GTA: San Andreas
And the gaming gods created Grand Theft Auto, and it was good.
From the original top-down game that was eminently playable, a violent sensi-soccer for the PC generation, to the current king GTA: Vice City, the name Grand Theft Auto has represented innovation, expansion and brutality. The recent unheralded leap in perspective from top-down to three-dimensions has not only widened the appeal across multiple formats but has created one of, if not the greatest franchise in gaming.
The latest addition is GTA: San Andreas.
San Andreas takes place in an early 90’s setting as your character, african-american Carl Johnson, CJ, returns home to Los Santos from Liberty City (yes folks be prepared for multiple nods to the previous games) in order to attend the funeral of his mother. However on his way from the airport to his mom’s house in Grove Street CJ is pulled over by Officer Tenpenny, voiced by Samuel L Jackson, who points out to young Carl that he runs the streets and that CJ should watch his back. To prove the point Tenpenny drops CJ in a rival gang’s turf. And just like that your first mission begins, jump on a BMX bike and high tail it home using the map in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, an easily recognisable tool for experienced GTA gamers.
Let’s begin with the obvious, San Andreas is massive. I mean frickin huge. With three separate sections, Los Santos, San Fierro and Las Venturas, San Andreas is easily two or three times bigger than Vice City. The controls are easy to use with the basic running, jumping and punch/shoot buttons feeling natural and simplicity itself in conjunction with the environment. New vehicles abound, the aforementioned BMX being just the first of many including, whisper it softly, planes and helicopters. Driving is as reckless and entertaining as in previous games, mowing down pedestrians, lamposts and unfortunate bikers is as fun as ever. However a new element has been added on which the whole game rests, customisation.
Almost ever aspect of the game is customisable, from fine-tuning the NOS canisters underneath your pristine low-rider to getting the latest blonde fro buffed, CJ has a vast wealth of options that he gains as the game progresses. The Sims influence is clear as you bulk up and increase your stamina in the local gym, eat healthy or pig out and become a lard boy, almost every aspect is customisable, including clothes. Clothing can be bought at local outlets that change as you move about San Andreas, from gangster cool to urban slick there is something for every GTA shopaholic, including a gimp suit. Clothes can be worn in gang colours – Grove Street green, to attract women – potential girlfriends are on the lookout or simply to look like the big dog in the neighbourhood.
Property also plays a part in San Andreas, safe houses can be purchased in several locations around each area to make saving, hoarding the best vehicles and surviving easier. You can also steal from houses in order to make a quick buck once you’ve done the “Home Invasion” mission. Weapons are pretty much unchanged from Vice City, you get the choice of hand weapons – stick/knife, pistols, semi-automatics, shotguns, armour, explosives, rifles, automatics and goggles – night sight/infra-red. Extra weapons dotted around the place include rocket-launchers that now come in the heat-seeking variety, mini-gun and flame thrower. Oh there are also flowers and dildos to woo the ladies with.
Ok so all the new stuff is amazing, turning the game into a ‘gangster simulator’ without slowing down the main game. The nuts and bolts however, the storyline and missions, are what makes or breaks a release. As with all the GTA games these elements are as always impeccable. Once the story has been established and you’ve ridden home, events kick off in a big way. The central storyline is mirrored by at least two extra strands in each section, to which you can turn if you get stuck on the main missions. Meaning even if you avoid every extra option there is to do from vigilante missions to race tournaments, there’s always something to do. And that is the key to San Andreas, at no point in the game do you feel like there is no option to pursue other than a difficult mission of the main storyline. There is so much choice in the game that you will, unless using a cheat guide and map, miss stuff out. First time round you may miss a massive amount of extras and that’s cool because you certainly aren’t going to mind going back again and again. The King is dead, long live the King.
Reviewed by Owen Jones © 2005