Game Description: Carl Johnson left the San Andreas neighborhood of Los Santos five years ago, when it was being ripped apart by drugs and gang violence. When he returns in the early 90s, his mother has been killed, his family has fallen apart and his childhood friends are criminals. When crooked cops frame him for murder, he decides to save himself and his family by taking over the streets. Side missions help develop skills that come into play later—from working out at the gym to gambling in a casino.
It's without a doubt the most clichéd of all hardboiled crime story clichés: the low down, dirty double-cross. The two previous games in the Grand Theft Auto series each began with a double-cross—my girlfriend referring to me as "small time," then shooting me during a bank heist in GTA III; Tommy Vercetti taking the blame for a bad drug deal in Vice City. San Andreas, the third game since the series went 3D (and launched the GTA-ification of the industry, for better or worse), doesn't open with a double-cross, but starts in a darker, more mature place: with the death of the protagonist's mother. There's even a funeral scene, complete with some nasty bickering among the surviving family members.
That funeral scene, along with a touching moment when a grieving son walks into his now empty childhood home and looks at his dead mother's photograph, are surprisingly emotional moments, moments that had me checking the disc to make sure that I'd loaded up the right game. Has GTA gone all Dr. Phil on me? I wondered. Both scenes are landmark moments for the series because they're indicative of a subtle, yet all-important content shift away from the caricature and cartoonish-ness that plagued the previous games. Indeed, San Andreas has something that GTA III and Vice City sorely lacked: a touch of emotional gravitas. There's less satire here, more heart. While the game still revels in thrill-kill missions and its trademark Mad magazine aesthetic—one of the betting parlor ponies is named Air Biscuit (oh, what a knee-slapper!)—I'm happy to report that there's evidence in San Andreas that the GTA series is finally starting to grow up.
Carl Johnson, a.k.a. C.J., returns to his hometown "hood" of San Andreas (a fictional early '90s hybrid of L.A., San Francisco, and Las Vegas) to bury his dead mother and quickly finds himself involved in a burgeoning neighborhood gang war. It's the usual GTA Horatio Alger-style set-up: C.J., like his predecessors in GTA III and Vice City, is a nobody who wants to be a somebody—only this time around the star of the game isn't a mobbed-up white guy, but a West Coast "homie," more accustomed to drive-bys than whackings.
Playing as C.J., I started the game penniless, living in my mother's house, sleeping in my childhood bedroom. In this rags-to-riches narrative, I found myself literally in rags, unable to even shop at Binco, the crummy discount clothing store down the street. Earning money in the early stages of the game is surprisingly difficult, thanks to the fact that the first missions rewarded me not with cash but with "Respect" (more on this later). I drove taxicabs and ambulances, and even worked as a bike messenger just to put a few dollars in my bank account. Haircuts, tattoos, sneakers—no matter what I wanted or needed, San Andreas made me hustle for it.
Of course, this being a Grand Theft Auto game, instead of driving a cab I could have simply mowed down hundreds of pedestrians, then collected the little bundles of cash that hovered eerily above their corpses (and risked peeving the cops, who are much more tenacious in San Andreas than they were in Vice City). But I've never approached the GTA games in this fashion; only a sociopath would. I learned long ago that I get more—much more—by respecting the game world, by treating the city like I would a real city. I try to drive carefully, taking pride in my ability to avoid getting into accidents. I dislike running over people (though it's inevitable at times). Depending on my mood, I might even stop at a traffic light and fiddle around with the radio, looking for a good song.
I started the game the same way I started the previous GTA games: hopelessly lost. San Andreas is easily the largest, most detailed, and most confusing GTA landscape yet. But after spending countless hours meticulously exploring the city (and countryside) block by block and acre by acre, I began recognizing familiar landmarks. After about a week, a change had come over me; I suddenly knew every back-alley, every shortcut, every nuance of the game world. I wasn't lost anymore. What was once overwhelmingly confusing now made perfect sense to me. That transition from being hopelessly lost to knowing where I was at all times is probably the most gratifying aspect of any Grand Theft Auto game for me. On a more abstract level, it's a real-time transformation from "foreigner" to "resident," an experience that only a GTA game can give me.
Unfortunately, the missions are still my least favorite part of the game. They're basically of the drive-someplace/shoot-something/drive-someplace-else variety, and after most of them, when the words "Mission Passed" appeared on screen, I usually felt only a sense of relief that I didn't have to ever do them again. The true allure of a GTA game, in my opinion, can be found between the missions. Routines develop naturally in San Andreas. Here's a typical San Andreas day for me: go to the gym, pick up cash from one of my assets, stop by the Inside Track Betting parlor to gamble, take my girlfriend out dancing, get something to eat at a restaurant, stock up on bullets at Ammu-Nation, drive to my usual secret spot for body armor (because I'm too cheap to spend $200 for armor at Ammu-Nation), sign up for one of the low-rider races, defend my territory from a take-over attempt from a rival gang, etc. Rhythms and habits get established in the game—rhythms and habits that have very little to do with furthering the core narrative, and everything to do with simply reveling in the verisimilitude of the game world. Indeed, all of these day-to-day activities, when taken together, add up to a kind of virtual lifestyle.
San Andreas has made one revolutionary advancement in the gameplay department: it's now a full-blown role-playing game (RPG). I can customize C.J. to my liking, buying clothes, hats and sneakers for him. I can get him tattooed, and even give him cornrows or a goatee. If I eat too many fast food meals and don't hit the gym often enough, C.J. will visibly gain weight. My "progress" is tracked via a series of meters; "experience" is gained simply by doing things. Driving skills, for example, are improved by spending more time wheeling around the city. If I used the shotgun for the duration of a few fire fights, my skills with the shotgun were automatically upgraded. And Respect is earned by conquering territories occupied by rival gangs. Sure, it's a relatively crude system by traditional RPG standards, but it's a step in the right direction for the series. Not only does it make me feel like the story being told is my story, but the RPG dynamic also impacts gameplay in an interesting fashion. If I was having trouble with a particular mission, I simply spent time improving whatever skills were relevant to that mission (driving, shooting, etc.), then took another crack at it.
When Vice City was released two years ago, I stood in line at my local EBGames anxious to get my hands on the game. I certainly didn't feel that same level of excitement for San Andreas. (I pre-ordered, but actually forgot to pick it up on release day.) Maybe I was still a little burned out from my marathon nights with Vice City. Or maybe it was the fact that the San Andreas previews didn't impress me much; it looked like more of the same, nothing more than a West Coast version of Vice City. But after spending only an hour or two with the game, San Andreas managed to pull me in into its orbit and has held me there for a couple of weeks now. This is arguably the most important videogame this year—yes, even more important than Halo 2—not only because it's a superbly crafted videogame, but because it's also a bona fide sociological artifact, one that manages to effectively evoke a specific time and place in American history—in this case, a hot and hazy California during the nascent days of hip-hop culture. San Andreas is also one of the few videogames to boldly feature an African-American as a hero (or, more appropriately, an anti-hero). Beyond that, the GTA series continues to function as a gathering place for A-list artists, writers, musicians, and actors. Only a GTA game can bring together Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, and Chris Penn; only a GTA game would dare to mix Dr. Dre, Kiss, and Merle Haggard on the same soundtrack. Indeed, this is more than a videogame; this is a great confluence of mediums and talents, a veritable pop culture divining rod that makes me imagine a future where GTA-caliber games are commonplace, where videogames are no longer marginalized, but like film and television, have become the medium of choice. And for this glimpse of the future, we should all be grateful.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS2 version of the game.
After reading Scott's main review for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I wondered what I could possibly add. Scott's writing is always a tough act to follow, and he covered it all— gameplay, story, sociological aspects, role-playing elements, and even the optional cornrows. I agreed with everything he touched on, so I sat down looking for words I could say that he didn't. It was tough, but eventually I did come up with something—"ten."
Looking at the facts, Grand Theft Auto III was a landmark title that literally changed the face of gaming as we knew it. However, much like Scott's writing, it was also a hard act to follow. The inevitable sequel, Vice City, was a huge disappointment to me. I saw it as little more than a one-off with production values that did not impress, offering little after such a satisfying experience with III. As a result, I strongly felt that any more games in the series would have to go well past what was established in order to justify another round of free-roaming car-jackings and shoot-outs. There are no two ways about it—San Andreas not only met my expectations, it blew the hell out of them. It's essentially the same core game we got in 2001, but everything is so much larger, more varied, and deeper in every way that it's impossible not to recognize that the game is a significant, staggering achievement.
The game's scope is immense. For example, the amount of territory to cover is incredibly vast, offering everything from the mean streets of the 'hood to a top-secret military laboratory researching alien technology; from a high-roller's casino to a graveyard of dilapidated mobile homes. San Andreas' enormous landscape is impossibly well-realized, and every inch of it is open for interaction and exploration. Every time I thought I had seen it all, there was something new around the corner, down the street, or over the next hill.
The same goes for the gameplay; every time I thought they couldn't possibly add anything else in, there was something new catching me by surprise. What other game could conceivably include mechanics and activities involving cars, motorcycles, airplanes, remote control helicopters, go-karts, jetpacks, martial arts, tattoos, dancing, weightlifting, clothes shopping, casual romantic relationships, and double-ended purple sex toys? Going further, what other game could possibly make all of those disparate elements work with one another as well as they do in San Andreas?
Beside the gigantic amounts of quality play content, the story, characters, performances and settings of San Andreas were utterly spot-on. I'm basically a white guy, I've never been to South Central, and I have never held a real gun in my entire life. But, I had no problem at all becoming completely immersed in the saga of Carl Johnson and the Grove Street Families. It's clearly not straight drama since it includes many elements of satire, ridiculousness, and sometime parody of the culture it focuses on, but it's also serious at times, and many things about the characters are substantial and ring true. The game's uses of sex, violence and language were entirely appropriate and appreciated, and I was compelled by the sheer sincerity of effort put forth by the game's creators. Clearly, there are at least a few development houses out there that "get it" when it comes to the dramatic aspects of game creation.
Of course, there are elements of the game that still need some work; in spite of being awarded a ten, no game is ever truly "perfect." For example, the graphics can be very rough at times, and there were occasional play glitches or technical hiccups of a minor nature that irritate. I also quickly learned to dislike driving long distances after repeatedly failing missions with unexpected difficulty spikes. (The developers did implement a "trip skip" feature to avoid this headache, but it was only used very sporadically.) Those are all non-issues, however. To be completely frank, San Andreas needs a good coat of polish on about a million different things, but the game in its current form is so good, so bold, and so successful in raising the bar for developers everywhere that it deserves no less than top honors in spite of all the nitpicks and pokes that could be made.
A stunning milestone in every aspect that matters, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a monumental game that has now redefined the standard against which all future games like it will be measured.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Strong Language, Severe Violence, Blood and Gore
Parents are very strongly cautioned. The language is adult; each cut scene is peppered with more f-words than an entire episode of The Sopranos. The subject matter and themes are also strictly adult. Violence, though still cartoonish enough-blood looks like ketchup-is frequent and sometimes very brutal. Make no mistake, the game certainly pushes the boundaries of its Mature rating. Most of the violence in the game is dramatically justified, though one sequence involving a National Guard base had me killing what the game refers to as "weekend soldiers." I felt lousy about killing these guys, wondering what in the world they'd done to deserve this. Newbies beware: some of the early missions are surprisingly difficult, and will require plenty of try-and-dies to pass. But don't fret-the difficulty lightens up towards the middle of the game.
Fans of the series should be pleased; this is by far the biggest, boldest, richest GTA yet.
Fans of driving games will also likely enjoy themselves; the driving physics in San Andreas are actually better than they are in most dedicated driving games.
Fans of film noir and hip-hop culture will no doubt also relish the game.
All the cut-scenes are subtitled, so Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will have no trouble following the action.