Review by BloodGod65

"In the City, City of Compton! (A GTA Retrospective)"

In the final edition my Grand Theft Auto retrospective reviews, I'll be looking at Rockstar's PS2 magnum opus, San Andreas. The pressure leading up to the release of San Andreas couldn't have been any higher for Rockstar. Since the transition to 3D with Grand Theft Auto III, each progressive iteration has become a challenge to outdo the last. With the previous two titles being blockbusters, the pressure was on to release something that trumped everything that had come before it. With a world comprised of three different cities and vast swathes of wilderness making up the greater whole of San Andreas (all based on real world cities; San Francisco, San Diego and Las Vegas) tons of stuff to do and one of the wildest tales of gangster life ever told, San Andreas does indeed beat them all.

In terms of narrative, San Andreas is quite a break from the norm by following ex-gangster Carl “CJ” Johnson. CJ fled to Liberty City several years ago to escape life on the streets, but returns home to attend his mother's funeral after she is killed in a drive-by shooting. Things don't go as he'd planned, and within his first hour back, he is framed for the murder of a cop by crooked Officer Tenpenny, dropped off in the territory of a former rival gang, and harassed by his family for leaving in the first place. But as the events surrounding his mother's death unfold and the situation in the city becomes clear, CJ falls back into the thug life, eventually reassembling the old Grove Street gang to take back their territory from the drug-dealing Ballas. This personal war escalates until imploding on itself, leaving the gang shattered and CJ alone to pick up the pieces.

The story of San Andreas achieves a height far greater than either of the previous games, but like previous games, it is full of satire aimed at American culture. Though the nineties are less ripe for comedy than the eighties (perhaps because it was an era of disillusionment after an era of materialistic excess), Rockstar still manages to generate a lot of laughs, even if they aren't as era specific as in the last game. Like Vice City, San Andreas continues to weave the seemingly disparate worlds together, although on a much larger scale than previously. Numerous familiar radio personalities make appearances and there is one extended and hilarious character cameo that sets the stage for Grand Theft Auto III (on a chronological timeline Vice City comes first, followed by San Andreas, then GTAIII).

In terms of gameplay it's hard to even pick a place to begin. So much has been added it boggles the mind, and everything that players have come to expect is done on a bigger and more impressive scale. The world of San Andreas is a perfect example of this. Like previous games, San Andreas is comprised of three distinct locales. However, San Andreas isn't a city comprised of three boroughs but a state comprised of three cities. These three cities, Los Santos, San Fiero and Las Venturas are modeled after real world counterparts and their inspiration is easily recognizable in each city's layout. Los Santos is taken from Los Angeles, and features tangled ghettoes, mansions that sit in the hills high above the city and a big Hollywood knockoff sign that says, VINEWOOD. San Fiero is equivalent to San Francisco with its steep hills, perpetual fog and Golden Gate Bridge knockoff, while Las Venturas is every bit as glitzy and gaudy as the Las Vegas it was modeled on. While the cities themselves are huge, Rockstar has also added acres and acres of backcountry to explore, with forests, rolling hills and desert all being among the terrain players will come across during the game.

The backbone of Grand Theft Auto has always been, and probably always will be, missions. And, like nearly every other part of San Andreas, Rockstar has followed the philosophy of “Make it bigger and make it better”, and it works for the most part. While the majority of the missions involve basic objectives such as driving people around and eliminating enemies, Rockstar remains unsurpassed when it comes to making something unique out of the mundane. An early mission starts out as a fast-food run with fellow gangsters, but quickly turns into chaos as a rival gang performs a drive-by on the vehicle with CJ and company quickly pursuing for revenge.

Rockstar also displays their ability to craft truly unique missions, which are more abundant this time around. Some of the more insane include a segment involving CJ on the back of a dirtbike while being chased through the Los Santo's aqueducts, Terminator style. Another has CJ and a buddy running around trying to destroy a field of a certain illicit plant before the cops arrive. Later in the game things get even nuttier, with CJ breaking into a military installation and perhaps the crowning achievement of the game, a strand of missions that culminates in an extended casino heist.

That's not to say the missions are without their flaws, as Rockstar is still capable of designing a real stinker every now and then. One particular mission sticks out as the most potentially frustrating because it involves a limited completion time and requires excellent aiming with a still less than optimal system. There are also a couple of areas where progression can potentially be halted while players achieve the necessary requirements, such as one segment that requires players to master the art of flying before being allowing to continue.

So at its core, San Andreas isn't much different than what came before it. But the devil is in the details, as they say, and the amount of new content and mechanics is astounding. Many of these new mechanics are readily apparent early on, when gang warfare is the focus of the game. Depending on his reputation, CJ can recruit homies right off the street to fight with him. They'll even follow him into an automobile, provided there's enough room, and when they spot an enemy they'll lean out the windows and open fire, turning a sedan into a veritable gunship of urban mayhem.

Another aspect of the game's focus on street life is territory. At the outset of the game, the city of Los Santos is divided up into color-coded territories owned by different gangs. Having fallen apart during the period of CJ's absence, the Grove Street Families initially only has a small amount of territory. After some introductory missions, CJ can set out to reclaim territory. This is accomplished by walking into rival areas, and shooting a couple of gang members to incite a gang war. At this point, waves of enemies will pour into the area and if CJ can eliminate them all, the territory is won for Grove Street. As an added bonus, players will receive extra money for their territory so it's in the player's best interest to take over as much as possible, and defend what they have. Though it's definitely a cool concept, after completing the first fourth of the game it completely disappears, only to reemerge in the final hours. But seeing that at that point the game becomes less about thugging it up than CJ starting his own enterprises, it does make sense.

When it comes to exploring the world of San Andreas, players will notice that CJ is more athletic than either the Dude or Vercetti. CJ can now swim, which means those pesky deaths by accidentally driving into the ocean are now gone. He can also climb, meaning if he can grab onto something at a reasonable height, he can pull himself up and over it. This comes in handy quite often, and makes it much easier to navigate the urban jungle.

One of the less noticeable additions comes in the form of RPG style experience. Many things, such as guns, running, swimming and driving have experience meters. The more you use a certain skill, the better CJ will become at it. For instance, if he does a lot of running his stamina will increase, and the more he drives the better vehicles will control. The most important area is undoubtedly with guns. Every type of weapon, from pistols to machine guns, has an experience level. Once again, the more a weapon is used the better CJ will become at wielding it. Leveling up means CJ is more accurate, can move while wielding the weapon and in the case of one handed weapons, he can dual wield (a sawn-off shotgun in each hand is truly a fearsome combination).

Character customization is also a large part of San Andreas and factors into the game in a number of ways. Due to there now being restaurants players can visit for quick health boosts, CJ can become obese and therefore less athletic. Players can steer their chubby (or scrawny) hero to a local gym to work off those pounds and eventually turn him into a statuesque body-builder. There are also numerous clothing stores to visit to get new threads, barbershops for a variety of hairdos (pink Mohawk anyone?), and tattoo parlors.

Though customization is there mostly for the amusement of players, it plays a large role when CJ finds a girlfriend. Many will recognize this as the seed of an integral game mechanic of Grand Theft Auto IV, and it functions much the same, albeit very simplified. There are several potential girlfriends scattered throughout San Andreas, and if CJ meets the girls physical requirement (other than the initial girl, most have some sort of physical characteristic that they like) they begin a relationship. After meeting this requirement, CJ can take her on dates to bars, clubs and restaurants. If he can max out the relationship bar, he'll gain access to a bonus, like being able to take out her custom car or unlocking a special clothing item.

What is phenomenal about the new mechanics is how well they are integrated into the gameplay experience. There isn't a single new thing in the game players won't learn about by doing missions. The game takes players by the hand while teaching them the ins and outs of gang warfare and dating, which is a nice way to ease people in to the very deep experience.

In addition to all these new mechanics, there are plenty of traditional additions in the form of odd jobs and other activities. Firefighter, paramedic, taxi driver and vigilante missions all make their returns in usual form. But players can now take on jobs pimping, parking cars as a valet, trucking or just robbing people at night. The brave can take on extreme off road biking in a certain area and enter triathlon races. And finally, once reaching Las Venturas you can just screw around in the casinos playing blackjack, poker and a variety of other games of chance. This is by no means the extent of the additions, and the longer the game is played, the more activities you're likely to discover.

Graphically, San Andreas was no looker when it came out and time has further taken its toll. Overall, the game has the same stylized look as the other games of the PS2 era. Character models are passable but aren't intricately detailed. The world has plenty of variety, from ghettoes to forest wilderness, open country, desert wasteland, oceanic vistas and glitzy cities. But all of them suffer from the same problems, namely the simple and often muddy textures and massive popup.

San Andreas also suffers from plenty of ill-used lighting effects. In most of the cities, and during most of the day cycle, the world has a bleary color palette. Many browns are used and the lighting gives everything an orange hue. On occasion, everything clears (typically a period of only a few minutes in the day/night cycle) and shows off a relatively good looking world. However, as long as the orange lighting effect is used, the game isn't very pretty. During the night, lighting again becomes a factor as most everything is hard to see, even in well lit cities.

There are a number of visual effects, most of which do nothing for the game. The rain effect is hideous and just makes the screen look fuzzy. Fog, on the other hand, obscures some of the pop-up so it isn't entirely without merit. When taking a car up to its top speed, the game shows some interesting speed effects as the camera draws back and the screen starts to shake. As ugly as the game is, it is worth noting once again that the game is absolutely massive and the amount of content jammed into a single disc is overwhelming, so the graphics did have to take a backseat.

On the audio side, this is by far the best voice cast Rockstar has ever assembled. The talent is top notch and includes a huge list of very famous names. Samuel L. Jackson voices the twisted Officer Tenpenny and Peter Fonda is hilarious as the stoner hippy “The Truth”. On the radio, some of the DJ's are voiced by famous artists of the stations genre. Chuck D of Public Enemy DJ's a rap station, while George Clinton works the funk station. Finally, Rockstar must have been practicing some wicked nasty voodoo when they got Axl Rose to play DJ for the classic rock station. However, as good as all those names are, James Woods eclipses them all in his role as Mike Toreno (but that's all I'll say about that character…).

The soundtrack is much more varied than the previous two games, and it's safe to say there's something for everyone here. Not only is it varied, but it captures the essence of the nineties perfectly. There are a few rap stations with the big names of the time such as Tupac, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. There's even a classic-rap station, although I'm still not sure how that's any different from the regular rap music. There are two rock stations, a classic and a new alternative both of which do an excellent job of showing the state of flux rock and roll was in during the nineties, where the legends were being replaced by dirty kids in flannel (I believe it was called “grunge”). Then there's a house station and even country music, complete with Willie Nelson and Conway Twitty.

San Andreas is, without a doubt, one of the best things Rockstar ever put out on the Playstation 2. It successfully built on a juggernaut franchise and even years after its release, it still feels fresh. The only thing that really keeps it from perfection is how ugly it is, and if only Rockstar had forgone some of the goofy lighting effects, it could have been tolerable. Regardless, it is undoubtedly the best game in the series and simply put, the defining game of the Playstation 2 generation.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 06/26/09, Updated 07/06/10

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

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