Welcome to the '90s, Grand Theft Auto-style: Guns N' Roses, Dr. Dre, grunge, rising gang violence, and bad political talk radio. As usual, exploring the enormous world while listening to the various radio stations is the best part of the game. Road rage, sub-machine guns, and Ozzy Osbourne mix well. Those interested in actually playing through San Andreas' story have hours of varied missions awaiting them, and hardcore gamers can go for the elusive "100%" completion rating. The plot is interesting -- helped greatly by top-notch vocal talent, especially Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, Ice-T, and James Woods -- and that's good enough.
Every game in the Grand Theft Auto series has significantly improved on its predecessor. San Andreas is no exception. The promising features offered in Vice City -- flying, motorcycles, and multiple outfits, for example -- have all been perfected in San Andreas. Flying has become the sublime experience that Vice City never managed, and C.J.'s wardrobe options are staggering. Swimming, diving, and underwater exploration are new possibilities. The range of available vehicles is ridiculous. Even after beating the game, there will probably be many vehicles the player has yet to use. The game world is almost too big -- a good problem to have, but the countryside between Las Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas is a maze and difficult to navigate (for the next GTA, Rockstar should improve the radar display).
Missions are innovative and take advantage of new features. Several tasks prominently feature parachuting, which is great fun. Sadly, there are also some real "lemon" missions, including most of flight school, and a particularly hideous mini-airplane assignment from the annoying Zero. Several missions attempt to incorporate "stealth" -- unfortunately, the game system doesn't support stealth gameplay too well. It's generally easier to shoot your way through any difficulties (for which you rarely suffer any penalties).
San Andreas is a great game, by far the best in the GTA Series. The enormous game world, innovative mission design, soundtrack, plethora of vehicles, and gore-filled action will keep grown-up gamers happy for weeks.
Graphics: Weather effects, car detailing, city grime -- it's all here. There are problems with distances, but they rarely affect gameplay. Also, the high-speed "blurring" while driving the hot-rod cars is lots of fun.
Sound: The soundtrack and character voices get an A+, but the rest of the sound effects are ordinary.
Enjoyment: The plot is interesting, but disturbing -- everything else is top-notch.
Replay Value: There's plenty to keep you coming back, including the near impossible 100%.
It's a testament to the brilliance of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that, even after two years and a ton of new features, getting back into the series' latest installment is as easy as riding a bike. Literally. The game's opening sequence has you pedaling a BMX away from rival gangbangers, and even though riding a bike might not sound that exciting, Rockstar manages to make it fun -- just like the next 40+ hours of this amazing epic. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is arguably the best in the series - which is saying a lot -- and while we can't help wishing the PC port could have been shown just a little bit more love, it's the best PC game we've played this year.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas takes the series back to the early 90's, set in the fictional California-ish state of (what else?) San Andreas. You play Carl "CJ" Johnson, who's just spent five years on the east coast and has returned home after the death of his mother. Upon arriving, CJ is picked up by some crooked cops, and it's not long before CJ finds himself back in the middle of the gang wars.
Stretching across three main cities, the world of San Andreas is positively massive, even more so than GTA III and Vice City, filled with cars to jack and people to interact with. The first city is Los Santos, which is your 'hood ... and every stereotype of Los Angeles life and west coast rap rolled into a videogame, from your homies on Grove Street to the ritzy Mulholland hills. Inevitably, CJ is forced to explore new locations, and the plot moves beyond mere gang wars and spirals into a more unique and goofy crime saga. CJ soon sets up shop in San Fierro, a thinly veiled caricature of San Francisco, complete with hilly streets, rainbow flags and its own version of the Golden Gate Bridge. Beyond that lays the Vegas-inspired city of Las Venturas, with casinos like the "Starfish," "Caligula's Palace" and (my favorite) "Pirates in Men's Pants."
Like the other GTA games, you can take on missions that propel the story forward, or you can just explore and see what kind of trouble you can get into. Almost all the missions boil down to some combination of driving, shooting and/or collecting, but even after the nearly hundred (!) missions that make up the core story, they stay unique and interesting. Maybe it's a simple drive-by, or a bank robbery, or an assassination mission. Maybe you need to snipe ten gang members on a rooftop, kill their leader, and chase the final gang member down by boat. Or maybe you need to steal a motorcycle, chase down a helicopter along the freeway, and shoot it down with a missile launcher while being chased by an entire police department. The missions only get more over-the-top as you go, and yet the difficulty stays pretty manageable throughout.
What makes the GTA formula so special, however -- and is ever-present in San Andreas -- is freedom to experiment and come up with creative ways to beat missions. In one scenario, you need to chase down a pimp named Jizzy-B (played by Charlie Murphy), but he's got a pretty tough pimpmobile. Easy solution: before flushing him out of his nightclub, shoot the tires out on his car. What could have been a long chase scene becomes a getaway instantly foiled. You'll often need to do a mission once or twice to figure all this out, but it rarely feels like a chore, and these "a-ha!" moments only make it all the more rewarding.
On one level, San Andreas feels very familiar to the previous two installments in the series, but there are also plenty of new additions to keep it from feeling like a retread. A mini-RPG system allows you to see how far your skills have progressed in categories like driving, stamina, respect and various weapons, and while you'll build these stats up over the course of normal gameplay, you can also hit driving schools, shooting ranges or gyms to speed things up. There are tons of options to customize CJ's wardrobe, ink yourself up with tattoos, get new haircuts and buy bling to pimp yourself out. You can romance girlfriends in your free time in the hopes of getting invited in for "coffee," and turf wars allow you to take over areas of Los Santos with fellow gang members a few blocks at a time. Best of all, while all of these additions add depth to the basic formula, they're almost completely optional -- they only add to the fun, and don't get in the way of it.
Rockstar also deserves credit for once again building a world that's just interesting. San Andreas is a warped parody in itself, from Gap-inspired Zip clothing stores to Cluckin' Bell chicken shacks and a ton of similar spoofs. Some parts of the story are so off-the-wall bonkers that you can't help but laugh, and yet you'll still want to see how it all turns out, with some good surprises even as you reach the game's final missions. (There are a number of major ties to Liberty City and Vice City that fans of the series will particularly enjoy.) Like Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City, the world of San Andreas is one laced with violence and profanity, and it isn't a game any 10-year-old should be playing, but that doesn't make the experience any less compelling for adults.
A huge cast is on hand to bring the characters to life, starting with relative unknown rapper Young Maylay doing a fantastic job as CJ. Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Penn play crooked cops Tenpenny and Pulaski, Peter Fonda provides some memorable moments as a way-out hippie named The Truth, and James Woods is the unforgettable Mike Toreno, a government agent of sorts that CJ gets mixed up with. (Be sure to do every mission you can find for Toreno as soon as you can.) The amazing soundtrack, with 8 different radio stations and over 100 songs, covers the best of the early 90's, including Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Boyz II Men, En Vogue, Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, and provides perfect backdrop to the action. In short, the presentation is top-notch on every level.
Well, almost every level. It's frustrating that, even after all the success of the GTA games, San Andreas still looks a generation or two behind in the graphics department. Even with support for higher resolutions and antialiasing, San Andreas only looks worse depending on how good your hardware is: once you've gotten used to playing Half-Life 2, DOOM 3 and even World of Warcraft at 1920x1200, it can be jarring to see an abundance of stretched textures and blocky geometry that permeates the world. The Mulholland mansion of rapper Madd Dogg, for example, which becomes a central location in the game, is an embarrassingly outdated bit of level design, like a practice level someone built for Half-Life five years ago. It's clear that some textures were upgraded for the PC version, and we'll happily take the tradeoff of San Andreas' superior gameplay at the expense of some eye candy, but our question is: why can't we have both? Hopefully the incoming wave of next-gen consoles will give the GTA series the graphical upgrade it so sorely needs.
Sadly, the PC port of San Andreas isn't without a few technical issues. On the plus side, the game never crashed over 50+ hours of testing on two separate machines, and load times were just a few seconds -- a vast improvement over the PS2 version. On the minus side, several special effects, like fire, smoke and fog, caused major slowdowns, even on high-end machines. This made several missions much harder than they should have been, including -- in a truly unfortunate turn -- the game's epic final mission. The slowdowns were bad enough that I took on the optional fire truck missions to get CJ the "fireproof" bonus, just so I didn't have to worry about it any more. We also had some issues with rain effects looking generally poor as well as producing a strange crackling on both our test machines.
And yet, despite these drawbacks, I can't imagine myself playing San Andreas on a console. It's a lot easier to take in the world using the mouse to look up and down, and combat while on foot is surprisingly satisfying, using the right mouse button to bring up a targeting crosshair in place of the PS2's lock-on format. (Sniping with the mouse is practically unfair.) Car/motorcycle control handles like Unreal Tournament 2004 -- you use the W/A/S/D keys to steer, and the mouse to swivel the camera -- and there's also gamepad support if you really want it for the flying missions. If you find that the soundtrack isn't enough, you can copy your own MP3s into a folder to create an extra radio station. San Andreas is also a game that lends itself to saving regularly, and it's a lot easier to archive 100 missions' worth of save files on the PC than juggling memory cards.
Finally, it's worth noting that the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comes in some of the slickest packaging we've seen for a PC game in a while. The "box" is actually a full-color hardcover manual about the size of a DVD case, with a slipcover, a single game DVD inside the back cover, and a full-size poster with a map of San Andreas on it. It's better than what passes for some "collector's editions" these days, and it's something we'd love to see more developers and publishers adopt in the future.
The Final Word
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, from almost every angle, is an amazing game. Like its predecessors, it presents a gigantic world that you're free to explore, with a great story, and a never-ending supply of missions buried in every corner. New features provide just enough extra depth to keep things interesting and yet keep the winning formula intact. The PC version suffers from a few technical glitches and generally looks a little dated compared to other PC titles, but still feels like an improvement over the PS2 version, and is filled with weeks of gameplay and unforgettable moments. It's not to be missed.
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