Really... what is there to say? It’s almost an exercise in futility to even bother trying to say something about Grand Theft Auto games at this point. It’s good, the game, it’s really good. The guys at Rockstar continue to be, as far as I’m concerned, some of the best, if not the best designers in games today.
The compression technology they’re working with at this point must be amazing, as each GTA game has become larger and more complex then the last, and this is shown in the sheer overwhelming size of GTA:San Andreas. It’s almost too big. At this point I still have, at best, a fleeting idea of where I am at any given time while driving around the city. Luckily you are provided with a huge map both in game and in the box, which helps from time to time.
In this incarnation of the Grand Theft Auto series you take on the role of Carl 'CJ’ Johnson, a former gangbanger who ran away to Liberty City for currently unknown reasons, and has returned five years later to attend the funeral of his mother. Finding out from his brother and friends that his neighborhood, and once tough ass gang has become a shadow of its former self, CJ decides to stay in town and help raise the 'hood back to its former glory. With voice acting from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson to James Woods to Richard Chong the story and acting in the game matches and tops that of Vice City. It’s yet another classic gangster story, this time tackling Los Angeles gang warfare instead of Miami drug lords.
Going hand in hand with the story and the acting is how completely they create an early 90’s Los Angeles in the game world of Los Santos. As they’re heading now into eras that most of us 20-something types can remember well and identify with, I’ve time and again found myself just driving around the city listening to Helmet or Public Enemy, Bell Biv Devoe even, and thinking to myself how awesome it was that I was here playing a game and hearing that music in it. The city models are awesome and as you drive through the various parts of town and the countryside you are treated to a diverse and interesting landscape. Something that has always entertained a lot of people in GTA games is simply the ability to cruise around town and listen to music, the sheer size of the city and all of the great music in the soundtrack makes this pastime enjoyable again, as in Vice City, for some reason, the draw to cruise around and look at things wasn’t as great as it was in GTA3 or now in San Andreas. Cruising through the mountains on a motorcycle in the mist and rain listening to A Guy Called Gerald, or hell, Danzig, is thoroughly satisfying. I didn’t even have to kill anyone. But... I mean... killing people, it’s uh, it’s still fun. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Which brings me to a point about the AI of the people living in the city. As a gang member your crew holds a certain amount of territory, and when you’re cruising in another gangs territory, if you’re flashing colors, you’re going to get attacked. You end up having to watch out for yourself quite a bit, as I’ve been pulled from a car and shot to death by angry gang bangers in another neighborhood. Which is great. People will fight back now, much more eagerly, many are armed, and some of them will beat you up. It’s actually a pretty great way to collect ammunition, also a great way to get yourself killed.
Unfortunately a lot of this doesn’t spill over into the police AI. There still isn’t enough distinction for me to feel like their actions contain enough... realism, I guess. And I think that that is a point that should have been addressed in the game. The police interaction is fairly important to the game, as you spend a lot of time running from them, but they still basically act like mindless drones, who are only concerned with stopping you in particular, from committing crime. I have seen cops engaged in chases with other cars around the city, but I have never seen one stop and help me while I was being pummeled by gang members in the middle of the street. Is this a sign of the policeman’s indifference to the suffering of inner city youth? No. It’s a sign that I have not shot anyone yet, because, as soon as I take one of those punks down, the cops are all over my ass.
The unfortunate crappiness of the local law enforcement aside, there isn’t really anything in the game that I feel like complaining about. Another great addition to the game being stats. Your character now improves at things. You have to eat to keep your health up. If you eat too much and don’t work out you’ll get fat. You can go to the gym and work out, get your muscle mass bigger, your stamina higher, learn new fighting moves. Later in the game you’ll gain access to a martial arts dojo to learn more moves, and continue getting tougher. As time passes if you don’t stop in at a restaurant for food your health will start to go down and you’ll get skinnier. So you actually have to manage your character. You improve at everything from driving different vehicles to sex appeal to women. This addition of stat building ads just another level of complexity to an already incredibly well thought out game.
Your character is customizable, as you can go and buy clothing various different themed clothing stores. This gives you the ability to make your own personal little gangster look however you want. And in addition to that you can also head into a barbershop and get a haircut.
Basically, in addition to everything else to keep track of in the game, you now have the need to keep track of your characters diet and amount of time spent exercising and what he wears. It seems like that would become tedious, but it’s not. The whole game is so leisurely that really, there is no rush in doing anything, which I think is what they wanted to give you, and so you never feel like there is too much to keep track of. You’re able to just have fun with it and try things out.
You can swim. For the first time launching yourself through the air into the ocean does not mean death. I think that this is a big step for the series as a whole as that was always a sticking point in the reality of the game. But now you can swim around, dive underwater, and, apparently, search for 50 clams that are scattered around the game map. Although, sometimes the ability to live from a drop off of a cliff into a river far below isn’t always desirable as I’ve ended up spending some time just swimming and looking for a way back to shore. Overall, though, the ability to live through a fall into water outweighs any annoyance I’ve gotten from the experience.
The missions in the game this time around, so far, seem balanced and challenging enough, but not so challenging as to seem impossible to someone, so far, at least. But they start out tough right from the beginning. Where, after attending the funeral of CJ’s mother he and his friends are attacked by a rival gang and have to race away on bicycles.
For the first mission of the game, right at the beginning, you have to run away, unarmed, on a bike, from guys in a car who armed.
It’s kind of tough the first couple of times.
But still, the missions are challenging, varied and fun and definitely a step up from the mission design that was in Vice City. Vice City was fun as well, but in some ways was lacking the refinement we’re seeing in the design now. A lot of thought went into the game design. You move forward through the missions, gaining things at a slow enough pace to make everything you get a good reward for your efforts and a reason to keep playing. As far as weapons and items and armor, these so far, are not easy to come by. The weapon pickups are not as frequent and noticeable as they’ve been in past versions of the game. Part of this can be attributed to the sheer size of the city, but also to the fact, again, that they have set things up in a way that makes you grateful for every little bit you get, and so you keep coming back just trying to get that next thing.
And there are so many things to get. There seems to be an almost endless supply of mini games to play and safe houses and businesses to buy. So, with the money and respect gained from taking part in storyline missions, and the items and weapons and cars that come with doing side stories you are looking at spending a lot of time with this game.
Which, I guess, I can’t recommend doing enough. It is, in my opinion, the best single player experience available right now. The Grand Theft Auto games have been, and continue to be setting a standard in games that not many other companies can live up to.
I was not paid to say this. Seriously. I really like it that much.