|The Grand Theft Auto series has become the series in which all others are judged by. No one could have guessed that a top-down, ugly looking game like the first GTA could be transformed into our generation's pinnacle franchise. After the successful launches of GTAIII and Vice City, Rockstar is back with the final installment of the series on the PlayStation2, and this ambitious project doesn't disappoint. |
San Andreas is every bit as expansive as Vice City and much, much more. The sheer size of the game's world is daunting the first time you peek at your map and see the amount of land you have left to explore. Never before has a video game offered up so many different ways to live out your virtual life, and allowed you to cover so much ground in the pursuit of your objectives. Controlling CJ through this world offers up so many rewards and such a rich storyline that even now, looking back on the game, I'm still not sure of just how much I missed.
San Andreas is split into three separate cities, Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas, each with its own personality and differentiating population. Los Santos is modeled after the war-torn streets of Los Angeles while San Fierro and Las Venturas are influenced by San Francisco and Las Vegas, respectively. You start things off in Los Santos fresh from boosting cars in Liberty City. Family turmoil has brought you back to your home turf, Grove Street, and once the game gets going, it really gets going. The storyline itself is full of betrayal, intrigue, drama, comedy, money, murder, and suicide as you make a name for yourself and the Grove Street Families.
One of the most promising aspects of the game is the ability to customize your experience by altering your character. While it may seem superficial on the surface, it actually comes into play during the course of the game. Located throughout the state are clothing stores ranging from low- to high-end. Pedestrians will respond to CJ differently depending on what he is wearing, but your threads are not the only thing to be customized. It is now required that your character actually eat, both to regain health and stamina. Eat too much fast food and Carl will become plump, he'll be able to run for a shorter distance, and be ridiculed by passers-by. Bulking up at the gym and eating salads will create a lean, mean killing machine that the ladies will be sure to notice.
Rockstar North packed San Andreas to the gills with mini-games and side-missions. Aside from the holdovers, you can now play pool in local bars, become the biggest pimp in the state, start gang wars, and, the biggest addition, gamble your earnings away in one of the many casinos in Las Venturas. There's so much stuff to do, it boggles the mind. Of course the collection quests are back, but instead of collecting packages, your tagging walls and seeking horseshoes.
Even with these new additions to the Grand Theft Auto formula, San Andreas, at its core, is still the game we have grown to love. You progress through the game by tackling a series of quasi-linear missions that both broaden the main narrative and serve as a back-story to future events. The game never forgets what you have done, so, early in the game, when you break into a prominent rappers studio and steal his rhyme book, don't be surprised to see him again later in the game, wishing he was dead. To further connect the game with previous ones in the series, look for a host of characters to appear who will look and sound strangely familiar. San Andreas is packing over 100 missions on the main quest, and that doesn't include side-objectives like Taxi, Vigilante, or Fire Truck missions. To put it bluntly, you'll be spending lots of time with this one. Over the course of the game you will explore all three cities searching out the nooks and crannies of each for the prizes that lie within and in-between.
You might think that the missions would get stale over the course of 50+ hours; yet, Rockstar North managed to change things up with each successive completion. Missions will have you following a speeding train, escaping from pursuing mobsters straight through a billboard, infiltrating a motel, stealing military vehicles, and driving around one of the most hilarious blind guys you'll ever meet. Variety is part of the GTA name, and San Andreas stays true. While earlier parts of the game feature quite a few "errand" type missions, as you progress you'll take advantage of every vehicle known to man (and one or two experimental ones) and they all handle excellently, even with the new physics engine.
Upon first booting up GTA: San Andreas you almost feel as though something may be wrong with your controller. The first car you enter is slipping and sliding all over the road and it won't take much to run over a passing police officer and get wasted ten minutes into the game. One of the many RPG-lite additions to the game is the ability to build up your skill level the more you perform a task. This comes in especially handy with weapons (which I'll get to later), but it also adds some depth to your driving skills as well. As you progress, and drive specific types of vehicles more and more, your ability to control them increases, which comes in especially handy on a motorcycle when you can crash head on into something and maintain your balance.
And since we're on the subject...
As previously mentioned, your weapon skills also increase as you use specific types. Brandish a SMG through enough firefights and you'll soon be able to go akimbo, packing double the heat and delivering double the damage. San Andreas's new aiming system does take some getting used to though, although once acclimated to it, you'll find it incredibly hard to go back to GTAIII or Vice City. All in all, the new scheme goes hand in hand with the newly refined controls both in, and out, of vehicles, and underwater.
One of the most awaited additions to San Andreas is CJ's ability to finally swim. Only you and your neighbors know how many times you died during a critical mission of Vice City by simply falling into the water, that won't happen anymore. In fact, some of the water-based missions are the most refined. Also coming over from Rockstar's Manhunt is stealth gameplay. Early in the game you're tasked with breaking into a heavily guarded mansion with only a knife to protect you. Using the shadows, and walking slowly, you shank the guards in the neck and escape with your life. It's this sort of changing-up that has kept the series fresh all these years. For those who didn't like Manhunt, or don't like stealthy gameplay, you'll have to grit your teeth through some of the levels, but in traditional GTA fashion, there's more than one way to complete an objective.
As with the latter half of Vice City, GTA progresses to a higher level of difficulty with multi-tiered missions that require lots of resources, quick reflexes, and perfect timing. Unlike the last couple of missions in the previous installment of the series, San Andreas doesn't seem quite as daunting when you're stuck, but you will get stuck. Things started to get hard for me when you are forced to learn to fly a plane, only to discover it controls like a Buick with one wing. Persistence is the key here, but there were times I just wanted to play Tetris to prove I wasn't completely inept.
While no game is perfect, San Andreas is as close as the genre has ever seen. Many will fault Rockstar for not tweaking the graphics too much on the surface. The "cartoon-like" representation of the characters is deliberate, but the game looks like a more polished version of Vice City (sans the neon). By default the motion trails are finally gone, and the draw distance is huge. Yet, there is still pop-up, and there are still the masking weather effects (like fog) used to hide these shortcomings. The world that Rockstar has created is massive, but not incredibly high in detail. Still, while I didn't have a problem with these aspects, there's bound to be some progressive nut-job who won't even look at a game that doesn't come-close to Half-Life 2 running on an X800 XT. The only faults that I could find with the game are the sometimes ridiculous difficulty level only to have it drop to newbie level on the next mission. Sometimes the simplest thing can kill you. I'm also going to fault the game on its soundtrack. While I came to like some of the stations (only 2 of them) the rest seem like a haven for obscure tracks that I had never even heard before. Coming off of Vice City's bar-setting soundtrack, where every station packed a memorable punch, San Andreas' soundtrack disappoints on many levels.
In the voice talent department, the game is able to make up its musical shortcomings by hiring an A-list cast of characters. The likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Penn, James Woods, David Cross, Peter Fonda, and Andy Dick all make their way into the game somehow. Notable standouts are Jackson, Woods, and up-and-coming rapper Young Maylay as CJ. The script is nearly devoid of those hokey lines that make you cringe (a la True Crime: Streets of LA) and full of life with each character standing out from the next.
San Andreas is such a massive undertaking that it would be impossible for me to touch on everything. There's the car customization, tattoos, delivery missions, two-player rampages, base jumping from buildings, flying Lear Jets with no boundaries stopping you, exploring the rural areas in between cities, finding every little hidden treasure that the employees at Rockstar may not even know about. If you were wondering if the latest installment could surpass the precedent set by the previous entries in series, wonder no longer, as San Andreas is easily the perennial game on the PlayStation2. While others may top it in graphics or sound, no one will ever top the immersive environment Rockstar North has created. If you own a PlayStation2, and you have even the slightest interest in the genre, this is a must buy game. Hell, I bought a PS2 to play Vice City and I'd do it all over again just to play San Andreas.
Buy this game. There's no further advice you need from me, or anyone else. If you skim over every paragraph above, and disregard everything I say, hear me now, San Andreas is required.