I’ll admit that I wasn’t too sure if diving into Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was a good idea after extensively hammering things out in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Then again, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to dive head first into another open-world pool (i.e. what backlog?), so GTA: San Andreas it was.
I’d like to first of acknowledge that you were right.
The Internet was right.
Everyone was fucking right, okay?!!
GTA: San Andreas is better than GTA IV.
It’s not perfect. Not by a long shot. No GTA game is. (Maybe Chinatown Wars comes close…)
To my dying day, I will sing the praises of GTA IV, but understand that it’s because it was my first GTA game. And you never forget your first. But, again, the game had its issues (goddamn motorcycles), and I will well admit that the story was a little lackluster. I mean, it tried to be all big and bad, but it just sorta fizzled along like a never-ending sparkler. And then it was done. I was much more drawn into the gameplay, mechanics, and exploring Liberty City over anything else.
In the years since, upon mentioning that GTA IV as a favorite, the question “but have you played San Andreas?” always followed in short order. Even going into the game recently, I harbored little knowledge of it. I knew that it took place in San Andreas, and figured it involved cars and guns and the like…and that’s about it. With all due respect to Niko Bellic and company, I am so glad I went in blind.
One of the best things about San Andreas was it’s story, which is supremely simply. In 1987, Carl Johnson (CJ) leaves his home state of San Andreas, and his Grove Street Families gang — for Liberty City after the death of his brother. Five years later, in 1992, he learns of the death of his mother and decides to return home. There he finds his former gang fragmented and in turmoil over territory sought by rival gangs. Carl quickly gets to work putting things back right.
And that’s pretty much it. There’s not much in the way of social commentary or political overtones (outside of gang warfare itself) coloring the game. It’s just you and Carl conquering San Andreas one neighborhood at a time.
However, this couldn’t be a GTA game without some level of intrigue, and that’s really where things in San Andreas shine over that later outing in Liberty City. Carl’s plot to mend San Andreas comes complete with a memorable cast of characters, including a couple very crooked cops (one who gets his due diligence, fo’ sho), an aging hippie with a heart of…something, a tech-savvy kid who doesn’t know what’s best for him, a batshit crazy undercover government agent, a rapper who’s literally at the end of his rope, wry Triad-esque leader who also happens to be blind, and…Catalina, who pretty much speaks for herself, even when she’s not directly in the game. These folks and others turn the world of San Andreas on its ear as Carl finds himself deeper and deeper into the pile of shit that the region has become. And y’know, despite the game’s older, blocky character renderings, each person you meet is imbued with such a compelling personality, that it’s easy overlook the age of what you’re playing. The excellent voice acting and character animations go a long way in helping too.
That said…GTA: San Andreas is a fourteen-year-old game complete with fourteen-year-old quirks. For one, the game (I played the Xbox 360 version) was full of glitches. Most of them were pretty minor – characters and cars flitting in and out; a couple instances of dropped environments, especially when Carl ended up in the water (which he often did because I’m a shitty driver in GTA games); and some issues with aiming thrown objects. I did encounter one known game-breaking glitch involving a plane-based mission called “N.O.E” – had to go online to figure out how to get past it, also I still fucking hate flying in games, always and forever. And there were a couple times where mission markers showed up on the map but not on the street or warehouse or wherever Carl needed to be. So that was fun.
Also, man…those controls. Not that they were terrible, but they either felt too stiff – like during a gun fight where I could just have Carl stand in a certain place and flick-aim between enemies – or too loose, like with driving. Damn if the smallest motion of the analog stick didn’t send my car careening in one direction or the other. Worse was that sometime I ended up stealing a lowrider car, which had its own set of hydraulics controls, without realizing it. I’m sure I looked a sight to all those unfortunate NPCs just before my wildly bouncing car ran over them.
Y’know how there’s a lot of talk these days with extensive tutorials and excessive hand-holding in games? Well GTA does none of that. Zip. Zilch. Nada. After a brief set of intro missions that show you the basics of driving and shooting, you’re on your own. Of course, I’m pretty bad at keeping up with thing, so if the game initially told me how to switch weapons or keep track of my inventory, I completely missed it. Sure, the game sets up missions in the standard Rockstar fashion with letters or symbols designating where to go next. But you’re never directly told to “go here and do this.” It’s up to you what you want to do when…unless there’s only one map marker available, then that’s that. You can develop romantic relationships in the game, but never are you told “hey, remember that girl? You should go see her!” In fact, if you ignore someone for too long, all you get is a little slider that shows up telling you your relationship has gone down a few points. Other than a single initial blurb, you’re never reminded that you can better your driving skills by going to driving school, that eating too much fast food will cause you to gain weight, that going to the gym will help you lose weight and build stamina. Not that you need much help with the last, because there’s no fast travel in the game either. If you want to get to from point A to point B, be prepared to drive…or run. You’ll build up tons of stamina that way.
Also, there’s no stamina bar in the game. That was interesting. At times I just ran and ran and ran to see how long Carl could last. By the end of the game, he could go for quite a while before getting winded.
Oh, no GPS either. You could set your own map marker, but you were on your own in terms of getting to it.
(Aside: after completing GTA: San Andreas, I thought I try out GTA IV on Steam, but it turned out to be too much of a pain in the ass to run on PC, so I started up GTA V. Not having all those little helper mechanics in San Andreas makes GTA V feel…well…feel downright easy. I’ll admit that mastering the world of San Andreas without all the help was a nice and unexpected reward.)
So then, after 1000+ plus words on GTA: San Andreas, what’s my final verdict? That it’s a damn fine GTA game. GTA IV will always hold that special place in my heart since it was my gateway into GTA games, but San Andreas comes way out on top in terms of story and characters. Also, Carl Johnson is a far more likeable figure than Niko Bellic, relatively speaking. Both have their own fucked up situations to manage and fix, but Carl’s story felt much more complete and personal. Plus, his character grew throughout the course of the game. The Carl you got at the start of the game read as a much different character by the end of it. In GTA IV, Niko remained rather one-note. Yes, he was trying to make the best of a shitty situation, but I never got the sense that he wanted to rise above. Of course, it’s been awhile since I’ve played the game, so maybe I’m mis-remembering things. I think I mostly like GTA IV because it gave me a chance to be a virtual maniac. Within the realm of GTA: San Andreas, I kinda just wanted Carl to make the world a better place, and it was sad to see the consequences of him doing so.
He dropped the gun, so went the glory, and this is the way I have end this story.
–Slick Rick, “Children’s Story”