Reviewed: December 20, 2004
Released: October 25, 2004
Carl "CJ" Johnson, former member of the Grove Street Families, has been living his life clean in Liberty City for the past few years when he gets a call from his brother, Sweet, informing him that his mother has died... ah, who am I kidding? Most of you have already heard about this game a thousand times from the dearth of preview material that was published before its release. At any rate, CJ returns to his old hometown of Los Santos, and the shit hits the fan almost immediately. Welcome to the world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
This latest offering from Rockstar Games, developed by their Rockstar North branch, follows the exploits of CJ as he rejoins his old street gang, the Grove Street Families, without so much as a peep of a second thought, and sets out to reclaim the dilapidated gang's place in the neighborhood, and then the city, and perhaps even the state of San Andreas itself. It's empire building, thug style.
San Andreas is, in many ways, a continuation of the last two games in the Grand Theft Auto series. While this by no means is true for the setting or many of the characters, gameplay hasn't really changed so much as it has evolved in this latest installment. The basic underpinnings of the game are more or less identical to the mechanics of Vice City and GTA III, only more detailed, varied and (at times) fine-tuned.
Driving cars, once the focus of the entire series, still plays a major role in San Andreas. However, the feel of driving is better than in any previous installment. As with many things this time around, CJ has a proficiency meter for his driving ability. The higher it is, the more of an arcade feel the driving sequences offer, with better handling and less spinning out.
Other "same but different" aspects of play include the vehicle missions (taxi, ambulance and so on), which are nearly identical to those of past games except for the humorous addition of pimping "missions," which still utilize the same "go here, drop off, pick up, repeat" gameplay as all of the others.
Combat controls are much the same as always, except that a more expansive combo system has been built into the game, and the fights in general are only a bit tougher than before (i.e., dropping a rival gang member with three punches doesn't happen here, but a baseball bat still does the trick). A nice upgrade is the auto-targeting for both melee and gun attacks, which cycles through available targets with only minimal difficulty.
A few other details sound cool but are insignificant in the long run. They include drive-by shooting missions, which look cool but aren't terribly effective or exciting, the ability to ride bicycles, used a lot during the first few missions and almost never after that, and a dating mini-game that's all about humor value, rather than adding any real depth to play (though it can unlock some nifty bonuses). There are also ways to customize your ride and CJ's outfit, including tattoos and hairstyles.
The dating game, CJ's health and stamina, and the fighting system all do have one cool new thing in common, though: they rely on a newly-created stat-tracking system that monitors CJ's fat and muscle content, general sex appeal, hunger and all of those proficiency meters I mentioned earlier. Before you have visions of a nightmarish NES RPG-style hunger meter with extremely expensive bread dangling just out of monetary reach as CJ slowly starves to death ('of gold thou hast not enough for the BREAD, Sir CJ'), let me reassure you that the whole system is quite non-invasive and easy to keep track of. This is because Rockstar made most of the stats insignificant to the core play of the game, and because the stats are easily maintained and toyed with.
For instance, a high fat meter combined with low stamina and muscle makes CJ a weak blob of a man (and he does actually change appearance over time based on these stats - way cool), but it also makes him direly attractive to certain dating prospects. It's also quite funny to watch him run from the cops in such a state, if the game begins to get boring. Keeping him in shape will help him run faster, jump higher and hit harder, and attract different women to his side. With high enough muscle, CJ can learn more advanced combos from a boxing instructor (they're still all very easy, but they make a lot of the fights easier to win, too). And none of his physical stats are difficult to mess with at all.
CJ keeps from starving by eating at a restaurant. He only has to eat once every few days to keep his stamina up, and depending on what he orders (usually from a small selection of four dishes), he'll fill up his hunger meter to various degrees and increase his fat content as well. Ordering a salad fills him up without adding fat. As long as CJ is full, he won't lose the fat he's got very quickly, so simply letting him go hungry makes him slim down. Feeding him more often than he needs to be fed makes him gain weight more quickly. He's kind of like a foul-mouthed, heavily armed Tamagotchi with a street gang.
Other stats are similarly simple to alter. Muscle can be built up either by brawling a lot, or just by doing bench presses at the gym. Twenty minutes invested into four or five four minute workouts at the gym yield very impressive results, and add another way to fill the blank space between missions aside from greasing hookers and jacking cop cars. Stamina is pretty much the same. Sex appeal is determined by CJ's outfit (he eventually gets a huge number of options, too - more in the graphics section), the type of car he drives and what kind of house he owns, along with a measure of personal preference between women regarding style.
Everything else (driving, swimming underwater, riding a bike) has a proficiency gauge that rises gradually as you perform the action. Sometimes this causes a slight speed bump in the gameplay, but the payoff feels more real than if CJ just started out with Mario-like super abilities. Besides, it's surprisingly fun to tone him into a particular physique, dress him up just right and cruise down the street in a custom rod honking until someone makes him a proposition.
There's a lot to talk about regarding San Andreas. However, the basic truth is that though there's more to do, more to think about and more to learn than in any game in the series since GTA III, it's more of a step than a jump. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. It's just not as exciting of a release as many of us had hoped for.
True, the area of San Andreas is mind-bogglingly huge: three entire cities, with four to six outlying suburbs and farming communities each, all with a distinct style and subcultures. And the story has top-quality writing and pacing throughout. However, aside from the fact that San Andreas doesn't feel all that different from any of the other games in the series, its story and characters just aren't as engrossing as those of Vice City.
Call it pop-culture burnout. San Andreas is modeled after, and draws heavily from, old gangsta films from the late '80s and early '90s, such as Menace II Society. It also has a healthy dose of Def Jam comedy film in it, a la "How to be a Player." There's a reason these movies aren't popular anymore: Their time has passed. The ambitions of the people in San Andreas are small and, when viewed from outside, often stupid at times. "It's all about the hood" - well, great, but does that mean there's something noble about living in a grimy ghetto and shooting people?
The last couple of GTA games were so addictive in part because they were fueled by something much more clear-cut: Greed. Money drives people to crime, and this is something that doesn't change with the fashion of the day. San Andreas is a well written, well characterized, surprisingly emotional gangsta life drama (with some humorous spots, of course) that in the end is not about the kind of twisted ambition that drove Tommy Vercetti to riches, but a sort of perverse embrasure of the very things that made the Grove Street Families' lives miserable from the start.
Simply put, it's hard in 2004 to look back at the gangsta life of 1991 and imagine yourself doing that. It's hard to connect to the ambitions of CJ and his crew: street cred, living "the life," staking out territory for God knows what (they don't push drugs or hookers, and certainly don't involve themselves in community works), staying in the slums no matter what opportunities might present themselves. It's much easier to connect to an anti-hero whose main goal is to become rich so he doesn't have to do anything except wipe his ass with dollar bills all day. We all want to be filthy rich at times, right? But I think there are few of us who would really be all that excited if we were told that the respect of our homies and a dilapidated bungalow was all the reward we needed. Call me weird, but for whatever reason, despite arguably the best story in the series, San Andreas just isn't as much of a vicarious thrill as Vice City was.
The graphics in San Andreas are sweet, though not as impressive at first glance as other recent releases like Silent Hill 4. The first thing I noticed was how much more varied the physical models of people have become. Rockstar has it all this time (until the next game puts this one to shame, anyway): svelte, rude bimbos in bikinis, weak-chinned, dopey fast food counter boys wearing ridiculous theme hats, skanky ghetto girls with saddlebags and halter tops, and more.
They've even gotten body language down to a science. Gang members slouch a bit and jut their jaws in a surly fashion, businessmen stride purposefully (when there isn't a shootout going on) and that dopey guy behind the counter has a weak back and hunched shoulders. He just looks meek, before you even talk to him.
On top of all that, CJ's appearance changes radically over time depending on his lifestyle. He can be fat, skinny, average or buff. With some work, you can even combine some of the above (for example, a strong, fat CJ who surprises cops with his devastating right hook), and the visual differences between body types as CJ spends his days in San Andreas is striking. He changes in shades, too: it's not like he'll suddenly become fat after a certain point, or skinny. It's very gradual, and almost unnoticeable unless you're looking for it. The full effect is quite remarkable.
As always with the GTA games, San Andreas attempts to make a seamless world to run around in, with much success. The scope of this game - an entire state - is staggering; it is a testament to Rockstar North's team that CJ can go pretty much anywhere he wants in it without any load time at all. In fact, after the initial game loads up (which does take a little while), you'll almost never see a load screen anywhere in the game. These things being considered, the graphics are excellent - trees, rocks, houses and bodies of water all have solidity to them, and a lot of detail to boot. Of course, as always, vehicles in the game look great, even sporting some basic reflections this time around.
Another high point is the weather and filtering effects that come with it. Rockstar makes no effort to hide the fact that it's proud of the game's sunlight effect: you'll see lots and lots of CJ with a dramatic ray of sunlight shooting out from behind his head or shoulders. It does look fantastic, but it's not the only game in town, so to speak. The rain (when it comes, which depends somewhat on which city you're in) looks good too
There's also a nice grainy film wash effect that shows up during certain missions and so forth, which adds some cinematic flair to the game. When CJ is moving fast - like, really, really fast - everything around him begins to blur to simulate the feeling of racing at a breakneck pace through the streets. It's a very nicely done package.
In fact, about the only problem I had with the graphics in this game was the facial expressions. I know it's been a challenge for developers to give 3D models any expression whatsoever, let alone anything realistic. However, in the past couple of years that has been changing. Games like Final Fantasy X-2 set the bar high with their use of real time expressions - not perfect, but a pleasure to see nonetheless.
Given the staggering level of quality that San Andreas exhibits, I would have expected more, at least from the (rendered in-game) cutscenes. There is a bit of expression, but this game's storytelling is much more dependent on body language than characters' faces. It would have been a treat to see some decently emotional expressions on the faces of the Grove Street crew, to go along with their great body language, at least in the story segments of the game. Oh well.
GTA III took pains to create a soundtrack from scratch that sounded almost exactly like a real range of radio stations. Vice City went a step farther and included tons of real music from the '80s to help give a sense of the time frame of the game, with great success. San Andreas follows in Vice City's vein, with scores and scores of real music from the '80s and early '90s. It's one of the greatest "new traditions" of the franchise and it works just as well now as it did last time.
Yes, there's plenty of standard gangsta rap, including old Dre and Tupac tracks. There's also an alternative rock station, complete with some later Ozzy, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. There's even a country station. As always, you can tell something about where CJ is by what music is being played in the cars he jacks from a particular area - the country station is on almost all the cars out in the podunk villages between major cities, and one of the two hip-hop stations blasts out of most of the cars in his home neighborhood.
It's a very complete package, except for one thing: Hispanic radio stations. Especially in Los Santos, which is based on Los Angeles, one would expect there to be at least one Hispanic radio station on the airwaves. Or maybe I'm being untrue to the time frame and there really weren't any back in the early '90s. I just somehow doubt it. Los Santos has a large latino/latina population, so why no station for them? Still, the sheer amount of music in San Andreas is staggering, and quite a feat for a game that already packs in more to see and do than almost any other title on the market.
Voice acting is solid gold with a star-studded cast of uncredited celebs lending their voices. Trying to place the voice with the face is nearly as much fun as playing the game. Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Penn kick off the dialogue as officers Tenpenney and Polaski, and we can overlook Young Malay, a rising rap star, who voices the lead character CJ. Mike Toreno, James Woods, and Charlie Murphy are a few other noted celebs - you can figure out the rest.
Every character in the game is perfectly performed right down to the random schmoes on the street. There probably is not another game available today that offers this level of quality in voice acting. The DJs sound like DJs, the gangstas sound like gangstas, and the wannabes sound like fools. I just can't say enough about how great it is.
The characters' voices are a big part of what bring them to life, and with such seamless acting, the citizens of San Andreas seem like real people, or occasionally, caricatures of real people, when it's appropriate. It always works, though. And CJ has some of the best goofy one-liners ever. They're just sonic cheese, the game making fun of its roots in gangsta movies by having him utter some of the most cliched lines ever heard in them: "Don't blame me, blame society!" he yells as he shoots at people.
In fact, the dialog throughout San Andreas is excellent. It's obviously been written with great care. Every character says things you'd expect them to say. CJ never starts to wax philosophical in the middle of a drive-by. The airheaded DJ on the alternative rock station never really says anything smart, but sure sounds like she's trying. As though great voice work wasn't enough, Rockstar have also been meticulous in making sure that every last citizen of San Andreas stays in character. That is a rare feat, indeed.
The value of this game, taken at face value, borders on infinite. There are an endless number of cars to steal, side missions to mess with and hapless pedestrians to mug. It doesn't hurt that San Andreas has a spectacularly well done story, if perhaps not quite as captivating as it could have been. There's even a bit of an opportunity for a two player destruction fest, though I'll leave it up to people who play the game to figure out where themselves.
It's true that San Andreas is the biggest, baddest, most filled-out game in the history of the GTA series. That's saying an awful lot considering what perfectionists Rockstar's developers have been with previous titles. Exploring San Andreas alone will take almost as long as it would to explore a real state. This game is one of the best values of any title, ever. There's no other way to put it.
However, it's only got that amazing value if you're sufficiently captivated by what it has to offer. I know for a fact that I am not the only person who really didn't care that much about what happened to the Grove Street Families after a few hours of play. As I wrote earlier, a lot of San Andreas's enjoyment depends on the player connecting to the ambitions of the characters. I feel that some will find this hard to do considering their ambitions are generally petty, and wrapped in layers of an odd sense of honor and duty towards a lifestyle that doesn't really look like it's worth fighting for.
Also, bear in mind that San Andreas is really not very different from the past two GTA titles in gameplay. It's more fine-tuned, and there's a bit more to do (and a lot more area to explore) than before. But don't expect jacking a car to give the same thrill it did in GTA III, or buying a property to hold the same rush that it did in Vice City. We've seen most of this already, and many of the new additions, while fun, aren't on a level with the more extravagant new excitements from past titles (the stat system is a good example). San Andreas is perfectly put together, but it simply may not be worth shelling out $50 for when most everything CJ can do has already been done.
If you're all about the style of gameplay the Grand Theft Auto series offers, there's no debate: buy this game. San Andreas is slick, gorgeous and has enough raw content to keep an interested player happy for months on end. Racing cars, shooting and aiming, even brawling and running have all been made more enjoyable in one way or another, or at least have some added depth to them. The stat system is perhaps the coolest thing about the game, and lets players tinker a lot more with their character than ever before, without becoming mired in micromanagement.
The saga of CJ and his gang is amazingly well told, balancing some also-ran humor with well paced dramatic and action sequences. It's easy to start to care about CJ and what he's doing with his life. Unfortunately, it's much harder to keep caring when you realize that the life he's setting out towards is one without any clear ambition that most of us can connect to.
No one should deny that San Andreas is a great storytelling game. It's just that, between gradually caring less and less about the main characters, and performing many game actions that are nearly identical to those of previous titles in the series, San Andreas could easily begin to wear a bit thin.
That hardly means it isn't worth at least a look, though. "A bit thin" for this game is still like playing two or three other games rolled into one, from a value and variety standpoint. San Andreas has a wicked sense of humor, a masterfully told saga of gang life and a nearly endless collection of things to do besides missions - as long as you don't mind it being a bigger, better Vice City rather than a really revolutionary game in its own right.