Lock up the children and hide the politicians, its time to review the latest installment of the controversial Grand Theft Auto series, GTA: San Andreas. After arriving on the PS2 last year, Rockstar has retooled the game, and presents us with an Xbox version that touts better graphics and a few new features not found on its PS2 counterpart.
In San Andreas, you play as Carl Johnson, who upon learning of the death of his mother returns home to Los Santos (a city clearly modeled after Los Angeles). Carl reacquaints himself with his local gang and finds that its not what it used to be. As Carl you try to restore your gangs reputation while battling crooked cops and rival gang members. The story has some good twists and turns, but I was not crazy about the departure from the previous GTAs. While the previous versions have a very out there plot that involved stereotypical characters that are not common in the real world, San Andreas deals with inner city characters and gang violence. It is a stark contrast to the previous GTA games, which had a detached sense of reality. Gang violence just doesnt seem as funny or as fun as playing as a Scarface inspired Tony Montana type fantasy character, as we did in Vice City.
Several new features have been introduced in GTA:SA, most all of which are big improvements. There are several new vehicles, especially aircraft such as the jet plane, stunt plane, jet pack, and a parachute. Your character can now swim...no more falling into 5 feet of water just to watch your character flop around helplessly and die. Rockstar also introduced several new RPG elements. Carl has to eat and can work out to define his body. The more you work out, the more buff your character looks. If you eat a lot of greasy, fattening foods, Carl will get fat. I initially thought this would be just like playing the Sims, and while I like the Sims, it didnt seem to have a place in a Grand Theft Auto game. However, I found it was not a pain at all, and I never felt as though I was babysitting the character. Eating restores your health, and you will naturally stop to have a bite to eat just to do just that. Also, saving your game automatically feeds Carl, so if you save often, you really dont have to eat at all. There are other ways to customize the look of your character, such as several clothing shops and barbers to style your hair in most any fashion you can imagine.
Another new element is your character can now attract girlfriends. There are several possible girlfriends located throughout San Andreas, and you can take them out for dates. Once you have successfully wooed the ladies, youll have access to their special car, get a new unique outfit, and some give you special abilities like being able to get out of jail or hospital without losing all of your weapons.
The most notable change is the environment itself. Vice City is frequently referred to as a giant sandbox that gives the player a large area to explore and do what they like. For GTA:SA, Rockstar has turned the sandbox into a virtual desert. While Vice City focused on one city, GTA:SA has 3 large metropolitan areas - Los Santos (i.e., Los Angeles), San Fierro (i.e., San Francisco), and Las Venturas (i.e., Las Vegas). These cities are surrounded by vast countryside, several small towns, wooded areas, a desert, farm land, and more. This stands in stark contrast to the smaller areas given to us in GTA 3 and Vice Citybut does size really matter? Is it possible to have too much of a good thing?
As with the previous versions, the other areas will unlock as you complete missions, but it is still very daunting when you start out with such a large map. The pure size is where some of my biggest gripes with GTA:SA come from. There are more than a few missions in which you are forced to drive from one town to another not a small task. If you fail the mission, youre forced to complete another trip just to attempt the mission again. These long bouts of driving can become frustrating and boring at times. Another problem is with the map system. While the small navigation map worked for smaller cities like Vice City and Liberty City, the multi-tiered roadway system is much more complicated in San Andreas. The map system is highly inadequate, and youll frequently find yourself getting lost and frustrated trying to find your way around.
On the positive side, the huge size keeps things fresh, and youll have countless hours of fun simply exploring new territory and finding new things to do. The bottom line is that the increased size is fantastic, but there desperately needs to be better mission design and a map system to go along with this massive playground.
The missions are laid out identically to the previous versions. You have core missions that you must complete to further the main storyline, and also several side missions that you can complete at your own leisure. As with the previous titles, the missions range from easy to very frustrating without much consistency. A few missions become so maddening that youll likely break an Xbox controller or two (or take your frustration out on a few pedestrians) before completing them. However, with the open-ended gameplay there is always something else to do while you take a break from those missions.
The Xbox version adds a new feature in the form of replays. You can now replay the last 20 seconds of gameplay at any time. While you have complete control of the camera angle, you can not pause, fast forward, rewind, or save these replays. Furthermore, there is no sound played while viewing. Its a great idea that feels half finished.
Graphically speaking, GTA:SA will not be confused for a Tecmo or Ubisoft game anytime soon. In other words, your jaw wont be hitting the floor looking at expansive beautiful environments and brilliantly designed character models. However, it looks much better than its PS2 counterpart. The draw distance has been increased a major downer in the PS2 version. There is still some pop up graphics, but it does not affect the gameplay as it did in the PS2 version. The graphics are also much more crisp and detailed in comparison.
On the plus side, each area is very unique. The sweeping changes in the environments as you travel across the map keep things interesting and detract from the otherwise bland graphics.
I can not think of a game series that does a better job in the sound department. The voice talent is tremendous. Rockstar once again utilizes A-list Hollywood talent, such as Samuel L Jackson and James Woods. There are hours upon hours of funny dialogue to be found on the radio stations and from the pedestrians. As you switch locations, the dialect of the pedestrians will change, such as the Hillbilly sounding townsfolk of the smaller hick villages to the effeminate males found in San Fierro.
Rockstar is famous for its soundtracks. While the selection of 90s music in SA is not as good as the 80s fare found in Vice City, it is still very stellar and enjoyable to listen to. The custom soundtrack option is utilized as it was in Vice City and GTA3. However, they changed the control scheme for the worse, and it takes a while to get the hang of switching between songs and soundtracks, and even then it does not feel natural.
The Grand Theft Auto series has been often imitated, but never duplicated. Once again, Rockstar delivers a game that will raise the bar in this genre and give the competitors something else to shoot for (and likely fall short of). GTA:SA is a fun game, and in this case, bigger is indeed better.