canuckeh's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PlayStation 2) review

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Gangsta 'round the world. (100th review!)

I dislike Saint’s Row. I also dislike Saint’s Row 2. And generally speaking, I dislike every “gangster” game I’ve played so far that wasn’t Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. No matter how hard any of them try to be “satirical” or “crass” or “offensive”, I can never shake the feeling that this supposed tale of life on the ghetto was designed by a group of Silicon Valley dweebs who based their vision of the hood from clips of a Ma$e video. Thus, I’ve found that they can never be anymore humourous, believable or not-annoying than the white boy from the Pretty Fly for a White Guy music video.

That Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas feels somewhat like the real deal has to be considered a shocking achievement when you realize the game was designed in .

You play as Carl “CJ” Johnson. He returns to his home in the lower-mid-class part of Los Santos to bury his moms and be ridiculed, only for an unfortunate series of events to hurl him back into a life of crime and chaos. But fear not, true believers. This game makes rare attempts at portraying itself as a serious drama, and only does so at the most effective moments. Otherwise, this is the familiar brand of Grand Theft Auto tongue-ripped-out-of-cheek madness. CJ and his uptight brother Sweet feel like the only characters that go through any kind of character development, and the rest of the cast are the one-dimensional-but-appealing character archetypes that GTA bases its existence on.

For the first segment of the game, Carl and members of the Grove Street Families compete in missions to rebuild their gang in the face of their rivals, the Ballas gang. (A quick side note: names like “CJ”, “Ryder” and “Madd Dogg” could only feel hip in the early 90s, so this game knows how to be hip through being square) And in a very inspired move, the game’s villain is what I would suggest is the gangster’s most feared predator, the Scratchy to a thug’s Itchy; the police officer. Voiced perfectly by Samuel L Jackson, Officer Tenpenny is one of the most despicable antagonists in all of gaming, using his power to bully both the player and his cohorts into satisfying his agenda. It’s amazing how Square-Enix games spend 40 hours trying to rally a player against a supernatural god-like creature striving to destroy the universe and here’s Frank Tenpenny, earning the player’s disdain more effectively through a quick swipe of CJ’s wallet.

For your first few missions, the game eases you into some of the possibilities available to an aspiring thug. You can still rip drivers out of their cars, stomp a mudhole in their kidney, take their taxi and play the subsequent mini-game (which makes for a nice diversion, but you can’t make any CRAZY MONEY doing so). But you can also jack a bike and hurt yourself on a half-pipe. Or go to any number of Fast Food restaurant parodies and stuff your mouth until you develop a Notorious gut. Or hit the gym and mash buttons on the virtual bench press and obtain that musclebound physique designed to catch nine bullets. Or visit any number of other virtual establishments and try on different clothes, hairstyles and tattoos. Basically, the game lets you be the hustler you always wanted to be. While you’ll always be playing as Carl Johnson, you can customize your Carl Johnson to fit your style. Call him West Coast Sociopath Barbie.

Then you begin to get involved in the war on all things purple. The first set of missions take place in the suburban Los Angeles-styled Los Santos. You’ll shoot violet-sporting Ballas, have a kind-hearted drive-by or two, you’ll even engage in the odd street race. The shooting mechanics feel a bit primitive and you’ll yearn for Grand Theft Auto 4’s cover system, among many other things from Grand Theft Auto 4 that you’ll yearn for. (How I miss the “call a taxi” button.) Either you can freestyle-aim with the right analog stick or just lock on using the semi-reliable targeting system and shoot until the target falls down. The gunplay here is reliable enough to end lives properly, and the game isn’t as trigger-excessive as Saint’s Row. Likewise, you might not miss Grand Theft Auto 4’s driving mechanics, and the ability to turn left without having to slam the brakes in the same fashion you would slam someone’s head on the curb. Most of the missions involve some kind of challenge against the Ballas’ and their drug-pushing ways (yes, there’s a bit of an anti-coke message here. Don’t worry, CJ never points at the camera and dares the player to say no to drugs.) Sometimes they involve getting whipped around by Tenpenny. Sometimes they involve assisting the greatest poser-gangsta in all of gaming, OG Loc.

And just as the war on the seemingly army-like Ballas turns in your favor (it does feel like there are more Balla cronies than there are houses in Los Santos to hold them,) a surprise plot twist happens and Carl is thrown into the countryside. Suddenly, the game transforms from a tale of life on the streets to a wild, cross-country adventure, a criminal road trip if you will. It often feels as if the developers were asking themselves “what would be the most uncomfortable situations a West Coast gangster could find himself in, away from his natural habitat of urban decay?” The variety of mission objectives at this later stage is astonishing, as the game seems to always find some kind of new gameplay mechanic, vehicle, weapon or hippie to make each mission feel distinct. And there are about 100 of these missions! San Andreas is like some kind of super gaming variety pack.  

Some of the oddities include, but are far from limited to: a series of missions built around an Ocean’s Eleven-style casino heist, racing ATVs on the countryside against a troupe of criminally inbred, getting caught in the struggle between two super-nerds who wage war on a remote-controlled battlefield, hijacking a combine harvester capable of harvesting human flesh, and…well I’d feel rather guilty if I gave away the most demented of these missions. San Andreas takes full advantage of the many exaggerated character archetypes CJ reluctantly becomes an acquaintance of, in the name of creating the most unlikely of scenarios. Kudos to James Woods, Peter Fonda, Ice-T, Charlie Murphy and a slew of others for bringing these socially inept individuals to life. And extra kudos to West Coast rapper Young Maylay for being the only person capable of voicing Carl Johnson and still maintaining a degree of passion in his work, when asked to voice a gangster keeping it real in the face of a tie-dyed hippiemobile evading police capture.

 And then about 3/5 of the way into San Andreas, Carl is made to purchase an abandoned air strip. And then the game gets rather interesting as airplanes and helicopters add a new dimension to the game’s car jacking. There’s a mandatory series of flight school missions to introduce the player to the very, VERY finicky controls involved in handling an aircraft (and remember that one bad crash is all it takes to demolish a plane and subsequently teleport CJ to the nearest hospital. With no injuries and a loss of weapons.) You’ll have to be patient to get the hang of these advanced machines…but once you do, then you’ll have your very own hanger of infinitely-respawning aircraft that you can use to your heart’s content. Don’t feel like driving back to Los Santos for your next objective? Grab a plane, fly above the target, jump, parachute, hope you don’t pull the string too late and maybe you’ll still have shins still beneath skin.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has a couple of faults, most of which stem from Mack Daddy Time. There’s no auto-save feature like in Grand Theft Auto 4, thus you’d best be making that trip to the save point after any given mission just to be on the safe side. And likewise, death or arrest will cause Carl to lose all of his weapons, which is something of an issue when you consider how numerous missions will ask the player to have some kind of armament in the event of facing the Ballas’ front line. So I found myself using readily-available cheat codes to instantaneously generate weapons and body armour to save myself many trips to Ammu-nation. Oh sure, you can question the ethics of having to use cheat codes to enjoy a game if you want (call it the “Contra Effect”), but wait until you see the game’s list of cheat codes. Unimaginable sandbox fun is waiting to be had.

But my biggest 50-like beef with San Andreas is the game’s “turf war” system. Your gang, the Ballas and the Hispanic Vagos are all in competition for territory in Los Santos, as displayed in technicolor on the in-game map. To claim a territory in the name of the Grove Street Families, first you must find a group of rival gangsters enjoying life, and take it away from them to initiate the “turf war”. Then you must defeat three waves of incoming gangsters so that you can claim that part of town as your own. I’m anything but a fan of battling mindless waves of incoming enemies so this aspect of gameplay did not appeal to me at all. In the beginning, turf wars comes across as just another optional side-game, much like pretending to be a taxi driver is a side-game. And while I knew from previous experience not to waste any time reclaiming territory in the name of the Families, an unassuming player may not, and get all giddy with the thought of cleaning up Los Santos. For we live in a tragic society that considers T-Pain talented and Infamous a top tier sandbox game, and the players of today seem more than thrilled to do repetitive missions repeatedly in the name of “reclaiming the city”…two percent at a time! An uninitiated player entering San Andreas will pay the price for that mentality. The same plot twist I mentioned earlier that evicts CJ from his hometown will also surrender all of that territory you’ve been working so hard to fight for to the enemy. And to unlock the game’s final mission, you’ll have to win back numerous territories in what amounts to unnecessarily adding another hour or so of game length to what’s already a sizable 20-30 hour game (depending on how much one invests in side ventures or general sandbox tomfoolery.)

It’s the oversized, badly-chipped, rotten tooth in the smile of San Andreas. But it’s merely one bad hour in a 20 hour gaming Halloween bag of treats. And how many great 20 hour games do we get in 2009 anyways? Buy San Andreas! There may a bit of an unusual learning curve as your brain attempts to lower its standards of production values after Grand Theft Auto 4, but Grand Theft Auto 4 never achieves the same levels of ingenuity that this game strives for. If one makes me pick a single, all-time greatest game ever designed, this will be the one I’ll usually choose in my haste, hence, the 100 review I’ve written since I started taking this whole reviewing thing somewhat seriously.

5 stars, on shameless bias.

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