GTA: San Andreas
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2005) places you deep into the fictional city of Los Santos. You play Carl Johnson, known to most, as just C.J. He’s a guy who’s been away from the hood for five years, living it out in Liberty City. Returning back to the hood where he grew up he finds that things have changed. His homies don’t have the power they once had and he is quickly framed and blackmailed by Officer Tenpenny (voiced by Samuel Jackson). It is up to you to win back the respect for your family and clear your name.
Critics were not shy to praise this long, sprawling and epic game when it was originally released on Playstation 2. This console port has also accumulated many accolades and a warm reception from gamers. I have not played a Grand Theft Auto game since the second installment all those years ago. I approached this game with some expectation for all the hype (and controversy) it had generated. Strangely however, the game for me at least fell well short of what had been said about it.
Your task throughout the entire game is to complete a series of crazy missions ranging from spray painting walls to stealing fighter jets. There are three huge city maps to explore as you progress throughout the game. And when I say huge I mean absolutely enormous. The scale of the game is just so grand. It is tremendously impressive how the developers Rockstar have crafted these maps without a single load screen. You are free to explore these maps at your own will and as it has been documented there is a great variety of activities to do. You can buy new clothes, go to the gym, buy food, go to a casino and many more. Many of these contribute to your statistical points, one of the new additions to the GTA formula. Food for example will increase your fat level and as such lower your stamina.
The disappointment with these activities and statistics is how poorly they are implemented. As a novelty they remain a fairly cool surprise. Yet beyond this they are little more than just a novelty. Sure you have the option but really who is going to waste their time searching an entire map for a Taco restaurant? You never seem to have to worry about your statistics either. They seem to randomly increase and decrease throughout the game without your intervention. Your muscle for example will just decrease even while you’re swimming. The same is for your relationship with your girlfriend, one of the more ridiculous and pointless components of the game. Having not seen the old girl for many, many hours suddenly the progress with whatshername randomly increased – what the? People have spoken about the level of freedom that having clothing stores and food places give the game. Yet is it really a massively opened world? Many of the activities can only be accessed and unlocked after a certain time of playing the game. It really comes off as a bit of a cheat for a so-called freeform game. What is the point of having this huge open world if you’re going to say when the player can actually access it?
If you play the game as a linear sequence of missions to follow the “plot” though it doesn’t fare much better. Many of the missions don’t actually contribute to the story and it comes off disjointed at best. The game Mafia was infinitely superior in its storytelling with a much tighter plot. Everything you did made a powerful contribution to the way of life you had chosen and the story as a whole. Here it seems the developers are trying to be as silly and crazy as possible. I couldn’t help but feel that many of the tasks that I was being asked to do were just pointless. Towards the end of the game for example you’re told to steal a fighter jet and then go out and destroy some boats. This late in the game it just felt preposterous with no real motivation or reasoning at all.
There are many colourful characters to meet in the game but many of them seem to disappear for long periods of time and some really are better than others. The voice acting is quite solid all round though. Tenpenny, Samuel Jackson playing Jules from Pulp Fiction is a pretty cool villain while CJ remains likable, though I really wouldn’t call him a protagonist. He really does come across as a tool in the game with people always telling him what to do. The Truth – an aged hippy voiced by Peter Fonda – isn’t quite as great as you’d think either. While the paranoid CIA guy (James Woods) is just strange…I found it to be a real muddle and it really drops the ball quite a bit late by the second city. I began to lose track of who was who and what was happening. I really didn’t care all that much after a while. Some pretty snappy dialogue throughout aids the characters though. For the most part it is very funny. I think James Woods has one of the better lines when he reassures CJ: “You'll be back before you know it for a blow job and a baloney sandwich”. Though there remains a lot of gangster rapper talk which, as funny as it maybe, could be off putting for some (can you dig it?).
The core game play is made up of driving to a particular target, like sneaking into a mansion for example, collecting an item or killing someone, and then escaping. One of my biggest problems with the game is that there is a complete lack of a save system. You can save it at your safe house, which is fine, but then you have to drive all the way to the mission, activate it and then partake without a safety net. You can’t save it during the mission and there are no checkpoints. If you fail, well too bad, because you’re going to have to load and then drive all the way back again. This has got to be one of the most ludicrous design decisions I have ever seen in a game. The frustration I went through in having to reply levels over ten times was unbelievable. It is also incredibly annoying that once you’ve finished a mission you to have to drive back from the middle of nowhere to your save point. The country missions are the worst offenders of this. It becomes so tiresome and downright boring at times.
At least later in the game there are safe houses that can be purchased at little closer to the missions but it still remains a real drag especially since there isn’t even a restart mission button. It just makes the game feel artificially difficult and padded out. Why Rockstar would want to do this is a real mystery.
Its not like the game is short by any means. There are over a hundred missions as well as multiple side quests, including taxi missions, vigilante jobs and ambulance stages. It is enormous. Without the save system a lot of the fun of the missions is definitely sapped away though. What should be crazy and hilarious just becomes aggravating It’s a real shame. Yet the lack of a save is not the only reason why the game suffers. Having been ported from a console system the usual control problems have been inherited. While the game may work fine with a controller using the keyboard is at times a nightmare. Lets just say I have been put off ever wanting to fly a plane with this game.
The controls are often clumsy and awkward with the vehicles, particularly the aircraft. I actually had to walk away from the game at times. I don’t think I have ever, in ten years or so of gaming, thrown my hands up and said, “I can’t do this”. Not until I met the old San Andreas that is. I am still having nightmares about an optional mission called Supply Lines, where you have to control a remote control plane. At least the motor vehicles are a bit more enjoyable than the aircraft. My favourite is the motorbike. It can really glide along the streets and it makes for a smooth ride. Others however, like low rider cars, are again way too loose in their controls. Turn slightly during a chase and the car swerves way too much forcing you into a spin. It can be very annoying. I don’t think the cars are all that exciting in their design either compared to GTA II. At least some of those were a bit imaginative, distinctive and crazy. Here you have your fare share of hatchbacks, taxis, police cars and many more, nothing particularly special.
You will be doing a lot of shooting throughout the game and the gunplay is certainly better than the driving. It never reaches the heights of Max Payne though since it’s just so simplistic. Enemies, or lemmings as I like to call them, will often run straight towards your line of fire allowing you to take them down. There is no onscreen crosshair. Instead you have to hold down the right mouse button and then aim (preferably to the head). It feels a bit cumbersome at first but you will eventually get used to it and its fairly enjoyable. You are given a fairly conventional set of weapons including shotguns, machine guns, pistols, a chain saw, a knife, baseball bat and many others. They never really have a lot of crunch to them since the sound effects are a bit flat. The mini gun you use on a helicopter at once sounds more like a lawnmower with something stuck in it then a highly charged weapon. The only really tension from these gun fights is derived from the fact that you know if you fail you’ll have to start again, which is a bit of a copout.
I just wish the AI (Artificial Intelligence) wasn’t so…I’m trying to think of a nice way to put this…absolutely dreadful. This game has got to have some of the worst AI I have ever seen. Enemies will frequently run into walls and then run around in circles not realizing their path is blocked. Police officers don’t even seem to mind when you drive through a red light in front of them or walk right past them with a gun in your hands. I know it’s America but gosh you’d think they’d be tougher on these things. Even worse is when you hire a gang to take back the hood. You might as well have left them at home to watch MTV. Your homies will either get lost, fail to keep up with you, get run over, or most hilariously I suppose, just stop at the traffic lights looking bewildered. There was another fairly amusing moment of road rage when I stole a man’s truck. He leapt up off the road and then pulled out a golf club and began swinging at his own van only to continuously fall short of his target. He didn’t seem to mind though. It really is embarrassing at times.
Visually the game is again a really mixed bag. In all fairness it has been ported from a console game. Yet there really should have been much higher textures. Many look really flat and ugly and dull and buildings in particular are of the copy and past job. Despite this there is no doubting the effort of Rockstar to create such a detailed city. Streets are wonderfully compiled with tiny details like streetlights and cars and pedestrians. The lighting from the sun is quite beautiful too and the whole game does carry quite a stylish cartoon-like look about it. It just surprised me though for all the effort placed into these cities the interiors of the buildings are really lacking. You won’t go into them all that much but areas like a mansion for example are minute and never look or feel like what they’re supposed to be. There is also not enough furniture in these either. As silly as it sounds it looks just ridiculous to have the room of a mansion nearly empty with any furnishings. The character models in the cut scenes aren’t all that great either and don’t look well-animated, particularly compared to games like Half-Life 2.
If there were a strange compliment I could give the game it would be that San Andreas is strangely addictive in its awfulness. Despite all its problems I kept coming back to the game to try and finish it. (I eventually had to call it quits one mission from the end but that’s a different story). Perhaps it is the likeability of the characters or the potential that the game and series has for true greatness. With a proper save system, tighter story and improved AI there is much that Grand Theft Auto IV could amount to. Word yo!