Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PlayStation 2) Review
Grand Theft Auto III didn't quite hold my interest. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City had me playing until the end, but part of me felt unsatisfied with the fact that nothing had really been changed to a large extent from the first in the trilogy. When San Andreas was released, it was with skepticism that I played it at first, but that feeling of doubt quickly faded once I got past the first couple missions.
The story follows Carl Johnson, a former gang member of the Grove Street Families of Los Santos (a parallel of Los Angeles and Hollywood). Carl returns home after years of living on the East Coast upon hearing that his mother has died. Immediately thereafter, he's thrown into another whirlwind of gang violence and drug wars. This time, however, things are different from before; enemy gangs make deals with corrupt cops and foreign weapons dealers, friends become enemies, and so on.
The story of San Andreas, while fairly standard to the franchise and not terribly deep in its presentation, works. It really conveys a feeling of being a 90s gang movie about California, and it fortunately doesn't always take itself too seriously in that respect. There's the guy working at a fast food restaurant with aspirations of becoming a rap artist even though he can't rhyme and has no sense of rhythm, and the pimp who tries far too hard to act tough and intelligent to his peers. There are also a lot of amusing side characters, like a nerdy teen running a toy store, who makes the odd reference to science fiction films like Star Wars. Unsurprisingly, the sense of humor the series has become known for is ever present in San Andreas.
Story aside, let me address the graphics. While the graphics haven't significantly improved from Vice City, the change is very noticeable and a welcome one. The character models have finally begun to look like people rather than walking assortments of wooden polygons tacked to one another. The environments have improved by a fairly large margin, and now grass is shown as more than a flat green plain with flecks of other color here and there. Cars look sleeker and less blocky than many of their Vice City counterparts, and even the wear-and-tear vehicles show as they take damage has improved to a large extent.
Unfortunately, as a result of some of the design choices that were made in production, the graphics still seem to fall short of what they might have been. Due to the nature of the expansive playable area and that it's all one area (rather than being broken up into individually-loaded sections), there is a good deal of graphical slowdown, most noticeably when there's a lot going on in a mission or a city street. Some of the textures also appear choppy and muddy at times, even flickering in and out when characters and objects move. Another issue that seems prevalent in both III and Vice City before it is the sheer brightness of lens flares when facing the sun as it rises or sets. This may add to the "realism" of the world, but it comes off as more of an annoyance when you're going full-speed down a highway and crash into something you couldn't see because of the sun in your face. Why Rockstar hasn't bothered to address the issue yet is anyone's guess, but we'll leave that for them.
The gameplay has been improved to a large extent. Many times in Vice City I was faced with the predicament of being unable to swim at all, sometimes in water that was hardly up to my character's chin; he would begin to flail uselessly and sink to his death. Needless to say, it was a huge relief to find that Rockstar finally gave players the ability to swim and hold their breath. Another little detail I found to be a nice touch was the ability to jump and climb over or on top of things. In the previous games, trying to jump onto a ledge would result in you leaping forward and into the obstacle, probably losing a couple points of health in the process. It was obviously quite a relief to find that I could actually climb over that fence or on top of that house for a better vantage point in San Andreas.
One other issue I had that was addressed in this installment was the combat. It is true that San Andreas's gunplay and brawling mechanics aren't something to be impressed by, but in comparison to those of Vice City and III, they're a triumph. Added functions in gunplay include free-aiming while holding the R1 trigger and the ability to dodge roll aside. Most firearms also now automatically lock on, rather than some of the less desirable aiming means from Vice City, like the fully automatic weapons that were powerful but difficult to aim quite right.
The melee combat is perhaps the most easily noticed of the combat upgrades. Rather than the simple tactic of "mash Circle until something dies," players are now able to string attacks together and use other buttons like Triangle for quicker combos that deal slightly less damage. Also, instead of mashing Circle when an opponent is down in the hopes that you'll stop punching mindlessly and kick them while they're vulnerable, you can use the Triangle button to kneel in front of them and punch them repeatedly before they can rise. Another interesting feature is the ability to sneak up behind an enemy and stab them in the throat with your knife if you happen to have one on hand. This makes a lot of the stealth segments significantly easier, and at times it almost becomes a requirement to accomplish your goals.
Perhaps the most interesting addition to the formula was the stats system. Ranging from Muscle and Fat to Respect and Sex Appeal, stats not only govern your appearance but how you perform certain tasks and how you interact with other characters. For example, Respect gives you the ability to pick up members of your gang and form a group to fight with other gangs or just wreak havoc upon the streets of San Andreas, and Muscle governs your ability to deal physical damage to other characters in combat.
There a large number of places that you can tinker with your stats to alter your character Carl's build. At a gym, you can run or ride a stationary bike to increase Stamina, or lift weights to improve Strength. Also, you can visit a wide variety of restaurants and vending machines placed throughout the cities and countryside to keep yourself nourished. But watch out, because if you don't eat enough, you'll grow thin and begin to lose weight and muscle. This might have actually been emphasized too heavily, because if you don't eat several times in a single 24-minutes day (minutes are hours by GTA's clock), your Muscle will rapidly begin to diminish.
Sex Appeal opens up one of the larger side quest sections of the game, which is essentially a large dating simulator. There isn't a whole lot of depth to the dating game, but it'll keep gamers occupied for a while, if they have the patience to deal with the monotonous and repetitive missions most of the girlfriends offer-in fact, the only really interesting date missions Carl gets are from a "girlfriend" you date as part of the main storyline.
One of the more interesting facets of the stat system is Weapon Effectiveness, which governs how accurate and powerful your shots are. With some of the weapons, like 9mm handguns and submachine guns such as the Tec9, you gain the ability to hold two at a time at the highest level, doubling your damage output and costing you no extra ammunition. This in particular can be a life-saver in the more difficult missions and it's wise to try to get these maxed out as early as possible.
Another new and unique feature is the Driving stats. These cover your basic modes of transportation like driving, flight, and riding. With cars and trucks, your acceleration and turning are enhanced and you become a little less likely to flip your vehicle over while driving (it doesn't always help very much, but the thought was what counted). Increasing your ability with motorcycles makes you less likely to fall off when you crash into something as well as raising speed and handling by a bit. With flight, the concept is roughly the same as with driving and riding. This isn't to say that some cars aren't inherently terrible and others aren't immediately better. A Banshee or a Comet, for example, will always be better than a Manana or a Greenwood, but proficiency in the stat will at least allow you some leeway with your driving.
Speaking of which, San Andreas wouldn't be a Grand Theft Auto title without vehicles, would it? Fortunately, vehicles are in no short supply in San Andreas, with everything from the normal cars, trucks, and vans to the recently added helicopters and motorcycles. Rockstar North, however, has upped their game yet again, adding all sorts of outlandish things to the mix. There's farm equipment like tractors and combine harvesters, ATVs, monster trucks, bicycles, fighter jets that can fly like either planes or helicopters, hovercraft that move as easily on water as on land, and even jetpacks that serve as portable low-altitude helicopters. If nothing else, you won't be bored by the vast number of vehicles added to the variety.
One of the main criticisms San Andreas seems to draw from gamers is that it has too heavy an emphasis on rap music. While there is a fairly large number of rap stations, the majority of the stations are not rap. For instance, RADIO X is an 80s-90s alternative/grunge station featuring artists like Living Colour, Guns N' Roses, and Soundgarden; K-DST is a 70s rock station with hits like Heart's "Barracuda," Tom Petty's "Running Down a Dream, and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." Other stations include K-ROSE, a classic country station, and SF-UR, a house station with a particularly amusing DJ.
As expected, San Andreas's radio commercials and talk stations dole out the sarcasm and parody fans have come to expect of the series. "What could be habit-forming about a pill that makes you feel better all the time?" asks one commercial advertising a stimulant drug.
The voice acting isn't superb, but it's above your average B-list movie and even sports a couple of big-name actors like Samuel L. Jackson and James Woods (both of whom play hilarious characters). Not all of the dialog is very sharp and funny, but for the most part it's well-written, funny, and cynical, and there are a few hilarious exchanges and quips between Carl and characters like Catalina (Yes, the same from Grand Theft Auto III), Officer Tenpenny (main antagonist) and Caesar Vialpando (one of the more important supporting characters).
For fans of the Grand Theft Auto series, I can recommend San Andreas for its increased scale and amount of content. But for those who haven't played a GTA game yet, I would recommend it for the sheer amount of what you can do and the mindless and indiscriminate (or discriminate) violence you can bring down upon the State of San Andreas. Hate it or love, San Andreas is a fun game and a worthy installment to one of the most well-known franchises in gaming.