Grand Theft Auto San Andreas Review
Rockstar Games truly revolutionized gaming with the release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001. It took open-ended action gameplay to heights most developers hadn't even thought of, much less planned or completed development on. In fact, even today the only company that has delivered a GTA-killer is Rockstar themselves. In 2002, Vice City was unleashed on the world with a fully realized main character, more Hollywood-quality voice acting, tons of new stuff to do, and that unique 80s style.
Late last year, Rockstar proved there was still plenty of life left in the Playstation 2 - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released with not only a much larger playable world, but with new special effects, reduced loading times, and dozens of new features. Despite it being such a great game, though, few could deny that Rockstar was extremely limited in what they could do on Sony's almost-five-year-old hardware. The textures were blurry in many cases, the frame rate was iffy, and while the draw distance was even further than in Vice City, you simply couldn't see that far off into the distance.
The GTA series started on the PC, and despite the waning market share of PC gaming, Rockstar continues to deliver what's usually the best version of their title for those few dedicated PC gamers around. Their ports of GTA3 and Vice City to the PC included new features on top of what was already thrown in to the PS2 originals, and the graphics were much improved as well. Those who have played these titles expect no less from the PC version of San Andreas, and I'm happy to say that they won't be disappointed.
The story behind San Andreas is a little different from Rockstar's last two games. It follows a young thug named Carl Johnson who returns to Los Santos (modelled after Los Angeles) from Liberty City to bury his mother. She, as well as Carl's younger brother five years before, were gunned down, and now he's ready back and ready to rebuild the declining Grove Street gang. CJ's own family and friends care little for him, though, since he's spent the last five years on the other side of the country. He's going to have to start completely over, and regain the respect of his gang as well as his friends.
Ok, screw it. I know what you're here to do - carjack hot rides, shoot people in the street, and see how long you can last against the cops. Don't we all do this in the GTA games? But the story this time around is even better than in Vice City (which had a lovable, but completely, murderously insane psychopath) as the main character. Tommy Vercetti was an incredible game character, but I can't really say I can relate to anything he did or said in the game. Now CJ, though; sure, he is a thug, but he's got a family and connections to his friends that mimics real life much more. His voice acting, done by rapper Young Maylay, is spot-on and encompasses a much larger range of emotions than almost any game character. He experiences sorrow, anger, love, fear, and everything in between during his experiences in San Andreas.
That's not to say that this game is all hugs and kisses and feelings. Rockstar pulled no punches with the script, as F-words and N-words abound here; as many have said, San Andreas is basically Rockstar Games' adaptation of a John Singleton movie. That's not to say that this game takes profanity to a silly level, nor are there any overtly racist overtones. There is some race-based friction between the characters, but again, it doesn't go beyond what has been seen in many R-rated movies over the last fifteen years.
San Andreas added plenty of new features to the GTA formula, like stealth gameplay (with some brutal from-behind kills), house robberies, and much-improved drive by shooting action. Then there's gambling, pimping missions, tons of mini games, jumping from really high skyscrapers with a parachute, and much, much more.
There's only one truly "missing" thing I see in the PC version, and that's the two-player Rampage missions. They were a bonus feature in the PS2 version, but because of the control issues of having two players at once on the same PC, Rockstar elected to just axe them for this port. Sure, they could have thrown in a whole bunch of effort to deal with two whole separate control setups simultaneously, but they probably felt the game would turn out better if they spent their time on the meat and potatoes. I don't consider this much of a loss, especially since those missions were only a very, very tiny part of the full game.
The PC version of the game includes all of the gameplay, speech, cutscenes, and more that made San Andreas the number one selling PS2 game of 2004, and the new graphic detail and handy extra features put it over the top. The draw distance and polygon detail at a distance is much better, and textures look much better than before. Running this game in high-res on a monitor is pure bliss, and completely blows away what any current console is capable of at this time. Sure, the screen isn't as huge, but the detail is about an order of magnitude more!
The state of San Andreas is split up into three cities with several square miles of countryside inbetween. Los Santos represents all the best and worst areas of Los Angeles; San Fierro is strikingly similar to San Francisco; and Las Venturas is, well, it's Vegas. Each city has been fleshed out with almost as much detail and square footage as each of Liberty City and Vice City, and this game gives you all three as a big playground. But the countryside surrounding them is also incredibly fun to screw around in as well, with mountains, rivers, and even some nice stunt areas to play with.
There are so many activities and missions to complete in San Andreas, you'll have a tough time finding and achieving them all even after a month of hard playing. The story has you figuring out who killed CJ's mother and maybe extracting a bit of revenge, but the dozens and dozens of side missions that are available make sure you always have something new to do. While the game imposes a very heavy "thug life" style on the player early on, CJ branches out towards other cultures much more in his visits to San Fierro and Las Venturas. Because of this, and the many ways that CJ's abilities improve as he goes on, it really does feel like two or three normal GTA games squeezed into one box.
Many players will be picking up the PC version of San Andreas for the vastly improved visuals. And yes, they truly deliver. I've played the Xbox version as well in the best video mode supported - widescreen 480p - and it completely pales in comparison to seeing the PC version at 1600x1200 delivering around five times the overall screen resolution. Of course, you will need a fairly beefy PC to run at this silly of a resolution, but there is a great middle ground for more modest PCs as well. For example, my 2 year old Inspiron 600m laptop, with its slow 266Mhz system bus and even weaker Radeon Mobility 9000 video, was able to run the game at full speed, at 1024x768, with much better detail than the console versions. As long as you meet the game's recommended specs, which aren't that demanding, you should be far happier with the PC port's visuals than with what you'd get on the Xbox or PS2 versions.
At the same time, this is the same engine as seen in the past two GTA titles, admittedly with a greater draw distance and quite a few new bells and whistles. Some of the same old problems still linger, like the need to keep the frame limiter (which forces the game to draw at 25 frames per second at most) on in order to stop the game from chopping and stuttering badly. Rockstar's own GTA:SA documentation makes it seem like this limitation is some sort of absolute gaming truth, but we've seen in quite a few games that have dynamic-loading technology that at least some other developers found a better solution.
The only iffy thing I can really think of when it comes to the system requirements is that GeForce 4 MX cards are not supported - pixel shaders are an absolute must to run GTA:SA - and the box is misleading. It says "'GeForce 3' or better", and while I've been over the rant about how badly nVidia screwed up in overclocking a GeForce 2 and calling it GeForce 4, it's going to confuse a lot of novice users who have GeForce 4 cards installed. Actually, it's going to make them pretty angry, because the game will refuse to run completely. Shame on Rockstar for not mentioning this in their system requirements, and shame on nVidia (for the zillionth time over the past few years) for trying to pass off old technology as new.
I also did a full range of control testing; with all the different ways you can wreak havoc in San Andreas, the controls are actually pretty complicated. First thing is this: yes, the mouse and keyboard controls include manual mouse aiming. The mouse movements have never been really smooth in the PC ports since GTA3, and that hasn't changed, but it's still decent. My one real beef with this is that you'll now have to constantly hold down the "aim" key if you want to pop up a crosshair on the screen and actually, well, aim. I guess that this system makes the game a bit more "cinematic", what with no crosshair in your face when running around, but having to hold that key down every time I want to aim the mouse gets annoying. Otherwise, the mouse and keyboard controls work great for shooting and acceptably for driving, but sadly, they're terrible for flying. Because of the terrible flight controls with a mouse, you'll need some sort of gamepad if you want to get far into GTA:SA.
When using a gamepad, San Andreas can be set up to mimic the PS2 versions controls perfectly, although not all input devices use the right axes. The problem is that the game lets you configure buttons all you want, but the joystick axes - any analog stick usage - is hardcoded. For example, my PS2 to USB converter worked perfectly in the game, but my Xbox controller converter with XBCD drivers wouldn't let me reprogram the axes fully; while the left stick, which lets you move around, worked fine, the right analog stick only half-worked. I could look up and down, but not left and right. As far as I can tell, there was no way to reconcile both software's differences in opinion on axes. Various brands of USB controllers will certainly work, but you might have the same issue as with XBCD - and you'll really need two working analog sticks to really enjoy this game.
In the end, I settled with using a PS2 gamepad (its button placement is overall much better for San Andreas) for most game activities, with the mouse taking over whenever I wanted to aim with a gun. Even then, I had to still switch a certain toggle in the control config to make one scheme or the other work, and had to pop out to the game's menu every time I switched from the mouse to the gamepad. As far as I can tell, the control issues and hassles here have been present since GTA3 for the PC; why Rockstar never tightened this stuff up, I've no idea.
San Andreas has some new scripting technology that won't affect the default game at all, but those who fiddle around with mods are going gaga over it. Rockstar hasn't exactly embraced the mod community, as they have never shipped any mod tools with their GTA games. Then again, id Software never did with the DOOM games either, and the Quake games had only minimal tools, and they had massive, thriving mod communities. Either way, I do expect to see mods that are far more extensive this time around than we saw with the PC versions of Vice City and GTA3.
The last major new feature thrown in with GTA:SA is custom music support for your own hand-made radio station. WAV and OGG support work out of the box, and MP3 as well as other formats are supported as well - as long as you install the codecs yourself (which is pretty easy - got Apple's Quicktime or Microsoft's most recent Windows Media Player installed? Then that's all you need!). A skip track button is also included, which is great for those MP3 choices that sounded great in Windows Explorer but just don't work once you get in game. You can also randomize the order of played tracks right from the game this time (the last two games didn't have this rather simple feature) and can even have San Andreas inject its own commercials and weather updates in between songs if you want. I still wish I could make an unlimited number of stations by putting music, or shortcuts to the music, into multiple directories, but I guess I'll just learn to deal with this awesome feature anyway.
The audio soundscape in this game is one of the most comprehensive to date; not only are there almost a dozen radio stations loaded up with a huge range of early 90s music (grunge rock, gangsta rap, classic rap, pop, reggae, dance, talk, and even country!), but the hours worth of voice acting is pure gold. It's as good as Hollywood could ever deliver, and there are plenty of big stars in both the game and DJing on the radio stations. The sound effects haven't changed a whole lot from the previous games, but that doesn't bother me much at all - it's the acting and radio that give this game its incredible amount of character. Oh, and to get technical, 5.1 surround sound audio is fully supported in the PC version of the game, although it managed to crash my whole computer when combining my aging Turtle Beach Santa Cruz sound card with 5.1 audio and custom MP3 tracks. Switching out of 5.1 mode back to stereo for this game fixed the problem completely.
Rockstar has delivered their best PC port of a GTA game yet with San Andreas. It's based on an already-incredible game, and the strengths of the PC platform outweigh the weaknesses by quite a bit. The absolute best-selling game of 2004 gets even better on the PC, and any serious gamer, whether they're hardcore PC players or not, owes it to him- or herself to check this one out.