Unless you’ve been asleep for the past few months you would’ve undoubtedly heard about GTA San Andreas in its latest incarnation on the PC. Following on from GTA 3 and Vice City, San Andreas introduces you as black kid Carl Johnson (CJ to his ‘homies’). Carl is leaving Liberty City (remember that place?) and going home to Los Santos in San Andreas state because of the death of his Mom. He’s given a “friendly” welcome home by corrupt cop, Officer Tenpenny (Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick. All hell breaks loose as Carl’s family and friends are attacked at the funeral, and things spiral into war with rival gang the “Ballas”, with Carl at the centre of things…
The story soon becomes a gang-based tale of drugs, prostitution, murder, corruption and violence (all good so far!), but, with the ‘street’ language and racial stereotypes, it all started to drag a bit for me. Fortunately things pick up later on as the “plot” (as we’ll call it) becomes less serious, more tongue-in-cheek and enjoyably twisted and daft. The story meanders and the sardonic James Woods (playing a dodgy CIA agent), and Peter Fonda as an aging hippy both have some excellent and amusing lines. The expansive music soundtrack is, as always, accompanied by soome hilarious radio chatter by the DJs, or should you wish you can play your own soundtrack.
GTA III was set in Liberty City (based on New York), then Tommy Vercetti had his adventures in Vice City (Miami). San Andreas is a state modelled on California and Nevada, and contains three cities (each one as big as Vice City) comprising Los Santos (think: Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas). These cities are divided by large expanses of water, wilderness or desert and it soon becomes apparent that the play area is huge. HUGE. No, really - I MEAN H U G E. The number of missions and variation in the amount of things to do are equally impressive; the feeling of scale is immense. In fact there’s so much rough country between the three cities (complete with one-horse towns and ranches) that at times San Andreas feels like another much-loved Rockstar game, Smuggler’s Run – but with stablemate Midnight Club attached, three times…
A new map system with a checkpoint marker that you can set helps you find your way around the labyrinthine streets and back alleys of Los Santos, or guides you to a point way out in the country (particularly handy when flying), and as a GTA addict who eventually learned both Liberty and Vice cities like the back of my hand I can honestly say that I’d be screwed without it – so complex and vast is Los Santos that you’ll certainly remember bits of it after a while, and obviously know which direction to go in thanks to the on-screen map, but I can’t see myself ever ‘learning’ the city like I did with the others. This is both a good thing and daunting, and when you realize that San Fierro and Las Venturas are just as big and complex as Los Santos, it really hits home what an immense, complex game GTA San Andreas really is.
Anyone will tell you that the joy of the GTA games is the freedom, and it’s never been truer than in San Andreas. You can follow the story and do missions or just mess around – it’s entirely up to you, and the GTA playset just got a whole lot bigger! There are far more vehicles than before, including loads of old favourites than have had a facelift, and at least 8 different motorbikes. The first thing you get to ride is a BMX bike and they’re great fun and you can even do a few tricks (you hold the right trigger to pedal normally or tap it repeatedly to sprint). You can now fly several types of aeroplane (including various jets) and even head to the airport and take a scheduled airliner flight from one city to another.
Eating and exercise are now all part of the GTA lifestyle. CJ needs to eat to keep up or replenish his energy (there are fast food joints all over the place), and exercise to build up his stamina (allows him to run further/faster and his punches have more impact in a fight). But just like in real life, eat too little and CJ will start to lose energy and even weight (both fat and muscle), and conversely if you pig out on too many burgers and never exercise in a gym, or run or cycle anywhere he’ll get fat, really fat – and this affects CJ’s mobility, stamina and sex appeal (although some San Andreas girls like a fatty). New clothes can be bought and mixed and matched, or you can go out in your briefs – it’s up to you! There are several barbers around San Andreas, and you can get several different hairstyles and colours. Once you’ve changed CJ’s hair, you’ll want to get a cool tattoo as well, and there are loads to choose from…
Driv3r’s hero cop Tanner wasn’t slow to have a pop at the GTA series because you couldn’t swim in either of the first two games, but CJ swims like a torpedo, he can even dive underwater (this feature is handy in missions for avoidance, and also in free roaming as there are secret hidden oysters underwater). Also instead of hidden packages to find as in the earlier games, CJ now sprays his gang’s tag over rival gang’s graffiti, or takes snapshots (you can save your photos), or finds horseshoes. CJ can also jump and grab ledges now, and the possibilities for exploration that this opens up are almost endless. No longer do you have to wonder if that roof would have made a good vantage/sniping point, you can nearly always drive/fly/climb your way there and find out – there’s a Bond-style jetpack that allows you to get just about anywhere.
Apart from the usual GTA ways of wasting time, CJ has dozens of new pastimes as well; relationships play a part, and you can court a series of mad women who reward you with things like cars to borrow and saving your weapons when you get busted/wasted (although they’re definitely not worth all the time and effort). There are races of various kinds, dancing,(and man, you move on the dance floor!) driving, sailing, biking and flight schools, and video games of various types are spread around the bars (CJ also has a games console at home too – with a quite addictive game). I was amazed to find that CJ can play basketball or even go base jumping (leap from a sheer drop with a parachute). There’s a hint of The Fast and the Furious as CJ can mod cars (Adding nitros, hydraulics, spoilers etc) and customised paint jobs. He can also play pool (and win money off the local hustler, who is absolutely rubbish). Now this isn’t exactly going to rival World Championship Snooker as a master of the green cloth, but when you walk up to the table, whack the balls and they all spread/roll realistically you can’t help but be impressed when you think that this is the same game engine that allows you to drive an articulated truck, leap off a mountain, fly a helicopter or a fast jet all with equal style and credibility – flying has seldom felt more realistic, regardless of which game or format you’re talking about…
Amongst the new vehicles, you’ll get to drive and play with a monster truck, quad bike, forklift truck, dune buggy, 900cc motorbike, hovercraft, private jet, sea plane, combine harvester, bulldozer, 18 wheelers (yes, you get to pull trailers with the big rigs now – woohoo!), flatbed trucks (that you can actually carry other vehicles on, thanks to the improved physics engine) and a working tow truck… (and oh yeah, for those people who like to keep the place clean, there’s even a road sweeper).
The addition of 2-player co-operative rampages at first seemed like the coolest idea ever, but was soon tempered by the realization that you can’t do any missions together (not even fire or vigilante missions – surely you should have been able to do those? – above all else they’d suit a co-op mode). At one point in the game CJ can also recruit gang members to follow him around and “rumble” with him, if you come across a rival gang your homies will do the shooting and all you have to do is pick off the stragglers, and of course, collect any money and weapons they drop. This gang warring becomes a battle for territory all over the city of Los Santos, a sort of bad-assed R.I.S.K., and although this is repetitive, it is highly addictive, just like everything else about the game.
Graphically things haven’t changed all that much from previous GTAs, but certainly have improved here and there on the PS2 version in terms of draw distance and frame rate. The loading times, that sometimes became intrusive on PS2 are significantly improved as well. On the down side, there’s still some annoying pop-up when you least expect it (like groups of trees when you’re flying and coming in to land), and occasional slowdown when things get really busy. Things often get drawn or change detail levels way too late, and there’s still a lot of clipping (things pass through objects they shouldn’t). Cars still disappear in front of and behind you way too quickly and, you daren’t leave a vehicle you cherish alone for too long because that will vanish too. But as for the uppers, well for a start the characters (both CJ and the non-playable ones) are all more detailed than before (and they all seem to have their own little lives and conversations going on), and every single vehicle is more detailed too, and many seem to resemble real ones more closely than before. You get real time lighting too – so smashing your headlights can be a real pain if you’re driving at night and you can also hide in the shadows in certain stealth-based missions. Take to the skies (and you will, a lot) and keep climbing and you’ll pass through some of the best clouds I’ve seen in game, big-assed PC flight sims and all. The weather seems to have more effect on things too; when it rained in GTA 3 or Vice City the roads were always more slippery, but your visibility gets noticeably affected now, and you really don’t want to go flying your light chopper in a desert sand storm.
Subtle improvements in the graphics aren’t all there are to be pleased about, there are some nice touches as regards to control over the camera as well. The aiming is improved (not difficult as it was awful in Vice City) but the Right Trigger “lock on” is still a bit crap - it works, but in a broken kind of way as sometimes CJ seems to want to face directly away from the guy you’re trying to kill – and disappointingly you still can’t fire a weapon forwards out of a vehicle, only out of the side window, drive-by style – even though Tanner could in the much-maligned Driv3r (although you can still fire to the front on bikes). The controls on the Xbox pad are really stupidly mapped, and using the black and white buttons in place of the PS2’s shoulder buttons is a bad joke. This means drive bys are a fiddly nightmare, and the fire truck missions sometimes require the use of THREE right thumbs – God only knows what strange mutants Rockstar North had testing the Xbox game!...
I briefly mentioned stealth-based missions, and Sam Fisher-style stealth kills and sneaking are all part of the game now, and CJ really is a bit of a Lara Croft on the quiet too, with loads of clambering to be done – it’s a particularly effective way of evading the Cops.
If you’re a fan of the series then you’re already playing this and loving it, but if you’re in any doubt about playing San Andreas on grounds of taste then I recommend you forget the violence and the bad language and allow yourself one of the most complete gaming experiences you’ll ever have – it’s just a game, remember? Despite its comic book world and looks, you’ll need driving, shooting and piloting skills as good as many dedicated games and simulations, and will have a heck of a lot of fun along the way. With all the shooting and law breaking, San Andreas is simply the best driving and flying game on Xbox – bar none – the physics and handling that were so convincing and fun on PS2 feel even better now (maybe due to a smoother frame rate), and the variation in feel and handling between the vehicles will astound you.
Whatever you think of the subject matter (particularly the unintelligible “street talk” and foul language, the violence and adult nature of some of the game) and the game’s frailties (PS2 hangover graphical glitches and some control issues), GTA San Andreas comes through all criticisms and niggles thanks to its superb production values, sound & soundtrack - but most of all because of its hugely varied gameplay. Of course it’ll have its critics, but it punches them in the gob, gives them the finger and disappears into the sunset in a stolen jet plane. The End