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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Review
It's safe to say that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has the biggest changes to the GTA series since GTA: 3. While Vice City might not have done much beyond expanding on basics that GTA: 3 established, San Andreas not only offers more content then any GTA game before it has, it also improves on the biggest key to the GTA series, the feel of being a criminal and moving up the crime ladder.
The pre-game hype was, of course, all about how this time around the player would play a black criminal, instead of the usual 'Italian guy' criminal that filled the previous two titles. The actuality is that it changes very little, beyond more use of the word 'nigga'. What does change is the quality of the story. While GTA 3 offered nothing more then simple background to "why you're doing this mission" and Vice City only proved that spoofing Scarface was easy, San Andreas creates characters and a story that compel the player to finish the game, instead of get endlessly sidetracked, as in the earlier titles. Playing as Carl Johnson (C.J.) the player comes back from the East Coast to find his mother dead, and his family (gang) in disarray. However, the game isn't just a straight shot "rebuild the gang", instead the player will watch allies turn enemies, be backstabbed, find friends in unlikely places, be forced, yet again, into exile, and only in the end triumph over his enemies.
One of the most notable features about San Andreas is size. Not even considering the amount of gameplay, the size of the map is huge. Abandoning the method of "one city, two to three segments" San Andreas gives the player three full cities along with huge stretches of country side. And San Andreas does not lowball either, as the three cities are full sized, offering distinct districts and unique buildings, not just acting as carbon clones of each other. The map verges closer to too large instead of too small, but for the most part, the more land to roam, the better.
San Andreas has so much to do; at times it can be daunting. Every side quest from the previous two titles is back, along with many more. Not only that but, as mentioned, the player has 3 times the territory to do all these activities over. Beyond playing through the missions the player can drive taxi, firefight, go vigilante, pimp, burglary, drive truck, participate in a variety of races, export cars, unlock a variety of guns, purchase assets and safe houses, trick out cars, customize his clothing, expand his skills, perform stunts, and, my personal favorite, conduct gang wars. All this equates to tens of hours of gameplay.
The biggest change is the skill system. In a move that shifts San Andreas away from an arcade nature, and towards an RPG, the character now has variable stats that the player must consider. While not a full blown "get XP from performing activities and level up" system that most RPG's have, the stats do play a useful role, and help make the player feel like they are accomplishing something. Starting out the player can barely do anything good. He will drive poorly, shoot poorly, punch poorly, and quickly tire of running, but through practicing all of these activities he will soon be better at them then ever before in the GTA titles. While building some stats may rotate around menial activities, such as weight lifting to build muscle, most come from performing activities the player would anyway, but encourages the player to work on them more than they else wise would, to make the later game easier.
The driving missions are mostly carryovers from previous titles, but the three new ones are just as good. Pimping is fairly self explanatory, but acts as one of the features that makes San Andreas explore more of the criminal life in its side quests, instead of just providing activities for the player. Similar is burglary, in the sense that the player spends more time acting like a criminal. Burglary also adds stealth to the game, as the player must enter houses, find valuable objects, and sneak out with them before the sun rises. Trucking, finally, capitalizes mainly on the huge increase in land size in the game, and gives the player a quick way to drive across the entire map, for cash.
My personal favorite feature comes in the gang wars, as they both make the player feel more like the head of a gang than any feature in any GTA game has before, and use the greatly improved foot combat system. Optional twice in the game, the player can try to conquer the gangland of San Andreas, in a rolling battle against two other gangs. The city gets divided into 54 territories, and each one can be individually contested. Conquest brings more funds for the player and a chance to lead an urban war. Each territory must be conquered by force, a process which pits the player (and fellow gang members, if he brings them along) against waves of unrelenting rival members. Using cars and hedges for cover while trying to take a slice of the ghetto, backed up by nothing but an automatic weapon was perhaps the most enjoyable experience I had with San Andreas. Better still was that the war was not one way. Fail to take the initiative and enemy gangs would try to invade the player's turf, leading to a non-stop struggle.
The greatest improvement overall, though, comes in simply giving the player more things to spend his money on. It might seem odd to point that out as the greatest feature, but the change, while subtle, is key to helping San Andreas. Both GTA 3 and Vice City presented plenty of ways to earn money, but beyond Vice City's assets, there weren't a ton of ways to spend the money. As such, the player never really felt the need to go out and earn money, but simply collected it as he did activities he would have done anyway. In San Andreas the large amount of properties for sale, combined with the costly but fun ability to customize cars and collect clothing mean that for the first time in a GTA game, the player can be genuinely strapped for cash, and perform and activity solely to gain more. Simply feeling poor at times makes the game more realistic, and giving the player ample incentive to earn money creates drive missing in the previous titles.
Controls remained a mixed bag, as they had for previous GTA ports. Controls for cars remained unchanged, and for the better, since I have always enjoyed the WASD method of steering. Of course car handling changed, but that's more about the skill system than it is controls. The biggest improvement came in foot combat, which in Vice City was excessively poor and clunky. San Andreas changed that with a smoother aiming system, more useful crosshair, and a camera less likely to get in the way. To add to that, on foot the player can now crouch and roll behind cover, something which makes the gang wars possible to fight. However, for all this improvement there has also been neglect. Simply put, the radio controlled plane controls still, well, suck, something I had noted was a problem in the Vice City port. While not being a major part of the game, that nothing was improved irks me, considering how shitty they were in the last port.
Perhaps the main allure to playing San Andreas on the PC (and why I got the PC version over the Xbox version) is the improved graphics. While parts of San Andreas still look fairly dated for a PC game, especially character models, most of the game shows visual improvement from earlier ports. Cars look better than ever, especially those with custom features, and the game includes new weather effects, including fog and heat haze. Again it's worth noting there is simply a lot to look at too, with each city boasting its own unique art work and style.
Audio held San Andreas' only major bug, but boy, was it a big one. While Vice City had suffered from bizarre graphical failures (primarily clipping issues) San Andreas suffers from a massive audio problem. While not happening on all sound cards, on mine (which is a Sound Blaster Audigy, very much a common card) when loading levels the speakers would generate a series of convoluted noises at extremely loud pitches, seemingly picking a few random noises from the game, mixing them, and blaring them. The bug follows the player through the game and by the second city was bad enough to sometimes make me rip my headset off in a pain jerk reaction. The bug is by far San Andreas' greatest crutch, and while it's a pity that such a good game suffers from such a bad bug, it's also utterly inexcusable considering how common a sound card the bug happens on.
San Andreas does suffer from a few minor bugs too. Most notability, while the player has the ability to customize any car, placing two or more cars with a custom paint job in one garage can cause the paint job to disappear, costing the player $500 and the time it took him to get to a custom garage. This is especially disappointing considering that it renders 3 and 4 car garages relatively useless. Beyond that depending on location the camera can occasionally get jammed in a corner, much to my annoyance. However it is a rare occurrence for a camera that is else wise fairly flexible.
San Andreas is nothing short of a must buy for anyone who has enjoyed the previous titles. Even for those who didn't get into the previous games, San Andreas is worth considering, since it is by far the best Grand Theft Auto to date.
needles of black tar heroin to make this game good?: 0