Malik (11/5/04)

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)

From Rockstar/Take Two

For those of us who have become addicted to Rockstar's brand of violent entertainment, this game has been a long coming dream. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has been revealed in small details since March, with each bit of information making the game seem more and more the reality that we have all been waiting for; a GTA game that keeps up the good old play style we have come to love since GTA3, but with the much needed improvements needed and not properly handled with GTA:VC, and with enough new features to make it it's own game and not just another expansion to GTA3 like VC gave us. Did it live up to the hype? Is it the second coming of GTA that we have been waiting for? Were the bad flaws (like the skittish controls of 3 and VC and the always flawed aiming) corrected? 


In GTA3, we were given a small dose of plot. It was only enough to make you feel like there was a reason that certain missions were unlocked only after meeting certain mission requirements (do mission A to unlock mission B). Beyond that, the plot was vague, and more or less, an after-thought to the GTA3 process. 

In VC, we were finally given a set of characters that were more than either loud or quiet (in 3, in the end, each character was either loud or quiet, and there was no real depth to the personality). Personality was given to the key players, and even the protagonist. However, the plot still felt pretty tacked-on. There was no real explanation for half of what you were doing in the game (you bought property during the last half of the game only because you broke some glass in a mall and then a Texan, a lawyer, and a really clingy "friend" told you to...that was about the explanation of it all), but at least the characters had just that; character. 

GTA:SA takes it the next step, and then some, in the plot area. Each personal has a completely unique personality, that seems to match the voice acting and their physical look far better than ever before (and the voice acting worked well in VC). You can see the rivalries, the friendships, the emotions, the reasons, etc, behind each and every word and action in SA. 

To take a step back, the plot of SA can be summarized pretty easily. You play a former gang member named Carl Johnson. You were born and raised in Los Santos (think LA), along with you two brothers, a sister, and your mother. Your oldest brother Sweet rose to a high level in a local gang; the Grove Street Boys. After a certain incident happened (play to find out since some people would call this a spoiler), you split town and went to live in Liberty City (the land of GTA3). In Liberty, CJ goes legit and lives a nice and undetailed life. Eventually you learn that someone killed your mother, so CJ returns to Los Santos. Once he gets there, he is quickly taken in by a group of police officers who are on the gang control beat (including one played with utmost skill by Samuel L. Jackson). They take your money and leave you in Baller (the rival gang of Grove Street) turf. 

Once you get back to your old neighborhood on Grove Street, you soon catch up with your brother, Sweet, and some of your old gang friends, Big Smoke and Ryder. Sweet keeps telling you that since you left the gang, you should have stayed away, but eventually CJ gets pulled back into the life of a gang-banger. From this point, you slowly must work your way back up the ladder and win back Sweet's trust and respect. 

Also, there are the important alliances and powers in the world of SA (SA is a state, not a city, that is made up three main cities). In Los Santos, there are the police gang forces (headed by Tenpenny, aka Samuel L. Jackson), the Grove Street Boys (led by Sweet, and currently in a state of decline), the Ballers (a faceless rival gang that is gaining power and turf with each new day), and the most unimportant gang in the scope of the plot (a mainly Latino gang that is relatively neutral, but is more likely to help out the Groves than the Ballers...they have a name, but since they have so little to do with the game, I decided to make a statement or something by not naming them). There are also the minor powers, like the more influential entertainers (Los Santos includes Vinewood, the Hollywood equivalent of this world). However, beyond Los Santos, there are countless other powers, like the Vietnamese gangs, the Triads, and the pimps of San Fierro (San Francisco), etc. So, like with each previous GTA game, every new area in the game will ultimately leave you facing off with a half dozen new allies and enemies that you will be doing missions for or against. 

Overall, the plot is told a lot more like a complex and long movie rather than a cookie-cutter plot tacked on after the fact. In other words, you will actually see some character development, some purpose, and definitely some further sense of realism (in the plot, at least) than you saw with the prior GTA games. Also, for those who don't really care for the whole story being set to a gang life type of context, I have good news...that's only the first part of the game. 

Game Play 

There are many ways I can do this, but the best one is this; I'm going to assume you already have a good idea of what GTA3 and VC are like before you read this. When a game becomes so influential and popular, like the GTA series has become, it is a waste of time to go into the details that are merely continued from a previous version. So, if you haven't played GTA3 or VC, then go out and play those first, just because they are such good games... 

So, the first thing you experience in the game, and where I'll begin is the new vehicles. In GTA:3, we saw the standard 4 wheel vehicles (cars, trucks, blah, blah) and clipped wing planes (basically cars that can glide for about 5 seconds...10 if you're good), along with radio controlled cars, tanks, emergency vehicles, and boats. In VC, the same mix of vehicles were kept, but then motorcycles, helicopters, radio controlled aircraft, real airplanes, and golf carts. Well, SA keeps all of the earlier vehicles, but also throws in a few nifty new innovations. You now have aircraft that are bigger than a truck with wings (including jets), larger helicopters, and even bicycles. In fact, the first vehicle you are shown to in SA is the bike. 

The bike is, in itself, a whole new mode of transportation that blends some abilities of walking, some of riding a motorcycle, and some all new abilities. In fact, the bike, like with other vehicles, will either become something you'll like or something you'll hate. The bike allows one to control much like a motorcycle in most instances, but you can burn through some of your stamina (the stuff that lets you run for a long time) and wear down your thumb by pounding the "go" button to put some extra effort into you pedaling. You can also use the L1 button to bunny-hop. As you begin the game, you can make some small hops, but as you practice your biking skills, and become more proficient, you can start to make some mighty big jumps to clear gaps, jump over an oncoming car (that's car, not big ass truck, etc), or to try to pull off some stunts for the hell of it. 

Most of the other new vehicles will not enter your life until you've gotten quite far into the game. You won't be able to touch any of the aircraft until you've unlocked most of the game and have earned a pilot's license (yes...they require a license despite how you steal the planes and helicopters...yup, that's stupid). The helicopters control almost identical to those in VC, while the planes still control awkward (as they have done since the clipped wing Dodo of GTA3) and will lead to more frustration than enjoyment for most gamers. 

Also, on the note of transportation, there is a new ability in SA than will surprise fans of the previous titles. CJ, unlike nameless GTA3 protagonist and Tommy Vercetti of VC, can swim. In fact, falling in the water is not an instant death situation any more. In fact, not only can CJ swim, but he can swim with a good deal of speed (controlled like the harder pedaling of bike riding) and even dive. The only limitation now is how long you hold your breath...which is not a real concern in SA. 

Beyond the transportation, there are the weapons. I mean, in the end, GTA games come down (mainly) to two features; shooting and getting the hell out of the way when the cops come. Well, the weapons are a lot like they were in VC. You still have several classes of weapons in which you can carry one weapon from each class at a time. These classes include; pistol (like a pistol), SMG (like an SMG...damn, this is complex), shotgun (like a...say it with me...shotgun), rifle (hunting, sniping, etc), assault weapon (AK47...when you absolutely positively...), melee weapon (knife, bat, sword, shovel), thrown (grenades, remote grenades, Molotov's), and heavy arms (flame thrower, rocket launcher, know, the fun weapons). Also, like with VC, the system is still bugged. You may find, depending on what weapon you currently have, that if you are forced to temporarily hold a certain other weapon in the same class (or ever the same weapon), when that instance ends, you may have no weapon left in that class. For example, in the shooting test (you can practice your shooting at certain gun shops by challenging two computer controlled people to a contest), I ,often times, will find my shotgun gone after the test ends. At least it's not as bad as VC (in which you would lose your weapon every time you thought about picking up a new weapon...). 

Also, with weapons, you will now have some new abilities to keep in mind as you play.  The most important new feature is the ability to manual aim any weapon. Instead of the old style of GTA3/VC in which you can auto aim most weapons and only manual aim the large guns, you can now use your own skills in aiming for anything from a pistol on up. This plays a good role in the actual strategy of SA. Not only do you have the better chance, now, of blowing out a tire without blowing up a vehicle, or sniping a driver with a less costly bullet, but you can also take advantage of one of the features Rockstar used from True Crime. That would be the ability to aim at a gas tank on a vehicle and blow it sky-high with a single bullet. 

Also, the number of less conventional weapons has greatly increased. You now have spray paint (which is mainly used for tagging, but can be used as a weak weapon), silenced pistols (for stealth action), stealth kills with knives (for...stealth action, again), shovels, and even fire extinguishers (not exactly weapons, for the most part, but useful when you've gone a bit crazy with the flame thrower). 

Another new feature is the skill system. In previous GTA titles, the amount of time you could run depended on how much training you got running in the game. Well, SA goes a bit further with that and several other skills. You now can train (and lose, if you neglect them) to get better stamina (running), lung capacity (time you can spend underwater), skills with each major weapon (which makes your auto-aim far more to the point), muscle (how much you can deal, damage-wise, with a punch or kick), fat (how fat and sloth you get), driving skills, biking skills, etc. Most of these can be trained just by performing the associated action (shoot a pistol to get better with it), but some can be trained in a more professional manner. For example, if you go to driving school you can boost your driving skill, a shooting range can help a weapon skill, the gyms around town can boost muscle and stamina while dropping fat, etc. 

Another new feature, which is long over-due in the GTA series, is how well you jump. In the past, if you tried to jump a fence that was barely low enough to jump, you may take several attempts of bouncing off the damned thing before you actually got over it. Also, some barricades were just barely too high to clear, but in reality they should have been climbed over by GTA3-guy or Tommy Vercetti. Well, CJ has solved this whole problem with the ability to climb. Some jumps may still see you bouncing off the walls, but most of the barely too high to clear jumps will see CJ grabbing the top and pulling himself up/over the barrier. This move is incredibly simple and to the point, but it just may be the single most important innovation to the GTA series. 

Also, there are a series of new mini-games to liven up the action when you've gotten too bogged down with missions. These mini-games include low-rider and dance competitions (which play a lot like a Parappa game), arcade games (including a space side-view shooter and a simple item collection game), pool, shooting baskets, target practice/competitions, and the standard races, to name a few. 

The last major innovation, which you may not even notice in actual game play (it's almost optional), is the ability to form a gang. If you see some gang members of your posse, you can (depending on your respect rating, which is a skill that goes up with mission completion) ask a few of them to follow you and obey your commands. These command, however, have to be either to follow or to stay still, but it's better than watching Lance Vance in VC jump in front of traffic like a dumb-ass. Also, while people are in your group, or even friendly people not in said group, you cannot auto-aim onto them until they've turned aggressive (like if you manual aimed towards them and shot). This means you will not end up wasting your time and effort shooting a friendly target when you're being jumped by a dozen Ballers (unless one of your group jumps in the line of fire...). 

Most of the rest of the game is a lot like the previous 2 GTA titles. The controls are almost identical, the cars are quite similar, the missions are designed the same. So, it's basically an upgraded engine of GTA:VC, but with a new location and a new set of missions. 

However, there is one place that shows a lack of improvement; car handling. Now, unlike previous GTA games, each car type handles completely different than all other models of vehicles. So, a station wagon will no longer handle like a slower version of a sports car. In fact, every single vehicle will take some time to get used to. This is pretty cool, at first. Then it becomes a nightmare when you realize that the programmers forgot to properly program some vehicles and you're stuck with something that only has the ability to spin out (some vehicles, literally, handle like a car with 4 shot out tires from VC). So, while some vehicles are now unique and fun, you will be forced (there are some mission required crap-mobiles) to deal with quite a few when you first start the game. The innovations for each car design was a good idea in theory, but in practice it falls short of how it should have been. 

There's also, still, the bad difficulty range of this game (like in the last two GTA titles). Some missions will be very easy and quite fun, but then you'll be stuck with one required mission (and no new missions will unlock until you do this specific mission) that is beyond insane in challenge. For example, when you are still near the start of the game, there is a low-rider race ("Low Ride, High Stakes" is the mission) mission that has you controlling one of those spin-out cars I mentioned above in a race in which the computer has perfect steering and you deal with a few dozen 90 degree turns. This mission, sadly, is only the first in the game that drives the challenge beyond what should be expected from you, as a player. 

So, in a nut-shell; most of the game is played like a greatly improved version of GTA3 or VC, with the same basic play-style, but many minor improvements, which can make a major impact (like climbing and swimming). However, the bad control on certain cars and the roller-coaster ride of challenge level can both bring down a good gaming experience in a hurry. Also, there is the ability to buy new clothes, hair-cuts, and tattoos, plus the chance to mod a car with hydraulics, nitro's, custom paint, etc. These, however, only add to the short term enjoyment, since they don't actually effect the actual game play (it won't affect how people see your character). Also, there is two-player, which can add some fun to the game, but it feels more like an after-thought than an actual feature (it doesn't add to the game all that much beyond letting you play some free-roaming two-player rampages, with a limited camera and range of can't move too far out of the path of the other player). So, the game is still fun, and is probably more enjoyable, in game play, as a whole than VC was. However, it still has some obvious flaws that bring down the game from time to time. 


Just like with the game play, the majority of the visuals in SA are the same as what we've seen in the prior GTA titles, only evolved. In short, the visuals are astounding. If one looks at GTA3 and then at VC, there is a noticeable improvement to the visuals...well, that same size of a visual quality increase is seen from VC to SA. 

The in game details are sharper than ever before. Each character has minor details, each car shows far better shine when undamaged and minor to giant flaws when damaged, the buildings are far more unique in design than the previous GTA games had, the weapons are more distinct when held in a person's hands...everything is just prettier and cleaner in detail. 

The cut-scenes are handled the same way as they were in previous GTA games; A close-up of the involved people and environment are shown with some slightly more detailed visuals than are found in the normal game. The improvement in visuals is also seen equally well in this feature. 

Sadly, one visual feature that was not helped out in the newest GTA was one of the most annoying flaws of 3 and VC; the draw distance. For the most part, you will see buildings and roads far off in the distance, assuming you're not driving a high speed vehicle. Sadly, if you're going faster than your average freeway traffic goes, you may find a road turns into a building with only about a second of warning time before you plow into a wall. This is even worse with vehicles. If you're driving at an average to high speed, you may expect a car to spawn only a second away from you...however, if you going at break-neck speeds, you can expect to see a vehicle or two appear almost on top of you, with far too little warning to compensate. However, I must say that the game is usually good about the draw distance not leading to an accident...usually. 

Overall, the visuals are top-notch, and far outshine all previous game in this series, or even this genre. The draw distance does cause a few headaches, but not enough to shun this game. Also, the added details of individual fingers that can all move is a nice touch. 


Here's where this game shines compared to prior GTA games...and almost anything else on the market. To begin with, the game's audio effects are great. They are not much different than you'd find in the last couple of GTA games (explosions, gun shots, more explosions, car engines, crashing metal, dull thud of bat on person violence, a lot more explosions, know the drill). Also, the addition of the silenced pistols in the audio realm sound great. The only differences from previous GTA games, in terms of audio effects, are minor, but then again, the last two GTAs had awesome sounds as it was. 

The music selection is far better than you'd find in VC, and a good deal better than GTA3. You have a nice blend of hip-hop, rap, soul, country (yup...there are red-necks in this game, and they need music too), alternative, classic rock, and even a return of K-JAH (reggae station from GTA3, but the west coast affiliate). Plus, you still have all the humor of the talk radio station, and a good few dozen commercials to fill in time between songs. In short, there are enough genres of music to keep almost anyone entertained, and the selection of sings within each station is great (for example, the alternative station includes; Jane's Addiction, Alice in Chains, Rage Against the Machine, Guns N Roses, and about a dozen more artists). 

Now for the part that usually annoys me to no end in the audio department; Voice Acting.  For once, however, I have nothing but props for the voice acting in a game. While VC had decent voice acting (some voices did get on my nerves), GTA:SA is nothing short of voice acting gold. I mean as soon as the game starts you are treated to the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, James Woods, Charlie Murphy (of Chapelle Show fame), Ice T, and Peter Fonda . The voice work is about as good as one would expect from the actual acting in a serious minded movie. There is none of the cheesy voice acting one would expect from a purely voice role. Not only is there quality in the performances, but even the voice script is brilliant. GTA:SA presents some dialogue that is nothing short of witty and fresh, and not the usual stale crap that made up most of VC (let's face it, VC's script had been said and done a thousands times before in everything from The Godfather to Training Day). 

In summary, the audio portion of GTA:SA is nothing short of perfection. To be honest, audio is usually the weakest portion of a video game (usually from voice acting and music selection), yet SA goes the extra distance and comes out with an ideal soundtrack (far better than the previous GTA games), good acting in the voices, and typically good sound effects. 


In short, the plot is great, the visuals are awe-inspiring, and the audio is done with the utmost in professionalism. So, on three out of four areas, this game is definitely as good as the other reviews say. However, when it comes down to game play, the game starts to lose it's momentum. The controls are still awkward, the missions are still (for the most part) the same missions we've been doing for the last two games, the controls on the radio controlled vehicles are still clumsy, some of the missions are way too difficult, while others are way too easy, and weapons can still vanish from your inventory without any reason. In the end, the plot, visuals, and audio are only so important to what really matters; how fun a game is. In the end, however, the game play plays a for more important role. So, after these flaws in game play have been considered (despite the great new features, like climbing and swimming) and how some of them have existed since VC and even some are as old as GTA 3, I have no choice but to give GTA:SA a 9.25/10 (still a damned good score for a damned good game...just not the perfection that everyone else seems to be seeing). 


Update: 11/8/04 

I hate to go back and update one of my reviews, since it usually means I did a half-assed job to begin with. However, the case this time is that Rockstar did a half-assed job that only shows after half of the game is over with. 

Once you receive the freedom to move beyond San Fierro, you will soon encounter flight school. This should be a fun chance to earn your license (if you did not do so earlier...which is entirely possible). However, it soon turns into a nightmarish experience that made me feel the need to destroy a controller or two. 

As I said before, the flight controls for an airplane are nothing short of overly sensitive and shoddy. However, with flight school, you must try to use these half-assed controls to become nothing short of a true professional pilot. Saldy, the amount of time required for each test is incredibly long (about 2 minutes per test with a total of 10 tests), and the chance of making an error that will have wasted the last 2 minutes is incredibly high. In the end, this spells a frustrating adventure in futility that should not be required for the completion of the game (but it is required). 

This alone makes GTA:SA an incredibly frustrating game that is almost impossible for anyone without a total Zen style of internal control to complete the game. For this reason, and since there are no other missions you can do while working through this chore, I have to re-think my original score for GTA:SA. I have no choice but to drop this great game (great, other than the flight school bullshit) down to a 8.25/10. If not for the flight school requirements, I could easily give it the original 9.25...sigh...way to mess up, Rockstar.