Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas took a game franchise already famous for its open world and made it bigger, badder and better.
When Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2004 I doubt they knew just how successful it was going to be. But as it turned out they were releasing an instant classic that would still hold up today in the far off year of 2017.
It’s no surprise though that this is still the best selling game on the PlayStation 2 or that it has sold 27.5 million copies worldwide (I’ve bought myself at least ten copies since it was first released because something kept happening to them but not owning that game is literally not an option)
I can’t believe that this game is over ten years old, I mean the graphics aren’t amazing but the sheer scale of the game is still incredible. With the other games that I’ve reviewed I’ve needed to do a little research to refresh my memory and keep my facts straight but even after all this time I still remember this game so well. With this game the information just kinda poured out. In fact if you gave me a PS2 controller right now and asked me to input the Jetpack cheat I’m certain I’d be able to do it no problem.
I loaded up some videos of the gameplay to watch while writing this and I got as far as the loading screen before the nostalgia chills ran down my spine. The loading screens for this game were art, maybe not Picasso but art. As well as a distinctive art style that’s remained consistent through each of the games in the series we also had the kickass theme music which was instantly recognisable and it just reminds me of happy times as a kid playing the game. While I’m talking about the loading screens I need to say that one thing I like about it now in hindsight is that it doesn’t drag the arse out of it like GTA V does. You’d think that even with the sheer scale of GTA V (which was bigger even than San Andreas) that they’d cut down on loading times so that people who got the game at Christmas weren’t just getting around to playing it on Boxing day.
Now this game wasn’t perfect the visual style is blocky and the characters don’t have any distinctive fingers (which makes the characteristic gun violence the franchise is famous for exceedingly difficult) but despite that it still holds up better than you’d think. Glad to see I wasn’t spoiled by the future instalments and their dazzling HD and realistic graphics.
I tried to look at this game without my nostalgia filter, I’m not sure how successful I was in that regard but I feel like I’m giving an honest review when I say that out of all the instalments in the Grand Theft Auto series, San Andreas had the best storyline. Sure the newer games benefited from being able to do more in a technical sense and GTA V not only did something none of the other game did (being able to switch between characters) but also had a fantastic story all on its own but San Andreas just has the edge because of the rich characters and the incredible replayability.
Vice City changed the playing field for the franchise by making each character real in a way they weren’t before and by raising the stakes to make things more exciting but San Andreas cemented its place in gaming culture by giving us people to root for, people to hate and providing a believable escalation of events that will entertain you and keep you playing for hours.I lost track of the amount of times an all night San Andreas binge resulted in a bleary eyed school day the following morning but it was worth it because you wanted to find who killed C.J’s mom and you wanted to help get Grove Street back on top. The characters like your family and it was all the harder when they betrayed you.
Now I know that no one is playing a Grand Theft Auto game because they like to shop but the option to do so certainly opened up the game and made it feel more personal. I guess because now you could customise the character it felt more like your journey rather than CJ’s.
As I mentioned the player now has the option of shopping with the aim of personalising your character and improving him. You can now purchase clothing and accessories for the character and what I like is that they don’t just serve as an update to the clothing skin because certain items or combinations of them can affect how other characters perceive you. For example an outfit made up of green items will earn you respect with your homies and make it easier to recruit them for missions.
Clothing isn’t the only customisation option in the game though, you can also get haircuts and tattoos which not only make your character look better but also earn you more respect and sex appeal. To add to the personalisation aspect you can also build muscle by going to one of the several Gyms scattered about San Andreas, your aim is to increase you bulk and stamina so that you are faster and stronger and more equipped to deal with threats. You do need to be careful to eat well though because if your fat reserves drop too low your body will begin to get rid of all those hard earned muscles. You can maintain your weight and health by eating at one of San Andreas fine eating establishments (I recommend Clucking Bell)
While I’m on the whole eating thing. You can make CJ morbidly obese, which does affect gameplay (you can’t run as fast or as far) and over exerting yourself while overweight can apparently cause you to black out (it never happened to me but I’ve been assured it’s possible) If you don’t have enough body fat as I mentioned CJ’s body will begin to consume muscle and then eventually health so it’s worthwhile pigging out once in awhile.
I mentioned respect and sex appeal, these two stats affect your interactions with your gang members and your girlfriends respectively. With more respect you can recruit more gang members, who basically follow you around and kill anyone you don’t like. I guess it’s what it’s like being famous. As for the sex appeal this is important for attracting women, an option new to this game is to have girlfriends. As with most of the side missions you’re only doing them until in benefits you. In this case each girlfriend will give you some sort of reward. For example Denise (the only canon girlfriend) will give you a new suit once you’ve sweet talked your way into her good books. And my favourite girlfriend Katie Zhan who you meet randomly in San Fierro will reward you with no fee healthcare (you won’t be charged upon death/visit to hospital) and let you hold onto your weapons after death as well. All you need to do is keep her satisfied (as only a man can do) and the rewards will come. Just as with the other side missions I’d say it’s worthwhile dating in this game as the rewards ultimately help you out and at worst if you’re not interested in the rewards they can be a fun and interesting diversion.
Just as with Vice City, San Andreas vastly increased the explorable space available in the game. You’re no longer contained to just a city you can explore the sprawling state of San Andreas which is loosely based upon both California and Nevada. This adds to the realism that the franchise is known for, every corner of the world near enough is explorable and unlike its predecessors there’s no loading screens when exploring new places. The only loading screens you’ll meet in this game are when entering buildings and for cutscenes. The sheer variety of options available to you are amazing. As well as the classic side missions available in the previous games (fire fighting, vigilante missions and Taxi missions) you also have brand new options available such as Pimping (exactly what it says on the tin. Also if you complete these missions prostitutes actually pay you) delivery missions (where you make deliveries via truck or train) and my personal favourite Burglary missions (you sneak into people’s houses late at night, take their possessions and unload them in your van for a drop off elsewhere)
Another new element are the Schools scattered throughout San Andreas which help the player to develop skills with a type of vehicle either car, plane/helicopter, boat or motorbike. These schools were another personal favourite as they did really help you to get to grips with the game mechanics especially with the planes which are more important in this game than ever.
In San Andreas you even have a whole host of mini games and things to keep you occupied and distracted from the main storyline. These include Basketball (it sucks. Or maybe I’m just bad at it), Pool which is a lot of fun and if you lose then you can use the pool cue to beat your opponent to death and take back the cash you lost. There are a few rhythm based challenges (dancing and low-riding) which is by far my least favourite game mechanic but its get easier once you get into it. The first proper rhythm mission in the game is a low rider mission and till my mid teens I just couldn’t get passed it and needed to get my older brother to do it for me. I guess I just have next to no natural coordination. For anyone who doesn’t have that problem maybe you’ll like these missions. You can also play arcade games at certain establishments throughout the map. There exists in the in-game universe an arcade game called ‘Let’s get ready to Bumble’ which is not only surprisingly difficult but legitimately a lot of fun. I hold the high score on my copy after spending a real life day just playing it over and over again. That’s the magic of San Andreas though. Sure arguments could be made that they over filled it with features and that the texture packs look like garbage but they put so much effort into every little part of this that an arcade game you can play in a bar that was meant as little more than a distraction can keep a player occupied just as much as fighting a gang war for control of Los Santos.
The most important development in the game is arguably that you can now Swim and climb walls. Finally the unstoppable killing machine that is the GTA protagonist isn’t limited by water or walls at waist height.
I touched on gang wars above. This is in my opinion the best thing about this game. It’s the most fun by far because you get a very real feeling of progress as you claim territories for Grove Street. It does show the limitations in regards to NPC skins because it really seems like I’m killing the same three or four people over and over again. Then again death means so little you can explode yourself in a helicopter and plummet to the ground and all that’ll happen is that when you leave the hospital shortly after you’ll be weaponless and down some money in hospital fees.
I don’t want to get into the story too much because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who somehow missed it. Not being born when it was released isn’t an excuse either. But I do need to say that it’s gripping and could easily work as a movie. It’s detailed and filled with betrayal, conflict and the main character even starts out as an underdog.
Speaking of how it would make a great movie if you haven’t already seen it go to YouTube and type in ‘GTA San Andreas: The Introduction’ this 26 minute long piece of awesomeness is about as close as we’re likely to get to a movie set in the Grand Theft Auto world. It tells the story of the events which lead up to the events in the actual game.
There are many reasons why this game holds a special place in my heart. But I think what’s best about it is that no matter how many times I’ve played it over the year I’ve still enjoyed it as much as the first time and even after a lot…and i mean a lot of playthroughs I can still find stuff I missed. So with that in mind I’m going to give this game a 4.5/5 for being nearly perfect in every regard.