I’ve had my differences with the Grand Theft Auto
franchise in the past. When it first appeared on the PS2 I applauded the game for its open-ended nature but bashed it for its poor mission structure and buggy nature. Vice City grew on me quite a bit but it was too short and many of the problems that plagued GTA 3 were prevalent throughout the experience. With San Andreas
it seems like the developers were finally able to hammer out most of the bugs, leading to one of this year’s best gaming experiences.
You’re Carl Johnson, a petty thug who left the mean streets of San Andreas five years ago to pursue his dream of becoming a carjacker in Liberty City. At the outset of the game it is learned that his mother has been murdered, forcing him to return to San Andreas to pay his respects. As he arrives at the airport he soon discovers that much has changed in the past five years; his gang no longer owns the streets and crime is rampant at every turn. He then makes it his mission to find out who murdered his mother while restoring some semblance of domination in the name of his gang.
As you enter the game you’ll notice a certain air of familiarity. If you’ve ever played a GTA game you’ll feel right at home in San Andreas
. The control scheme remains virtually unchanged and the only tweaks have been made in the sake of improving the overall feel of the game. You can now cancel a carjack by pressing a button while CJ is in the process of “borrowing” a vehicle. It’s a nice feature for when the game accidentally targets the wrong vehicle. Simply press a button, cancel the animation and move on. You can now move while crouching in order to make yourself a harder target. This is perfect for shootout situations where you need to remain mobile while utilizing coverage. A tweak has been made in the driving mechanism that allows you to control the height of the camera. This is especially useful as it allows you to see over hills and crests that you couldn’t see over before. The last real change comes in the radio station mechanism. Previously the radio had been mapped to one button that allowed you to cycle through the stations. This was effective but it forced you to cycle through all of the stations if you accidentally passed over the one you wanted. In GTA:SA the radio function is mapped to the up and down arrows so that you can manually choose which way to cycle through the stations.
As the game progresses you’ll be treated to some engine-rendered cutscenes that shed some light on the situation. This is both the game’s strong suit and Achilles heel. On the good side this is where all of the franchise’s trademark storytelling comes through to the gamer. These guys are very talented when it comes to developing an engaging story and it holds true in this game. On the downside this is where the engine really begins to show its age. The developers tried to mask this by utilizing some cinematic camera angles but it can’t hide the engine’s deficiencies. All of the models are pretty scrawny and the technology introduced in the Xbox version of the GTA: Double Pack
is missing here. It’s especially disconcerting to see the characters gesture. Their hands are stuck in a perpetual state of “I’m gonna cap your ass” with the trigger finger extending out from the rest of the hand. It’s not detrimental to the overall experience but it takes you out of the experience when you notice it.
Luckily the game features the vocal talent to back up the action. The cast isn’t as star-studded as it has been in previous years, but the developers do an excellent job of working with what they had. Throughout the game you’ll encounter characters voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, Faizon Love, Ice-T, Charlie Murphy, Axl Rose and more. All of the actors do an excellent job of delivering dialogue that’s effective and convincing. If you follow any of the aforementioned actors you’ll immediately recognize the actors as they appear in the game. The rest of the cast is comprised of primarily unknown actors, many of whom were probably either developers or friends and families of people associated with the project. Even the lead character is voiced by a relatively unknown up-and-coming rapper. He’s not Ray Liotta but he still does an excellent job with the material given to him. In the past the voice acting has played a key role of engulfing the gamer in the world and it serves its purpose here as well.With GTA3 and VC it seemed like the mission structure was a case of extremes. The missions in SA have their downsides but they’re not quite as flawed. For starters, the missions are much more forgiving, encouraging you to press on. Beforehand, I felt that the missions were a little too unforgiving, kicking me while I was down instead of pressing me to go forth. Now when you fall behind in a chase mission you won’t immediately fail, you’ll have the chance to catch up and redeem yourself. I'm especially pleased with the new "Trip Skip" feature that seriously relieves some of the frustration brought forth by failure. Whenever you fail a mission you can choose to warp to the mission location instead of having to drive there all over again. You'll still need to go to the person who gives you the mission, but you won't have to waste your time scrambling all over San Andreas.
San Andreas follows the basic groundwork laid forth by Grand Theft Auto 3
. You’re free to roam around the landscape and cause havoc at your own discretion and in my book, this is still the game’s main attraction. You can still take on the role of vigilante or ambulance driver, but you’ll have some new side-missions to partake in as well. The most prevalent is the home invasion aspect of the game that allows you to rob people in the middle of the night. This affords you bonuses that otherwise wouldn't be available to you. Since the game takes place in a quasi Los Angeles setting you'll have to deal with gang territory as well. Throughout the course of the game you will be able to take out other gangs to expand your territory and expand your reputation throughout the land. As you clear out more territory it'll give you more safe zones to operate in which you won't come under fire from rival gangs. This also gives you more backup as you can now recruit gang members to help you in certain missions.
As you perform various actions in the game you'll be rewarded with increased proficiency in those fields. If you spend an exorbitant amount of time on a bike you'll increase your ability, giving you better control over your vehicle and access to new maneuvers. My favorite is the fact that you can improve your shooting proficiency. As you cap more enemies your ability will increase. When your gun skill increases you will be able to target enemies from a further distance and dispose of them easier. They're not just cosmetic either, you can definitely feel the difference as you progress in the game. At the beginning your driving will be a little haywire as you slide all over the place. By the end of the game you'll be taking turns like Burt Reynolds in Cannonball Run.
If you squint for a bit you might be convinced that you’ve stepped in to Grand Theft Sims
. You’ll have to accommodate the needs of your character while ensuring that he lives a good and healthy life. He’ll get hungry now but eating too much will cause him to get fat. For this you’ll need to work out to ensure that he maintains his tip-top thug form. He can also gain muscle mass now which is useful for melee combat and impressing the ladies. Speaking of ladies, sex appeal now plays a role in how well you can pick up on girls. This is formulated by a combination of your physique and the type of clothes that you’ve outfitted yourself with. You can purchase clothes from a wide variety of locales, each of which cater to the surrounding area. For the true pimp you’ll want to head over to Rodeo and pick up a swanky suit while all those poor sucka MCs can pick up tracksuits in the ghetto. If that’s not enough you can add tats to most parts of the body and choose from a wide variety of haircuts. I know it’s not integral to the gameplay but I’m glad that the developers allowed this level of customization. It’s nice to be able to use my own embodiment of the street thug instead of someone else’s preconceived notion. It’s a shame that you can’t add gold fillings and some bling-bling though. I would have loved to perform drive-bys while holding Lil Jon’s diamond-encrusted chalice.
When the game is firing on all cylinders it has no peer. We’re talking intense shootouts, high speed chases through busy traffic streets and other high-pressure situations. I’ve often chastised the developers for their poor mission structure in the past, but I feel that they’ve finally gotten it right in this entry. Most of my favorite missions came towards the end of the game but there is some great action to be found in the beginning as well. There’s a particularly intense level featuring Smoke as he takes on the Russians. There’s an awesome shootout in an office building followed by a spectacular chase through the aqua duct. I can honestly say that it’s one of the best situations I’ve ever seen in a video game. Just make sure to have some patience with the game, it'll be well worth the wait. The beginning missions are the weakest of the bunch and it takes a little while for the game to really get rolling. I'd say that the game doesn't really start displaying its "Game of the Year" potential until you get into San Fierro, the second city of the game. When you get there, make sure to hang on tight because you probably won't be able to let go.Unlike the previous GTA games San Andreas isn't just a city; it's an entire state with three distinct cities and miles of backwoods areas that separate them from one another. Your adventure begins in Los Santos, an impressive recreation of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. I’ve lived in and out of LA for the better part of my life and I can attest that the developers did an excellent job of recreating the city of Angels. Your next destination is San Fierro, an upscale snobby type of town that bears a resemblance to San Francisco. My girlfriend lived in San Francisco for the better part of her life so I spent an awful lot of time traveling on the I-80 en route to San Fran. This too is another amazing recreation that really hits the nail on the head. Your last destination is Las Venturas, the glamorous paradise filled with slots machines and all the hookers that you can fit into your ride. It’s an obvious take on Las Vegas but there are some nice touches sprinkled about. Most of the casinos were modeled after real life locales but they all contain tongue-in-cheek names. For instance Caesar’s Palace is now Caligula’s Palace while Treasure Island is now Pirates in Men’s Pants. It’s impressive to see all the lights in front of you, but it’s even more impressive when you realize that you can enter most of the casinos for some good old-fashioned gambling.
What really sells this game to me is just how believable the game world looks. I’ve knocked the franchise in the past for its barren landscapes and the wide open spaces that are supposed to pass for city streets. These days are long past us as each city block is teeming to the brink with the rubbish, foliage and fauna that we’ve come to expect from life. All of the generic store fronts have been replaced with actual stores that actually serve a dual purpose for those who like to travel by landmarks. I also want to commend the developers for creating a city that looks and feels like a city. There’s life at every corner and you really get the feeling that each of these places truly exist in real life. There’s an immersive quality that sort of engulfs you in the experience and allows you to leave the hustle and bustle of reality. It’s also nice to see life unfold around you; if you stop for a moment to watch the people you’ll see that they’re carrying on with their own lives. Some are conversing while others are arguing over minor traffic accidents. It’s really nice to be able to step back and realize that you’re not the only the catalyst that sets the world in motion. You really get this sense that life moves on in the world despite your efforts to screw things up.
Another aspect that reinforces this idea is the audio, namely the music. As you’re driving in an out of San Andreas you’ll have access to a number of radio stations. All of them operate like real-life radio stations with their own DJs and commercial breaks. Since the game takes place in a Compton-like setting it’s fitting that the soundtrack caters mostly to the Gangsta rap audience. If that’s not your bag you’ll be happy to know that there are some hard rock tracks thrown in as well. Vice City’s audio featured encoding for those with DTS decoders while San Andreas only caters to the Dolby Pro Logic II crowd. It’s a shame that the engineers had to downgrade the audio but it was the right move. The price of DTS decoders are coming down but it’s still a very niche market, more people have access to Pro Logic II. Besides, it’s very difficult to tell the differences between the two audio tracks. There are some problems with the clarity in the samples and the separation between channels isn’t as clean, but it still sounds superb. There are some nice touches sprinkled in between as well, such as the way that the radio sounds hollow when you’re riding on a motorcycle. Overall the audio is a step down from Vice City but it’s still superb in its own right.
What you have here is the most polished, feature-laden, action-packed Grand Theft Auto title to-date. I’ve had my qualms with the franchise in the past but this is the first time that I was able to sit back, shut off my brain and enjoy the experience. Sure, there are still some problems with the mission structure, but there’s a good chance that you’ll be too engulfed in the experience to realize these minor deficiencies. Just make sure you realize what you’re getting in to; once you step into San Andreas it’ll be a long time until you’ll want to set foot outside your door again.