Sunday, November 07, 2004

Review: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
Posted by Shocker :: 2:51 AM

So, another year, another GTA. I have to admit, this one snuck up on me - I am not not a fan of the GTA series, but as I told Anthony last week, don't really ever harbor any loyalty to the franchise. Unlike a new Mario game, or Zelda, or even Halo (and most especially, currently, Prince of Persia), I don't wait with giddy anticipation at the release of GTA games. I just go and get them. My first true GTA experience was with the original PC game, a game I felt was kind of fun in small doses, but had utterly meaningless missions that did nothing but alleviate some of the boredom with the core gameplay. I probably played all of 4 minutes of GTA 2, finding it to be more of the same.

So GTA 3 knocked me as flat on my ass as it did anyone else who had ever even heard of the first couple of games. It was like taking a Game Boy Color version of Carmageddon and turning it into Grand Turisimo in a single leap. I still remember that you could set the camera in GTA 3 to be like the cameras in the first two games, strictly top-down. Of course, that was quickly abandoned as the series really took console-root with Vice City (and hasn't looked back), it was still one of those quirks that made you wonder how the heck we went from point A to point R so quickly.

But I never bought GTA3, though I spent some time with it. I downloaded the voice tracks and a couple of the music stations (back then, all the music, commercials and such were all made up, and excellently done), listened to them, laughed my ass off, and then got myself hyped for Vice City, aka The Game That Made Me Buy The PS2.

Irony would have it that the PS2 I bought Vice City for would break down right as San Andreas came out, forcing me to trade it in at EB Games (they never checked it, so I got $100 credit for it. Yeah, baby!) to get the new, sleeker, smaller PSTwo. It wasn't so much a force as a preponderance of evidence - old and busted PS2 that I can't play a potential Game of the Year on, or new hottness PSTwo that even comes with the network adapter I was too cheap to spring for? The choice was made.

Still, the loyalty issue comes up again, because I didn't dive straight into GTA: San Andreas. Rather, I let Ariel have at it for the weekend while I was down in LA. Mostly, what I wanted to see was how he played it, and what you could do with it. When I got back home, I basically did the opposite, and it had interesting results. Let me start from the beginning, though.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas basically chronicles the story of Carl Johnson - CJ, the San Andreas version of Tommy Vercetti. Continuing in the vein of strong main character development that was laid down in Vice City, GTA: SA gives a very interesting and complex character to CJ - somewhat former gang member, appears to want to reform, but is drawn back into the gang life in Los Santos when his mother dies, and ultimately back into the gang which he ran to Liberty City, the site of GTA 3, to get away from. The story drives the game, and the character of CJ is steadily developed through various missions.

The missions make up the heart of the game - it is where the plot is advanced and where you open up new areas to travel to. Intially, you only have access to the city of Los Santos, though by playing through and passing missions, you open up neighboring cities. While it may seem a bit restrictive to only allow access to a single city initially.. er.. it's not.

Los Santos is huge. It is bigger than most game worlds by itself, and, as a city modeled after Los Angeles, is eerily accurate. By eerily accurate, I mean it seems like it was designed by someone with an abiding hate for order (Like LA!). Streets meet up at all sorts of weird angles, over hills and wild curves, and for no particular reason. Going across a freeway will take you from one gang's turf to another's, or from a busy commercial area to a suburb. But unlike some of the polished streets in Vice City's sprawling metropolis, this game feels less like a city designed around helping a player find all the things he or she needs to find, and much more like someone dropped CJ into the middle of an already living and breathing system. As a result, you'll find that you're going to be more apt to get completely lost, or need to seek out a particular landmark or two to get a general idea of where you are. You'll be using the map a lot more here than in VC to help you just get around Los Santos (And never mind that there are 3 other cities like this in the game). What I found most amazing about all of this was that when I got out of whatever car I'd stolen, and just walked around, or into some buildings, the level of detail for just a simple house, or backyard or hotel was amazing. Stretching that out over an entire, gigantic game world is just mindblowing. As someone who has spent a significant chunk of their life living in South Central LA, I can attest that the world is a pretty accurate representation of a ghetto where it needs to be.

Actually being able to go into buildings is a new feature added to San Andreas. While many of the missions tend to serve the plot, and advance it, a lot of others are basically tutorials on how you can enter the many various minigames that make this game famously distracting. One of those, for instance, is the ability to burglarize buildings by getting into a particular burglar's van. With it, you can then enter peoples' houses and rob them blind. Other buildings have a little less life to them - the hotel I mentioned, while having a ton of detail in each room, lacked people! So after a while of exploring an empty hotel, I just left.

This leads me to making my first gripe about this game, and, slightly more generally, about the entire franchise up to now. For all the talk about a fully interactive world, neither Johnny McRandomThug from GTA 3, nor Tommy Vercetti in GTA: VC or CJ in GTA: SA has much in the way of words with the average, every day citizen. Beyond punching them, of course. Granted, GTA has always been more about generating enough people to make the option of fender-fodder more appealing than jabber-jawing, but after a while, with so many people around and no one to talk to, I actually did start feeling a little left out of the loop. Your character is cast into such an extraordinary role - rulebreaker, outlaw and bandit - that there is very little grounding in reality for his presence. In any sort of just world, citizenry would flee in terror at my very sight - my 200-innocent-citizen killing spree should attest to this. But citizens in San Andreas are happy to simply ignore me, even as I've got an MP5 in my hands and am aiming it at some other bystander.

Now granted, they did implement a way in which you could give positive and negative responses to people in this game, and it plays out a couple of times, but it is nowhere near the level of interaction of games like Fable, or even Mortal Kombat: Deception's Konquest mode. As I said, for a so-called "fully immersive" world, I should be able to talk to people who aren't about to give me missions every once in a while, even if it's just so they can tell me that they're going to work, or that their new Sony PSP really "ROCKS MY SOCKS!!"

Now the plot itself is worked out very well. There are some extremely humorous scenes, as well as some fairly dramatic ones as well. The world CJ left has essentially deteriorated, and as CJ and his friends try to piece together their gang, and their heirarchy within the gang structure, eventually leading into a lot of other problems. Voice acting here, bar a few slightly flubbed lines by CJ (voiced by Chris Bellard) is top-notch. Lending vocal talents are such actors as Samuel (IT'LL GET YA DRUNK) L. Jackson, James Woods, David Cross, to name a few (or have a full list).

Missions here are a mixed bag, though. A lot of missions are simple tutorials for minigames you can choose to engage in. Yes, they are well produced, but ultimately they don't really mean a lot if you're not very much into what it's peddling (The burglary wasn't really my thing, for instance). Some of the missions require reliance on AI controlled shooters (such as the infamous "Wrong Side Of The Tracks" level, which I am 2 for 15 on), or very vaguely defined mission standards. Added in was a new "Trip Skip" feature, that allows you to skip pat having to repeat the same portions of missions over and over. Unfortunately, it doesn't work on all missions. You will also inevitably end up playing some missions that just aren't fun, such as the ill-conceived OG Loc Dancing Mission, or the Caesar Vialpando racing mission. Filling a game with a few half-done minigames is one thing, but requiring a player to complete half-done minigames is an entirely different thing. No one forced you to play Pazaak in KOTOR (XBox/PC) or the Paddle Game in Beyond Good and Evil (PC/Consoles) to simply advance the story. Other missions are epic battles and heists that must be played just for the experience of playing them.

You can actually completely customize ol' Carl. This I really liked. Ariel turned Carl into, what could best and only be described as a reincarnation of Tupac, a big, huge shirtless gangsta with an attitude. He accomplished this by going to the gym and lifting weights, sprinting and sparring (you are given a cell phone call that tells you where the gym is and how to use it- BTW, the cell phones look like giant walkie-talkies, remember that?). He customized Carl with imposing tattoos and a combative wardrobe. I took a different tack. I did go to the gym, but only to get his muscle stat up to about 60%, so he was reasonably toned. I built up his stamina, dyed his hair blonde and dressed him up as a baller. Both looked incredibly different, yet both were the same character. Very nice, especially considering the best you could do with Tommy Vercetti was dress him up in a golf outfit.

Speaking of the statistics, the game carries RPG-like stats for CJ. Everything from his stamina to muscle tone to sex appeal, respect, driving, biking, cycling, piloting and boating, and just about anything else can be improved by doing activities that promote its increase. Eat a lot of fatty foods and Carl will get fat (dropping his sex appeal and stamina). But if you don't carry a certain amount of fat, then when you get hungry, you'll start burning muscle away, decreasing that stat. Don't go to the gym regularly for maintenance, and you'll start looking Somalian.

The stats I really wanted to improve were Stamina and (personal preference) Biking. Stamina, of course, helps you run away from people who are chasing you for longer. Biking, in a definite improvement over Vice City, improves the ability CJ has to stay on a bike when he would normally crash and bail. Also, biking in this game doesn't hurt CJ as much when he falls off as it did Tommy, which means you're a lot less likely to get wasted from flying off the bike. It loses a bit of realism, but the game is far more fun and balanced in this way.

Another source of cheap death has been eliminated as well: For the first time in the history of GTA, your character can actually swim! Yes, falling in the water no longer means instant death, although it can get you stranded in the middle of the ocean without so much as an island around. Swim long enough, of course, and you'll increase CJ's swim stat, which allows him to hold his breath longer. While I didn't see too much use for this, aside from the loss of a cheap death, I did read that there are apparently 100(?) pearls scattered throughout the waters if you feel like collecting them.

Another excellent improvement is the way the police respond in this game. In Vice City, anything above a single star had to be either bribed away (pick up a floating badge icon), or rectified by a local spray shop. In GTA: SA, you can out-pursue two stars if you work at it long enough, and one star you can usually get out of by running and hiding. This adds a lot to the game, because sometimes you can accidentally kill an officer and snag an easy two stars right off the bat. The cop AI is excellent here. At one star, the cops basicaly try to run you down. A cop car, if it sees you, might give brief chase, but generally leave you alone. They essentially try not to use lethal force, although they will if you are carrying a weapon, which was a nice touch. At two stars, you will usually get a couple of cruisers and a motorcycle cop after you, but, as I said, you can usually out run them as well. It's at 3 and 4 stars when it starts getting ridiculous: cops popping out of every corner, rappeling down from the helicopters chasing you - it's the kind of mayhem you deserve when you work for it, and is very satisfactory without stealing all the fun out of being a petty criminal.

Now the music - Vice City introduced the idea of having actual licensed tunes into a GTA game. I remember telling my friend James that one of the best features of the XBox was that you can incorporate custom soundtracks into some of the games, an idea which he poo-poo'd. Then out comes Vice City and he loses his shit over the soundtrack to the game. Well, with good reason - the soundtrack in GTA: Vice City was a retardedly outstanding collection of classic 70's and 80's tunes. Anyone who does not want to drive over a ramp in slow motion to the strains of "I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight" is not my friend. But the music here... the game is set in the early 90's, if I recall correctly, just doesn't do it for me in the same way. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I didn't get that killer soundtrack vibe from this game.

The game looks like like Vice City, if slightly "worse". While I don't think the graphics have changed all that much from GTA: Vice City, I do think they're behind the curve as far as where most games on the PS2 are now. Whereas GTA 3 set a decent standard, and Vice City piggybacked on that one, that back is getting awfully overloaded by this version. While they did tone down the obnoxious lighting effects that were utilized in Vice City, they eliminated the option to remove them completely, which was availible in VC. The game does seem a bit more "mature", in a sense. While Vice City emphasized and glorified the somewhat showy and glitzy Italian Mobster scene, this is a more serious and darker game graphically. In light of games like True Crime and The Getaway, though, which attempt to do the GTA thang, it'd be nice to see the series get a graphical overhaul, even if it meant sacrificing some of the draw distance, or random citizenry that could be on screen at the same time.

Likewise, the vehicle and fighting systems here need serious work. I have never understood how Rockstar, the developer of Midnight Club 2, continues to put out a game featuring out-and-out arcade racing through cities that still controls like the original Grand Theft Auto (read: Not that great). Crappy cars slide all over the road with no control. Big cars like the lowriders feel downright floaty. The rarest and nicest cars drive so fast and so out of control that they explode within minutes. Driving just about any car with any precision is an exercise in futility. If you want to test that theory, try driving like a regular, law abiding citizen for 5 minutes. You can't make right-hand turns, can't stop in the right lanes, can't go more than 2 or 3 minutes without hitting someone... I know the game is designed to be arcadey, but "arcade" is not an excuse for poor design. For GTA 3, this was fine, but at this point, I at least want a speedometer in first person mode. The fighting system is more of the same. In Vice City, and even here, it still remains a chore and a task to get through even the most mundane of gunfights without someone behind you, whom you can't see, drilling you with bullets because you can't get a lock on them. Honestly, a simple circle-strafe would be beautiful. I also almost caught a seizure from the camera flashing and jumping to-and-fro as Ariel changed locks on targets with no smooth transition. The effect was lessened when I was playing the game myself, as I knew where I was going to go to, but it was still an annoyance. The car camera is the opposite story. Depending on where the camera is when you jack the car, you could be in second or third gear by the time the camera moseys its way over to show you what's in front of you. This led to failing a couple of missions when the game accused me of "attacking" vital characters I didn't know were in front of me because I was waiting on the camera to get there.

While I'm complaining here, I absolutely hate the map system in this game. When I first played it, because I was still trying to get my old PS2 to work, I had my 19 inch TV sitting on my nightstand next to my bed. And since I am lazy, I just left it there when I started playing the game. So 4 feet away from a 19 inch TV, I had no gripes about the map. But put that on even a 25 inch TV screen more than 7 or 8 feet away and you're talking trouble. The map has so many icons on it, and the icons are so small, that everything is indistinguishable. You're lucky if you can tell where your next marker is for your mission. And, inexplicably, even though it is animated on the minimap, when you open up your big map, the icon does not animate. Not animating means it doesn't stick out, which means you must pore over every inch of the giant Los Santos map to find a small yellow marker. Sometimes this marker can be thrown in the mix with several others.. You get the picture here. The map in the menu, while allowing you to zoom in, doesn't allow you to see any but the most basic of terrain. About a third of Los Santos usually fits on the map in its most zoomed in form, and like I said, the city is huge, so this doesn't provide much in the way of detail.

Let's talk about the soul of GTA: ability to be a total outlaw and get away with it. Of course the game features all of the same gameplay elements that have made GTA games both famous and infamous - the ability to steal just about any car you see, kill anyone around, beat up cops, hire prostitutes, kill said prostitutes, go to clubs, pimp, etc. In fact, the sheer number of minigames is astonishing. There are even a few two-player icons out there which, if you're not playing alone (which I always was), you can hook up with a friend to try. Two of the more intriguing sidequests are the turf wars and the quest to get a girlfriend. By gaining respect (by winning missions, showing off your gang's colors, things of that nature), you gain more respect. The more respect you have, the more gangstas you can have as a crew to stalk the streets with you. After a while, you can even perform drive-bys and hit and run attacks on neighboring gangs, and take over their turf. As for the girlfriend sidequests, by upping your sex appeal - dressing nice and clean, being seen exiting a great car, not being overly fat, you can attract women and even get girlfriends. To each his own, is the saying.

In addition, if you want, you can enter professional low-riding competitions for cash, race, gamble, dance, work out, tag, become a taxi driver, EMT, firefighter or vigilate cop or, my personal favorite, just drive around. Driving around gives you a chance to explore the world, which blends being a world for a guy on foot and a world for someone driving around very well. I spent many more hours that I want to admit driving up and over the exact same few ramps in GTA: VC simply because it was so much fun. San Andreas is the same way. With the improved bike mechanics, it is actually more fun to zoom around in them than it was in the original. Driving around also gives you the opportunity to visit smaller towns and communities that the storymode just doesn't take you through. As well, you get a feel for the interesting and somewhat inaccurate, though appreciable physics engine the game employs.

Overall, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a game that favors the fun road over the ultra-realistic route. This alone makes it immediately more accessible than its imitators, and its insanity is one of the reasons so many non-hardcore gamers love the series. While I don't really want ultra-realism, I do want some refinement to the core portions of a game that is now over 3 years old. The lack of refinement led some to call Vice City a simple expansion pack to GTA 3, and in light of San Andreas, the criticism is valid. SA is a much, much more fleshed out and real improvement over Vice City and GTA 3 in that it integrates the storyline, the character, the city and his plight to create a total package. Even though CJ, like Tommy Vercetti, is basically dropped into his respective city, with CJ, it immediately feels like he grew up there and is a long-time resident instead of a violent tourist. It gives the player a bit more emotional investment as well. Rather than simply trying to take over the entire town, you're attempting to right a wrong that takes you in that direction. And even when you don't feel like getting into all of that, you can simply drive around, listen to music or hilarious talk radio and try to wreak havok. It's too bad I don't have a 9.5 here, because the game is simply, given its flaws (outdated driving, poor shooting, awful map, and required, poorly executed AI and minigames to advance the plot) right in the middle of perfect and almost-there. It's a definite buy, though. I will err ever-so-slightly against it, if only because I feel like they've basically ignored problems that existed since its first 3D foray. Still, go out and immediately get this if you don't have it already.

- Dan

Excellent review Dan, I think you hit all the key points about the game. And I also agree with you on about every point.

[maybe spoiler]

One thing I would add. After completing certain missions, you get the option to recruit gang members to give you a small squad of soldiers for gang wars and missions. Problem is, the AI with these gang members is absolutely atrocious. It takes a rhino to get these idiots to move, and they will absolutely refuse to shoot anyone, until you are being blown away at point blank range. This could have been an excellent way to aid you in your goals, but it falls flat on it's face.

This is probably the only thing wrong with this game though, definately a contender for GOTY.
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