Reviewed: July 5, 2005
Released: June 6, 2005
REVIEWER’S NOTE: This review is not written in street slang and does not contain words like “dope”, “fresh”, “rizzle”, et al.
Rockstar has made a name for itself by making games that go beyond the confines of your standard RPG's, FPS's, etc. Their Grand Theft Auto series is by far their most infamous and critically acclaimed - especially when you consider its more humble graphical origins. And now, with their latest iteration, Rockstar has once again set the bar a little higher for any game boasting a “living, breathing world” while giving rise to a host of copycat crime games.
Grand Theft Auto climbed to the top of the heap in its third iteration (before the city subtitles) when it changed from its 2D sprite-based gameplay to a three-dimensional, free-roaming, non-linear experience not seen before on any console. It truly changed the way games were designed from that point forward. Game makers couldn’t get away with the same old invisible walls and narrowly focused story routes and hope to be called innovative.
The Grand Theft Auto series, more than any other, gave rise to the current trend of “crime games” where players are put in the less traditional role of the criminal element within their virtual worlds. In Grand Theft Auto, you can experience the sensation of running from Johnny Law after taking down some of the competition in a hail of gunfire. And while the premise may be controversial, it is nonetheless every bit as thrilling as playing it straight in the thousands of other more traditional games out there.
But part of what makes Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas so appealing is its sense of style. Every game since Grand Theft Auto 3 has been made in a particular style related to a movie or TV series that gives it its look and feel. Grand Theft Auto 3 was patterned after a GoodFellas aesthetic while Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was painted in the 80's pastel kitsch of Miami Vice. And now, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas takes its cue from John Singleton’s seminal Boyz In The Hood movie, and its imitators, of the 90's.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas puts you in the life of Carl Johnson, who’s been away from his hometown of Los Santos in the fictional state of San Andreas for the last five years. Since his departure, things have not gone well in “the ‘hood”. Gangbangers, dealers and corruption at the highest levels of local government conspire to tear the tenuous bonds of family and friendship apart. No sooner is Carl off the plane than a couple of bad cops try to frame him for murder which sets in motion Carl’s attempt to save his family and take back control of the streets. Sounds nice, eh?
Like a lot of PS2 (and later XBox) owners, I have been playing this series since Grand Theft Auto 3 made its rather ignominious debut back in October of 2001. I’ve played every iteration since and while I can never guess where it’s going next; I am always thrilled at the possibilities they inspire.
So, anyone who’s anyone in gaming culture knows this series well enough that I don’t need to go over any more details, right? This is true especially if you’ve played the PS2 versions because you couldn’t wait several months for the superior PC versions to hit the shelves. Of course, usually by that time, I’ve already played the game as much as I can stand when it comes to the difficulty level of some of the later missions. The interface is always clean and helpful for what it is. Drilling down through menus is never tedious and everything is where you expect it to be. Simple enough.
What makes this game stand out in terms of character building and improvement is the degree of customization of your character and even how that customization affects gameplay. As Carl, you now have to concern yourself with eating and exercising if you want to gain an edge on the streets. Eating too much fast food at the local burger joints and avoiding the gym results in a physique not unlike Jabba the Hutt. This in turn slows down your running and stamina stats.
At some points in the game, you’re required to wear your gang colors or risk imitating Swiss cheese. There are stores everywhere that cater to your sartorial concerns as well as barbershops and tattoo parlors that can give you a look on the streets that says “Don’t #$!&% with this dude”. Personally, I preferred the high top fade. Nothing says tough like Kid N’ Play.
Combat is the same as before albeit with some improvements. Now, the auto-targeting system is a bit more refined, but could still use some tweaks. On the PC, first person shooters have instilled in us certain expectations as far as combat goes - namely, a first person perspective. It’s just plain easier to blow people away from that point of view in such a fully realized 3D space. True, with the mouse, there has always been a more refined control even than the well-made analog controls of the consoles. But, until that first person perspective is in place, I can’t say the auto-targeting system helps as much as Rockstar might like.
There is your standard assortment of mayhem makers in the form of rocket launchers, Molotov cocktails, grenades, machine guns, shotties, etc. You can’t go wrong with any of this stuff; it’s all about what tool to use for what mission. Personally, I always end up running around, exploring the world for hours on end without progressing in the game as fast as I’d like. This can lead to a frustrating sense of being hemmed in until you complete the prerequisite missions for unlocking new areas. I’m sure there’s logic to this, but I can’t see it. Of course, Rockstar has always had a bevy of sweet cheat codes for those who want to break the rules, and isn’t that what the game’s all about anyway?
There’s an interesting display of AI present in the state of San Andreas which results in hilarious exchanges for those who like to people watch on, say, the roof of a building. Gangbangers deal out their brand of street justice, panhandlers beg for coin, etc.
One of the best reasons to get the PC version of this series is to get rid of those horrid PS2 load times. Thanks to a speedy DVD drive, load times are kept around 10 seconds as opposed to a minute. Worth the price of admission right there.
But when it all comes down to it, the most compelling reason to play this latest game in the Grand Theft Auto series is for the graphics. For all of its market dominance, Sony’s console is woefully underpowered compared to the XBox or the PC and it shows in the way it renders Carl Johnson’s world. The limitations of the Emotion Engine are hidden in fog and exposed through pop-in at every turn. And it only gets worse when you’re on the lamb (which is almost always), traveling at dangerous speeds.
Draw distance in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for the PC is greatly increased. And the ability to adjust the rendering based on your computer’s muscle is just what a game like this needs. Running at 1280 X 1024 in 32-bit color with all the bells and whistles turned on can be a heady experience compared to even the XBox version of the game.
And having mip-mapping turned on to smooth the transition between textures based on distance can make for a much more thrilling sense of speed while retaining the gorgeous views of Rockstar’s living world - especially while burning through the strip in Las Venturas. Such standard graphical fine-tuning as this and up to 6 levels of anti-aliasing all make for a deeper level of immersion than can currently be had on any of the consoles, it’s just that simple.
One of the most qualitative differences is in the lighting. Streetlights and traffic lights cast eerily upon the denizens of San Andreas making real-time shadows that simply weren’t possible on the PS2 and the difference is visually striking. It’s strange however that headlights don’t cause shadows when they’re turned on you.
Now one of the few complaints I have with this game is a big one. But one that is most likely based on my console experiences. I just could not play this game using the traditional keyboard/mouse combination. I know, I know, all of you die-hard PC guys are laughing at me. But, it’s only natural that a game designed for a console with analog controls would have some issues in the digital world of computers. Controlling vehicles was an absolute nightmare even when I adjusted my control scheme. I actually ended up purchasing a USB controller almost identical to the Playstation 2 Dual Analog controller. And after some tweaking, was finally able to enjoy the game as Rockstar intended.
More so than in previous games (your character never even talked in Grand Theft Auto 3), Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas uses its cutscenes to tell this story with some of the best voiceover talent Hollywood has to offer. Taking its cue from a wealth of source material, the gritty, violent 90's in places like South Central L.A. are given a new voice in games.
Strangely, one of my favorite things about the Grand Theft Auto series since it debuted on the PS2 is the ribald sense of humor, especially when it comes to the names of its fictional companies, storefronts and products. Clearly, the writers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas didn’t have the time or inclination to continue that tradition, as most of these properties don’t show that comedic touch. Juvenile I know, but I liked that stuff and missed it here.
The sounds of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas come together better than most other games in most other genres. Part of what makes this work is the attention to ambient sounds and authentic music relevant to the style of each game. Vice City was a perfect example with its trip down memory lane of chart toppers of the 1980's.
One-upping that mechanic in the age of iPod is the ability to create your own custom radio station by mapping shortcuts to your MP3 collection. This is where Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas rises above the normal sound environment by letting you play what you want when you want it. Sure, there’s a nice selection of tunes on a nice selection of stations, but I’m an old school headbanger. I want to do a drive-by while blasting Megadeth’s “Holy Wars/The Punishment Due”. And the way the game mixes its own commercial spots between tracks is just genius.
Samuel L. Jackson, James Woods, Peter Fonda, Charlie Murphy, Ice T and the gorgeous China Chow are just a few of the great voice talents working on this game and such artists give the game its life. It’s not an “improvement” over previous iterations, but it’s continuing a fine tradition.
Artists like Biz Markie, Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane give an authentic sound for those who really want to get into character as gangbangers in movies like Boyz In The Hood or Menace II Society. Thankfully, for those with other musical tastes, there is the usual compliment of era-appropriate music in a host of genres.
Even if you played this game from start to finish, going methodically through each mission, you could spend over a hundred hours easily. But I can almost guarantee that you will not finish the game any time soon, as you’ll most likely prefer just driving around and exploring the gigantic virtual world of San Andreas in whatever vehicle strikes your fancy, as I did. And with cheat codes, you’ll really savor your peregrinations.
In a game like this, there’s really no need to replay any individual missions as they are highly scripted despite the non-linearity of the game itself. Multiplayer options have never been part of the series proper, but the ever-enterprising mod community will no doubt deliver many additions to the code that allow for online mayhem.
It’s a shame that the two player co-op missions present on the console versions of the game don’t work well with an individual computer, prompting Rockstar to leave that advancement out of the PC version, but I’ve played them on the PS2 and they didn’t really deliver the fun I was expecting, so you’re not really missing much. The real fun will be in that multiplayer mod soon to come out (though not officially sanctioned by Rockstar, of course).
Rockstar has delivered another great game based on a fully realized take on classic cinematic influences of the 90s like Boyz In The Hood with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. If you’ve played any of the 3D iterations of the series before, then you know what you’re in for; bigger, better environments and a handful of gameplay tweaks and improvements.
The standout feature of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the expected graphical superiority over its console counterparts. But for the audiophiles, the ability to design and play your own custom radio station is a feature every game needs to have from this point forward, end of story. DEMAND IT!
The bottom line is that the Grand Theft Auto series has been delivering the best single player criminal simulator since Grand Theft Auto 3 on the PC. In a virtual world replete with colorful characters, mission objectives and vehicles ripe for the taking, you are “the man”. If that interests you, get this game now. Just make sure you acquire it nice and legal, dawg (Oh, so close!).