Not only is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the best game in the series, but also one of the best titles of its generation.
Grand Theft Auto III was a strongly influential title. The game had a compelling story, fully realized world, very cohesive soundtrack and provided the player with an immense amount of freedom. Its sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, improved on its predecessor by featuring a new setting, characters, vehicles (motorcycles and helicopters) and soundtrack. Those games had set the bar so high that a better game seemed pretty much impossible. Fortunately, not only is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the best game in the series, but also one of the best titles of its generation.
In the game, the player assumes the role of Carl “CJ” Johnson, a man who has been living in Liberty City for five years following his brother’s murder. Unfortunately, CJ receives the news that his mother has been killed so he decides to leave the East Coast to attend the funeral. As soon as CJ arrives to Los Santos, he’s stopped by two corrupt policemen who recognize him, steal all of his money and force him to assist them on illicit activities. From that moment on, CJ decides to avenge his mother and put the old gang back together.
GTA titles have always been compared to classic films. While GTA III is similar to The Godfather and Vice City is strongly connected to Scarface, San Andreas resembles newer films such as Boyz n the Hood. The influence of the movie has been reflected on the game’s protagonists, subject matter and most of all, in the setting. The game is set in 1992 in Los Santos, a fictional city based on Los Angeles, and CJ’s neighborhood genuinely reflects the culture surrounding gangs and rappers.
Additionally, the rest of the city features important landmarks such as the US Bank, Los Angeles City Hall, Union Station, Mann Chinese Theater, LA Convention Center, Whiskey a Go Go, the Hollywood sign (called Vinewood sign in the game,) Los Angeles International Airport, Capitol Records building and Santa Monica Pier, among many others. The same can be said about the other two locations: San Fierro (based on San Francisco) and Las Venturas (based on Las Vegas.) As usual, Rockstar has done a tremendous job creating these regions and they have definitely replicated the vibe of the real cities. Walking along the main strip in Las Venturas and driving over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fierro will definitely amaze those who have visited those places in real life.
The different places feel like a genuine part of a living, breathing world. Not only is San Andreas’ open world much bigger than any other featured in previous iterations (the map is 13.9 square miles or 36 square kilometers,) but also moving from one place to the next to admire the architecture is simply delightful. To give you an idea of how large the map really is, San Andreas is almost four times as large as Vice City and five times as large as GTA III.
But apart from a different story, characters and setting, there have also been some changes in the core structure of the game, including the missions. An extremely welcome addition is the fact that most undertakings are now frustration-free. No longer will you have to retry the same mission over and over again until you succeed since the difficulty has been toned down significantly. Overall, the learning curve is much gentler when compared to previous games in the series, but players in need of a challenge will still be satisfied with the general mission structure.
There are multiple reasons why the missions feel much more compelling now. First, the inclusion of new vehicles (such as bicycles, a combine harvester and a street hover trailer) adds variety to the missions. The melee combat (which is much deeper than the one from previous GTA games) has been completely redesigned, allowing the player to perform a wide variety of combos that can be learned at the gym. Furthermore, the basic lock-on system has received a significant overhaul that makes it much more intuitive and enjoyable.
Also, for the first time in the series the main character can swim. No longer will you fall into a river or the ocean and watch helplessly as your character moves his arms uncontrollably to then drown. CJ can swim skillfully, but if he decides to go underwater, a new bar showing his lung capacity will appear onscreen, showing how much time he has left before he starts receiving damage. Furthermore, jumping in front of reachable walls allows CJ to climb and jump over them.
But apart from many superficial additions, San Andreas incorporates some really deep role-playing elements. Every time your character receives damage he’s more likely to get more health, every time he trains at the gym he improves his physical strength, every time he drives he upgrades his driving skills and so on. There are dozens of statistics to take into account and it’s good to know that they were implemented in a very subtle way. However, the game will warn you that a given mission can’t be undertaken if you haven’t trained your swimming skills or if you haven’t gone to the gym more often.
The wide variety of skills is staggering. Your character can eat to get fatter, dress nicely to attract the attention of members of the opposite sex, go to the gym to learn fighting techniques, run to increase stamina and so on. Also, physical changes like changing clothes or going to the barbershop are reflected on the main character’s appearance (even in the in-game sequences) which adds a nice personal touch to your playthrough. Moreover, for every mission that is finished successfully, respect is learned. Respect is necessary to get more gang members who can accompany you on various missions. Although in theory this sounds great, in practice, their AI leaves a lot to be desired.
Then there are myriad mini-games such as basketball, arcade machines (which pay homage to classic titles such as Gradius,) gambling (roulettes, slot machines,) shooting galleries, driving school tests, pilot tests, low rider competitions, events (8-ball races, destruction derbies) and more. Regarding extra missions, there are valet and trucking, along with the regular R3 missions which include vigilante, fire truck, ambulance and taxi.
Another system that has made a debut in this title is the dating simulator in which a girlfriend can be taken out on dates. Once you have done this a couple of times, you can go dancing and play a DDR-like rhythm mini-game. The basic structure of these missions is pretty straightforward: you pick her up, go to the place of her preference (either a bar or a fast food restaurant,) take her back to her house and the whole process can be repeated as many times as you want. It’s worth pointing out that this is one of the missions that can be played cooperatively with another player (albeit the PC version lacks this option) and even though the multiplayer mode sounds pretty compelling, it isn’t what most people want out of a GTA multiplayer mode.
There are also enemy gangs in Los Santos and when the player manages to provoke them, members of opposing factions attack in waves. If you manage to survive all three of them, a new territory, which generates more revenue as time goes on, is granted to you. Controlling different parts of the city also means that you have to protect them when enemy gangs make an attempt to get them back.
I can’t finish this review without making reference to GTA: San Andreas’ audio department. First of all, voice acting is just spot on. Many celebrities were casted to perform the voices of some of the game’s characters, but even when some actors stand out more than others (Andy Dick, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Ice T,) the voice work is just exceptional. Second of all, the radio stations are back and eleven of them have been featured in the game. Each one of these has music from one particular genre (classic rock, alternative rock, modern hip hop, classic hip hop –whatever that is- country, funk and so on) and the soundtrack has been solidly put together. All stations have a DJ (my favorite has to be the Axl Rose,) the tongue-in-cheek commercials are hilarious, the progress you make in the game is reflected in the news and Laslow has returned as a presenter.
Sadly, the game isn’t without its flaws, most of them technical. Although rare, loading times are excruciatingly long. Also, as in most sandbox titles you’ll encounter some annoying bugs (albeit none of them game-breaking.) Lastly, even though some mechanics have been improved, a few of the missions are still mildly frustrating.
GTA San Andreas is everything you’d expect from a sandbox game and much more. Apart from the sheer amount of content the title has to offer (which is simply baffling,) it’s great to know that the cohesive nature of the series has been impeccably translated to this iteration. In the end, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a delicately crafted adventure and everyone who plays it will remember it for years to come.