Every year, an innumerable amount of videogame titles see the light of day, many of which are bland and uninspired copycat releases. One distinct game series seems to have survived the test of time while spawning countless imitators that aimed to mimic its open-ended, free roaming style of gameplayâ€”most of them failing miserably. After a considerable delay, Rockstar has finally decided to port their latest installment in the age-old, but oh so popular Grand Theft Auto series to Xbox and PC, and the result is one of the most enjoyable titles of the year.
With this most recent addition to the line-up of GTA titles, Rockstar saw fit to rearrange a few minor series details and out came San Andreas: an action-packed adventure that will last players far beyond the 50-hour marker and leave them craving for more once theyâ€™re done.
The storyâ€”which is significantly more predominant in this offeringâ€”follows Carl â€œCJâ€ Johnson, who returns home to San Andreas after a 5-year stay in Liberty City, when he is informed his mother has been murdered. Immediately following his return to Los Santos, his childhood home, Carl is intercepted by a trio of crooked cops who frame him for homicide and coerce him into doing their dirty work. To worsen his predicament, CJ is facing pressure from all sides as rival gangs edge their way closer to familiar territory in the hopes of claiming more ground. To save his â€˜hoodâ€™ from the imminent takeover, Carl is forced to reunite his old street clique to finally fight back against the corrupt law enforcement officers and opposing gangs and reclaim their livelihood and territory.
San Andreas features the exhausted â€˜from rags to richesâ€™ storyline, but successfully manages to keep things fresh by adding a contemporary twist into the mix. Players take the main character from the rough, thug life of the ghetto to the rich lifestyle of a self-made man, and everything in between. As you can tell, the series seems to have taken a turn for the better. No longer will players take the role of a silent antagonist or a Scarface clone like Tommy Vercettiâ€”even though he undoubtedly kicked ass. San Andreas relies heavily on its involving storyline, which is a welcome change when compared to previous titles where the plot seemed to take a backseat to all the chaos and action. Donâ€™t misunderstand, though, San Andreas still contains more than its fair share of shootouts, itâ€™s just that here everything feels more justified and satisfying.
The game takes place throughout three cities inside San Andreas, and each is notably inspired by actual locations within the United States. Los Santos, the gameâ€™s first city and the playerâ€™s start point, is very reminiscent of L.A.â€™s South Central, while San Fierroâ€™s hilly streets, tramways, and Golden Gate Bridge, cannot be mistaken for anything other than San Francisco. The final city, Las Venturas, bears an eerie resemblance to Las Vegas, glitzy casinos and sprawling deserts included. Initially, only Los Santos is available for exploration, but as players progress through the story, the other cities will open upâ€”much like in previous GTA titles.
A new gimmick implemented into San Andreas, is an RPG-like element that allows players to up or downgrade skills such as weapon accuracy, stamina and strength, to name but a few. Visiting the gym for exercise will keep CJ in shape, while eating too much fast food will soon turn him into an overweight slob. Nuance elements such as these may be welcomed by some, but they seem oddly out of place in a plot reliant title such as San Andreas, even though they play a minimal part and rarely intrude on the actual gameplay.
Character customization is another completely new facet of player interaction in the already vast world of the Grand Theft Auto series. Every aspect of CJâ€™s body can be modified. Training at the gym can help him lose weight and stay in shapeâ€”as mentioned aboveâ€”which in turn can help boost his physical appearance and strength. Combat skills can be honed in the sparring ring, and new moves can be learned to help CJ better deal with his enemies. In this latest iteration, fighting feels much more satisfying when compared to the hollow feel of previous installments. By utilizing the â€˜rightâ€™ mouse button, players can now lock-on to a character while fighting and subsequent combos can be unleashed against any ill-fated fool on the receiving end of Carlâ€™s fists.
Physical aspects aside, players can completely control CJâ€™s aesthetic appearance, too. Hairstyle, tattoos, and clothing can all be modified to suit the playerâ€™s particular style and tastes. A variety of stores are available throughout the locales of San Andreas and each sells a completely different style of clothing, ranging from cheap urban outfits to expensive and lavish suitsâ€”thereâ€™s something for everyone.
San Andreasâ€™ missions are the focal point in this title and they certainly coincide well with the gameâ€™s atmosphere. From committing drive-bys against rival gangs, to armed robbery, and taking over gang territory, CJ will embark upon a variety of thug-like activities during his quest. And repetition is never an issue in San Andreas, either; missions may occasionally seem familiar, but theyâ€™re never entirely the same, as something is always changed to keep them fresh and amusing. The only gripe to be had with the gameâ€™s mission dynamics lies in the unbalanced difficulty levels evident on some of the tasks CJ must undertake. For the most part, players will progress through the plot with ease, absorbing and enjoying mission after missionâ€”until they run into an insanely difficult and annoying task that Carl must accomplish. The perfect example of these kinds of missions would be the return of the remote-controlled helicopter from Vice City and a new series of obligatory flight school training missions. Thankfully, a lot of patience and a steady hand on the mouse will eventually get you through the tough times and firmly back on the fun track.
However, once Carl makes it out of Los Santos, the gritty thug-life atmospherics temporarily shift to the backburner to make room for a completely different gameplay feeling and mission structure, both of which are far too reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City.
Controls are an issue with many ports, but Rockstarâ€™s Grand Theft Auto series has never suffered from the aforementioned problem. As surprising as it may seem, the game becomes much easier when maneuvering or aiming is involved. In the latest installment, pressing the â€˜rightâ€™ mouse button is required for firing, and it also brings up the reticule to help aim, which is a welcome change. And, thanks to the mouse, which aptly replaces a controller, taking care of rival gang members is no longer a daunting task.
Graphically speaking, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a little dated. Based on a modified version of GTA III for PS2, certain areas have a very low poly count and poor texture quality, albeit much sharper than in the PS2 versionâ€”one of the benefits of playing the game on PC. Though this isnâ€™t really much of a problem unless you enjoy inspecting every nook and cranny, these areas wonâ€™t be as noticeable and can be excused due to the sheer size of the cities and the insane amount of objects that must be rendered by the graphics engine. Each town has a distinct and fresh feeling, comparable to already popular metropolises in the United States such as Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Every street in the game has a sense of populous; whether walking or driving there are people everywhere going about their A.I. business. Also, the environments no longer revolve around just the playerâ€™s actions; police will chase other lawbreakers, and shootouts will occur between other rival gangs. There are plenty of little side events that help lend a sensation of credibility to the cities. The models in the game are nothing worth bragging about, but they get the job done; once again the result of the gameâ€™s original PS2 development is to blame. As in previous Grand Theft Auto titles, San Andreas boasts a plethora of in-game cutscenes, which help progress important plot elements and provide an interesting change of pace.
The audio department of San Andreas is one of the gameâ€™s stronger points and certainly manages to top off Vice City with a big bang. The radio stations and their funny DJs make a return in this latest installment with another lineup of popular songs from the early â€˜90s, including tunes from Rick James, Snoop Dogg, America, and an excess of other recognizable artistsâ€”or your can add your own MP3 choices if you prefer. As always, the voice work in the game is also top-notch, thanks in part to an extremely impressive cast including James Woods, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Fonda, famous rapper â€˜The Gameâ€™, and many others. Up and coming rapper, Young Maylay, ably provides the voice for CJ and does an excellent job thatâ€™s well worth a mention. The sound effects are generally of good quality, each vehicle sounds unique, but the peripheral audio occasionally disappoints through certain weapons sounding rather underpowered.
Overall, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has managed to live up to the hype, and even surpass it. With a considerably lengthy single-player storyline that will last well beyond 50 hours, players should prepare to be busy for a few days. During its porting to both the Xbox and PC platforms, a few technical overhauls were also given to the game, which certainly make the experience that much more enjoyable. A remarkable roster of stars help voice many of the characters, and an important part of the eraâ€™s music has also found its way into the game. Though it may not be the prettiest title available, the impressive scope of the gameâ€™s surroundings more than make up for it, and the visual sacrifice is definitely worth enduring for an experience this rich. If you havenâ€™t played San Andreas yet, do yourself a favor and pick it up, there is no possible way youâ€™ll regret the decision.