The latest entry in the Grand Theft Auto series was developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games in October of 2004 for the Playstation 2. As of its release, it was rated M.

Grand Theft Auto III brought the GTA franchise to the current generation of consoles with a 3D city that lived and breathed around the player, following a story of lies and deception, pitting gangster against gangster against the player. It was widely hailed as one of the biggest and most important games ever made.

The next game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, brought the game to Miami-esque Vice City. This time around, the main character was no longer a nameless silent protagonist, but was instead voiced by Ray Liotta, who was more or less reprising his role from Goodfellas. The plot of the game was lifted straight from Scarface, but it's also more than that, being as much a parody of every other '80s gangster movie. Vice City added some important gameplay features, too: added destructability of vehicles (e.g. the ability to shoot out tires), motorcycles, and helicopters.

San Andreas moves the game to the fictional state of the same name, which is sort of modelled after California. There are three cities in this game, each approximately the size of GTA3's Stanton Island. These are seperated by some suprisingly extensive wide open areas, ranging from flat open highway driving, to twisting mountain passes, to a bit of desert driving. The three cities are Los Santos, based on Los Angeles, San Fierro, based on San Francisco, and Las Venturas, based on Las Vegas, and the player is granted access to each in that order, much as the previous games have limited access to parts of the map early in the game.

This game has been accused of being just more of the same, but Rockstar has added enough new content to keep the game feeling fresh. Starting with Vice City's feature set, San Andreas also adds a Sims-like skill system, encompassing the various weapon and vehicle types; the more you shoot the SMG, the better you get at shooting the SMG. Also, a food system has been added: a player must eat from time to time, or they will start gradually losing energy. Eat too much, and you'll get fat. You can also work out in a gym, and get buff (this will also increase the power of melee attacks).

Where GTA3 and Vice City were about the mob and other gangsters, San Andreas is about street gangs, LA-style. You play as Carl "CJ" Johnson, a former gang-banger who has fled Los Santos and has been living in Liberty City. In the early '90s, however, Carl learns his mother has been killed, and so he returns home to settle old scores and re-join his old gang. The villain of this piece is one Officer Tenpenny (voiced by none other than the Man himself, Mr. Samuel L. Jackson), a corrupt cop who harasses CJ almost from the opening scenes, and gets him to do his bidding from time to time.

Time is spent doing missions in the style of the previous games, claiming territory from enemy gangs, and generally being a menace to society. Good clean fun. Some old faces and voices return from previous games: some people from Vice City looking a little older, and some from Liberty City looking a little younger. Lazlow appears in the radio broadcasts, though only briefly; he is still credited with writing scripts though, as ever.

The radio stations are as good as ever, offering hip-hop, funk, country, classic rock, house music, reggae, soul, alternative, a "rare grooves" station, and, of course, one talk radio station with a variety of shows. As in Vice City, essentially all of the tracks played are licensed. The alternative station has Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle, which was used in one of the promo commercials for the game, and makes for a fitting theme to the whole thing. Other notable names on the soundtrack are Tom Petty, The Who, Rage Against the Machine, and Willie Nelson. Also, the directional pad is no longer used for movement (which caused a bit of consternation at first, as I liked to steer with it, but I got over it), freeing up four buttons for other things. Up and down cycle through the radio stations now, allowing one to go backwards through the list, a feature dearly missing from the previous games.

All in all, San Andreas shapes up to be arguably the best in the series. The map is huge, the storyline is interesting (and handles the subject matter respectfully), and the gameplay is as fun as ever. A new must-buy for the PS2.


A few things I missed in the first draft:

There are two new and important gameplay features this time around. The first is the ability to climb: run at a fence or wall and hit jump, and CJ will climb over or onto it. This massively expands the places you can get to and wreak mayhem from. The second is the ability to swim. No longer is taking an accidental dive into that inconveniently placed river an instant death! CJ will bail from the vehicle and tread water; he can even dive underwater.

The combat system has seen a slight overhaul. CJ has the ability to bring up a normal targeting reticle and shoot whate'er he like; the old lock-on system has been retained, too. Also, if CJ can sneak up behind someone with a melee weapon, he can kill them stealthily. This is of little practical use, but is still damn cool.

A whole slew of characters from GTA3 and Vice City make appearances, perhaps most notably the nameless and voiceless main character from GTA3 in a couple of brief (and hilarious) cameos, as well as Catalina (the woman who shoots said main character in the opening scene of GTA3). The cast list also mentions some familiar names like Kent Paul, Ken Rosenberg, Salvatore Leone, and Maria La Torra. Celebrities whose voices make appearances include the above-mentioned Samuel L. Jackson, Ice-T, and Peter Fonda.

The DJs of the various in-game radio stations have a couple of well-known names. Bounce FM: the Funk has George Clinton and KDST, the classic rock station, has Axl Rose.

The various weapons are largely the same, with a few new additions. In melee weapons, there is now a shovel. For shotguns, there is now a sawed-off shotgun (two blasts, then reload). All of the old standbys (basic pistols, uzi-like SMGs, AK-47s, molotov cocktails, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, &c) are still in the game.

The balance of cars is not radically different. There are fast cars and slow cars; cars with good handling and cars with poor; tough cars and light cars. There are a few completely new things, however. These include: campers, four-wheelers, Vanagon-like vans, tractors, combine harvesters (which behave as you might expect when used in a crowded area), and cement trucks. The selection of motorcycles has been expanded from Vice City's fairly paltry colllection (a Vespa clone, a dirtbike, a crotch rocket, and a couple of choppers). Some of the new bikes include a police motorcycle, a crotch rocket with a lower horsepower (identical in appearance, but not in sound or speed, to the faster model), and a cruiser. I expect there are additional helicopters, aircraft, and boats, as well, but this noder has not progressed far enough in the game to find out. (Update: And now that I have, I can indeed say that there are many, many more types of aircraft, including a Harrier-type fighter jet, which is absurdly fun to play around with.)

Also added are bicycles, which are suprisingly fun to play around with, though it's hard to go up hills. These include a BMX trick bike, a mountain bike (which can go into lower gears), and a normal street bike.

As grabakskd was good enough to remind me, you can now hook up a trailer to the Linerunner semi-truck and do some real long-haul trucking. ("Trivial but cool," as grabakskd put it.)


Update 7/20/05:

The ESRB has revoked San Andreas' "M" rating (Mature, ages 17 and up) and replaced it with the dreaded, Wal-Mart rejecting "AO" rating (Adults Only, ages 18 and up).

This is due to a "sex" mini-game that was included on the game disk, but removed by Rockstar before the game's release and normally inaccessable to players. Certain clever folks found ways to access this content using more or less clever hacks, and the attention eventually found its way into the general public. The outcry (Think of the children aged exactly seventeen years old for whom this content is inappropriate and rated too low!) caused the ESRB to either take action or consider itself a laughingstock.

The ESRB's action was simple: Either Rockstar Games would have to remove the content from the game to continue selling it under the "M" rating, or it would have to sell the current version under the "AO" rating. Rockstar has opted to do both, allowing retailers to sell whichever version they choose.

Another curious thing the ESRB did was tell Rockstar they had to release a patch for the PC version of the game to disable the ability for the third-party modification that enables this sex mini-game to work. This is an amazing move of pure politics, as installing the patch would of course be purely optional, and even if one did install it, they could simply reinstall the game from scratch.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has now been pretty much banned in Australia - the Australian Office Of Film and Literature Classification people have revoked their classification for the game, making it illegal for games retailers to sell it. It seems the HotCoffee thing (a mod that has cartoon sex in it) was the last straw. They did this instead of giving it an R (AO for you Americans) because they don't have a rating worse than MA15+ for video games. Copies on the Aussie Ebay are going for around half again the retail price, but I'm not all that sure whether that's legal or not - because if it isn't, you can bet your bottom dollar Ebay will pull the auctions.

Although they may have a good reason for it. With this game, you can use the internet to access porn! It's not like you could do that before at all.

Ye gods, we Aussies can be a bunch of prudes at times...

Major Update!

It appears that there is a new version of GTA:SA on the streets. because the OFLC has let up and reclassified the game as MA15+ (Which means parents must be present, instead of just giving permission, which is what the regular M means) as of the 12th of September. There are still a bunch of people pushing for an R18+ rating for games, but this doesn't get in the press as much these days. The OFLC is ignoring it, too. I dunno, you can have porn, you can have video games, but gods help you if you try to double-dip.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the grandest games of all time — no pun intended — whether you're talking about style, execution, or scope. No other game lets you do as much to the world — not that the world likes to stay the way you left it or anything. Still, this is a landmark game — and it features a landmark soundtrack.

The full game soundtrack is eight discs long. Eight! You'd be hard pressed to fit eight albums onto one CD even with compression without sacrificing a great deal of quality. Luckily, the game is on DVD.

Tracks without hardlinks in them are either psuedo-commercials or station ID clips. Some of them are actually highly entertaining, especially Glory Hole Theme Park (disc 1), and the Midlife Crisis Center (disc 7).

Disc 1
Bounce FM
Indefinable Funk

  1. Bounce FM Intro
  2. Kool & The Gang - Hollywood Swingin'
  3. Rick James - Cold Blooded
  4. The Gap Band - You Dropped A Bomb On Me
  5. Cameo - Candy
  6. Ronnie Hudson - West Coast Poplock
  7. You're On Bounce FM
  8. Zapp - I Can Make You Dance
  9. Dazz Band - Let It Whip
  10. Roy Ayers - Running Away
  11. Ohio Players - Funky Worm
  12. Maze - Twilight
  13. That Was Bounce FM
  14. Glory Hole Theme Park: Fun With Strangers
  15. Eris Pump Up Shoes

Disc 2
Playback FM
"Real Hip-Hop" for the "left coast".

  1. Playback FM Intro
  2. Public Enemy - Rebel Without A Pause
  3. Brand Nubian - Brand Nubian
  4. Slick Rick - Children's Story
  5. You're On Playback FM
  6. Eric B. & Rakim - I Know You Got Soul
  7. Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock - It Takes Two
  8. That Was Playback FM
  9. Kid Frost - La Raza
  10. The D.O.C. - It's Funky Enough
  11. Da Lench Mob - Guerillas In Tha Mist
  12. Compton's Most Wanted - Hood Took Me Under
  13. Cypress Hill - How I Could Just Kill A Man
  14. 2 Pac - I Don't Give A F**k
  15. Ice Diamonds
  16. Commando Pest Eradication

Disc 3
Master Sounds 98.3
The giants of soul, rare groove, and just a little classic funk.

  1. Mastersounds 98.3 Intro
  2. James Brown - The Payback
  3. The Chakachas - Jungle Fever
  4. Lyn Collins - Think About It
  5. Bobby Byrd - I Know You Got Soul
  6. Charles Wright - Express Yourself
  7. Maceo & The Macks - Cross The Tracks (We Better Go Back)
  8. You're On Mastersounds 98.3
  9. Sir Joe Quarterman & Free Soul - (I Got) So Much Trouble
  10. In My Mind
  11. The J.B.'s - Grunt
  12. Harlem Underground Band - Smokin' Cheeba Cheeba
  13. James Brown - Funky President
  14. Booker T & The MG's - Green Onions
  15. That Was Mastersounds 98.3
  16. Cluckin' Bell
  17. Zebra Bar: Fun To Try

Disc 4
K-ROSE
Country and western music.

  1. K-Rose Intro
  2. Willie Nelson - Crazy
  3. Hank Williams - Hey Good Lookin'
  4. Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn - Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man
  5. Statler Brothers - Bed of Roses
  6. You're On K-Rose
  7. Jerry Reed - Amos Moses
  8. Eddie Rabbit - I Love A Rainy Night
  9. Whitey Shafer - All My Ex's Live In Texas
  10. Ed Bruce - Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys
  11. Merle Haggard - Always Wanting You
  12. Patsy Cline - Three Cigarettes In The Ashtray
  13. That Was K-Rose
  14. Logger
  15. Starfish Resort And Casino

Disc 5
CSR
Chart-topping and club-friendly hits.

  1. CSR 103:9 Intro
  2. Guy - Groove Me
  3. Today - I Got The Feeling
  4. Bobby Brown - Don't Be Cruel
  5. En Vogue - My Lovin' (Never Gonna Get It)
  6. Wrecks-N-Effect - New Jack Swing
  7. Boyz II Men - Motownphilly
  8. You're On CSR 103:9
  9. Bell Biv DeVoe - Poison
  10. Samuelle - So You Like What You See
  11. SWV - I'm So Into You
  12. Aaron Hall - Don't Be Afraid
  13. Ralph Tresvant - Sensitivity
  14. That Was CSR 103:9
  15. Renegade Cologne
  16. The Epsilon Program: Covet

Disc 6
K-JAH West
From JA to SA, the best in dancehall, raga, reggae, and dub.

  1. K-Jah Intro
  2. Max Romeo & The Upsetters - Chase The Devil
  3. Barrington Levy - Here I Come
  4. Black Uhuru - Great Train Robbery
  5. Blood Sisters - Ring My Bell
  6. Toots & The Maytals - Funky Kingston
  7. Augustus Pablo - King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown
  8. You're On K-Jah
  9. Pliers - Bam Bam
  10. Dillinger - Cocaine in My Brain
  11. Black Harmony - Don't Let It go To Your Head
  12. Reggie Stepper - Drum Pan Sound
  13. The Maytals - Pressure Drop
  14. That Was K-Jah
  15. Sooth Cough Medicine
  16. Wrestling On Weazel

Disc 7
K-DST
'The Dust' plays non-stop classic rock and roll.

  1. K-DST Intro
  2. Heart - Barracuda
  3. Kiss - Strutter
  4. Boston - Smokin'
  5. Grand Funk Railroad - Some Kind of Wonderful
  6. Joe Cocker - Woman To Woman
  7. Humble Pie - Get Down To It
  8. You're On K-Dst
  9. America- A Horse With No Name
  10. The Who - Eminence Front
  11. Lynyrd Skynyrd - Free Bird
  12. Eddie Money - Two Tickets To Paradise
  13. Rod Stewart - Young Turks
  14. That Was K-DST
  15. Midlife Crisis Center
  16. San Andreas Telephone: New Father

Disc 8
Radio X: The Alternative
The home of Modern Rock.

  1. Radio X Intro
  2. Soundgarden - Rusty Cage
  3. Helmet - Unsung
  4. Faith No More - Midlife Crisis
  5. Stone Temple Pilots - Plush
  6. Rage Against The Machine - Killing In The Name
  7. You're On Radio X
  8. Living Colour - Cult Of Personality
  9. Danzig - Mother
  10. Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus
  11. Jane's Addiction - Been Caught Stealing
  12. L7 - Pretend We're Dead
  13. That Was Radio X
  14. My Five Uncles
  15. Exsorbeo Handheld Gaming System

Not represented here are the stations SF-UR and Radio Los Santos.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the sixth game in the Grand Theft Auto series, originally released on October 26, 2004 in North America (a day after Grand Theft Auto Advance). Developed by Rockstar North, the game follows the logical progression from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City by setting itself in the third city from the original game, except this time the city has been expanded into an entire state with three cities inspired by Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, along with the accompanying countryside and an approximation of the Nevada desert.

Currently, San Andreas is the most ambitious title in the Grand Theft Auto series. While the games that have come after it have brought a finer level of polish to individual elements, San Andreas is still usually regarded as the game that tried to do the most at the same time. Whether it's better than the latest game in the series, GTA IV, is hotly contested amongst fans; understandably so, as San Andreas, in its rush to be bigger and better than ever before, does contain an anomalous number of flaws. But did the developers truly bite off more than they could chew, or does the final product make up for the evident mistakes?

Story

Five years ago, Carl Johnson moved to Liberty City to run away from the murder of his brother Brian. Born to a life of crime, however, he does not recognize an opportunity to do anything different with his life, as shown clearly in a half-hour DVD short called The Introduction which was included with copies of the game's soundtrack. Instead of starting a new life, he continues living the way he always did, running away from his home and his problems. As the game begins, he receives a phone call telling him that his mom has also been killed, and reluctantly returns to his home in Los Santos to attend the funeral and take the abuse he knows is coming from his remaining family members.

This is where the gameplay starts, in the glorious wonder years of... the early 90s. 1992, to be specific. Carl decides to stick around in San Andreas to help rebuild his old home and make amends for running away, and the story from there takes a lot of twists and goes off in directions you would never expect from the relatively humble origins. That's both good and bad: while the story at the beginning and end of the game is inspired by and tries to address the types of issues brought up by gangster films such as Boyz n the Hood, which could have been a great idea, these messages are not done justice by the game's mediocre writing. When the increasingly ridiculous plot points start to pop up, it's actually a breath of fresh air; the best parts of the story are when the game stops pretending to have a point and just goes insane. Even though this is less satisfying than actually having a good story, I'm glad that the bad stuff didn't have to drag the entire game down.

The story as it progresses makes no real sense: the first quarter of the game simply takes gangsta rap at face value and wallows in it with no subtext whatsoever; the second quarter -- which is incidentally the only time that grand theft auto has actually been integral to a Grand Theft Auto plot, since you run a chop shop -- is completely uninteresting and almost seems like an entirely different game just started with nothing but scattered references to the first quarter; the third quarter is so crazy that you forget what the story was even about, and the tiny attempts to remind you only serve to undermine everything that's supposed to be "serious" even more so; the last quarter makes a slight attempt to actually tie all the mess together, and does make some admirable stabs at it, but eventually it also boils down to blindly glorifying crime with no real point.

People like to claim that the story is meant to be satire, and certainly many of the individual jokes are satirical in nature, but the game as a whole really has nothing at all to say about Los Angeles in the 1990s. In fact, the sheer force with which the writers missed the point almost crosses the boundary of being sort of offensive. According to this game, gangsters are so badass and so capable of utterly destroying all competition, that it seems like the infamous police brutality and racism simply didn't exist, because black people really were evil and deserved everything they got. That's not what they were trying to say, but the real message is done so poorly at the expense of making the gameplay fun, it really draws attention to just how much this story didn't fit the gameplay at all. The main characters are a thousand times worse than the bad guy could ever be.

Yes, making the game fun is more important; I'm not saying they should have toned down the gameplay to make it fit the story, I'm saying they should have made a story that actually fit in the first place. In Vice City, the overwrought machismo of 1980s crime movies (mostly Scarface) fit the GTA style like a glove. Vice City didn't pretend that its main characters were sympathetic. San Andreas has the worst story of any GTA game -- although it's technically more interesting than the bland paint-by-numbers story of GTA III and the practically-nonexistent stories of the first few games, the contrast between what the storytellers try to do in cutscenes and what the game actually lets you do is greater than it ever has been in other games.

It's more disappointing than actually annoying, thankfully. A boring, meandering story with a couple of memorable parts and plenty of genuinely funny jokes, but no point to it at all and a lot of bad implications. A definite step down from Vice City, but nothing to absolutely ruin the game in my opinion.

Presentation

For the most part, the presentation of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is really good. The graphics, though they were dated even by 2004 standards, are still very impressive when you take into account the vast amount of stuff that's in the game. Despite the low-quality models and textures, the game still does have some good touches: the draw distance seems to go on for an eternity, and the PC version even has sorta-realistic shadows and reflective surfaces. These help to distract you from what would otherwise have been very ugly graphics.

The GTA series is infamous for having a lot of pop-up -- times when objects materialize out of thin air while you're looking at them because the game engine can't keep up with all the junk on-screen -- but it's never a problem that seriously destroys the game. The one time when it does get annoying (on the PlayStation 2 version primarily) is when flying aircraft at high speeds: many times, you'll end up dying after you crash into a gigantic California-style tree that was invisible until after you hit into it. That would be an unforgivable flaw for most games to have, but for a game that pushes the limits of the PS2 so far, it's actually pretty understandable. Just don't fly low to the ground or you'll be swearing a lot.

The controls are as good as they could be. It's inevitable that some things are easier with a mouse and keyboard, like firing a gun, and other stuff is easier with a classic controller setup, like flying the aircraft. Everything is doable with both layouts, however, and it is actually possible to swap between a controller and a keyboard while playing the PC version, if you have both input methods plugged in while starting the game. Trying to fly with just the keyboard takes a lot of practice to get used to, but I personally prefer to just stick to one control method. (Thankfully, if you use a laptop with a nub or nicely-positioned touchpad, it's almost like having a third hand; you can adjust the camera with your thumb while using the rest of your fingers to steer.)

It's well-known that the game's soundtrack doesn't live up to its predecessor. How could it, really, when that game was set in the glamourous 80s? However, I understand people's complaints: even for a game that follows a gangster in the 90s, it still has way more rap than necessary. Something like half the soundtrack is rap, and it seems like Rockstar North doesn't know how to licence more than two songs to use off the radio, because every single dance or club scene in the game uses the same damn music. I'm not sure what kind of sense that makes, when the radio has tons of music; is it really more expensive to licence the songs for use in the diegetic sound as well? That seems unlikely.

Map design

To date, the map of San Andreas is the largest world to have ever graced a GTA game (although the developers of GTA V have said that the new game's map is going to be just slightly bigger). The state of San Andreas, while obviously not the size of an actual state, is still massive and amazingly well-designed. One of the key complaints everyone made about Vice City was that the map was full of filler areas, where the designers lazily wasted big amounts of space for no reason just so they could advertise it as being bigger than the GTA III map. San Andreas, in contrast, has probably the best map of any video game I've ever played. Obviously there are newer games nowadays that have bigger maps, but bigger doesn't automatically mean better.

San Andreas is split into six rough areas: the three cities, Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas; and the three counties, Red County, Flint County, and Bone County. Not every single inch of these areas is designed well, but definitely most of it is. The one thing Rockstar has always been good at (even in Vice City, despite the laziness), is designing cities that, although unrealistic, fit the quick gameplay perfectly and ooze culture even when the story doesn't pull its weight. San Andreas is full of personality, from the breathtaking Mount Chiliad, to the foggy streets of Fierro, to the dirty slums of Santos, it really does feel like a miniaturized version of the real places it's based on. At the same time, the map is simple enough to navigate that it never gets frustrating despite the size; the designers never commit the sin of doing something solely because it's "realistic" -- dead-end streets and alleyways that lead to nowhere are nearly nonexistent in San Andreas, and stuff like the desert feels a lot bigger and more intimidating than it really is. This is a good thing.

If there's one complaint I do have for the map, it's just that the design is generally so good that the slightly-less-good parts stick out worse than they would normally. San Fierro, for example, is an especially bland city compared to the other two; the real life San Fransisco has a lot more to it than the GTA version lets on, and it's a bit disappointingly straightforward to navigate; it feels too easy, with almost everything locked onto a strict grid layout. I also think there's a lot more that could have been done with the desert, which the story kind of glosses over. It's my favourite part of the map, but there's not a lot to actually do there compared to the rest.

These are all minor gripes, though, and overall the map of San Andreas is absolutely incredible. Definitely one of the best things about the game.

Gameplay

It's a Grand Theft Auto title, of course the gameplay is good! All the clunkiness of the previous GTA III era games is gone in this one, especially on the PC version, which actually feels like a genuine PC game instead of a half-assed port of a PlayStation game (most notably, you can actually move the camera while driving now). A lot of the byzantine limitations of the engine are gone: waist-high fences are no longer treated like insurmountable obstacles (you can actually jump now, instead of that awkward useless hop that the games had before), and the water isn't an instant death trap.

For whatever reason, even though the game does have a fluid system for doing drive-bys (similar to the one in GTA IV), the developers hid it behind a cheat code and the standard game is limited to the same poor controls that GTA III had. I have no idea at all why they did that, but the situation is improved a lot by the fact that your passengers do have good drive-by controls and can actually hang out the window to shoot at targets. The best use of this feature is when playing online* with friends, since the AI's accuracy is typically very low.

Unlike previous games in the series which had notoriously poor difficulty curves, San Andreas makes a serious attempt at keeping the game balanced and challenging without going too far towards frustration. However, it seems like Rockstar still hasn't figured out that arbitrary changes of genre are a bad thing, especially in the first quarter of the game, which is stuffed with irritating mandatory missions that require you to do things like play a Dance Dance Revolution-esque minigame. I've played the game so much at this point that I can breeze through these missions, and it's definitely not bad to have stuff like the dancing minigame in the game, but the core gameplay should not change in such a drastic fashion as to frustrate players who bought the game expecting action adventure. Especially when these minigames are much harder than the games they're based on: the game is very picky about what constitutes a winning score. It violates a fundamental principle of video game design and makes the game significantly less fun.

Another problem is the game's somewhat out-of-place RPG elements. I don't necessarily hate these features, which involve slowly leveling up your character's skills and attributes, but sometimes they can be very annoying, especially with the vehicle skills. Chasing people down on a motorcycle with intentionally bad controls is not very fun, especially when you replay the game and the mission is still hard despite all the practice you got by playing the first time. Some of these elements, like the firearm skills, work pretty well -- nothing at the beginning of the game really demands that your skills be higher than they naturally would be -- but they still reek of fake gameplay growth. I shouldn't have to grind my motorcycle experience points just to get through the very beginning of the game, when the game isn't even supposed to be an RPG. It helps the immersion sometimes, but most of the time it's just a hindrance.

Overall, though, the gameplay is still very good. The first quarter of the story can be a bit frustrating, but once the designers get that pointless need to show off everything out of their systems, the game settles into a much more GTA-like routine. The majority of your time is spent stealing cars, chasing people, shooting people, and exploring the magnificent map, which is exactly the kind of thing that GTA should be. The game also features the welcome addition of a "trip skip" button that allows you to skip over long travelling times in missions if you have to retry them, which was a great idea considering how big the map is.

* The game doesn't have online features by default, but a fan-made mod for the PC version adds rudimentary support for it. It's far from being perfect but it's a fun mod to play with nonetheless.

Conclusion

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is still my favourite game in the GTA series. Since this game, Rockstar North has brought the franchise into a different direction from what I would have liked; the cartoony action and satire that characterized the series initially is slowly being leeched out, and although the expansion packs have been adding some of the craziness back in (with stuff like exploding shotgun shells in The Ballad of Gay Tony), it still doesn't change the fact that every game is now trying harder and harder to be enormous, and spreading the polish too thinly.

I'm still a big fan of Take Two Interactive (the parent company of Rockstar) and their always-admirable attempts to push the limits of gaming technology. But at the end of the day, they need to remember what their individual series are. GTA has always spread itself a bit thin and covered a lot more gameplay variety than it really needed to, and that was a big part of its charm, but now it's time for them to focus on what matters. The new games feel more and more like bad crime movies with some kind of bloated, bizarre life simulation thrown in for no reason, along with a billion minigames. The "satire" gets increasingly nonsensical in every game, which goes hand-in-hand with the series ever-increasing vulgarity. Yes, it's a crime game, but the older games didn't have to be this blunt about it; they had a balance of being juvenile and still a little bit subversive, whereas the games now seem more mean-spirited with every release.

I know they're just trying to keep the series fresh, and it's hard to come up with new ideas (certainly it is, when you recycle everything as often as they do). But what the GTA series needs is polish, and writing that doesn't make me ashamed to be a fan of it. They have other games to stretch their legs with, they don't have to stick everything into GTA anymore just to make money. If they focused on doing smaller games with more polish to the parts that are actually important, they wouldn't have so many heavily-flawed gems.

The bad writing also ruins the developers' other, more serious games such as L.A. Noire. At the very least, if they don't want to be well-written, make the games into a cartoon again. Stop pretending to have meaning that isn't there. Grand Theft Auto would be significantly better if it actually tried to have something to say about crime, and it rarely does. For a series that puts so much effort into the voice acting and setting, you would think that they would actually bother to hire good writers. They don't, and it's making the new games harder and harder to enjoy as anything other than guilty pleasures. It doesn't have to be such a mindless series when they've clearly proven in the past that they can do satire.

But in the end, is San Andreas a good game? Yes. In fact, it's an incredible game, definitely one of the crowning achievements of gaming. In my opinion, it marked the beginning of a steep decline in quality for Rockstar, but it's still a great video game in its own right, and I highly recommend that you play it if you haven't already.

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