Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Review by maestro_malone
"An absolute essential purchase - a game that has it all."
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. What can you say? It was always going to be a huge title and one of the fastest selling videogames in history. Does it disappoint? Not in the slightest. Not only does it live up to it's elaborate hype, but it exceeds it to a huge extent. It improves over the previous two titles in just about every way in which it can Rockstar is one company that really listens to it's fans and works hard to provide the people with exactly what they want.
If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the GTA series, here it is. You assume the role of a criminal, trying to get by in a specific environment using any means necessary. There's a huge map to explore freely, with missions scattered throughout. As you play through and complete them, the story progresses and you earn money, which you can then spend on privileges for your character. Plus, there is a vast range of extra challenges to undertake. All in all, a very extensive title, especially with the aspect of freedom considered. You can do just about anything you want with the weapons, vehicles etc. on offer. The experience is very reactive, with rewards for completing specific tasks and a wanted level for committing crimes. This basically means that the police are on the look out for you the number of stars you have determines just how intent they are on bringing you to justice. Now, onto this particular installment itself:
Firstly, the graphics. Well, much like the previous two titles, they're certainly not the best graphics you're going to find on PS2. On the other hand, they are far from being the worst, with beautifully designed scenery. The buildings are shaped to every detail that suggests realism, whilst the general motion of cars, boats, planes and all other available modes of transport are extremely well animated. The weather effects are nigh on perfect, from the dazzling reflections of the sun's intense light to the strong bursts of wind during rainstorms. The only place where the game really falls down graphically is the rather rough look of the figures themselves. Obviously, they are by no means badly put together, but rather just not as smooth as many games are today. However, this problem certainly will not pose any threat to your enjoyment.
Now, how about the gameplay? Well, this series is one of those that aims to include a large set of styles of play, then executes each and every one in an almost perfect fashion. When moving the character on foot, the walking/jogging/sprinting skills can cause the occasional awkward direction, but remain far beyond adequate. Shooting is much improved over Vice City. All weapons with the lock-on feature now target enemies as a priority and make this feature a lot easier to activate than it was before. Hold R1 to bring up a target over the nearest enemy (or in some cases, pedestrian). As you shoot using the circle button, the colour of the target gradually changes from green to red as more damage is done. There is also an improved manual aim command, brought about by holding R1 to aim then moving the right analogue stick in the desired direction for the crosshair to travel.
So as an action game, San Andreas excels, but what about the side of things that involves vehicles? Well, the game manages to take this one a stage further. The driving in this game is of such a huge standard that you'd be hard pushed to find many racing games that provide a better handling system. Cars steer accordingly, with the more expensive ones performing to a better standard (naturally). Reversing, braking and making sharp turns are all very easy skills to get to grips with. Motorbikes have been undertaken rather differently in this version, allowing the player to distinguish a more separate feel to them from the cars. Also, the addition of bicycles is very interesting. When steering one of these nicely crafted models, the player must tap X to pedal, once again adding a degree of innovation to another type of vehicle. The number of more comical vehicles has increased greatly, with the inclusion of tractors, quad bikes, hovercrafts, go-karts, monster trucks etc.
It's not all going to take place on the roads though. There are plenty of boats to travel across the water with speedboats, cruisers, dinghies you name it . Water physics are created with a great level of realism. Boats are much more difficult to maneuver than cars, but at the same time much quicker for crossing between islands. Also, the number the air-orientated vehicle has risen drastically since the last game. The number of helicopters remains about the same, but with the same great methods of handling still intact. Meanwhile, Rockstar has introduced a variety of aeroplanes which travel a lot quicker than helicopters but can be a lot more difficult to keep under control. These planes range from seaplanes to stunt planes and from passenger jets to private jets. You'll even find a warplane and a harrier-jump-jet somewhere in the game, along with what can only be described as the ultimate air vehicle.
Now onto the main experience as a whole the story, the characters, the missions, the map etc. How good is it exactly? Well put it like this, no matter how high your expectations are, you can't fail to be amazed. It really is that spectacular. Just when things are starting to get boring, you'll be greeted with a major plot twist, change of scenery or new strand of missions. There are six chapters to the game, each with a very different style of challenge. The original missions will assist the player in getting to grips with the basic controls, whilst the later missions open up a greater window of opportunities and introduce new skills, which must be utilized. The experience is highly enjoyable and very rewarding on the whole, so even if you find the earlier missions to be mildly uninteresting or the final missions to be too greater challenge, my advice to you is this persevere! Because for everyone one thing you don't like in this game, there will be twenty things you do. There's just so much variety that it's not worth missing out on for any reason.
The main character this time is Carl Johnson, or CJ as he's better known. The idea is that he left his street gang background behind him to start a new life after his brother was killed, but now he returns to his hometown for the funeral of his mother. His old friends are not too pleased to see him, so CJ must work to earn their respect and restore some of his old credibility as part of the gang. The blend of personalities in the cast is perfect with Sweet (CJ's remaining brother, very straight-up and ambitious), Big Smoke (CJ's fat friend with a lot of life in him) and Ryder (the short egomaniac who's in the gang purely for himself). Over the course of the game, we learn more about each of these as each assumes a major role in the plotline. The major villain this time around is Officer Tenpenny, the local cop in charge controlling gang warfare. His methods are questionable, as we can tell from the outset when he frames CJ for murder just in the opening scenes. Just these first few cut scenes are able to develop a sense of setting very well.
So, the game begins in Los Santos (based on Los Angeles), the city where CJ grew up. As previously mentioned, the missions here are kept fairly simple to allow the player's basic skills to develop in the early game. There is a good range of shooting and driving here, but with the emphasis mainly on the shooting side of things. The city itself is very large and very well designed, arguably the best area found in the series so far. The East is made up of the poorer gang-based areas, whilst the West appears more up-market, with an area based on Hollywood known as Vinewood. A major plot twist eventually triggers the next chapter of the game and sees CJ in a whole new environment.
This is the countryside. Rural areas have so far not been explored very much in the GTA series, so it was pretty hit and miss whether this would work out. The good news is that it exceeds it's potential. The spacing of these areas are perfect, ranging from large open farms to small industrial villages. There are plenty of things to see and do here, including a very popular location that also provides a new addition to the series this being, a mountain. Mt. Chiliad is huge and extremely well designed; its shape and structure make it not only excellent for driving up, but driving down at very high speeds. There is only a short series of missions to undertake in the countryside, which largely involve driving, before moving on to the next city San Fierro.
It's pretty obvious from the name that this new area is based on San Francisco, with tall buildings and sloping roads. This city is considerably smaller than Los Santos, but car chases are twice as much fun. You're more likely to find the faster cars around here, so things become a little more exciting. There are a lot of driving missions here, including a driving school, which teaches some moves to pull off in faster cars. The story progresses in San Fierro, until CJ eventually finds himself driving out into the desert.
This is where the game changes direction once again and takes a more flying-based approach. Pilot school is an excellent way for the player to learn the basics of flying before undergoing the more difficult missions. The desert is probably the weakest area of the map, since it's mostly very bare (like most deserts are). That's no fault of the designers, because filling up such an area would appear to unrealistic. Plus, it does add a welcome change of scenery from the urban areas. When this short strand of missions is complete, it's time to move on to the third and final city Las Venturas.
Based on Las Vegas, this city is filled with bright lights, fast cars and casinos. The casinos aren't just there for decoration either; CJ can enter and gamble away his money on slots, blackjack, poker and roulette. This is a very nice touch. The missions in Las Venturas involve a good mix of shooting and driving, as well as providing the greatest challenge of the game so far. After battling through this series, CJ will ultimately arrive back in Los Santos, to settle some old scores. The conclusion to the game can be a little tedious, since it relies heavily on huge amounts of shooting. However, it brings the storyline to its climax and does provide a real sense of satisfaction when complete.
However, no GTA game can get by with just the story missions. As usual, there is a huge bundle of extra tasks to complete before getting to 100% and then even more pastimes to pick up on. The classic R3 type missions return Vigilante (which sees you taking down criminals), Paramedic (which sees you picking up patients in an ambulance), Fire Truck (which sees you extinguishing fires) and Taxi (which sees you picking up passengers and dropping them off at their desired location). Plus, there are new additions to the list now, including burglary (which sees you robbing homes), freight train (which sees you delivering goods by rail) and pimping (which sees you delivering your girls to where they need to go). There are also a few extra missions of a similar type, namely Tanker missions (where you much attach and deliver petrol) and Valet missions (where you must park cars without damaging them). All in all, a great set of things to be getting along with. That isn't all though, the list continues to grow as you trace the entire map. There are illegal street races, downhill mountain bike races, shooting challenges, cars to collect and a whole host of things to find. There are 100 gang tags to spray over in Los Santos, 50 special snapshot locations to photograph in San Fierro, 50 horseshoes to find in Las Venturas and even 50 oysters scattered throughout the seas of San Andreas.
On top of all this, there are plenty of goals and games that are not required for completion but still a little fun here and there. Basketball courts and pool tables are playable, not particularly very good but not bad when you're stuck for something to do. There are modifications and colours to add to your cars, unique jumps to ride over at high speed and even girlfriends to date. Dates include either visiting a place to eat, driving around or dancing in a club. The last of this list is easily the best, as it triggers a timing mini-game where the player much hit the buttons as they appear to dance well to the rhythm. The other two styles of date can be a bit of a drag, but still vary enough to provide some entertainment. The reward for dating your girl long enough is access to their car (which is often something rather special) and a new costume.
Speaking of costumes, it's now possible to buy clothes for your character and fully customize what he wears. CJ can visit any of the six clothing shops across the map and pick up a top, trousers, shoes, shades, hats, chains and even watches; then you decide his chosen outfit back in his wardrobe. It is rather welcoming to be able to vary his look throughout the game, especially with a choice of hairstyles and tattoos. There are other factors to consider about CJ his attributes for instance. Visiting the gym and lifting weights can increase muscle and therefore provide advantages in a fight. There are three fighting styles to master as you move through the game, each with it's own advantages. Two other vital attributes are stamina and lung capacity. Stamina determines how long CJ can run or ride a bicycle for without stopping for breath, whilst lung capacity determines how long he can stay underwater without drowning. Yes, the main character can now swim for the first time in the series, so crashing off the road and into the lake is no longer an instant game over. Other stats include weapon abilities, vehicle abilities and even sex appeal. It's important to keep track of these meters and make sure each is kept to an appropriate level.
That pretty much covers the main extras, so finally, how is the radio in this game? If you didn't know, the previous two games have provided a range of stations to flip between, listening to hit music and humourous talk. Vice City excelled in this area especially. Being set in 1992, San Andreas doesn't quite provide the same top-notch music as the previous title, but does offer a good set of songs from the era. The styles are well-varied classic rock, modern rock, classic rap, modern rap, funk, groove, reggae, soul, house and even country. There's bound to be something for everyone somewhere on the list. Sadly, the news and talk station is somewhat of a disappointment and a pretty big step down from the last two games. Yet on the whole, the radio qualities are just as great as ever and much more successful than you'd expect from any other game.
To sum up the whole experience, San Andreas is the complete package. It's one of those games that does it all, and quite possibly the game that does it best. This really is a must-have title. Even if you never owned or particularly liked the previous GTA games, this release is at least worth another look. It's one of the most expansive and hugely rewarding games you'll ever come across. Unless you're under 18, there really isn't any good reason to miss out on such a classic. Don't be put off by its crime or its culture if those aren't your things just enjoy the in-depth gaming found within.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 09/02/05
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