It's been a long time in the making, but finally the GTA saga has come to end with San Andreas. Following the geographical path laid out in the original 1997 Grand Theft Auto, in 2001 and 2002 Rockstar North took us through Liberty City (21st century) and then Vice City (1980s). With the release of Vice City, it was obvious that Rockstar North was repaving the original layout from the original, so it had become clear that the next iteration would be titled San Andreas and feature locations that resemble many of the west side's more popular areas — just like the 1997 original. Unlike many enormous franchises, the GTA series becomes more and more ambitious with every new release. Vice City improved over many aspects that Liberty City lacked in and San Andreas is here to improve over both titles combined…ten fold. And while the amount of work put into the game is tremendous, something just doesn't seem right.
First thing's first, I need to admit that I grossly overrated GTA: Vice City; call it getting caught up in the moment of hype. When it all died and Vice City settled in, I came to realize that while it improved many aspects over GTAIII, Liberty City was a much more enjoyable location. That said, San Andreas is a terrific game. The game encompasses a wide array of genres, and not just tiny little segments, but dedicated segments, which is almost unheard of in today's games. For example, you have the feature of customizing a car by buying various parts for it and etc. You have the feature of building your character's strength (much like an RPG) by going to the gym and working out. You've got puzzle-like elements where you have to tap buttons in synch to what's being displayed on the TV (think Dance Dance Revolution), and more. So not only do you have the main action/adventure portion of the game, but racing, puzzle and RPG as well.
To simply say that San Andreas is ambitious would be an understatement. It's beyond ambitious; it offers so many things and does them all rather well, too. The amount of mini-games is a welcome treat (billiards, 80s style arcade machines, etc.), as is the ability to swim and more. San Andreas is just downright enormous, it really defines free-roaming in every way imaginable. And hey, you can actually save your car from the start now, which is a plus.
So what's wrong with San Andreas? Well, one of my bigger complaints is the confusing city layout. Whereas I memorized Liberty City and Vice City rather quickly, I continuously find myself having trouble navigating San Andreas when I'm just roaming freely, which brings me to use the map constantly. San Andreas' layout just seems a bit too complicated for its own good, and I much rather prefer a design more intricate and precise like Liberty City. Also, this is coming from someone who memorized The Getaway, and lets not forget that The Getaway didn't have a map on the HUD. Unlike Liberty and Vice City, where each city was modeled after one location in mind (New York and Florida), San Andreas branches out just a little. Perhaps a nod to the "Sin City" rumors that started after the release of Vice City, San Andreas also features a casino segment, which is obviously based on Las Vegas. In addition to Vegas, you'll find that San Andreas pays homage to cities such as Los Angeles, Hollywood, Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco.
In terms of what the game has to offer, San Andreas is no slouch there. Easily surpassing the previous two by offering a locale that's four-times the size of Vice City, San Andreas has a lot of room to explore and a whole bunch of doors you can step foot in. You can pilot a plane, ride on a mountain bike, swim, build your strength, control a train, and even play two-player side missions. San Andreas has absolutely everything that the previous GTA games did not. I didn't even mention that the car physics have also improved and don't feel anywhere near as floaty as they did before. Rockstar North has released the ultimate free-roam; there's just so much to do in it, it almost feels never-ending.
However, there are still obvious problems with the game. All of these features have to be earned (no, that's not the problem), which is expected of course. The problem is earning them. In order to earn the new stuff San Andreas has to offer, you have to play through the whole game's story and when playing through the game I couldn't help but find myself feeling pretty bored with the game's missions. Most of it all just felt way too similar to the previous installments of the game. Granted, there is some variety thrown in here and there in between missions, but it isn't enough to shake the feeling of repetitiveness. At this point, I'm finding myself only playing the game because I want to get my pilot license, I want to rice-out every exotic ride in the game, and then rice-out some monstrous station wagon a'la Pimp My Ride. I don't find myself enjoying the game's missions and I'll leave it at that — it also doesn't help that the new lock on feature is practically useless. Forgive the stupid analogy, but I'm basically sucking on a lolli-pop only because I want the gum, as childish as that may sound.
The game's story is pretty straightforward, nowhere near as engrossing as Vice City which just oozed all sorts of cool. The backbone of the plot is the main character Carl Johnson (or CJ, as he if referred to in the game) who returns home to San Andreas after living in Liberty City for a few years. Carl returns with the news of his mother's murder fresh in his mind and vengeance is all he can think about. CJ's crew reunites with him and vow to find the killers. I absolutely love the game's non-playable characters (NPCs), especially Ryder who is pretty much NWA's Eazy-E in videogame form. Carl's got a brother named Sean, but is referred to as Sweet in the game; there's also Big Smoke (think of him as a lazier, overweight Gandalf). The characters are definitely great and the chemistry's definitely there. The dialogue is even more swear filled this time around, but I'm not complaining. There's a lot more I could say about the gameplay, and I'm actually being quite brief with what San Andreas has to offer. I'll say it again, though…the game's core just doesn't strike me as much as its spoils do.
Visually, San Andreas is pretty lackluster. The game doesn't display a single "wow" element in its visuals. The framerate is still too jerky and the pop-up is absolutely disastrous. I'd go as far as to say that the pop-up is worse than the first two, and before you can even think it, this game was primarily played on the new PStwo (not like it matters, because it ran the same on my other PS2s). The level of detail effect is horribly delayed. You'd see a structure just a few feet ahead of you take shape, and the primary texture is then drawn-in; it's a very annoying thing to see, especially so often. One thing that's made a noticeable improvement are the car models; they've lost that somewhat cardboard-like, cartoony look and look more like real cars do. This time around you can tell that their structure is metallic based, where as in GTA: Vice City and GTA3 they had a flatter more paper like presence. As far as the rest of the game's visuals go, there's nothing too impressive about them anymore. The character models look about the same, maybe some minor enhancements here and there, but nothing to really gawk over. And though the scope of the city is great, it is drastically hindered by the extreme amount of pop-up, poor level of detail implementation and that ever jittery framerate. The game remains quite playable despite all of that, but you'll never shake the feeling that you're playing an incomplete code.
The game's audio is a mixed bag. The soundtrack is a massive disappointment for the most part. The line up, especially compared to Vice City's fantastic list, is beyond dull. About the only crowd pleasers are 2 Pac, Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, NWA, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, War, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Who, Billy Idol, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Guns N' Roses, Ozzy Osbourne, Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine, Jane's Addiction, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots. Now, I know you're probably saying to yourself "that's a crap load of bands, Arnold. Pass me what you're smoking". Cool it, kids. There are nearly 150 songs in San Andreas, and only about 30 come from the 19 aforementioned artists/bands. So to me, about 20% of the soundtrack is all I can listen to. Now, that's 30 songs spread across 10 music stations. And that makes the ache of the non-existent soundtrack shuffle box feel that much more sore. With the conclusion of Math class allow me to say that the writing is pretty much as good as it gets. I loved Vice City's dialogue, but I love San Andreas' even more. The voice acting is downright terrific, and the Hollywood talent gets me all hot bothered every time I hear them. Chuck D? Faizon Love? Samuel L. Jackson ("Mmmm-mmm, bitch!")? The Game? Ice T? Chris Penn? Charlie Murphy ("That's right I said f**k it")? James Woods? David Cross? Hell yeah! The voice over ensemble is flawless; I still find it hard to believe how many celebrities Rockstar managed to scour up for the game. God bless you, guys!
GTA: San Andreas still has my attention. I've put a considerable amount of time into it, despite my lack of appreciation for the game's core. It's the spoils that really keep me going. I want to pilot that plane, I want to own that incredible piece of estate, I want to pimp every damn ride in the game and so on. Yes, I'm quite obviously done with the whole mission based free-roam genre. And if San Andreas weren't so overflowing with goodies and extras, I'd likely have dropped the 6.8 bomb on it (right, Frank?). Also, despite some absolutely stellar appearances, the soundtrack is hurting for the most part. Although the vocal part of the audio is practically flawless. Lastly, San Andreas' visuals leave a lot to be desired.
It must be asked…is San Andreas worth the purchase? Absolutely. But is it as fantastic as many would tell you? Not really. It's overflowing with flaws, and it seems as if many professional opinions out there are by-products of the game's immense hype. And hype is precisely the reason why I waited this long to review the game. I wasn't going to make another Vice City mistake; so once it sank in I knew where I stood regarding San Andreas. Hopefully not too many feathers were ruffled, since they make me sneeze.