Grand Theft Auto San Andreas Review
Rockstar Games is delivering another bundle of super-violent joy to PS2 gamers everywhere with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, one of the most highly anticipated games of the year - and this year is a very competitive one for high-profile titles. I have to wonder what the readers of this review might expect, given that there's a huge likelyhood that they already know the game kicks ass and are probably already planning to buy it. Why are you reading this? Do you really need me to tell you that yes, this game is good?
You don't. I'll spoil the ending of this review: GTA:SA gets a 97% from me. Some complain about the percent system I use to rate games, but this game is not perfect. Still, a 97 is the highest score I've ever given to a game and I can't think of any game I didn't review that deserves higher.
So it's a great game. An instant classic. But you already knew that before you even started reading this review, didn't you? Hell, it was a given before the twelve-millionth copy of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was sold. Still, I'll try and examine just what makes this such a brilliant game despite all the shock factor, pop culture overload, and media attention that this game would get even if it wasn't one of the best games ever made.
The year is 1992, and your character this time around is Carl Johnson. He went into a self-imposed exile on the east coast after the murder of his little brother five years ago, and now he's returning to Los Santos (which is modelled after Los Angeles) to bury his murdered mother. He's already having a terrible day, but his arrival in Los Santos only sparks off an even worse series of events. Right out of the airport, CJ gets picked up by a couple of dirty cops (voiced by Chris Penn and Samuel L. Jackson) who start off by framing him for a cop-killing. Then, they drop CJ off in hostile gang territory, and he's left to get back to his old stomping grounds on a BMX bicycle.
Even when CJ gets to his home turf, Grove Street, he's not welcome there. His older brother, Sweet, hates CJ and says that CJ abandoned everyone by disappearing the way he did. His sister, Kendl, is already at odds with what's left of the family, and her relationship with a Latino gang member only puts Sweet into an even worse mood. CJ's old gang has fallen into hard times, his family doesn't want him around, and many of his friends have drifted away. On top of this, the two dirty cops constantly bring up their cop-killing accusation to blackmail CJ into doing all kinds of evil things that benefit them.
As you might expect, it's your job as CJ to bring the Grove Street gang back into power. To do this, you'll be committing a huge variety of crimes from murdering, to stealing, carjacking, and just plain beating people up. In my review of GTA: Vice City, I hailed the addition of a main character with a real voice and name - Tommy Vercetti - as one of the best additions to the series. Rockstar put a quality actor into the role to do the voice work and made him believable even as a psychotic asshole who'll do anything to excel in the world.
CJ isn't quite like Vercetti, though. While he certainly has the appetite for destruction that Tommy has, CJ actually cares about the people around him - and they even do a bit of caring back. This is one of the biggest changes that has gone into GTA:SA; completing missions and doing various things increases the respect the world gives you, and you can increase your territorial control as well as recruit people to be in your gang. CJ can even pick up a love interest and take her out on dates. This aspect of the game isn't as fleshed out as, say, The Sims, but it's still fun to participate in.
The first missions do a wonderful job of reacquainting you with the game's basics, but they quickly start throwing in new stuff - like riding a bicycle, being able to spray graffiti tags on walls or take pictures with a camera (that even can be saved as screenshots to the PS2 memory card!). Fighting is a bit more complex now, as you can block incoming punches and use two different buttons to juggle up small combos and the like. Go work out at the gym to beef CJ up, and you'll not only see his muscles bulge, but he'll hit harder as well. Big muscles also increase the respect you get from other people.
CJ has his work cut out for him in Los Santos. He's gotta regain the respect of his friends and his brother, as well as some of the guys who he grew up with. Then there are the Latinos who start out wanting to kill him; CJ isn't without his own prejudices, so at first the feeling is mutual, but he manages to fight through all that to start making alliances across racial boundaries.
And this is just what happens in the first few hours of the game. As you might or might not be aware, GTA:SA includes three full cities that are each multiple times as big as Vice City, as well as countryside and some small towns in between. Getting established in these new cities later on really means something, as you may have the weapons and the gang members, but you hold no territory - and in this game, territory actually matters. Riding through enemy turf will attract attention, especially since the various gangs each wear their own colors and they're likely to spot you. Bring that area under your own gang's control, and you're (relatively) free to hang out in those areas unharmed.
Sure, it was fun to have that guy Mario spouting off to the rest of your Vice City gang, but wouldn't it have been even better to have him actually go with you on a mission? While we don't get Mario, we do get guys like Big Smoke, the heavy-set, prophesying, loyal but lazy gangster. Or consider Ryder, the Eazy-E looking dude who always talks trash and has a new crazy, half-baked idea (pun intended) every time you see him. There are plenty more than this, though, and you can bet that there's a ton of dialogue to go around between CJ and his crew while you're out making money and doing bad things.
All of these characters are personified with excellent voice acting talent, although this time it's not a fully star-studded cast. While the aforementioned Chris Penn and Samuel Jackson are the first Hollywood voices you'll hear, James Woods, Charlie Murphy, Peter Fonda, David Cross, Ice T, and others lend their efforts to various roles. The Grove Street gang is mostly made up of relatively unheard-of newcomers (including the lead role of CJ played by rapper Young Maylay), but their talents are great and the characters are just as good as the rest in the game - if not better.
It's not just your gang that's seen improvements this time around, though - the main character himself has been expanded. CJ has his own personal RPG-style statistics that control how fast he can run, how long he can huff it on a bicycle, the damage and accuracy of weapons he fires, how hard he can punch, and many other things. If you want to deck him out in an outfit, you can pick up each piece separately - almost like The Sims gone South Central - and then go back to your wardrobe at home whenever you want to mix and match whatever you've already bought. And many of the residences you can buy include a wardrobe, so you can pick out your clothes no matter what safehouse you're at.
GTA3 had an infuriating target system that made many of the on-foot gunfights a real pain. Vice City improved that system by adding a way to target nearby enemies, but even it was flawed; way too often, you'd wind up targeting a nearby pedestrian to your right instead of the guy with the gun ten feet in front of you. Again, Rockstar has recognized this and has made it much easier to take out the most threatening targets - while it's still not perfect in my opinion, it's now good enough that I just can't complain about it.
The car selection in San Andreas has been widened by a huge amount. Roll through Grove Street and you'll see a lot of older cars, including a few that are fully tricked out South Central style. There's also the rich area as well - if you've seen it in a rap video, you're likely see something similar to it in this game. The addition of several small towns also comes with some farm equipment you can drive, which adds even more hilarity to your rampages that involve jumping on a tractor to get away from the cops.
If you've got a favorite model of car, you can even trick it out just how you like. You can add hydraulics, paint jobs, rims, new bumpers, and other elements to almost any car you can fit into the mechanic's garage. This ain't The Fast and the Furious though - while you can put a bit of nitrous in there for a boost, you can't put any goofy neon on your car. And in this game, I don't think I'd want to; that sort of style simply does not fit. The thing is, cars are still as disposable as ever, so it's really only to have fun with after you've made so much money that you have no idea what to do with it.
The game's atmosphere overall is much different than any previous GTA game. It's much more overtly racial, and the game's language goes along with it. If you're offended by the N-word, even if it comes from a black man, then this game may not be for you. And while Rockstar decided to not use the F-word at all in Vice City, at least as far as I remember, that's certainly not the case with San Andreas. The cussing is a little overboard here, but the dialogue is still entertaining and actually pretty good stuff - especially compared to most games' voice acting. If you've seen some earlier John Singleton movies, then you can reasonably expect the type of atmosphere you'll see at the start of GTA:SA. The nice part is that the game doesn't rely on the soundtrack to generate so much of the atmosphere; the city and its characters contribute a larger portion of that work. This is in contrast to Vice City, which in my opinion, relied too much on the atmosphere to make up its 80s style.
There are hundreds of little touches in this game that put a smile on my face. The soundtrack is heavier on the rap side this time, and the 1992 setting ensures plenty of gangsta rap from back in its heyday. You can expect to hear artists of that day like Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Snoop Doggy, Ice Cube, and many more, but there's also a station specifically for classic rap as well. On top of that, we still get plenty of Seattle grunge & other alternative rock, reggae, and pop music, and even a country station. The hilarious fake advertisements are back in full force, and various radio personalities will even announce upcoming changes to the weather as well as comment on recent happenings in the game world. And speaking of radio personalities, Axl Rose, Public Enemy's Chuck D, Andy Dick, DJ Lazlow, and George Clinton all contribute work to the game's radio stations.
The little additions don't end there, though. Now, CJ can talk to people in the street with a rudimentary "yes" or "no" response, which can be used to woo women, start fights, or just chat with your own gang members. It's not a full fledged conversational system, of course, but the inclusion of this as well as all the other little things make for a game that will last literally months for gamers who simply must do and see everything.
Other additions like bicycles, tattoo parlors, gambling, playing pool (complete with mostly-accurate physics), dual-wielding submachine guns, swimming and diving in water, motorcycle cops, expanded flight options, blinding spotlights from police helicopters, a few classic playable arcade games and more feel right at home in the GTA world. Rockstar has done a great job picking up on what mini-games and other new things to throw in while budgeting out the time it took them to put all this stuff in.
For a minute, let's consider a game like the recent Xbox RPG Fable where the developers announced a ton of features that never made it into the game. Compare it against GTA:SA where so many features were included but kept totally secret. Before the game was released and before info on the leaked internet copy got out, did you even know that San Andreas has a rudimentary two-player cooperative mode? Sure, it's not a major feature, but it is a load of fun for a while and it's awesome to have something like that sprung on you in mid-game. What I'm trying to say here is that too much hype and information does affect how a game is received by both gamers and critics, and Rockstar has perfectly balanced the release of information with keeping a lid on a whole lot of the new stuff they added.
For some reason, Rockstar made sure that almost every screen shot released for the game showed off the hazy, orange sunset in Los Santos. It led some gamers to believe that the whole game actually looked like that all the time - rest assured that it does not. In fact, the other areas of San Andreas don't look anything like it, as they have their own weather behavior. The city of San Fierro, which was styled after San Francisco, even has extra fog and rainfall which are staples of the real life city. The Vegas-inspired Las Venturas is dry and sunny most of the time, which also mimics the weather seen in the real city of sin.
I'm not a huge fan of Sony, and I really wish this game didn't debut on the PS2; can gamers really deny that the PS2 is old hardware that needs to be retired soon? We're nearing the end of this console cycle, and developers are finding out that they're not able to put in all the cool stuff they came up with simply because of hardware limitations. The screenshots you see here of GTA:SA are not really representative of what you see in game - those are screenshots pulled off the hardware directly by Rockstar, and on a TV, the game doesn't look near as sharp. If only progressive scan were an option...
Just like most PS2 games (as well as the previous GTA titles on the PS2), progressive mode support for HDTVs is completely missing. There is a widescreen option, but this game simply begs to be seen in some sort of high resolution or definition - that'll have to wait until the game gets ported to the PC next year at least. It just seems in so many ways that Rockstar was limited much more by the console the game's running on rather than their budget, development time, or imagination. I can't even fathom what they'll manage to do with the next generation of consoles, because Rockstar still put a staggering amount of content into GTA:SA even on the modest PS2 platform.
Even though you just caught me trashing the PS2, I can't deny that San Andreas still has some of the best visuals in just about any game I've seen. While the textures aren't especially sharp and the frame rate would have been undoubtedly better on the Xbox, the sheer amount of effort put into this game makes it shine. Not only are the rain effects vastly improved, but the draw distance has been increased significantly, a heat haze shows up for those extra-hot days, and there's also a new blur effect that happens whenever you travel at high speed. The blur isn't near as good as Burnout 3's, but when you add all this stuff up to everything else in the game (and the fact that you can do almost anything that was done in Vice City in an expanded form), it's beyond impressive.
While I absolutely loved Vice City, I of course had my complaints. The land was dismally flat with less of a focus on stunts and the like, and there seemed to be a distinct lack of houses and residential areas compared to all the businesses and other buildings in the city. The city layout was a bit unrealistic overall, especially when one considers that the city was supposed to spread out over an island and a chunk of mainland - what we got was two separate big islands with a few smaller ones in between.
These issues are simply not present in GTA:SA, as neighborhoods sprawl out over multiple square miles in Los Santos. Of course, the San Andreas area does wind up being one huge island itself, as this is the best-looking way to stop players from just picking a direction and walking forever, but the expanse is still many times the size of Vice City.While frame rates have been very slightly improved, and slowdown has been minimized a bit beyond what we saw in Vice City, I still wish this game had debuted on the Xbox or PC where we could get much better frame rates.
The only other major issue I have with this game has to do with the characters' hands during cutscenes, which is a pet peeve for me and has been a problem ever since the series moved to 3D with GTA3. For some reason, the developers continue to refuse to give the characters distinct fingers, so the cutscenes look like they're played out by well-animated GI Joes. Don't get me wrong; otherwise, the animations are near-perfect and the models are fairly well detailed, but I can't stop noticing everyone's terrible hands with their big stuck-together fingers.
The next thing I'd like to address is how this game will go over in the media. This game is going to get Rockstar in much bigger trouble than Vice City's Haitian issue ever did, because this game hits much closer to home for many players. You play as a black guy who does so many of the things that racists somehow manage to think black men love to do - beat people up, kill them if he has to, rob, steal, and carjack. Some might say that this is what the guys at Rockstar actually think themselves. I don't believe that one bit, though, especially considering that the last two games had white guys doing many of the same things. Even though the crimes that are new to this game are actually generally lesser in severity, the fact that a person of color is doing them in this game will (in my prediction) generate a huge uproar in the media.
With new activities like stealth kills and robbing houses, the variation of crime that you can get into has also been rounded out in a way with San Andreas. You've been able to murder in cold blood and beat up random people in the street since the very first Grand Theft Auto, but I have a feeling that this one will generate the biggest stink of them all. The realism added to GTA:SA and and larger range of criminal activities, including stuff like theft and robbery that real people might be more willing to do (rather than, say, killing someone in the street) will probably get a good chunk of media attention. The GTA series' crimes were always on the extreme side, but now there's an intermediate host of bad things to do, and this might wind up hurting Rockstar - or it might just generate even more sales for the game. It depends on what Senator Lieberman manages to pull off from the perspective of game bans and other regulation over the next couple of years.
I could go on about all the things that people want in a GTA game that Rockstar hasn't delivered yet; online multiplayer is probably the biggest of them all. I think that eventually Rockstar will tackle this, but I also think they'll likely want to put a huge amount of effort in and do something much more substantial than the current two-player cooperative mode. I can't blame them for continuing to avoid online play, though, as it's not like the GTA series is dropping in sales or anything like that. My point is this: even without online gameplay, there's enough in San Andreas to be worth a dozen other similarly-priced games.
When I try to sum up what playing GTA:SA is like, I have trouble finding the words. I can jump into the game and do a hundred different things and get a completely unique result each time, although the prevailing ending is usually my death or arrest. The missions are even more involved, surprising, and even downright funny than the previous games in the series, and there are more of them this time than ever before. We get more mini-games, new secrets, improved characters, better realism, more random activities, and a massive game world to go and do all this in. I said that Grand Theft Auto 3 was a rare revolution in this industry, and that it is one of only a few that I really can pick out and say that it changed the way I thought about games.
While I can't say that GTA: San Andreas is another revolution in gaming like GTA3 was, it is an evolution that goes light years beyond what we saw with the last two titles in the series. Yes, I have become a shameless fanboy of the GTA series, and I expected a lot from San Andreas. I got what I expected and way more than that.