Review by baba573

"Not perfect, but as near perfection as it could be"

It's hard to review GTA sequels, simply because the "original" GTA (e.g. the first one that didn't use the bird's eye view) was so mind-blowing you just had to play it to believe it. I always somehow unjustly regarded GTA:Vice City and this latest one, GTA:San Andreas as nothing more than expansion packs. The first one was a small revolution in gaming. The sequels were essentially the same thing with some new stuff added.

But if you think about it, this is not a bad thing, simply because it's hard to get enough of this type of gaming experience. It's easy to get fed up with countless FPSs with the same linear mechanics, but GTA nailed two things perfectly: it gave you freedom to do WHAT you want WHEN you want it, there is no pressure to do anything quickly yet the game's pace always feels frantic and action never seems to stop.

But enough with praising GTA series in general. You probably know all about it, otherwise you probably wouldn't have been reading the review of the third installment in the first place. The thing to review here is, basically, analysis of what is new, what stayed the same, what is improved and what somehow got messed up in the process of freshening up the old material.

What stayed the same? Well, almost everything. The graphics are similar with some new (great) touches. Easily best of those is high-speed effect which doesn't only look cool but actually gives a new dimension to driving by making the vehicle harder to control. Sound is also pretty reminiscent of previous games. One of the trademarks of the series -a bunch of custom-made radio stations - is back, yet somehow lacks the impact it had in previous installments. Perhaps it's because previous games had unfair advantage (in the first GTA simply because they were there, and in Vice City because of that perfect 80's nostalgia theme). Nevertheless I must say I didn't enjoy those stations as much as before and I found myself soon switching to user track list (which now has GTA commercials in it, which is cool).

As for the gameplay, almost everything from previous games is here, but some important things are changed. The first thing you'll discover is that GTA now has a Sims-like element which is that CJ (your character) has some needs and skills you'll have to take care of. So now his driving and weapon skills will improve over time, but also you will have to control his fat and muscle levels and change his clothes to improve his sex appeal. CJ can also date different girls, which includes taking them to bars and restaurants, dancing or just driving around. While I agree this adds another dimension to the series, I like the fact that it actually doesn't play a big part in the entire gameplay and I hope it will stay like this in latter installments. After all, I bought GTA, not Sims.

Aside from that, there are some more tweaks to the game you'll probably appreciate. Most notable is this: your character finally learned to swim. Yes, you read that right, falling into water doesn't mean instant death, now you can just swim back to the shore and you're good to go. Improving your bike skill means that bikes are far less irritating to drive then they were in GTA:VC - actually it's very likely that you'll find them preferable to driving cars now since you will not fall down all the time and it doesn't hurt so much as before. Other things got tweaked too. The ambulance, firefighter and vigilante missions (yes they are still there) feel slightly yet noticeably different - for example in the ambulance driver missions you will notice that the ambulance doesn't tip over that much yet that time limits are a bit more strict. There is a bunch of other stuff to do (you can drive a track, work in a quarry, dance, take place in a destruction derby, drive in a race tournament) and of course there is a string of "mainstream" missions so it's never boring. Oh, and another thing that must not remain unmentioned is that now the gameplay area consists of three towns and lots of countryside between them. This is simply great, because the game area is not too big to be too frustrating to drive from one end to the other, yet it's large enough to really have some great time driving around. It's also much more 3d than before so beware (climb a mountain or parachute down from a great height! - you have it all here) .

So is GTA:San Andreas a perfect game? Well, no. There are some things that somehow failed to deliver. Firstly and most unforgivably - there is still no "Restart Mission" option. While it is true that the missions are less frustrating and that usually there is a save point right near the start marker, I still see no reason not to have a simple option to restart. Next, the secret packages are gone. I loved those secret packages. It gave me the incentive to explore and it gave me instant reward - every ten packages gave you a prize. Now they are replaced with multiple things to find - tags to spray over, snapshots to photograph, oysters to dive out and horseshoes to find. While it is fun to search for them for a while, there really is no reason to do that (unless you want that 100% game completed) since the rewards are small or non-existent. For instance, you have to find ALL 100 tags to get a reward which is simply too hard to do without a tag location cheat sheet. I have found 94 tags without cheating, took me about four hours and I got no reward whatsoever. Unacceptable. Next the rampages are gone, I'm sad to say. I loved those rampages simply because they were so silly and stupid yet fun. Now you have some sort of fighting for gang territory which is sorta fun yet often frustrating since triggering the gang war requires finding three gang members which is often hard to do. Furthermore, gangs will sometimes want territories back which requires that you drop whatever you were trying to do and quickly go back to reclaim that, a thing that feels very un-GTA since it restricts your freedom significantly. (there is a little kicker during the game for those of you that will try to win all the territories once the gang wars get activated. To avoid spoilers, I will just say one thing - don't. Seriously, don't. You'll thank me later).

Well, I suppose I could nitpick and try to find some more stuff I don't really like, but the truth is this is still a really good game. There are some bad reviews of it around, but the reason for that could be that this GTA somehow needs more time to get into - the first set of missions feel strange and all this "hood" talk feels a bit different than big time gangster shtick you might expect. But if you stick with it, soon it will become good old GTA again, just bear through those beginning missions.

To sum up, if you loved GTA and GTA:VC, it's impossible not to like GTA:SA especially if you give it a chance a bit. There is so much to do, so many places to do it in, it is a great example what computer entertainment should look like. And until something better comes along, you simply cannot go wrong with it.

P.S. I never mentioned that notorious hot coffee sex mini game which caused such a ruckus. The reason for this is because I feel that it's stupid and overblown. That sex minigame is really not that far away from that whoohoo the Sims do. Furthermore it's quite dull and not really that interesting, even to hormone-filled teenagers. I am really sad if this hot coffee thing will in the end result in delay of future GTA games, because, whatever you think and however conservative you are, this is a great game and people (of the right age) should be able to play it. Well, just my 2 cents.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/12/05

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