Being a huge fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, I was one of millions who eagerly anticipated the release of GTA: San Andreas. What I've written here is The Good, the Bad, and the Great. To be frank, I'm both thrilled and disappoined with San Andreas. Never before has a game given me so much to be happy about while giving me so much to complain about.
Set in the early 90's, San Andreas stars Carl Johnson (CJ) as its hero, who returns to the city of Los Santos, San Andreas to see to his mother's funeral. There he finds that his old 'hood is over-run with drugs and rival gangs. He's framed for the murder of a cop by two other corrupt cops. CJ then strikes out to take back the streets, find out about his mom, and stop the flow of drugs to the streets.
The story, of course, ends up going far beyond this. I won't spoil it for those who have yet to play it, but I will say that it's likely the most substantial story of any GTA yet.
Story Score: 9/10
San Andreas sports some significant changes from its predecesors. First of all, the map is much larger than the previous two games. Instead of one city, there are 3, plus countryside in between. Plus, the loading times from area to area are gone. The game uses the same sort of technology that SSX3 used, where areas you approach are loaded in the background. This adds a plus in that you don't have to wait those few seconds going from one part of the map to another. There is also a downside that I'll deal with in the graphics portion of this review.
Rockstar has introduced some RPG elements to GTA this time around in the form of character stats and customization. CJ must eat, but if he eats too much fat, he gets, well, fat. CJ can buy different clothes, haircuts, and mods for cars. There are stats that keep track of CJ's muscle, stamina, respect, skills with different weapons and vehicles, and even his sex appeal. All this adds significantly more for you to do in San Andreas than missions, jumps and item collection. It can also be very distracting and take away from the storyline of the game. Also, many of the physical stats can be maxed out easily in the gym, making them pointless for the purposes of adding to the experience of the character. Really, some will like this apect of the game, others won't. I didn't. More important are the weapon and vehilcle skills. If you can achieve the highest level with certain weapons, you can now dual weild them. This is a great addition to the game. Also, as your driving, biking, and flying skills increase there is a noticeable difference in performance. This helps to make the difficulty of the game much more balanced.
Rockstar has improved the aiming system for this GTA, and borrowed the changes from its Manhunt game. My view is that the targetting and auto lock on system is worse in San Andreas, as CJ will too often target somone who isn't even a combatant, or end up shooting his weapon into the air. In Vice City, the lock on system seemed to be more intelligent.
While in Los santos, CJ can also recruit gang members tio follow him around. This really isn't implemented very well, because you must travel at a snail's pace on foot in order to have your homies keep up. It gets very annoying. They do come in handy sometimes though. Like in another new addition to the game, gang territories. These territories can be taken over by CJ and his homies through gang wars. Increasing your area of control increases your respect, and sometimes adds money to your coffers.
In one of the worst additions to the franchise, Rockstar has introduced girlfriends. Basically CJ is introduced to these characters via missions. He then can do dating missions, where he takes them out, does something they like, takes them to eat, and we even get a cutscene showing them romancing it up to cheezy music. This really was an unnecessary addition to the game, and the missions are rather boring and meaningless. You get rewards for your progress with the ladies, and that may be the only reason to bother with this aspect.
Beyond the addtions to the franchise, what you have at the game's core is much the same as in GTA III and Vice City. Missions, collectables, jumps, and so on. The missions, for the most part, are standrad GTA fare, and quite fun, as you would expect. The difficulty of some of the missions is a bit extreme, while others are laughably easy. In other words, just like GTA III and Vice City.
Gameplay Score: 8/10
Rockstar seems to have put in the effort to improve the graphics, although there is only so much that you can do with the game engine. In some ways the game looks better than Vice City did, but much of the time it is lost due to the fact that the PS2 really can't efficiently handle all the detail. So, you get fewer distance pop-ins, but mostly because the game's draw distance is much worse than Vice's was. This is most visable while in the air. Flying a helicopter or plane you will look down to see nothing but blue where a city should be, then see it slowly be drawn in, and with minimal detail. I'm unsure why this happens technically, because the graphical improvements aren't so great that this should happen. It may be that because the portion of the map that you are in isn't loaded at once as in Vice, instead the areas you are approaching and viewing in the distance load in the backgound. This is quite noticeable when driving very fast. You see the grass on the side of the road drawing in just ahead of you.
In spite of its flaws, Rockstar has made a game that truly looks great. Los Santos looks just like LA does. That yellow haze of smog that constantly blankets the city is done perfectly. San Fierro rips San Fran perfectly, with the fog, archetecture and terrain. Las Venturas could not mimic Vegas any better. The strip looks even better than the beach strip did in Vice.
Ultimately, I think that what Rockstar tried to do graphically with San Andreas was a bit too much for the system it is being released on. In some ways, by doing too much, the graphics end up looking worse than in Vice. The refections of the water, and the sunlight in your eyes. This was done perfectly in Vice, but in San Andreas when you get the sun in your eyes, the screen just washes bright orange. In other ways, like the reflections on undamaged cars, and on floors, San Andreas looks much better than Vice. On the whole, I think that its a step backwards. This likely will not be the case on a PC version, however.
Graphics Score: 7/10
One of the ways that Rockstar managed to take you back to the 80's in Vice City was with the music. It gave you a nostalgic feeling, and really put you back in the time. This time around, the game is in the early 90's. However, Rockstar has failed to achieve the same cohesive representaion of the era the game is set in. Fully half of the music in the game is not even from the early 90's. Much of the music that is 90s isn't presented in a logical fashion. The exception to this is the excellent "Radio Los Santos", which plays early 90s gansta rap, and has the perfect playlist. The early 90's rock scene was dominated by grunge and metal. Yet grunge is left out of the game for the most part. The "alternative"radio station, "Radio X" is all over the map. You've got 80's Guns n Roses, 90's Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and STP, Depeche Mode, and Ozzy all on the same station. It makes no sense. There is a classic rock station that plays music from the 70's and 80's, a classic 80s hip hop station, a soul station, an electronica station and a talk station. There's even a country station playing country hits from the 60's and 70's. None of this adds to the experience of being back in the early 90's. On the whole, the radio stations are a big disappointment in San Andreas. I'll go so far as to say that Rockstar really blew it. that's not to say that music is bad (although alot is). It just doesn't put you back in 1992.
The other sounds in the game get a better review. Especially the pedestrians. They stop, have conversations with each other, and even comment to CJ on his appearance. CJ can then respond back to them in kind. Very well done. The sounds of cars, planes, and other things are pretty much the same as previous games. That means that they are well done.
Sound Score: 6/10
The map in San Andreas is huge, and there is so much to do that even if you were to only tackle the main missions of the game, you would still get 25 hours out of it. If you love to explore, find collectables, do side missions or are one of those people that just has to get 100%, then we're looking at anything between 40-80 hours of playtime or more. Plus, all GTA games are replayable because its fun to just be in that environment. This time its replayability is enhanced by the character customization.
Playtime/Replayability Score: 10/10
Ultimately, if you are over 18, love videogames, and heaping doses of political incorrectness and foul language do not bother you, I would have a difficult time believeing that you would not enjoy this game. Its more than worth the sticker price. It has flaws, but many have to do with the system the game has been released on. Many aspects of this game are significant achievements in video gaming. I've had a ton of fun with it, and so will you.
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