GTA: San Andreas

Here's my review for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for the PC, by Rockstar Games. Note that I won't be getting into the sex mod, or whether or not videogames cause violence, etc. That's not the purpose of a game review.

You play the role of Carl Johnson, AKA CJ, an "African America" who was raised in the streets of San Andreas, but later moved to Liberty City. During the prologue, CJ gets a call from his brother, "Sweets", informing him that his mother recently died. CJ takes the next flight to San Andreas to attend the funeral.

While in a cab from the airport, CJ gets pulled over and arrested by officer Tenpenny (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Officer Pulaski (played by Chris Penn). They take CJ's money, and put him the car, his luggage still in the trunk of the cab. Then the officers basically imply that they're going to blackmail him, having "found" CJ carrying the gun used in the murder of another police officer. Later on, CJ'll be force to run some errands for the officers, but for now, they drop you off in the middle of Ballas territory and drive off.

This is where the game starts. You're expected to control CJ to get him back to his old home, where his brother Sweets awaits. This first mission is a tutorial mission in that it teaches you all the controls, and the basics of combat; you see, you used to be part of the Grovers gang, five years ago when you were still living in San Andreas. The Ballas are a rival gang and will shoot at you upon sight.

I found the this mission to actually be surprisingly hard. I mean, here I am, a relatively hardcore gamer, and I'm familiar with the general controls and rules of the Grand Theft Auto series of games, and yet I died during this first mission: I had to pedal my bicycle like mad while a group of Ballas followed me in a car, shooting their uzis. I passed it on the second try, but why did they have to make the tutorial so hard? The other missions were generally easier.

San Andreas gives you the type of gameplay you'd expect from a GTA type game. You get to run around, car jack people, drive around, run people over, etc. If you find guns, you can start shooting at people too, but if you cause too much mayhem, your "wanted" meter will start to fill, and the police will start actively pursuing you. The wanted meter is on a scale from 1 to 6, and by 3 they'll start sending helicopters with turrets after you. At 5, expect the FBI, SWAT to start showing up with armored vans, urban tanks respectively. I never got to six, but based on my experience with past GTA games, I'd guess the military starts getting involved.

The game world is pretty big (though nowhere as big as Morrowind), and there are virtually no loading screens. At first, the bridges will be "closed under construction" to prevent you from entering other portions of the map too early, but even once you've unlocked all the areas, you can drive from city to city without seeing "please wait..." There are a few loading screens, particularly when you enter buildings (I guess the interiors and exteriors of the buildings are contained in two different files), and there's a loading screen when you take a plane back to liberty city.

Also like previous GTAs, this game is very mission based. That is to say, to actually progress through the game, you'll have to find markers (which look like red glowing cylinders that you're expected to stand inside of) which will trigger a cutscene explaining what the mission is (along with some background story), and then the mission will start. Failing the mission, or even dying during a mission, will essentially cause the game to be reset to the state before you entered the mission, minus all your items and some of your money as a penalty. As such, you never need to save your game except when you decide to call it a night and stop playing until tomorrow.

There is some effort in creating the feeling a "living, breathing world" in that you'll see pedestrians walk around or drive around. Occasionally two pedestrians will see each other and greet and have a (very short) conversation. You might also see some drivers pull over, park their car and get out or police officers chasing someone other than you. When a fire occurs, a fire truck will arrive shortly to put it out, and similarly for injured people and ambulances.

Unfortunately, the illusion isn't perfect. For example, if you actually sit to listen to the whole conversation between two pedestrians, it'll probably sound something like "Oh, hey! How's it going, what's up?" "Hi! I'm doing great, thanks." "Well, see ya later!" "Okay, seeya!". Also, when someone parks their car and get out, you can just get in and drive off right in front of them, and they won't react. If you just slightly graze a police officer's car, you'll get at least a wanted level, and the officer will get out to arrest you, but if another driver slams right into the side of a police car at 120 miles per hour, the officer will largely ignore it. If you point a gun at a pedestrian, they'll freeze and raise both hands in the air, but if you point a gun at a driver, he'll ignore you.

It's been a while since I've played the other GTAs, but it really seems like the handling of all the vehicles in San Andreas are really horrible. The car skids and looses control at very low speeds, which makes some of the missions (particularly the ones which say "make sure you don't damage the car at all") very frustrating. Equally frustrating is that the cars in front of you will just change lanes for no apparent reason and without signaling, making traffic accidents a very common occurrence. The AI of the drivers isn't all that great, and you'll often have trouble, for example, backing up your car into a parking spot because a whole queue of cars will line up behind you. Being computers, you could just sit there for hours, and they will never think to temporarily go into the oncoming traffic lane to pass you.

That being said, although I think the game mechanics (e.g. driving around) are poorly done, the story more than makes up for it. I didn't notice any of the above annoyances while actually playing through the main part of the game. Or more accurately, I noticed them, but managed to tolerate them, because the story was so engrossing. In addition to the writing, I think a lot of the experience has to do with the talent of voice actors. In addition to the two officers mentioned above, San Andreas also has a sleazy government agent (played by James Wood), a conspiracy theory hippy nut (Peter Fonda), a toy-model Otaku (David Cross) and a lawyer with a drug addiction problem (William Fichtner); all very memorable characters. James Wood's character, "Mike Toreno", in particular I felt was very well played. Very reminiscent of his role as Hades in Disney's Hercules. Unfortunately, there were two scenes where I felt the voice acting was very lacking. The first occurs when you're trying to plant cocaine into the trunk of a DA's car. When he says "But... I've never seen these drugs before", that is quite possibly the worst voice active I've ever heard in any video game ever. I just couldn't understand how Rockstar, who could afford to hire Samuel L. Jackson, couldn't afford to rerecord that line, preferably with a different voice actor. The second time bad voice acting creeps up is at the very end of the game. Actually, it's more of an issue of bad writing. Samuel Jackson was giving some pretty cheesy lines, I guess in an effort to make him seem like one of those "misunderstood bad guys", but I knew they were bad, and it sounded like Jackson knew they were bad too, the passion for delivering a great performance replaced with the embarrassment of having this dialog staining his career.

Upon further reflection, I wouldn't say it was the story that was great so much as it was very easy to get attached to all the characters. Each mission is associated with a particular character, and when you like the characters, it's very easy to justify trying to actually complete the mission. That's not to say that the missions aren't fun in and of themselves. The missions are generally well designed, though there were a lot of issues with the controls. The camera, for example, is pretty horrible when you're driving. It floats behind the car, low to the ground. At that angle, your car itself pretty much blocks your entire view of the center of the screen, and so it's very easy to not see, for example, a police car in front of you, and to ram right into its rear, increasing your wanted level, and generally making whatever you were trying to accomplish more difficult. E.g. instead of simply "kill the bad guys", it's not "kill the bad guys while avoiding the cops". And God help you if you try to kill the cops to get them off your back; that'll just raise your wanted level further, sending yet more cops on your tail.

Anyway, the game lets you control the camera using the mouse, but it's rather difficult to drive with your left hand and simultaneously controlling the camera with the mouse. That'd be like acting in a movie and being the cameraperson at the same time. In general, it feels like GTA:SA was designed with the Playstation controller in mind. For the flying missions in particular, you generally need both hands just to maneuver your vehicle. If you had a PlayStation controller, you could just control your vehicle using both thumbs, each thumb on an analog stick. Instead, with the keyboard, your entire hand is dedicated to steering (plus you lose analog control), so when you want to, for example, acquire a targeting lock and fire a missile, you'll have to temporarily let go of one of the controls, possibly causing your helicopter to suddenly veer in an unexpected direction and crash into the wall of a skyscraper. Not so with the Playstation controller, if you had your index and middle fingers free to hit the shoulder buttons. Similarly, the camera is especially brain dead when you're piloting a helicopter, often pointing in the reverse direction from that in which you're flying. Again, you can fix this by taking manual control of the camera, but when you're in a situation where there are trees nearby, it's very difficult to find a good time to quickly let go of the piloting controls to adjust the camera, then quickly come back and grab the controls again.

Another big annoyance in the game is requiring you to eat. San Andreas adds some RPG elements to the GTA series, giving you stats such as strength, stamina, driving skills, weapon skills and so on. If you don't eat regularly, your body gradually loses strength and stamina, and eventually health until you die of starvation. Time in GTA progresses at a 60:1 ratio; that means, every 1 second of real life time that passes means 1 minute of GTA time has passed. Eating 3 times a day in GTA means eating 3 times every 24 minutes in real life, or once every 8 minutes. That's just really fucking annoying. Worst yet, there isn't a "hunger meter" anywhere in the stats screen. There's no way for you to know how hungry CJ is. Just, all of a sudden a text message will appear saying "You're losing strength due to hunger" at which point you have to sprint as fast as you can to the nearest restaurant, less you waste those weeks you spent buffing yourself up. Eat too much, and CJ will puke all over the floor. I'm guessing the crew at Rockstar enabled the "never get hungry" cheat during beta testing, and never realize what an annoyance eating would be in "real" gameplay.

San Andreas has a lot of minigames. When you go into a casino, every machine you see in there works. You can play slot machines, video poker, black jack, roulette, spin-the-wheel, etc. Similarly, you can go into bars or convenience stores, and if you see an arcade machine in the corner, it'll actually work (though the games will typically be very simplistic, e.g. asteroids). There's also a DDR like mini-game, where you have to hit arrows in time with music when you go to a night club. If you've had the experience of playing DDR though, this game will probably drive you crazy, as the arrows are visually completely off synchronization. The game determines timing based on the music, not the position of the arrows. It's playable, but painful if you've played better dancing games.

I've always had problems, in the previous GTAs, with navigating around the city. San Andreas has alleviated the problem a lot, with a much more logical layout of the streets; though at some intersections (particularly near onramps onto highways), it may not always be obvious which way a road leads. Getting lost is a big problem when you drive around in the country side though, with the roads winding around and between mountains; quite often, you'll be at an intersection, and you'll know that you've got to generally head "eastward", but take the turn that points most closely to east, and you'll that road very probably eventually curving around to face the opposite direction, leading you west. There are a few road signs, but these are typically very terse and much less informative than signs you'd see in real life. Being a fictitious world, I'd expect the signs in videogames to contain more information than the real world does.

One final issue is that the game makes some assumptions about the order in which you play the missions. For example, part way through the game, one of your friends will be arrested and put in jail. Then later on, another friend tells you to go complete the "driving school" mission. Well, that mission was optional and I found it really difficult, so I forgot about it. In fact, I procrastinated on it so long that I actually beat the game before trying it again (yes, you can keep playing even after you beat the game; beating the game here means completing all the plot-oriented missions). Well, during that driving school mission, they referred to the friend still being in jail, even though he was long freed since the end of the game.

As for the music, the game takes place in 1992, and it wants to set a "gansta" mood, so you'll have songs by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. You can also change the radio station to hear some euro-house/trance type stuff, a talk show channel, a rock channel (where "Welcome to the Jungle" plays), an alternative rock channel and a country music channel. On the PC version, there's also the "User channel" where you drop some MP3s or OGGs into a folder, and they'll get randomly played on the user channel, interspersed with commercials. The commercials are really funny, so you could even just not put any MP3s or OGGs in the folder so that the user channel only plays commercials all the time.

I had a great time playing through the game. Supposedly, the GTA series has great replayability value 'cause the world is "open-ended". Maybe that might be for the other GTAs, but I didn't feel like playing San Andreas any further. I didn't reach "100% secrets unlocked" with San Andreas; usually when a game has a percentage meter like that, I fanatically try to get everything. In San Andrea's case, this meant finding all the secret pearls hidden in the oceans, and all the hidden horse shoes hidden around town, spray painting over all the rivals graffiti (which may also be hidden in hard to find places), buying all the properties and turning them into businesses (sort of like a monopoly mini-game that takes place over all of San Andreas), and conquering all the territories to re-establish dominance of your gang. If this game were as fun as, say, Soul Calibur II, I'd probably spend an extra couple of weeks trying to accomplish all that, but the sad reality is it's not that fun.

Yes, the world is "open-ended" under the definition that the people who tout that term give it. However, this world is frustratingly stupid and annoying, giving the bad driving AI as discussed above. Sure, I could do "anything" I wanted to in this world, but I really didn't want to do anything there. I mean, running around shooting down innocent bystanders with an uzi gets old really fast. And trying to accomplish the oyster/horseshoe/property/territory sub-goals are just too frustrating with the weird road layouts in the country and the stupid drivers who don't signal during a lane change, causing your shitty-handling car to crash, flip over and explode with you in it. Play it once, and it's great. But then forget about playing it again; it just won't be fun anymore.

8.7 out of 10.

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