Review: You're straight busta if you don't dig the San Andreas lifestyle!
Three years ago, Grand Theft Auto III pulled one of the biggest heists in game history - silently overshadowing and ultimately crushing other, more anticipated titles on the PlayStation2 that fall; namely Metal Gear Solid 2, Devil May Cry, and Final Fantasy X for starters. The game became a cultural phenomenon, and took Rockstar Games into the elite territory of gaming. 1 year later, Rockstar and Rockstar North capitalized on this success by unleashing Vice City on the PS2, surpassing the success of the prequel in even quicker fashion. Though it arguably was a bigger, badder, more pastel-colored version of GTA III, VC was a tremendous success and managed to avoid being a mere rehash. Smartly, Rockstar took a year off of the GTA series, using 2003 to package a double pack for the PS2 and an enhanced double pack of GTA III and VC for Xbox. But nobody could expect what was coming next.
When GTA: San Andreas was announced, most everyone expected a single city - some thought it would be like Los Angeles, some thought it would be like San Francisco, some thought it would be like Las Vegas. But no - Rockstar wasn't going to rehash GTA III again. Instead, San Andreas became an entire state, and each one of those cities has been re-created, in some form, in this massive game. And that's just the beginning - three cities, two different countryside environments, enough RPG elements to give Final Fantasy a run for its money, and so many diversions, side-quests, mini-games, hidden things, cars to drive, planes to fly, and on and on. Ambition is hardly a way to describe a game so massive in scope; it's an amazing accomplishment for the aging PS2 hardware. And that's not even mentioning the extremely well done storyline and outstanding voice acting from equal amounts of famous and unknown talent. Quite frankly, San Andreas is a nearly endless game, and unquestionably one of the best PS2 games released, if not the single best PS2 game ever made. So much to do, yet no real pressure to do anything - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the ultimate gaming sandbox.
GTA: San Andreas places you in the capable shoes of one Carl Johnson, or CJ for short. A former banger in the Grove Street Families gang, he escaped the pressures of the lifestyle by bolting for Liberty City some years ago. Now though, his mother has been murdered, and he has to return home to Los Santos and face his friends who may or may not be happy to see him. Unfortunately, CJ is dogged by corrupt cops who frame him for murder almost as soon as he lands in Los Santos, and must also shape uneasy alliances with his old running partners and make Grove Street important again. While the early part of the game is very focused on the gang lifestyle of the early 1990's, when gangsta rap and gang warfare was a very common occurrence and an important part of the culture in that period of time, it takes up a very small percentage of the content of the game. Thanks to the three distinct cities (Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas) and the outlying areas, the game slowly shifts from small-time to almost Ocean's Eleven
territory towards the end. While GTA is always about freedom and doing almost whatever you can imagine, San Andreas' storyline is genuinely great, and everything ties in with the main plot that you begin when CJ lands in Los Santos.
Like always though, you can spend as much or as little time as you want with the storyline since there's so much to do. And in the case of San Andreas, there's so much to do and see that the game can be extremely overwhelming at the beginning, and because the game starts very slow and deliberately (not surprising since the game is 3x as long as the last two GTA games). The biggest new things have to deal with the RPG-esque leveling and the food system. When it was announced that CJ had to eat food to keep himself going, many feared it would be too much like The Sims, but this is not the case. While it's one of the few sources of health, since ?heart containers' are only available at select times, you only have to eat every few days or so in game time (so like maybe every 90 minutes in real-time, if that), but it doesn't dominate the game. If you eat well-balanced you will be in good shape, but if you pig out, CJ can be one fat bastard by the time you're done. Naturally, staying fit means you have better endurance and strength, as fatty moves too slow to make an impact on enemies.
The whole leveling thing is a very interesting thing - it basically rewards you for doing something often. For instance, if you head to the gym and work out a lot, your stamina will increase so you can run at top speed longer, or you'll develop strength and muscle for better endurance and strength in hand-to-hand combat. If you plan on making CJ extremely strong, you have to keep at the gym fairly frequently or he'll lose muscle, which will adversely affect his skills against enemies. It's a cool diversion that allows for some customizing of your character; your CJ may be different than your friends, so it brings personality on top of CJ's already inherent personality traits. Also, weapon skills level up, if you use a weapon a lot your skill with it increases, and in some cases, once you master it, you can dual-wield for twice the damage. As you level, your accuracy, distance, and overall strength with a weapon increases, making it easier to pick off distant targets, something that becomes increasingly necessary as you progress. Finally, at long last, CJ can swim! And if you swim a lot, your ability to remain underwater, and stamina for aggressive swimming increases. At last, you don't have to write off falling into the water as death in Grand Theft Auto.
At the heart of it, San Andreas doesn't completely reshape the franchise, other than what was mentioned above. Certain things have been removed - hidden packages are gone, replaced by graffiti tags in Los Santos, photo opportunities in San Fierro, and horseshoes in Las Venturas. Rampages are gone, replaced by - get this - two player rampages that are unnecessary to 100% the game, but finally, you can bring another player in and do some damage. The two player thing is derived from the ?girlfriend' concept in San Andreas - CJ can get himself numerous girlfriends that he actually has to take out on dates, be it to a club for dancing, a restaurant, or in one case?well, let's leave that for you to discover on your own. If you neglect one, they'll dump you, but if you pay a lot of attention to her, treat her right, and even wear a gimp suit, you may get CJ a little action on some nights. Each city and countryside area has a female for CJ to hook up with, and each have their own unique personality.
That's just the beginning of a seemingly endless amount of things to do. Familiar side missions like Taxi Driver, Vigilante, Firefighter, and Ambulance driver return, with a brand new Pimp side mission as well. Yes, Pimp missions, where you find a pimpmobile, take girls to their suitors for the evening, and collect cash for doing so. The reward? Having the ladies of the night pay YOU for their services if CJ is in need of action and/or a health recharge. Unfortunately, Rockstar didn't take advantage of the ability to fly jetliners (which you can legally earn with the Pilots License) and do Pilot missions, those would be great. The assets that you could get in Vice City are back, though many are not as cut and dried as VC. Certain ones, like courier jobs (where you make deliveries, and once you finish these deliveries you get a daily payout) are triggered without actually spending money on a property, which is pretty nice. Others do have actual missions (such as the auto dealer which becomes the traditional Import/Export garage once cleared), but some don't. Overall, you can drive trucks, be a valet, work in a quarry, or deliver goods for the Hippy Shopper in San Fierro amongst other things, to earn money in San Andreas.
And that's not even mentioning the wealth of diversions that occupy San Andreas that has no real emphasis on anything. You can buy clothes in the various stores to deck CJ out in new threads - it does little but increase his sex appeal for?you know, not much other than the girlfriends and NPC chatter. You can play a ton of mini-games in arcade-style fashion either at CJ's house or various locations that have arcades (convenience stores), and if you're a betting man, there's blackjack, slots, and video poker at the Las Venturas casinos, and off-track horse betting in a few locations (Los Santos and Montgomery most notably). Like real life, these games of chance can be a real drain on your pocketbook (especially since money isn't quite as easy to get this time around in comparison to VC and especially III), but also can be a way to make a ton of money in one shot if you play your cards right. There's probably even more I haven't touched on (like the 70 something unique jumps scattered all around), but needless to say, there's so friggin' much to do in this game that you could do side quests for hours on end and never touch the main storyline.
The actual storyline missions themselves are even more varied and interesting than ever before, topping even Vice's missions. Early on the missions are small-time, though usually pretty violent, but as you get farther in, they present some incredibly fun - and sometimes very long - opportunities to wreak havoc. There's very few missions that last a few minutes, they're much more fleshed out this time around (a few will be so cool and stunning that you'll be talking about them for a long time with fellow GTA fanatics). There's also a very interesting balance in the missions, some can be very complex as mentioned, and they manage to give you a break by having a simpler mission follow. It's not like GTA is a particularly hard game or anything, but instead of piling on extremely tough missions in some spots, they ease off and let you take it easy for a while with some less complicated tasks. But with well over 100 missions to tackle, and a ton of side missions, you can equally screw around and progress through the game at an even pace; or you can screw around and never do missions (though in this case, you're encouraged simply because of other cities out there), or of course, blast through missions and mess with side quests later on. It's still a little aggravating that there's no mission restarts or even a Taxi drive to the location of the mission (especially if a mission requires you to drive a long distance), but instead a quick trip option to bypass certain sections. It's probably one of the few flaws with the game, though they can be managed.
Much of the gameplay itself hasn't been completely revamped, though the targeting system has changed drastically, and for the better. While not perfect, it's infinitely better than GTA 3 and Vice. It uses a Manhunt-like targeting system that shows health deplete from characters as they're being shot at, and is much more accurate, especially as you level up your skills with whatever weapon you're using. It could still use some work as sometimes you can target the wrong thing, but it's good enough. The addition of a manual aim really helps though, as you can, for instance, directly target the gas tank of a car and blow it up and perhaps also then blow up anything around it. Some may even prefer the manual aim, so the option for it is very well received by some, certainly. The cars control the exact same, though you grow better at handling them as your driving skill slowly increases.
Finally, we can discuss the cities. I saved it for last simply because it is the reason why this game is so stunning despite its small batch of technical flaws. Don't think you're playing True Crime with constantly repeating buildings and a general lack of creativity on the part of the developers; instead, each of the three cities is different from the last with unique landmarks, people, vehicles, designs, and even atmosphere. The countryside areas are sprawling with a lot of small towns with typical amenities (you'll find Pay & Spray, restaurants, and Ammunations all around, as well as property to purchase), and their own batch of unique citizens who differ from the ones you'll find in the big cities. And each city is larger than either Liberty or Vice, and really, it's extremely intimidating the first time you visit Los Santos and get lost in the winding streets; it only gets worse when you try navigating the countryside. Then you get another large city, etc (which is handled greatly via storyline - there's really no barricades separating the cities like the last two GTA games; instead, you get an automatic 4 star wanted level for leaving. Very cool). The scope is just so massive; aside from Morrowind and MMORPG's, no other game can claim such massive size. And the best part? Well, aside from having so many things to do that getting 100% will take months? That you can go anywhere in San Andreas without ever seeing a loading screen unless you're entering a building. Indeed, you can drive from Los Santos, to San Fierro, around the bend to Las Venturas without ever once being interrupted by loading. Simply an amazing achievement, especially considering the PS2's age and supposed lack of power.
There's just so much to do, so much freedom, so much fun to be had in San Andreas, that any flaws can be overlooked. They just won't bug you unless you're so completely anal that any little nitpick ruins the game. You can do almost anything you can possibly think of, to the point where the question is ?what can't I do?' rather than the other way around. The game starts slow, unsurprising for such a large game, but as you move out of your small corner of Los Santos and see the bright lights of the city and all that it offers, the countryside misadventures, hanging with the hippies in San Fierro, and being a big-time casino shark in Las Venturas, it becomes a genuinely epic adventure with enough storyline twists and turns to make up several novels or movies. The virtual sandbox concept is probably one of the most overused buzz words in gaming, but Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas brings the concept to reality; if a mission is bugging you, chances are you can just do something else for a while and give it a shot later. Rockstar claims 100 hours or more for 100% completion, and while it will be a while to see whether or not that's accurate, thus far I find it difficult to argue the boast. I've played Vice City often for the last two years - just how long will San Andreas be spinning in my PS2 until I've done all the things the game can possibly offer?
Like the first two GTA games on PS2, San Andreas' weak point is graphics. Thankfully this is the least important, but even SA is improved. Character designs haven't changed much, but the city designs are top-notch artistically - especially Las Venturas, which is about as perfect a copy of Las Vegas without actually being Las Vegas as humanly possible. Especially at night. Los Santos is ugly, but only in the urban areas with beat up houses, crappy cars, etc. Each area radically changes its character designs for pedestrians, vehicles, terrain, buildings, homes, etc. There's just so much unique stuff spread around the world without much repetition that it's incredible. For whatever the PS2 lacks in pure power, Rockstar North made up for with sheer variety in the state of San Andreas. It's damn near amazing what they've pulled off here, and though the graphics could be improved (and will on the PC version and of course if there's an Xbox conversion), considering how much they shoved onto one DVD, the scope more than makes up for it. On a negative, the map is so big it's tough to figure out what's going on, and the color of the save house marker blends in which makes it very difficult to see where you need to go and save up. Though eventually you can learn the city so it becomes less important.
Finally, we come to the better half of the non-important stuff, the audio. Like previous installments, the voice acting is amazing. Newcomer Young Maylay voices CJ, and does an absolutely awesome job portraying him, and though the game is heavily laced with the ?N' word and the ?F' word, it totally fits the things that are going on. There's a good batch of other non-names, though you'll find appearances by Ice-T, James Woods (who's portrayal of Mike Toreno will have you busting up, one of the best characters in the whole game), Peter Fonda (who also plays the hilarious character The Truth) and the biggest name, the man himself, Samuel L. Jackson taking a huge role as well as Officer Frank Tenpenny. Everything is just exceptionally well-acted and helps keep the story from falling too far off into parody even though the game is not meant to be overly serious all the time. Other voices like pedestrians are good too, they'll notice your appearance, which you can comment back to them on (either nicely or meanly), which is a nice touch.
The radio stations arguably do not touch the greatness of Vice City, but they're still pretty good. There's a real emphasis on urban music with two rap stations (Radio Los Santos standing out with awesome choices from Tupac, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and NWA amongst others), one soul station, and one R&B station, but there's a great alt/rock station in Radio X that features Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Guns N Roses, Helmet, and Danzig for starters, a 70's-era rock station in KDST (hosted by Tommy "Nightmare" Smith, known in reality as W. Axl Rose) with music from The Who, Tom Petty, Foghat, and Kiss to start you off. There's even a country station with old-time country, not the pop-country trash that dominates now. While you might scoff at that, believe me, it's fitting to be listening to Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, or Loretta Lynn while traversing the countryside to or from a mission. The usual talk station is nice, but is not single format like past games, instead there's a mixture of different shows, from a news show, a political argument show, a gardening show (WTF?) and of course, an appearance from Lazlow himself. In a really cool twist, the stations are sensitive to events in-game; every DJ from time to time adds new banter as you progress, and will note things you've done or things that have occurred during your play of the game. So if WCTR talk radio seems abbreviated at first, keep listening and more and more becomes available to listen to.
I'm really unsure of what else you could possibly say here. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is almost the perfect video game.