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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.