set to start your night job as a burglar. This doesn’t mean you’re free to start looting just any old house, mind you. No, you’ve got to cruise around different residential neighbourhoods in an effort to find places that are appropriately highlighted as being “open season.” Once you’ve hand-picked a few places, you hop out of your van and into the house, where you’re forced to make use of the game’s new “stealth” system which appears to have been borrowed from Manhunt. If you don’t quietly sneak around, you’ll wake up the owners, who’ll call the cops and leave you with a multi-star alert once you leave the building. This means that you have to take your time and slowly wander throughout the house as you collect TVs, stereos, gaming systems and more, all one at a time, and return them to the back of your van before heading back in to pick up the next item. The other catch is that you have until early the next morning, so you have a time limit on your looting, forcing you to pick and choose which things you want rather than just stealing everything wholesale. Looting houses in richer neighbourhoods often nets you more expensive stuff, which results in a bigger payoff when you hock the stuff at the end of the mission. It’s an interesting addition, and although it’s slightly prone to some abuse and isn’t worth the time investment the further you progress through the game, it certainly helps to flesh out the feeling of having access to a wide-open, living world.
With San Andreas, Rockstar goes back to the concept of gang warfare, an idea that originated in GTA 2. From the earliest stages of the game, you’re shown that your neighbourhood gang is at war, and that people from opposing gangs will happily gun you down if they see you wandering their turf. This makes running missions or wandering around certain areas a bit of a welcome challenge, as you try and hide from rival gang members, or as you might be forced to make a mad dash across yards and over fences in an attempt to flee. This doesn’t mean you’re helpless, however, as you’re also able to use influence earned via missions and gang killings to form your own small posse. Eventually, you’ll be able to load up a car full of friends and take a drive through enemy territory, with your buddies leaning out the window, Uzis blazing. At one point, you’re even able to start taking over territory for your own gang by storming into certain stretches of turf, mowing down a set number of rival gang members, and then defending yourself against various waves of enemies. It’s really satisfying to take over Los Santos piece by piece, though occasionally strange bugs crop up, severely complicating your task. For instance, gang members will spawn at the edge of the contested area and make their way towards you. Every once in a while, however, they’ll run in the opposite direction, forcing you to leave the contested area to kill them and thus “win” the territory. The problem is that cars vanish once a gang war starts, leaving you to follow on foot, and once you’ve left a contested area for a set amount of time, the area resets and you lose. Since tracking down enough gang members to kill to start the gang war can sometimes take a painfully long amount of time, things can be a little more frustrating than they need to be. It’s also particularly annoying to have to keep rushing back across town to defend your hard-won turf from enemy gang attacks, though you can also cheat those by entering and then exiting a building. All in all, however, it’s a terrific if not slightly flawed addition that provides yet another level of depth to an already huge world.
As the running theme in San Andreas seems to be of adding and expanding, it’s probably not totally surprising to see that the “hidden package” system has been drastically expanded as well. The packages themselves have been replaced with different systems that are specific to each area of San Andreas, reflecting the flavour of that area. Los Santos features 100 gang tags, which is nothing but graffiti that enemy gangs have sprayed on buildings throughout the city. Spraying your own gang tag overtop of it “claims” the tag, leaving you with one less to search for. San Fierro has photographic opportunities, where you use an in-game camera to zoom in on specific city landmarks, which can be identified by a spinning photo icon that’s only viewable through the camera lens. As a result, they tend to be a little more challenging to find than the gang tags, since they’re not out in plain view, leaving you to dash around town, constantly pressing the camera to your face. The fact that whatever pictures you take, be it the opportunity shots or not, are saved in your GTA folder is a nice touch. Las Venturas has you collecting horseshoes, which also serve to boost your luck while playing any of the gambling games in that city. Finally, there are oysters, which you’ll find in bodies of water throughout the state. It’s a staggering amount of hidden items to look for, and find them all seems almost impossible without the aid of a FAQ or hint guide, especially if you factor in the numerous hidden jumps that you need to find and use in order to earn the fabled 100% completion rating. Nevertheless, it gives fans of the game even more excuses to while away the hours, which can only be a good thing.
Additionally, players may now take to the streets on bicycles, which sounds much more gimmicky than it actually is. Repeatedly tapping the walk key will make Carl pump the pedals, with each tap setting the bike slightly off-balance as Carl shifts his weight into the motion. By puttering around on a bike, Carl can maneuver more easily through traffic and alleyways while still performing drive-bys. Carl can also perform jumps, and with enough time and practice, he’ll practically be able to clear a city bus in a single bound. Tearing around a major city on a bicycle is can be great deal of fun, and the only major complain to be found here is the same one that could be applied to the rest of the game, and that’s the questionable keyboard controls.
On the PS2, exploring San Andreas on a bicycle was tremendously entertaining in large part because the controls were relatively fluid. Adjusting the analog stick ever so slightly would allow you to fine-tune your driving, which is important when you’re zapping along at high speed on something that’s accident-prone. Those who wish to do the same on the PC will have a much tougher time of it if they’re not using a gamepad of some kind, because the keyboard controls often make for a much jumpier and more sudden type of directional adjustment. This isn’t a problem when you’re on foot, as the mouse/keyboard combo works great for hoofing it down sidewalks and over fences. When you’re on a motorbike or something that requires a more careful touch, however, you’ll find yourself slamming into buildings and the rear ends of cars until you learn to somehow compensate for the control deficiencies. These problems are most obvious when it comes time to fly helicopters and try to pass the various missions in the plot-necessary Flight School in the dusty desert outside of Las Venturas. While it was an obstacle in the PS2 version, flying anything is downright nailbiting in the PC version, unless of course you have a gamepad. As a result, it’s difficult not to want to shy away from using any kind of plane or chopper unless you have to, which is a shame in a game that features as diverse and expansive a world as this.
The PC version’s camera is at fault for other significant control issues which may or may not ruin the experience for those who spent endless hours with the PS2 version. The primary problem with this aspect is that, unlike the PS2 version, the camera lags somewhat. Instead of maintaining a strict, behind-the-back style perspective, the camera will maintain a set “degree” angle, meaning that turning rapidly will find you staring at the driver’s side of the vehicle until you wait long enough or manually adjust the camera while you’re driving. As with the touchy controls, this is something that will haunt you until you learn to compensate, because the vast majority of the game features high-speed chases and fast, sharp turns. As a result, you’ll spend much more time than you’d like turning incredibly quickly into intersections only to discover seconds later that you’re a half-moment away from slamming into traffic. It’s frustrating beyond belief until you learn to cope, and it’s a shame that there’s no way to make the camera “stick” more to the back of the vehicles. The twitchiness of keyboard controls and the lagginess of the camera easily stand as the PC version’s two greatest faults, and render San Andreas somewhat of a disappointment at times.
The one area in which the PC controls are unquestionably superior to that of the console versions – apart from the on-foot portions – is with regards to aiming. Whereas the console versions force you to use a combination of a slow-moving manual cursor system and an auto-cycle aiming system, the PC’s mouse controls are ideal for keeping yourself alive during gunfights. This time around, dying in hail of bullets means that you weren’t good enough to stay alive, rather than laying the blame on some sort of deficiency in the control system. The only hitch here is that one-shot-kill headshots are now so simple to dish out that some portions almost feel a little too easy as you can storm through the game delivering virtually nothing but. Still, given how challenging some portions of the game can be, a fluid and responsive aiming system is definitely welcome.
The graphical aspect of San Andreas isn’t all that improved over its predecessors in a technical sense, in that the textures are still somewhat chunky in spots and prone to clipping at times. On an artistic level, however, one has to admire the skill with which Rockstar has captured the visual spirit of stereotypical Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Not only are pedestrians different from area to area, but each region has a distinct appearance that suits it perfectly. There’s no mistaking the gritty streets of Los Santos with the more laid-back and hilly architecture of San Fierro, for example. The jump to the PC has allowed for some more details, such as being able to clearly read signs and billboards, which is a nice touch. What’s the best aspect of the platform switch is the fact that PC users are able to adjust the draw distance to nearly ridiculous levels. Doing so dishes out a bit of a framerate hit, and pushing the distance too far will enable you to nearly see from one end of the state to the other, but a happy medium can finally be found. The difference is immediately obvious, as you’re able to see the industrial surroundings in the distance as you wander the cul-de-sac outside your mother’s former home, truly making you feel as though you’re not exactly in the greatest neighbourhood available. Animations are also a bit chunky in spots, though they’ve been improved enough so as to be passable. Carl doesn’t take carjacking lightly, as he’ll reach in and punch or kick the driver before throwing him to the pavement. Swimming animations aren’t quite as slick as they could be, but all in all, the graphical package for the PC is definitely worth the trouble.
Much the same could be said for San Andreas’ audio component, which has always been the high point of the last few Grand Theft Auto titles. The voice acting is, as always, positively stellar. The aforementioned Sam Jackson and Chris Penn are classic in their roles as dirty cops, and James Woods is equally fantastic as a mysterious agent from some unnamed government organization. As with the past couple of GTAs, appearances from other big names are not uncommon, with San Andreas using the vocal talents of Peter Fonda, Charlie Murphy, David Cross, Ice T, The Game and MC Eiht from Compton’s Most Wanted, the latter being a particularly inspired touch, given the game’s early ‘90s rap feel. Carl Johnson is especially well-acted by relative unknown Chris Bellard or Young Maylay, who manages to bring a certain likeable humanity to his character, despite his propensity for massive criminal acts.
As always, the game’s music is the strongest portion of the game, featuring some of the most memorable and classic musical elements of the early ‘90s. With a whopping 11 radio stations to choose from as you’re driving around San Andreas, there’s never any shortage of material to listen to. In keeping with the rap theme, there are both a classic hip-hop and modern hip-hop stations, and between the two, you can listen to perennial genre classics from Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Dr. Dre and Eazy E. You can listen to Foghat, CCR and Billy Idol on the classic rock station, while the alternative station features Ozzy Osbourne, Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine. The list of truly great music goes on and on, and to list all the classics present here would take quite some time. Suffice to say that the music is arguably better than what was to be found in Vice City (though I’m no fan of ‘80s music, so there you go), and if you’re not happy with what the game has to offer, you can always import your own MP3s into the Track Player station. Special mention should also be made of the various DJs. Each station is manned by an important figure from that era, which means that you’ll find Axl Rose doing a deadpan DJ on the classic rock station, while George Clinton runs the funk station. It’s yet another brilliant touch that rounds out the experience perfectly.
The only truly significant problem I experienced is one that was initially horrifying, and has since devolved into a mere annoyance. After playing for a day or two, the game simply wouldn’t boot up, and despite my best efforts of reinstallation, uninstallation of CD-burning programs and other such copy protection measures which prevent other games from booting up. Nothing worked, and it wasn’t until I dug through endless pages of forum posts by equally frustrated players that I discovered it was all due to the settings file that the game creates to track all the changes you make to the default configuration. The only way to get the game to run again after that point is to delete the setting file and run the game again, which effectively erases all the changes you’ve made. Since I change a number of items from draw distance and volume to keyboard mapping, having to constantly delete the setting file is a highly unnecessary pain, and the fact that I had to hunt through forum posts for hours to find the solution that would allow me to run the game is simply terrible. What’s more, it’s rather unfortunate that Rockstar has yet to put out a patch that corrects known show-stopping errors such as this.
One added bonus worth pointing out is the game’s packaging. Rather than a standard box, the packaging consists of a small, high quality hardcover book with a DVD-style slipcover. Opening the book reveals a fold-out map/poster, as well as a 60-page booklet that reads like a San Andreas travelogue, complete with city descriptions, where to eat, shop and more. The game DVD is hooked onto a small nub on the inside back cover, which sits nicely and unobtrusively behind the rest of the guide. It’s one of the best PC packaging setups I’ve ever seen, and it’s one that more publishers should take to heart.
When it all comes together, San Andreas is about creating as close to a state-sized living, breathing sandbox as gamers have seen. There’s nothing quite like tearing across some barren, wooded countryside on an ATV that’s playing Tom Petty’s Running Down a Dream while your psychotic girlfriend rides behind you, firing a submachine gun at a gang of hicks that you’re chasing. It’s a strangely beautiful moment, and it’s one that San Andreas is full of, if you’re willing to take the reins and explore the game. It’s also important to note that things happen with or without your input: police chases causing numerous crashes and deaths can speed past you as you go about your business, muggings and carjackings can happen right in front of you, and so on. It’s this kind of pseudo-dynamic environment that really helps to make you feel as though you’re just a part of the world rather than the other way around. It also helps that the very nature of the game allows for some truly wild events to take place. For instance, I was in a small rural town and wanted desperately to hit the road, so I waited for a pick-up truck to stop at a nearby intersection. I ran up on the driver’s side, tore the driver out of her seat and flung her to the road…into the path of an oncoming cop car. It was a complete accident that ended up having one very angry policeman chasing me through two cities and across half the state, and is just a small example of the “you never know” kind of events that lend San Andreas so much of its charm.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas certainly isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it offers such an overwhelmingly massive and epic experience that it’s easy to forgive its flaws. The best elements of the prior GTA titles have been selected and refined for use here, and a colossal slew of additions have been thrown in to show that San Andreas is much more than a Boyz ‘n the Hood-flavored expansion. Each of the game’s three cities feel as big and distinctive as the whole of Vice City or Liberty City, and each allows for endless hours of exploration and destruction. The addition of the RPG stat system, the gang system as well as the ability to customize your physical appearance to a wonderfully ridiculous degree are but a handful of the large number of changes made to the GTA formula, and they almost universally work to make the game a truly memorable experience. The changes from the PS2 version for the PC, such as expanded draw distance and customizable user tracks, make the game worth picking up for those who have already plunked hundreds of hours into the console edition of the saga. Those who haven’t given the game a shot yet will find the PC version as good a place to start as any, and anyone who’s even remotely interested in free-form, sandbox chaos should give it a shot. It’s intensely sloppy in spots but it’s also deliriously entertaining and brilliant, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas easily stands as the series’ crowning jewel.