Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Could it really stand up to the tsunami of hype? Step inside and see for yourself.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: November 14, 2004
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Here I am, still basking in the celebratory glow of finally finishing off San Andreas after nearly three weeks. I've had a smoke, taken a celebratory drink from my 40 to enjoy the thuggish nature of my victory, and now I'm left with how to convey exactly how I feel about the game. I'd like to say I have reams of notes or voice-dictated diatribes on what I do and don't like about the game, but after we've helped contribute to the hype with all the little plusses and extras, I'm left with the notion that it's probably just best to point out the major stuff.

After all, discovering all the spoiler-happy bits of the game, all the little in-jokes and all the subtle bits and pieces Rockstar North included in this -- easily the most impressive and complex GTA to grace any platform -- is, dare I say, part of the game itself. It's fun to discover things on your own, and then to share them with friends who've already beaten the game, and I'm sure we can discuss those bits and pieces at great length in a thread on the forums, but here, I'll just get to the meat of things.

One of the big things we wanted to do with the redesign of was provide a smarter way of delivering reviews. Once we've talked up a game enough with previews, delved into the ins and outs of gameplay additions with first looks and hands-on impressions and generally just helped push the publicity machine along, it just seems more logical to me to refer you to those bits of hard work (especially on the part of our resident Managing Editor who put in more than a little time whipping all those previews up for you guys), so that's exactly what I'll do. Hit our San Andreas game page for all that goodness, this review's strictly going to highlight overall final impressions.

All caught up? Good. So by now you know, Carl Johnson has returned from Liberty City (where GTA3 took place) after 5 years to find his mother and brother dead and his neighborhood in shambles. Drugs are everywhere, gangs have crept into home turf, and life's pretty crappy for just about everyone around. This is the world the CJ must choose to rise out of, or clean up from the inside, and the decision spans the entire state of San Andreas; three big ass cities filled with more stuff to do in each of them than you could probably tackle in a week of non-stop playing.

This is where SA shines more than any other game. The sheer amount of stuff you can do is staggering, but here's the kicker: it's never, ever overwhelming. You can do that stuff, you don't have to do it, and you can take it all in at your own pace. The story-driving missions themselves are a marked departure from the past two games, both in terms of their scope (wait till you try the Terminator 2-laced chase through the Los Santos aqueducts) and the difficulty -- a massive improvement over previous games.

That's not to say the game isn't challenging; some of the optional missions can seem downright impossible until you've played through them for the 20 or 30th time, it's just that except in key moments where the story needs to progress, most of the missions can be beaten in a couple of tries. This really is a huge step forward for the series, because it allows you to get sucked deeper into the storyline, moving the game along at your pace for the most part, not the other way around. Plus, with all the extra crap you can do, there's no reason to impose a heightened level of difficulty, since there's arguably as much stuff to do outside the main storyline as there is in it, effectively making for two games that you can play through back-to-back without restarting if you just want to barrel through things.

It shows a startling level of control on Rockstar North's part and a willingness to listen to gamers that broke controllers (myself included) trying to do stuff like rescue Lance or the final mission in Vice City. Smaller quibbles like an utterly busted aiming system (which wasn't completely fixed, but the half-right Manhunt-style reticle goes a long way towards fixing things) or taking damage when running down stairs and off sidewalks were patched up.

If only they'd done a better job prioritizing enemies and found a way to easily target things that aren't directly in front of CJ. There's also the issue of brain-dead friendly AI, which has no qualms against sauntering around while the middle of a gang war, or conveniently running off in the opposite direction for no reason, or, best of all, happily inserting their heads right into the middle of your aim, thus ending their vapid existence. The enemies can still be found standing around doing nothing on rare occasions, but the instances are extremely few and far between this time around.

Upgrades to vehicles mean there's finally a real reason to search for a car that's not only fast, but handles well. The implementation of better physics into the handling of each car does indeed help give the impression that you're driving more than just another vehicle that hauls ass, but takes damage like a bulimic supermodel. Even the motorcycles are more fun to drive, and easily became the vehicle I searched for most. While it was rarely used, the inclusion of being able to blow up cars with a shot at the gas tank complements the popped tires and shattered windshields for keen snipers.

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