From Grand Theft Autoâ€™s painfully birthed, yet superbly realized escapades on Sonyâ€™s PlayStation, through to the sprawling and lushly detailed Vice City, this iconic gaming series has always suffered and profited in equal parts from its accompanying buzz of media contention. But now, with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, is Rockstar Games beginning to rely too heavily on its own lauded formula, and is the GTA franchise in danger of becoming a generically repeating edition of itself?
Thereâ€™s no applicable middle ground when it comes to GTA: you either love it, or you hate it. Its grandiose storylines, unparalleled depth of gameplay, and enviable range of characters require considerable input from the player if true gaming satisfaction is to be secured. However, some gamersâ€”myself includedâ€”are often more partial to a pick-up-and-play gaming fix to stem that craving for digital distraction, and GTA simply doesnâ€™t allow for that kind of dependence. As with any monstrous RPG (albeit realistically action-based), massive amounts of game time are necessary to reach a sense of closure throughout the GTA experience; itâ€™s not the kind of game that offers bite-sized moments of entertainment.
Thatâ€™s not to say that San Andreas isnâ€™t a monumental achievement in videogaming because it quite obviously is, butâ€”dare I say itâ€”is it possible for a game to be too big? In an age where consumers bitch and complain about developers and publishers short-changing the player with offerings that can be conquered in a matter of hours, do we have a right to bemoan epic videogames that require substantial time investment? Hmmâ€¦how the gray matter bubbles and froths at the prospect of reader reaction to that snippet of consciousness.
In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the player assumes the role of Carl â€˜CJâ€™ Johnson. As the game begins, we witness CJâ€™s arrival in San Andreas to attend the funeral of his recently deceased mother. After a five-year stint in Liberty City (GTA III), CJâ€™s return is not welcomed by all, especially his brother, Sweet, and the crooked cops that pick him up within moments of leaving the airport. In order to progress from the outset, itâ€™s important for CJ to immediately reinstate himself within the street gang he left behind in favor of Liberty City. This involves earning the trust of the Grove Street Familiesâ€™ gang members and Sweet especially. Tasks ranging from successfully transporting the gang on a drive-by shooting against a rival gang, to rescuing Sweet and his girlfriend from a gun battle gone sour all contribute to CJâ€™s successful reintegration into the street life.
The mission-based dynamic of the GTA franchise remains largely unchanged from previous iterations, but here in San Andreas a new development concept has been added. Cultivating CJâ€™s appearance and building his physique are now just as important as expanding his reputation on the street. From changing his hairstyle and clothes, to adding tattoos and pumping iron in the gym to improve muscle mass, this facet of character evolution is a fresh and welcomed addition to GTAâ€™s vast armory of interaction. Working out regularly in the gym will also boost gameplay contributors such as power and stamina, and also allow CJ to spar in the boxing ring in order to learn new fighting moves. If only attending the gym and gaining immediate results was this easy in real life.
Another surprise inclusion to San Andreas is a two-player cooperative mode. Though in principle this is a welcomed development from a gameplay standpoint, in reality itâ€™s not all youâ€™d expect. The entire game is not open for cooperative play, but rather there are two-player icons littered around the game world, that, when accessed with a second controller plugged in, will open rampage missions where both players can cause no end of havoc on foot or in vehicles. Perhaps itâ€™s not what players would like to see through cooperative mode, but then an entire game is maybe asking a little much considering its overwhelming size.
The era movie influences so prevalent across the Grand Theft Auto history are once again in attendance throughout San Andreas. But whereas, say, GTA III borrowed heavily in its portrayal from the likes of The Godfather, Rockstarâ€™s San Andreas is obviously reliant on 90â€™s street-gang movies such as Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society. Indeed, the rampantly colorful language running through every aspect of the gameâ€™s character interactions (be that cut scene or NPC) is enough to burn the ears of any player.
One of the major strengths attributed to the GTA franchise lies in its geographical scope, and San Andreas continues that trend with three massively mapped and beautifully rendered (west coast inspired) city areas. Essentially, San Andreas exists as an island holding three major interlinked cities. The first of these, Los Santos, has a distinctly urban downtown LA feel mixed uncomfortably close to the dangerous undertow of its ghetto areas. By stark contrast, San Fierro consists of hilly street terrain and foggy atmospherics and is certainly reminiscent of San Francisco. Finally, Las Venturas closely resembles Las Vegas through its desert backdrops and predominant casinos. Initially, CJ is unable to leave Los Santos and explore the surrounding cityscapes; the connecting bridges to San Fierro and Las Venturas are conveniently closed for rebuilding work after an earthquake. However, before long, CJ will gain access to these areas and the true scale of San Andreas hits home.
Mission structure throughout San Andreas is relatively similar to that already experienced in prior GTAs, which is reassuringly comforting yet also somehow disappointing. Various tasks set by those individuals CJ interacts with include beating down on crack dealers, knocking off mafia members, and performing casino heists to name but a few. The now-standard secondary vehicle missions are also present and accounted for, too. Hijack a taxicab and then tear around the city, ferrying passengers to and from varying locations. Steal a fire truck or a police car and embark on a series of vigilante missions. Jack a van during the evening to instigate stealthy home-invasion missions where undetected item removal is the objective. There are also various vehicle events and races to participate in during the course of your adventure, including the now-classic off-road dirt ring, mountain bike quests, or even Latino low-rider contests where CJ must bounce the carâ€™s hydraulics in time to music. Thereâ€™s a multitude of distracting secondary moments that players can indulge in should they choose to take a breather from the gameâ€™s central storyline.
However, itâ€™s the general feeling of familiarity that threatens to dull the sheen on the gameâ€™s otherwise faultless delivery. Weâ€™ve played all these missions or some variation thereof before. Weâ€™ve flown a chopper, piloted a speedboat, and performed stunt tricks. Weâ€™ve doled out punishment to a plethora of opponents, weâ€™ve rescued ailing patients from deathâ€™s door, and weâ€™ve extinguished raging fires. And weâ€™ve driven around for hours marveling at the environments. Does San Andreas offer anything new?
Well, in a wordâ€”no. But then, despite the lack of genuine innovation throughout San Andreas, its enviable secondary mission padding is still enough to guide you happily along its fairly linear structure without either noticing or, for that matter, caring. Whether shooting hoops on the basketball court, playing a little pool, or throttling the joystick in classically styled arcade games, thereâ€™s so much to do, so much to see, so much to learn, and so many bad guys to off in the process, that thereâ€™s little time to focus on critiquing the packageâ€™s faults.
In terms of graphicsâ€”and depending on your preferred sexual orientationâ€”San Andreas is the videogame equivalent of a hot dinner date with either Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Staring at it across the table invokes a sensation of disbelief, and not because itâ€™s the most beautiful game youâ€™ve ever seen, but because it exudes a sexiness thatâ€™s hard to accept until youâ€™re in its presence. Every street, building, car, lamppost, trashcan, and pedestrian is so lovingly crafted and seamlessly integrated that their inclusion goes all but unnoticed as you hurtle past them at break-neck speeds. The visual power squeezed from the graying Xbox is to be applauded, and the fact that you never truly notice ANY of it until you actively stop to admire, only further reinforces the praise that Rockstar has no doubt already amassed through GTAâ€™s lifetime.
If there were ever a representational yardstick for aural quality that the videogame industry could implement to assure its consumers of unwavering audio standards, surely the Grand Theft Auto series would be it. From its main characters all the way through to its now infamous radio DJs, every audio facet (including the monstrous array of classic musical tracks) is produced with style and gloss. But, be warned, the following may light a fire beneath some of those voice actors currently fighting the battle against the emerging industry penchant for â€˜A-gradeâ€™ Hollywood voice talent. San Andreas nails its character audio in all areas, from the â€˜A-gradeâ€™ right on down to the one-liner NPCs passing CJ on the street. It cannot be faulted. However, it is hard to believe after enduring so many other dire videogame voiceoversâ€”which notably didnâ€™t include Hollywood actorsâ€”that San Andreas would have arrived sporting such outstanding lead performances had it not been graced by the â€˜A-gradeâ€™. Central character, CJ, voiced by rapper Young Maylay, is solid enough for a performance not honed via standard acting practice, though cracks are sometimes evident when strong emotion outside of anger is required. But itâ€™s the turns provided by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson as corrupt Officer Tenpenny, Peter Fonda as hippie conspiracy theorist The Truth, and James Woods as the unforgettable Mike Toreno that will live on long after the gameâ€™s closing credits. This is not an isolated instance, either; a simple backward glance at the cast list in GTA III and Vice City shows that perhaps the true star quality comes from the true stars. The lesser acting on show in San Andreas is handled deftly by the lesser actors. Is this an ominous sign of things to come or merely a sign of brilliant casting? The hate mail is comingâ€”thereâ€™s a bristling static charge in the air that can only be an approaching storm.
Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is an absolute blast to play, if you can forgive it for not offering anything especially new to the franchise, and only if you can truly invest the time that it requires. Its demands on your leisure will be heavy, but the payback garnered through the experience is more than worth the loss of your partner, the starvation of your family pet, or the uncomfortable warm sensation spreading between your thighs. Just remember to pay the electricity bill, or youâ€™ll never get to finish the game!