Review by Evil Dave

"A definite Game of the Year candidate, and one the best games ever on PS2"

The release of Grand Theft Auto 3 was a defining moment in the evolution of videogames. A 3D adaptation of a previously little-known 2D series, it began getting incredible reviews from the moment it hit critics' hands. Word of mouth spread like wildfire, and soon everyone, both in and out of the videogame industry, was talking about it. Within months of its release, it sold more than a million copies, but it would not stop there; GTA3 ended up as the best selling console game ever released, with well over 24 million units sold internationally.

GTA3 did more than just break sales records, though; it changed the landscape of videogames. Its adult-oriented subject matter utterly shattered whatever notion remained that videogames were still ‘kids' stuff,' and the controversy it brought actually led to stricter laws regarding the sales of videogames to minors. Its violent travails became a target for politicians and a magnet for publicity, and in the process, it achieved cultural icon status. Within the games industry itself, it brought change to the methods behind videogame creation, as its success with a completely open-ended game world and play style led to more developers trying to give gamers freedom in how they experience their titles. Most importantly of all, though, is that it solidified the fact that videogames had developed into a powerful form of entertainment - one that could alter the course of society through its existence.

Rockstar Games released a quick follow-up, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a year later, and that game garnered similar critical praise and brisk sales. It brought Hollywood-level talent into the fold, as well as an all-star licensed soundtrack. Most importantly, though, it practically reinvented hype, as gamers around the world awaited its release. Millions of fans gobbled up every bit of information available on the game as soon as it came out, and the expectations were unbelievable.

Enter Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Rockstar had now had two years to build the third (and potentially final) PlayStation 2 Grand Theft Auto title. The hype began very early, when a keen-eyed member of the media discovered Rockstar's patent application for what would become the title of the game. The more information that became available to the public, the more the hype grew: new setting, cast, and story; more big-name voice actors and another high-quality soundtrack; much more involved gameplay; more content in the game than in the previous two games combined; even more customization possibilities for players; tons and tons of new features. The excitement built up over the year and a half of down time, from the simple murmur of the initial leak of the game's title, to its eventual deafening pre-release state. Gamers waited and watched for the title. Finally, the game's stage was set, and it was time to put up or shut up: on October 26, 2004, the game hit store shelves, and millions scrambled to obtain their copy. Now only one question remained: would the game live up to the hype?

Visuals:

In-game menus are simple, as the GTA series on PS2 has typically eschewed the main-menu used by most games. The pause screen allows you to access options for the audio/visual components of the game, your saved games, a history of all the briefings you've received, a long list of your gameplay statistics, and a map. The menu fits with the style of both previous PS2 GTA titles and the current one, and is very easy to work with. Since the in-game map is so large, it is impossible to zoom in very far. You will, though, be perfectly able to determine what you need from it with no problems.

The graphics in the game make the absolute most that they can out of the now-dated PS2 hardware. The entire game plays out in-engine, so the cutscenes use the same graphics as the gameplay. These graphics are some of the most superb yet created on a videogame console. Everything about the areas in the game drips realism. The weather effects are unbelievable - you'll see heat shimmers on the horizon, smog and fog causing the sun to reflect in odd directions and colors, and extensive use of filters for rainy or excessively smoggy days, in addition to the already-present rain engine in the game. The environments themselves are spectacular as well. The cities are modeled so well after their parodied cities that anyone who has been to one of them would recognize several landmarks and hallmarks instantly. The countryside in between is done just as well, with numerous small towns and ghost cities dotting the landscape. Even the underbrush in the rolling hills surrounding the cities looks excellent. Another impressive visual effect is a motion-blur effect that occurs when you reach precariously high speeds in a vehicle; this effect does an extremely effective job of conveying your relative speed, and enhances the driving aspect of the game as a result.

Character and vehicle animation is done with the same convincing manner as the landscape. There are, literally, hundreds of models of vehicles and people present in the game, and every last one of them looks appropriate. The animation is always smooth, with nary a pause between movements. The models themselves are done with tremendous care, with great attention to detail. Cars now become battered even more realistically, and will even get dirty as time wears on in the game. Other vehicles, such as planes, helicopters, trains, boats, bicycles, and motorbikes all showcase a high visual standard, and look smooth no matter what they go through. People look very good as well, as their mouths now move when they banter back and forth on the streets, among other upgrades. The people still look a little blocky overall (especially their seemingly fingerless hands), but this is only really noticeable in the game's cutscenes, and isn't enough of a problem to take anything away from the game.

The frame rate, through all of the chaos and mayhem, stays remarkably stable. There will be occasional slowdown during scenes of massive action, but for the vast majority of the time, the game will cruise along with no interruption to the rendering. There is somewhat more of a problem, however, with draw-in in San Andreas. It takes slightly longer for textures to be rendered this time around, simply because there are so many of them and they all are so detailed. This never becomes a problem, though, and won't detract from the gameplay one bit.

The GTA series set a high bar for itself when it moved to 3D in 2001. In 2004, it has set an even higher bar for itself, as the visual experience in San Andreas is quite likely the best to be seen on PlayStation 2 yet.

Score: 10/10

Sound:

A game of the magnitude of this one is obviously going to have a ton of sounds going on in it, and thus sound effects become vital to the player's immersion and interaction with the game world. Without a doubt, the effects in San Andreas live up to this lofty goal, and the result is a level of quality that borders on realism. Everything in the game world, from footsteps to vehicles to weapons fire, sounds utterly true-to-life. Gunfire sounds much louder when you're close to it, and if it occurs right next to your character, it will actually sound just like a firecracker exploding next to your ears. Different car models all sound different from one another and entirely appropriate, and other vehicles (even down to the different planes you can fly) meet the same standard. The effects are so good that you will be instantly able to recognize them, without even seeing what caused them to be heard.

Voiceover work in the GTA series on PS2 has been nothing short of remarkable. From the relative unknowns cast as most of the characters in GTA3, to the star-studded cast of Vice City, the voice acting has been on the same level as high-budget movies throughout. San Andreas features a mix of the styles of GTA3 and Vice City when it comes to the voice work. There are several big-name celebrities who contributed their voices to the game, most notable among them Samuel L. Jackson, Ice-T, Peter Fonda, and James Woods; also of note are the musicians Chuck D, George Clinton, and Axl Rose, whom all lent their non-singing voices to the in-game radio stations as the DJs of their chosen genre of music's corresponding station. The majority of the players in the cast, though, are all voiced by people whose main claim to fame previously was as unknown rap artists. This choice for the actors was a risky one, given the potential that these ‘rookies' might not have what it took to do believable voice work in such a high-profile venue; in the end, though, it turned out to be quite likely the best decision the developers made during the course of the game's development. These rappers bring an unprecedented level of realism to the voiceovers, and they do a tremendous job acting out their character's lines. None perform better than the main character, whose line delivery is always impeccable (and this is no easy feat, given the huge number of them he has). The combination of the professional actors and the new ones brings the game's voiceovers to life, and in the end the work is spectacular.

The same level of quality is manifested in the pedestrian dialogue. This area of the game's sound had been one of the best aspects of GTA3 and Vice City, and in San Andreas it hits a new echelon of excellence. In addition to the random things the infinite denizens of this new game will spout off at will, the developers have added two new types of interaction for them. You will often see two pedestrians actually engage in a conversation on the sidewalks; these conversations, while somewhat disjointed, make sense, and can actually lead to such displays as the two holding hands and walking off this way. In addition to this, pedestrians will also make remarks directly to your character. These statements are a reflection of your physical appearance, and change with the way your avatar looks. Gain weight, and you'll be called fat in the NPCs; gain muscle, and passers-by will woo over your chiseled look. The same goes for your clothes, vehicle, and even your character's purported body odor. Your character will even respond to these statements with a positive or negative retort when you prompt him to. These two new supplementary methods of NPC interaction go a long way towards giving the impression that they are of their own mind, separate from the rest of the game.

The music in the GTA series, even dating back to its days on PlayStation, has always been one of its most remarkable areas. GTA3 brought separate radio stations into the fray, each complete with genre-specific songs, tongue-in-cheek commercials, and a humorous mock-up of a DJ. Vice City brought a huge licensed soundtrack to the table, and delivered the highest-quality collection of period-specific music yet seen in an entertainment medium, and ended up capturing mid-80s radio nearly perfectly. San Andreas, with its early 90s setting and ghetto-themed style, takes a ‘bigger means better' attitude to its radio offerings, choosing to add songs rather than stations. It accomplishes several things with this, and although in the end it feels slightly inferior to the previous realizations of the series, it is still a genuinely outstanding effort.

There are 11 stations on the San Andreas dial, running the gamut from alternative to West Coast rap to country to trance, and there is, of course, a talk radio station to round off the list. Each of the music stations features an impressive array of songs (at least 15 per station), alongside the usual commercials and DJ banter. The stations sound clear, and they all play without a hitch; they are even played through filters that make them sound appropriate when they are heard through a motorcycle radio or a boombox. Why would they be disappointing, then? Aside from the fact that some of the genres chosen make little sense (classic rap, for instance, doesn't even exist on the radio today), the main problem is the lack of progress. These stations are essentially the same as the ones that appeared in Vice City. Every station, when you consider it individually, sounds as good as those of that game; however, when you look at them as a whole, they represent only minimal improvement over those of the previous game, and when the rest of the game has taken such a quantum leap forward, the one high-profile part that has lagged behind stands out like a sore thumb.

All in all, San Andreas delivers an incredible acoustic score that plays a vital role in the player's engrossment in the game. While it nearly achieves perfection, what it has achieved should stand for years as a model that future games may strive to meet.

Score: 9/10

Gameplay:

GTA games pioneered a wide-open manner of gameplay that has caught fire within the game development community. San Andreas represents an evolution of this gameplay style that is both extraordinarily enjoyable and so expansive that it borders on excessive.

The controls in the GTA series on PS2 have been very smooth and intuitive, and San Andreas they have been fitted for maximum performance. You are no longer able to use the D-pad to control your character's (or his vehicle's) movement; this function is now solely reserved for the left analog stick. The D-pad now controls character interaction when you are on foot, giving you the means to interact with NPCs. The other controls have remained virtually unchanged, except for some additions to the uses of the L1 button. Within 15 minutes of starting to play the game, you should have the controls down pat and be using them effectively. When the game starts up, you are given a quick tutorial on what the controls do, and any time a new function is made available, it is explained through an on-screen prompt. This minimizes the learning curve, while at the same time never taking the player out of the game. When you're actually playing, the controls will always perform admirably, and you should never have a problem with them.

The GTA series utilizes a wide-open, mission-based style of gameplay that allows the player to progress through the storyline at their own pace, or even not at all. This gameplay focuses on your character's interaction with the virtual world of San Andreas, in which he must kill, steal, and cause mayhem to make a name for himself. The virtual world of San Andreas is so big as to actually be more than twice the size of GTA3 and Vice City combined, which is nothing short of astounding to see, given those games' amount of real estate. This amount of landmass means that there are a lot more opportunities for gameplay, and the developers have taken full advantage of this.

The name of the series comes from the fact that you can steal just about any vehicle you see by simply walking up to it, removing the current owner, and taking off with it. You can also pilot your character around on foot through the massive environment, engaging in all manner of criminal activity with random passers-by, or just taking in the sights. You will start out by performing the first mission, and then be let loose within the city of Los Santos and its surrounding countryside. You are confined to this area at the beginning of the game, but you will eventually be able to explore the rest of the state, once you've beaten enough storyline missions. You begin these missions by going to specific points (which are marked on your in-game map, and displayed in the HUD map) to trigger the introductory video. Once you start a mission, you will be given instructions on what to do, and then you will go and actually do it. The missions in San Andreas show an incredible amount of variety, and end up using most of the new features added to the game in one way or another. They are designed intelligently, and never feel out-of-place or incomplete. As you complete more missions, you will open up different areas of the state, as well as new people to do missions for. The rewards for passing missions are not just money this time around, though; in most of the beginning missions, you will end up earning nothing more than respect, which is part of the new stats system that appears for the first time in the series.

The stats system works much like that of any RPG. You have ratings for almost everything that you can do and be. You have a rating on how well you use each gun, how well you use each vehicle, and for personal things like the respect you command from your peers, your stamina, amount of body muscle, and your amount of body fat. Each of these stats plays a role in how your character interacts with the world, and can be built up by doing certain things often. For example, the more often you use a pistol, the higher your pistol stat will go, and thus the more accurate you'll get with it. The same improvement goes for every other firearm and vehicle available for your use. Eventually, you'll be able to earn special abilities by maxing out certain stats, such as the ability to wield two pistols at once, or the ability to stop on a dime in a vehicle. Your personal stats go up via similar methods. Do lots of missions for your gang, and you'll easily command their respect. Run around often, and your stamina will improve dramatically, enabling you to sprint, swim, and bicycle much longer. You can work out in a gym to gain muscle and eventually become buff, making yourself stronger and able to hit harder with your melee attacks, as well as to jump farther and higher. Your fat will decrease as you exercise more, but will also increase if you eat too many fattening foods.

The food system (which has your character needing to eat occasionally to keep up his strength), and the whole stats system, brought skepticism from the gaming public when they were first announced, but in the end they integrate well with the gameplay without becoming a distraction. You are proficient enough in all of the stats to be able to do most of the missions right off the bat, so you don't need to spend a lot of time improving them; in fact, if you invest a few in-game days into weight training at the beginning of the game, all it will take is an occasional trip back and eating when you are prompted to maintain your physical shape throughout the game. Since most of the stats go up with use, all you have to worry about is the game itself for the majority of the time you're playing, and when you do need to take care of your stats it doesn't feel like it's forced at all. This new wrinkle adds a lot more depth to the game, and even a level of personalization, without sacrificing any of the freedom you so thoroughly enjoy with it.

That freedom is manifested in no better way than in the multitude of things available to do. Besides storyline missions, you can engage in so many other side missions and minigames that you will probably be overwhelmed when you first realize just how much there really is. GTA on PS2 stalwarts such as Vigilante (essentially cops vs. robbers, with you as the cops), Firefighter, Paramedic, and Taxi missions all return for a third installment. They are joined by new pastimes like Home Invasion, Low-rider contests, casino gambling, and many more. The sheer amount of side missions you can do is so staggering that to list them here would be a waste of time; instead, you should know that you can go anywhere in the game and still probably find something new to do. An example of this is right in your home at the beginning of the game. When you walk through your home, you will notice a TV with a game console sitting in front of it. Pressing the triangle button next to it will launch a minigame that simulates an early-90s videogame. This is virtually an entire game in and of itself, and it's included here as a minor diversion! YAs you play more of the game, you'll constantly be running into new things that have some sort of interactive portion, and almost all of them are fun to try out.

The developers have even integrated a bit a two-player gameplay into San Andreas. The rampages which have appeared in previous GTA games are now two-players-only affairs. In these, your must walk your character over a rampage icon (many of which are hidden throughout the state), and then have a player on a controller in port 2 of the PS2 press a button. You are then given a time limit to murder a certain number of people using a weapon that you are given with infinite ammo. There are also some minigames, such as pool, that can be played with one human player going against another. Both of these examples of multiplayer in the GTA world are a nice touch, and although they are not so fun as to force you to play the game with a friend, they are another example of the creativity of the developers behind this title.

In the end, the gameplay in San Andreas is undoubtedly its main draw, and it delivers on the hype in every conceivable way. It offers high-quality fun whether you're doing storyline missions, side missions, running around on a rampage, or just existing in the massive landscape of the game world.

Score: 10/10

Story:

The GTA games have always been sold on the gameplay, and as such the developers might have been able to attach a second-rate story to the game and get away with it. Luckily for gamers, they have chosen to have the storyline match the standards of the rest of the game, and as a result they have made the experience of following it as rewarding as the gameplay itself.

The storyline, which sees your character, Carl ‘CJ' Johnson, returning home from the East Coast after five years away from home and dealing with the problems he is presented with, is intriguing, and will likely keep you interested in the missions you have to do even if for some reason you don't like them. The combination of great voice acting and the incredible atmosphere of the game will certainly keep you engrossed in it until it reaches its explosive conclusion.

With a script on the level of a high-quality movie, and a cast and setting that perform to their absolute best, the storyline in San Andreas will give you a satisfying reward for all the work you will do to get there.

Score: 10/10

Features/Modes:

The GTA series has never featured any modes other than the actual game itself. There is no difficulty level to increase, no multiplayer to access, and no special minigames to play separate from the actual body of the game. In most titles, this would be a sure death knell; why in the world would you buy a game that offers you no extras to enjoy? As is the case with only titles of this level of quality, though, the lack of extras makes absolutely no difference to the player's enjoyment of the game. This game has so much packed into it, and it is all so well crafted and genuinely fun, that you will never get tired of playing it. Even if you do everything there is to do – every last mission, every last job, every last robbery, carjacking, or driveby – absolutely everything, there is still enough game here that you will, without a doubt, want to play it again. It is just that good.

So, San Andreas comes with no extra goodies in the features/modes department. Programmers who do this same thing with future games, beware: San Andreas has the quality to back its lack of extras up, and back it up in droves. If your game isn't as good as San Andreas, then you'd better come up with another few difficulty levels, at least.

Score: N/A

Total Score:

Ever since hitting the PlayStation 2 for the first time in 2001, the Grand Theft Auto series has brought nothing but quality to Sony's sophomore system. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas lives up to, and on nearly every count trumps, the legacy left by its predecessors. Indeed, the high production values, loads of content, and exquisite immersion in early 90's culture create a game that is fun to take part in on every level. It is, without question, one of, and arguably even the, best game to ever be published for PS2.

So what will San Andreas ultimately be remembered for - its status as the latest installment of the most recognizable console game franchise in the world today? Its incredibly violent and morally deficient gameplay? The enormous hype that built up to its release? While all of these will certainly have a piece of San Andreas' legacy, none of them truly capture the game. All three GTA games to grace the PS2, as successful as they were, made it to the level they did as a result of one thing: great gameplay. The developers at Rockstar Games took a risk when they created a game that was so vastly different from what was already on the market in 2001 when they released the ground-breaking GTA3 onto the market. It became a success for the same reason that San Andreas will be: that risk that these developers took, choosing to build a game not on precedent, but on innovative – and still tremendously fun – gameplay. This is the legacy of the Grand Theft Auto series, and that of San Andreas.

If you own a PlayStation 2, and are neither too immature nor too offended to handle the content of GTA: San Andreas, you need to purchase this game. The pure fun you'll have with it will make it worth your time and money, unquestionably.

Score: 9/10 (not an average)

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Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/01/04, Updated 09/05/07

Game Release: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (US, 10/26/04)


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