Grand Theft Auto San Andreas Review
Xbox fans worldwide rejoiced when they heard that the recently released PS2 smash hit, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, was coming to their beloved Microsoft console. They knew what it meant: better graphics, custom soundtrack support, and an overall smoother experience. And this is what Rockstar has delivered with the Xbox version of GTA:SA, even if there are still some hiccups to consider when looking at the whole package.
San Andreas takes place in the fictional California-like state of, well, San Andreas. Included are three full cities and plenty of countryside and several small towns all inbetween. You'll start out in Los Santos, which represents Los Angeles, move next to San Fierro (which is strikingly similar to San Francisco), and finally you'll get access to Las Venturas (Vegas!). Throughout all of these, you'll suffer no loading times when outdoors, and only very short ones when going indoors or when switching clothing.
GTA San Andreas takes place in 1992, the heyday of gangsta rap. You'll be playing as Carl Johnson, a young troublestarter who's spent the last five years up in Liberty City on the east coast. He originally left his family and the Grove Street gang because his younger brother was killed in a shooting - now, five years later, he's back to bury his mother. CJ's goal is to find out who killed his mom and maybe try and build up the Grove Street Families once again. He's got plenty of opposition right out of the gate, though, starting with his angry, cynical brother nicknamed Sweet.
That's not CJ's only problem, though. A corrupt pair of cops frames him for the murder of another cop - their intent is not to arrest him, but to get CJ to do their dirty work for them. His own best pals, Big Smoke and Ryder, also don't really trust CJ anymore, and his sister's relationship with a Latino is causing trouble between the gangs of Los Santos. Through all this, CJ must rebuild the respect he lost when he left and stop Grove Street from becoming merely a blip on the Los Santos map.
As with previous GTA games, this one is chock full of stuff to do. Sure, there is the huge branching storyline and hours worth of incredible voice acting, but there are also dozens and dozens of other things you can do to waste away the time. Almost anything you could do in the last two games is in here, along with tons of new stuff. To even try and list them all out is futile, but suffice it to say that they pretty much all fit in with the gameplay and style of the series.
At first, you'll notice that San Andreas has a pretty unique theme - it's like GTA meets Boyz N The Hood. It's right out of a John Singleton movie, and includes the soundtrack to fit. Of course, gangsta rap pioneers take center stage here, although the soundtrack includes grunge rock, funk, reggae, that terrible 90s dance music, classic rock, classic rap, a talk station, and country music as well.
Be aware that this game is full profanity as well as the dread N-word, although the setting and the characters ensure that while the game certainly has racial strife, no part of it is actually racist. Still, Rockstar's made their most socially conscious and simultaneously controversial game yet. And while Rockstar's own Manhunt is as close to what the overly game-hating litigious call a "murder simulator", this game mimics everyday life far more in the issues it deals with, making it hit much closer to home for those who are still taking moral suggestions from video games. Even if you thought your kids or teenagers could handle GTA3 or Vice City, the same may not necessarily be true for San Andreas.
Let's move on to some specifics in the Xbox version. First, the game is not so taxing on the Xbox as to have it barely run like it was on the Playstation 2; indeed, the game does have 480p as well as widescreen support for those TVs that can handle it. The increased detail in these modes is a substantial change over the PS2 version, but one should be aware that these modes also bring out more aliasing, or "jaggies", that the Xbox graphics hardware is not able to deal with. Whereas the PC version can throw on some special effects to smooth this stuff out on even a mid-range gaming computer, that's simply not possible with the nearly-four-year-old hardware that is in the Xbox.
Other Xbox additions like an increased draw distance for the world as well as characters and vehicles, as well as moderately improved texture quality, sure help. Still, it's not the graphical tour de force that some might have been expecting, as that title goes squarely to the PC version.
Custom soundtracks have been slipped in, as the game creates a "user track" radio station out of any music you've got on your Xbox. You can set the game to not do equalizer adjustments to your music (which is based on the vehicle you're driving if it's turned on), and you can also have commercials and news or weather updates from other stations inserted between your songs. The only things I wish it had are the ability to skip tracks in the player (this got into the PC version, and it's wonderful), and an option to split up the user created station into each separate soundtrack stored on the Xbox. As it is now, it just mashes all your music together no matter what; hell, the Xbox versions of GTA3 and Vice City allowed one to split up each soundtrack, so I'm really not too sure why it was removed this time.
My biggest issue with San Andreas on the Xbox is in the controls. The lack of four trigger buttons on this controller means having to switch weapons and targets with the rather poorly placed white and black buttons. Your right thumb is already expected to do manual aiming, jumps, and crouching during firefights, and with the Xbox version you've gotta switch guns and toggle between targets with that thumb as well. Additionally, driving controls place the gas and brake on the triggers, which for my rather stiff Logitech wireless controller, can get a little tiring after hours and hours of play. The lack of control configuration options also means you're stuck with this scheme no matter what.
Note that my complaints about the controls also apply to the Xbox versions of GTA3 and Vice City, but the gameplay in San Andreas has you placed in much more complex and demanding gunfights, so it brings out the problem much more than the last two games. Ever since GTA3 the controls in the series have only gotten more complicated, and I'm wondering if Rockstar is going to decide to actually simplify them a bit for the next title.
Despite a few concerns, the Xbox version of GTA San Andreas still comes out mostly a winner. All the gameplay's there with a few new features, but the controls just don't feel right and the 480p support is functional but the jaggies make it bittersweet. It's still quite possibly the best game ever made, and Rockstar's done pretty much all they could to make San Andreas the best it could be on the Xbox.