Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Ever wake up, open your eyes and find yourself feeling a little, well, pointless? That's more or less how I feel at this precise moment. Look, the chances are that you love Grand Theft Auto and if you don't then nowt I'm going to say here will change your mind. If you do love it, then you're probably already playing the game and would have bought it no matter what the reviews said.
Nonetheless, let me persevere under the pretence that for some reason you're actually interested in what I'm going to say. So, San Andreas, the third of the three dimensional outings for the phenomenally successful GTA series. Hmmm... is it any good? I think possibly the best way to put it is like this: San Andreas is best described as an old mate from school. Not a close mate necessarily. I'm thinking more along the lines of the kind of kid that you consider yourself mates with simply because you've known them forever. In some ways this mate annoys the hell out of you, he can be a real tool. He has annoying quirks and is often rather frustrating. But you've known him for so long that you can look beyond these things and see the inner beauty. In many ways it's a bit unfair. You've met folk since that are much the same, maybe even better in some ways. But you don't like them because you don't know them in the same way, and more to the point, you can't be bothered to get to know them. Why should you? You've got this other mate who you know perfectly well. Okay, sometimes he might refuse to target the nearest approaching enemy or get stuck in passing scenery but you know he's like that, you just accommodate automatically. You remember the first time you mugged a prostitute and grenaded a police officer together, that evening you ramped over a passing lorry on a motorbike whilst listening to Billie Jean with one another. Those sorts of memories bring people close.
Having trouble grasping my admittedly somewhat agitated ramblings? Let's put it in plainer terms. San Andreas has faults, quite severe faults in many ways, and that really shouldn't be a surprise. Anyone who played GTA3 or Vice City will be very aware that in many ways the GTA games are untidy affairs. The vastness of Rockstar North's ambition has meant that the games have consistently pushed boundaries as to how much power current programming techniques could squeeze out of the PS2. Of course, over time the amount that they've squeezed out of Sony's hardware has continued to increase and GTA has expanded along with it. But the price paid for such vision is a certain lack of finesse. Whilst the driving is excellent other elements of control have not been quite so accomplished. Combat of any description has always been a particular issue, not to mention the camera that has never truly delivered, at least not on foot. Glitches were in abundance and any GTA player will have memories of the time they got stuck in a part of the scenery, much in the same way (though I fear saying it) that they might find in Driv3r. The thing about GTA, however, is that unlike Driv3r the game offers up such a rich and succulent world you can all but forgive any misgivings you might have. This can be construed as "fanboyism" (no, NO, ban them, feed them all to the undead!) though in reality it's far from it. No game will ever be perfect, not even Pro Evolution Soccer. Luckily, a game doesn't have to be perfect to be utterly brilliant.
In fairness, it took me a little while to get into San Andreas, longer than with previous GTA games, though of course I admit that now I adore it. In truth though, the thing which struck me first about the game was how rough it actually looked. Perhaps this is due in part to the programming, but it's more likely to be simply a price needing to be paid for the vast, apparently seamless world that exists on that little plastic disc. I'm sure you know, San Andreas is huge and you'll have to work to see it all. The vastness of the map is only unlocked by progressing through the game and the game itself is equally as expansive as the landscape. Nonetheless, in recent months where we've seen titles released that prove the PS2 still has further to go when it comes to performance (Burnout 3 anyone?) and in comparison San Andreas is certainly not a looker. Not only are the character models rough to say the least and the draw distance quite poor, but the interiors still look woefully under realised, even if some offer an improvement on Vice City.
But to focus on such things, even if they are strikingly true, is to definitely miss the point. San Andreas isn't even really an action game in my humble opinion (though that's not to say that there isn't plenty of action in the game - there's lots). It's more of a world simulator. Though of course they are ultimately restricted in what they can offer, the GTA games succeed because they offer the chance to play games in a huge, breathing, seemingly living gaming universe. What Rockstar have achieved in San Andreas is to further deepen the ways in which the player is able live out their times within this world. In many ways things are much the same as always. Missions to progress the plot and unlock the map still appear on the map and you're still free to roam about in between causing all manner of havoc and generally being socially irresponsible. There are lots of new mission types, some inventive, some familiar but it's the padding in between that really enthuses.
For starters, the locations and towns themselves (and let's not forget that San Andreas comprises several different towns this time round) are more alive then ever. The gang-led social focus of the early 90's US black ghetto culture brings with it an intrinsic link to social tension, and Rockstar have successfully recreated this, even if only to a shallow extent. It's rare that you'll stand by for a few seconds without rival gangs opening fire on one anther or a police chase screeching by. In fact, claiming gang territory plays a part in some sections of the game. Areas are divided by colour on the map and it's up to you to roll in there, pop a cap in some rival gang members and claim their turf as your own. The reward for this is not only safe passage through parts of the map but also another save point and some income. The streets of San Andreas are more alive than even those of Vice City and whilst traffic can still be admittedly light there's still a huge feeling of otherworldliness.
In line with this, your protagonist, a young man named CJ who's returned home from the East Coast upon hearing news of his mothers death, is himself in turn more alive. Now you restore health by buying food from a fast food outlet. Eat too much and you'll put on weight. Of course, you're also free to head down the gym to burn it away and build up some muscle. Why not work out and increase your stamina whilst you're there? This in turn will allow you to run and swim further (yes, I said swim!). It's also possible to go shopping for clothes in one of several themed fashion stores. You're free to cut your hair at any time or maybe even get a tattoo. Further more, it's now possible to take the neighbourhood hoe's out on dates and even, should you play your cards right, strike gold, so to speak. When you see it on paper it could almost seem as if Rockstar are trying to make GTA into a quasi-RPG or Sims clone, but that is quite inaccurate. The beauty is that you're perfectly free to ignore these things should they bore you, as I did at first. But as your time in San Andreas passes you find yourself dabbling. Before long you the compulsion to immerse yourself prevails and the game benefits from it.
Of course, there are other improvements too. Everything is bigger, better and more plentiful than before. The characterisation of the main characters is also notably better than anything we've seen before in GTA. Clichés are in abundance, of course, but they're delivered well by a pleasing cast (Samuel L Jackson, Chris Penn, Ice T, George Clinton et al) and are normally a pleasure to watch, the first time at least. CJ himself is also refreshingly different from the Tommy Vercetti's or Tanner's of this world. Rather than the typical mindless, joyless thug he instead he presents a more thoughtful character, who although still a criminal is one for more than simply the want of it. There are more weapons and whilst the targeting is still quite unsatisfactory it is at least partly improved from Vice City. You're now free to manually aim with a locked on weapon, increasing the scope for accuracy and switching between enemies is slightly better thanks to an engine very similar to that found in Manhunt. The soundtrack too is once again really quite superb. There are fewer pleasures than fleeing from a rival gang or police car and hearing Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day" pipe up on the radio. Hip hop is of course a prevalent theme and expect all to appear from Doctor Dre to Easy E or Da Lench Mob, amongst others. Alternative tastes are also catered for and expect tracks from the likes of David Bowie, Primal Scream, James Brown, Buju Banton and Rage Against the Machine.
As free as the gameplay might be though, there are still annoyances that do persist in ever so slightly limiting your enjoyment. Some missions are simply very tough and replaying them will often require long stints across the map. Sometimes you'll be offered the chance to skip earlier parts of the mission that simply require you to drive around, but you still have to get there in the first place as save points are only found in safe houses. Still though, there's a good assortment of new missions that offer up some surprises, such as the Dance Dance Revolution style rhythm action sections. God forbid I even stumbled across the odd stealth mission, much to my alarm and disgust, though even they are handled quite well. Whilst there may be no loading times whilst traversing the map activities like buying food and getting dressed are long, drawn out affairs that really test your patience. And already I have five clear memories of times when I had to load up a previous save because of a glitch, such as when my car has got stuck in a ditch and my "homies" wouldn't get out, thus scuppering the mission. The camera too now seems if anything more erratic than in previous games and can often struggle to offer a satisfactory view even when driving about. As well, certain vehicles, most notably the BMX, are often a real struggle to get to grips with.
But all of these complaints come a very stiff second to the joy offered by simply exploring the game and allowing yourself to have fun. The Police are noticeably more lenient in this version. Even if you should "accidentally" run down an officer in your travels, if you're really not out for trouble then it can normally be easily evaded via a hasty retreat. Some may see this as making the title easier but to me it felt more of an open invitation to play about and explore the streets to the fullest. Granted, the huge map can often feel a little too big, especially when you're required to traverse vast sections of countryside repeatedly when having to repeat a mission. GTA may be looking its age and some of its more favoured structural ideas are beginning to feel a little dated, but Rockstar continue to revel in the mastery of presenting a consuming environment to the player and inviting them to do within it what they wish. Very few other games can even claim to offer that.