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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Review By: Greg Lynch
 
Developer:  Rockstar North
Publisher:  Rockstar Games
# Of Players:  1-2
Genre:  Action/Adventure
ESRB:  Mature
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Card
Date Posted:  12-3-04

Iím not ashamed to admit that I was very hesitant to pick up the latest in the Grand Theft Auto series. I dwell firmly in that tiny group of people who found Vice City to be an enormous letdown. Sure, on the surface it was practically the same game as the original PlayStation 2 entry, but several minor changes to the design and gameplay left the entire package feeling more like tedium than fun. Suddenly the game focused on the foot missions, pitting the player against enormous odds using what is arguably the gameís weakest gameplay aspect. Poor camera control, frustrating mission design, and repetitive cutscenes that couldnít be skipped during repeat performances came together to ensure I would grow bored and likely never finish the game.

Yet, there was still a part of me willing to gamble on a repeat performance of GTA3. I found myself thinking that maybe this would be the one to make my hours melt away, and return that sense of fun and exploration that I hadnít felt since the first time. Despite my reservations, I decided I would give it one last chance, and what I walked away with is clearly one of best games on the PS2 hardware, bar none, and easily one of the most engrossing games Iíve played all year.

The developers, Rockstar North, were clearly listening to the complaints about Vice City (and to a lesser extent, the original GTA3) and cleaned up nearly every aspect of the game. From a better looking and smoother running graphic engine, to tighter controls, to better animation this game has so much polish it practically shines. Thatís not to say that itís perfect, but nearly all the seriesí weaknesses appear to have been addressed, and those that still reside will be long forgotten as you find yourself glued to the television for countless hours.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas places you on the west coast with a nod toward gangsta movies made popular during the 90ís. You play as CJ, a man finally released from prison that comes home to find his mother has been killed and his neighborhood is falling prey to drugs. Of course, it falls upon him to take the neighborhood back and avenge his family, but nothing can be that simple and you soon find yourself in the middle of a very lengthy story filled with plot twists and turns that will keep you engrossed right to the very end. Similar to other games in the series, it bathes gleefully in stereotypes, yet handles the characters and storyline in such a way that only the most sensitive gamers might find themselves offended.

Regardless of the story, the shining star in the GTA series has always been its open-ended gameplay, and this aspect is really delivered in this entry. With an area nearly six times the size of Vice Cityís, the sheer number of things to do is staggering. It would be impossible to cover each minigame and diversion without getting bogged down in the details (and ruining the surprises), but suffice it to say, itís easily the first game that Iíve seen that tries to be everything all at once and actually pulls it off. Every minigames feels like a complete game unto itself and youíll likely find it difficult to tear yourself away from them just to further the story.

Yet, similar to the large collection of side quests, the storylineís missions are nearly as diverse. Unlike the pervious entries, San Andreas does an excellent job of mixing up missions so that you never feel like youíve been there a dozen times before. What starts as a typical firefight will sometimes become a chase, a rail shooter, and then a firefight all over again by the end of the mission. Of course, the tradeoff is that the missions have a tendency to be a tad lengthy, requiring a hefty bit of backtracking if you get wasted. One such mission clocked in at approximately forty-five minutes before I got wasted and had to restart, and instances like that will likely require you to give yourself a time out. But few missions are so difficult that the average gamer will feel stuck on them for any major length of time, and if they do there are plenty of fun diversions to give you a reprieve.

While on the subject of backtracking, one important change to the game is that you are now allowed to skip through most cutscenes after seeing them once regardless of when it occurs within a mission. It was something that practically killed the enjoyment of Vice City for me during my numerous attempts to play to the end. While it may not seem like much, I found that the pace of the game was greatly improved, and that my frustration with redoing missions over and over was dramatically lessened. Similarly, almost right away you are given the option of skipping the driving sequences that occur between when you are given the mission and the point the actual mission begins. Itís seems like a minor thing, but it goes a long way to keep the game moving at a brisk pace.

Of course, no game is perfect and there are still some minor gameplay problems to be found. For example, while the implementation of a controllable third person camera greatly decreases some of the frustration found in battles on foot, targeting could still be a flaky at times. Moving away from the enemy while locked on will still force you to shoot skyward, and finding the right angle to move and shoot can occasionally be frustrating. But make no mistake about it, firefights are a lot more fun than theyíve ever been in the series, and the controls are tighter than ever. There were also times I found that the spooling used to read off the DVD just didnít keep up too well, and the game started jittering wildly. These few occasions seemed to occur during long treks across the map, and were readily fixed with a quick save and a restart. What it boils down to is that none of the problems really mar the fantastic gameplay, and youíll likely not give them a second thought if youíre not specifically looking for them.

Another aspect of gameplay that should probably be pointed out is the addition of statistics. Similar to Lionhead Studioís much lauded character system in Fable, San Andreas approaches your stats in a way that makes your actions directly affect what your character looks and reacts like. Driving a motorcycle constantly will increase your skill at riding them, running on foot reduces your body fat, working out increases muscle mass, and so on and so forth. The surprising thing is that thereís actually more depth to it than Fable, a game which is practically built around your character changing because of your reactions. Meanwhile, in San Andreas this is just one more thing you can do in its massive, open-ended world. 

That graphics are another area that has been given the facelift treatment. Along with the seriesí trademark, stylistic approach (i.e., sweltering heat waves in the West Coast sun), youíll be hard-pressed to find a single texture that repeats in all your travels. Each building is practically a landmark all its own, and if not for the fact that the game world is too huge to memorize you would easily be able to navigate by the environment.

The character textures have all been cleaned up as well, especially CJ who goes through more wardrobe transitions and body shapes than a fashion game show. Even the foot traffic gets an overhaul that helps make the world a little less jarring, and extra lengths were taken to make sure that there are a large variety of people to see in your travels.

All this comes at a small price in the form of the occasional hiccup in framerate and the occasional pop-in textures, but nothing that fans of the series arenít already accustomed to. In fact, the only real complaint that I could lodge against the graphics is that the evening sun has a tendency to darken the game a bit too much, making it difficult to pick out opponents by sight. Fortunately, arrows show you the position of the enemy, so it rarely affects gameplay.

The GTA seriesí staple soundtrack is back and somewhat amazingly avoids featuring horrible 90ís tunes. The radio stations feature a wide assortment of music, from hard rock to soul, and I rarely found the need to change stations. Also of special note is that the radio automatically stays on the station you were listening to from vehicle to vehicle until youíve spent some time away from the road. This helps keep continuity in the songs that you were happily listening to during that drive-by (yes, even the country music), and keeps you from feeling like you should stick with a car just to finish the song. Itís a small but nice feature to see added.

The rest of the audio is essentially the same sort of thing people have grown to expect from the series. The voiceover cast delivers their lines perfectly, and even the voices of pedestrians are fun to listen to, and actually change depending on your appearance. The environmental audio changes suitably from location to location, and does a great job of adding to the overall ambience. Gunfire and cars all sound relatively similar to the rest of the series, and everything works well together to add to the already great atmosphere of the game.

HIGHS:

  • Wildly varied gameplay
  • Great voiceover work
  • Tightened controls
  • Fun, fun, fun

LOWS:

  • Some minor pop-up and occasional hiccups in framerates
  • Lengthy missions can be occasionally frustrating
  • Still some issues with targeting and controls

FINAL VERDICT:

Itís a fantastic year for gaming, with a flood of titles hitting the market that have already been labeled as ďHall of FameĒ material. Meanwhile, other great games that would otherwise sell in droves will be buried under the weight of the huge number of must-have games this holiday season. While no game will have the commercial push (or success) of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, this is one instance when a game is truly worthy of all the attention. With all the additions, all the polish, and all the love that was put into this title, this is definitely one of the titles that stand on top of the heap. Without a doubt, this title should be at the very top of your wish list, and I canít recommend it enough.

Overall Score: 9.5

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