Monday, 8 September 2008

GTA Retrospective V - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

  • Game: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
  • Console: PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC
  • Developer: Rockstar North
  • Publisher: Rockstar Games
  • Released: 2004
Massive. Huge. Monstrous. These words were once used to describe the size of GTA games, they now somehow seem redundant when describing just how big GTA: San Andreas is. The game-world is roughly 5 times the size of Vice City and it seems incredible just thinking about the step-up Rockstar has made from its previous titles to this magnum opus. When comparing the game to its predecessors, it seems silly calling them huge, because if they were huge, then what is San Andreas? 'Supermassive'? I'm not taking about how big the game world is, though, or even how long it takes to complete the main storyline, even though that, in itself, is a huge task. I'm talking about how much content this game provides the player.

When you first play the game, every time you continue the main storyline the game gives you something new to do. The very first mission you're given is to escape from an enemy gang's territory on, for the very first time in a GTA game, a bicycle. Not long after that, you're given a spray-can and are tasked with daubing your gang's tag across the game-world. Keep playing and you'll get the girlfriend mini-game, the burglary mini-game, low-rider racing, low-rider 'dancing' and more. All this in just the first few hours. What's notable is the fact that most of these things are completely new to the GTA series. Every GTA game added its own innovations of some sort, but San Andreas went above and beyond the call of duty in every respect.

You can actually do a drive-by on a bicycle, which is quite comical, actually. Freddie Mercury's spinning in his grave.

GTA: San Andreas has you playing as Carl 'CJ' Johnson. Having seemingly run-away from his home city of Los Santos, Carl returns for his mother's funeral after a phone call from his brother, Sweet, telling him that she was killed in a drive-by shooting. When he returns he is immediately pounced upon by the crooked cop Tenpenny (voiced by none other than Samuel L Jackson), who threatens him by seemingly framing CJ with the killing of another police officer, who was close to outing Tenpenny as corrupt, coincidentally. When he gets home, he finds his former gang in disarray and pledges to help retake the streets of Los Santos for the Grove Street Families, thereby avenging his mother's death. Events conspire against him, though, which leads him to the different parts of the state of San Andreas.

So even though the first part of the game seems to be ripped straight from 'Boyz N The Hood', most of the game takes place far away from this ghetto setting. There's a countryside, replete with country bumpkins and small townships, farms, a mountain, large expanses of land, forests and everything else you'd expect from such a place. Hours can be whiled away exploring or just enjoying the scenery, becoming one with nature (albeit of the digital kind). Then there's the next two cities (San Fierro and Las Venturas) as well as the desert between them, which holds just as much as the countryside.

Here, CJ is driving up the game's mountain; Mt. Chiliad.

San Andreas also adds RPG-like elements to the game, but in its own way. Gorge yourself on Chicken Bell or Pizza Shack and you'll get fat. The NPCs will comment on your fatness, too, calling you names and such, and you can respond to them in a postive or negative way (this can sometimes, hilariously, lead to a bout of fisticuffs). Want to lose that weight? Go running, go swimming and stop eating so damn much. Simple and just like real-life (although at a slightly accelerated rate). Want to tone up, get some muscles on them bones? Use the weight-lifting machines or dumbbells in the the various gyms dotted through-out San Andreas. You can upgrade your stamina, too, to make CJ run or swim for longer. Every weapon has different levels, making each weapon easier to use and allowing you to strafe the more you use them. Your driving ability gets better as the game progresses too, be it on bicycles, motorbikes or cars. You can also customise CJ by giving him different hairstyles and even more clothing options than Vice City which merely allowed you to wear different suits. You can even give CJ's skin a make-over and tattoo him, whether he likes it or not!

There are murmurings by some that GTA: San Andreas was too big. Can a game be too big? Certainly, if it becomes a chore, but there's something about San Andreas that grabs your attention and keeps you held until you complete the game, at least for your first play-through. As with every iteration of GTA, some of the flaws from previous titles are repaired, such as the aiming-system, which works remarkably well compared to past versions, but some flaws return, like draw distances and pop-up and the game can be incredibly glitchy. Sometimes you can drive through parts of the city that haven't loaded properly, but it's understandable, what with the game having to stream it all off the disc as you play it. The volume of activities in the game more than make up for such piffling issues like that, though.

This picture is rather controversial. Not because he's holding two sub-machine guns, but because there's partial nudity.

GTA: San Andreas
might give you the impression that it's trying to do too much. There is a hell of a lot in there, but most of it is optional. The racing activities, the gang-territory side-missions and such are there if you want to utilise them but you don't have to if you just want to complete the game. It makes things a little easier if you do these, as it gives you money to replace weaponry should you die (Wasted!) or get arrested (Busted!) and lose your arsenal, but you can still complete the main missions without touching the optional elements of the game. Completionists will have an absolute riot with this game and so will casuals, as it favours different types of gamers, those who jump in for the occasional burst and those who spend hours finding every little thing.

After playing GTA: San Andreas, you're left thinking that this is what Rockstar North imagined the game being, or at least becoming, when they first started work on GTA III. This was what they set out to create the moment they even thought about making a 3D GTA game. San Andreas is incredible. The story is compelling, each of the cities are completely unique, the characters are incredibly well rounded, the voice acting is superb and the game can look absolutely beautiful at times, especially at sunrise or sunset in the countryside. The soundtrack is probably the best yet in a GTA game, defining the setting and era of the game almost perfectly.

"Ignore the dude with the afro and maybe he'll just walk away…"

This game marks the end of the GTA III era and does it in style. It's still GTA III, but it's been refined and improved. So, the baton is passed to GTA IV. In five or so years will we see GTA IV's San Andreas Just how big and just how good will that be?