Where do I start? There is no denying, this game is massive. Stealing cars, robbing houses, beating down innocent pedestrians, this is Grand Theft Auto and you can do whatever you want. Grand Theft Auto gained a cult-like following when first released on the PlayStation with its top-down view and addictive gameplay. Since then the series has gone under a massive transformation. GTA III revolutionized not only the series, but the entire gaming industry. It marked the transition into a fully breathing 3D world which allowed the player to go anywhere and do anything. The next iteration in the series, Vice City, expanded on this gameplay, and added motorbikes, helicopters and other various abilities. Now we are at San Andreas, where you take control of a man named Carl Johnson, or CJ to his homies and the options available in this game are endless.
Before San Andreas was even announced, speculations were running wild to what city the next Grand Theft Auto game would be based upon, with favourites such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. Rockstar did not only deliver one of these cities, they gave us all three in a massive state around 5 times as large as the entirety of Vice City. The 3 cities in the game, Los Santos (Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Francisco), and Las Venturas (Las Vegas) all resemble their real life counterparts, due to many prominent buildings and icons. Los Santos has the trademark ‘Hollywood’ sign in the hills, although it is reworded as ‘Vinewood’. San Fierro has the Golden gate bridge, and Las Venturas has many recognizable casinos, and the ‘Vegas strip’.
Each of these cities are massive, and will take you a fair amount of time to drive about in. With extensive country between Los Santos and San Fierro, and a vast desert surrounding Las Venturas the game really comes to life and defines the meaning of a living, breathing world. Did I mention that there is no loading at all when traveling between the cities? Each city is so big in fact, that they all have their own airports where you can buy tickets to catch a plane to one of the other cities, or do-it-yourself; break into the airport (or stroll on in if you have your pilots license), and take one of those nice looking planes. Nothing stops you going to the other cities early in the game aside from easily avoidable blocked-off roads, but be prepared, if you manage to set foot upon San Fierro and Las Venturas before you’re supposed to you’ll get an instant 4 stars. That’ll teach ya’.
Of course, what’s the point of massive cities if you don’t have anything to travel around them in? Rockstar have added more bikes, cars, boats, planes and other various vehicles for the player to use. And for the first time ever in a Grand Theft Auto game, you can take to the street on a bicycle - BMX or mountain bike, the choice is yours. There are also much more various and odd modes of transport such as bulldozers, tractors, quad bikes, dune buggies, cement trucks, combine harvesters, forklifts, go-karts, lawn mowers, hotdog trucks, tow trucks, utility vans, road sweepers, campervans, the list is endless. A nice addition is the interactivity of some of the vehicles, such as the ability to lift the ramp on the packer up and down to store cars on it, and being able to hook tractors and tow trucks up to other vehicles to tow them around the state. As mentioned before, you can steal planes - real ones. Yep, they actually fly this time around for all you mile-high enthusiasts. There are also plenty of different types of planes to steal, ranging from small fighter planes to massive commercial aircraft.
A small upgrade you may notice in the car department is how they handle and how they generally feel. Each vehicle will act differently, some opting to spin out easier on sharp corners, while 18-wheelers and heavy machinery will drive with that slow and clumsy feel which you’ll soon get used to. Tractors have plenty of grip for off-road exploring and the monster truck (yes there is one) even has the option for 4-wheel steering. It’s a nice touch and keeps the gameplay fresh when driving from point A to B. Something to keep your cars fresh is the ability to mod your favourite rides. You can take your low-riders, sports cars or family wagons to certain modification shops to repaint your cars in the colour or design of your choice, add new front and back bumpers, get new flash wheels, add hydraulics to your car, and add nitrous oxide for that extra boost.
In addition to the different handling of vehicles, as you progress through the game you will become a better driver, for not only cars but bicycles, planes, and motorbikes. This is due to the newly implemented ability skills. You have a skill level for each of the different types of vehicles and as you drive those vehicles more your skill level will rise. It’s a small difference most won’t notice, but as your skill increases it becomes easier to handle vehicles and it’ll become slightly hardy to end up on your roof. You’ll be able to rise your driving skill by not only driving around throughout the game, but you can raise it quite significantly by going to ‘driving school’ where you can complete a series of tests ranging from driving on two-tires to completing a burning-lap around the city. You can also go to flight school, bike school and boat school to raise your specific stats.
Along with driving skills, there are skills for various other abilities, such as weapon-handling ability and lung capacity. You guessed it; you can also swim in San Andreas. Now if you accidentally fall off that cliff into the water or send your car into the drink you are able to swim to safety. The better your lung capacity is, the longer you will be able to stay underwater for which comes quite valuable in some of the later missions in the game. Yet another addition to the skills which CJ can perform is that of jumping and climbing over fences. While it sounds like a small addition which wouldn’t bring much to the gameplay, you’d be amazed as to how well it works when sprinting from the police. You are now able to climb over small walls and bound over fences with a quick tap of the square button giving that authentic “worlds worst police chase” feel.
You could almost be forgiven for mistaking Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for a RPG. You can customize CJ right down to his boxers. Scattered throughout the state of San Andreas are various clothing stores where you are able to buy new clothes, shoes, hats, watches, and various other items to decorate your Carl. Once you’ve bought the items you’ll be automatically changed into them but you can also go back to one of your safe-houses and get changed back to any of the older clothes which you’ve accrued over time. Hell, you can even just strip down to your boxers and run around the streets showing off your killer body. Not satisfied with your hair? Pop into the barbers for a quick trim or complete overhaul, ranging from crew cuts to Mr T. style Mohawks and cornrows. You don’t need to stop there however, as you can also decorate your body with tattoos. Each tattoo parlour will have exclusive tats’ for you to place just about anywhere on your upper-torso. All of these things mentioned, clothes, haircuts and tattoos, will affect your sex appeal stat which in turn will make it easier for you to get girlfriends.
All of this customization already, and we are barely half way through the massive pile of new features. You can now take CJ to the gym, which there are a few of in each city. Here you can work out and gain more muscle. And yes, you guessed it your character will bulk-up as you put on the muscle which will not only give you that Rambo look, but will also make you stronger in hand-to-hand combat. Of course it’s not essential that you go the gym regularly, in fact you can go in the opposite direction - straight into that fast food restaurant. Eat too much and don’t do a lot of exercise and you will notice CJ start getting chubby, then a bit round, and eventually a tub o’ lard. Some pedestrians may find it disgusting and give you some insulting comments; however there are some chicks that dig a man with a bit of flesh.
This brings me to the next new feature of San Andreas. Girlfriends. There are six girls whom you can date, by taking them out to a restaurant or bar, to a dance-club, or just simply driving around the city for a while. If your girl is pleased with her date the progress meter will rise and when you’ve managed to get it right to the top you’ll get certain rewards from each of them. You can also give them presents, such as flowers which are found throughout the state. A lot of the time girlfriends can seem a waste of time and the only reason to date them is to gain their reward once you’ve maxed the meter. However you can also use the girlfriends to trigger the two-player mode. The second player can join the game by player one standing in the two-player icon, and will take control of your girlfriend. Two-player mode can provide a lot of fun even though it is only free-roaming. Running in opposite directions while in two-player mode will result in you reaching the ‘limit’ of how far apart you can go, so you need to stick close together. While in two-player free roam, the first person to get into a car will be able to drive it while the other player will either have to get in and be the shooter or run along behind it.
One thing that I’ve noticed is the variety of missions in San Andreas when compared with GTA3 and Vice City. No longer are half the missions drive from point A to B while evading the cops, as all the missions are much more diverse and exciting. The game throws you into the action with a handy BMX bike, telling you to keep up with your fellow homies with your rival gang, the Ballas, biking alongside and shooting you. Later in the game you’ll go on a mission which involves robbing a house (another new feature), and then low-rider hydraulic competitions. There are also all your favourite sub-missions making a return such as vigilante, paramedic, taxi fares, firefighter as well as an abundance of new sub-missions including bicycle challenges/races, pimping, valet service, home invasions, trucker missions and quarry challenges. Some of these are very similar to the older missions, and lack originality such as the pimping missions where you drive a specific amount of girls to their pimps and so on. However missions such as home invasions are a fresh breath to the series and give you something to do if you get bored (yeah right).
Once you unlock Las Venturas you will be able to enter a few casinos and bet your hard-earned money on various games such as poker, blackjack, wheel of fortune, roulette and slot machines. These mini-games are fairly enjoyable and will keep you occupied for a few hours, as well as increasing you gambling statistic allowing you to gamble on the high-rollers’ tables and win the real big money. The casino staff, especially the blackjack dealers, will make the occasional witty comment which is pleasant to hear. While your in Las Venturas you may also notice horseshoes scattered around the place, which are San Andreas’ equivalent of hidden packages. In addition to the fifty horseshoes in Las Venturas, there are one hundred tag locations in Los Santos (to be sprayed with a can of spray-paint), and finally fifty snapshot locations in San Fierro for all you photographers out there. You’ve then got fifty oysters in the waters of San Andreas, seventy unique stunts and rampages.
Well that’s all great and dandy, but how does the game look? Unfortunately the graphics department is where I feel the only flaw of the game lies. The graphics are essentially untouched from Vice City, which isn’t particularly a bad thing however they can sometimes become ‘muddy’ due to the lighting caused from the sun in twilight hours. Gone are the horrible trails from GTA3 and Vice City which is a positive, and instead a blurry effect is used when going super-fast. This effect will make you feel you are going really fast with everything speeding by, but it is also masking the graphical limitations and draw distances of the PlayStation 2. If you manage to find a vehicle which can go faster than ‘blurry speed’ then you’ll find the screen start to shake a little which I find is a much better feeling of velocity than the blurriness gives.
A major difference which can’t go unnoticed is the fact that there is no longer any loading between the cities. And when you’ve got a map approximately five times as large as Vice City you realize that it’s an incredible feat. You can literally drive from Los Santos, into the green, grassy countryside, up and over Mount Chiliad then into San Fierro, over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the dusty desert bringing you into Las Venturas without any loading at all. All positives must come with a consequence though, and in this case it’s the occasional drop in frame rate. It will become quite noticeable when the frame rate drops, causing slowdown and jolting gameplay for only a few seconds. This issue is quite rare, and is easily forgivable by most considering the vast scenery and large amount of land being processed. This also causes the occasional pop-up, where you may suddenly see another car or other object appear in front of you, with it being too late to stop. Again this problem is few and far apart, but little bugs like this bring the entire graphics department down.
If Vice City was anything to go by, San Andreas should have an awesome soundtrack right? Well, San Andreas does have an impressive line-up including songs from the artists 2 Pac, Cypress Hill, Rage Against The Machine, Guns N’ Roses, and Billy Idol to name a few. Radio stations seem to be much more randomized with the DJ’s commenting on actions which you’ve done in the game. The radio stations will seemingly change as you progress through the game with the talk show segments having different guests as you advance through the missions. The San Andreas soundtrack is impressive, however it doesn’t feel as epic as Vice City’s. Aside from the music, voice acting is very good. And so it should with Samuel L. Jackson voicing one of the main characters. There are hours upon hours of dialogue in the game, and still after a good 80+ hours of playing I hear new comments made by both pedestrians and CJ. Pedestrian’s speech has been upgraded along with their A.I. They will now stand together and start up a conversation then once they’ve finished, will walk off in their separate ways.
There is no doubting it; San Andreas is one of the greats. The small flaws with graphics barely make a dent in the overall gameplay, and you’ll find yourself staying up all hours of the night to play this gem. It’s impossible to describe all the things you can do in San Andreas in this one review, so my advice is to go out and buy the game for yourself, you won’t regret it.