Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas seeks to extend the franchise that got a huge boost in 2001 when the revolutionary Grand Theft Auto 3 was released, and does so with ease, albeit not avoiding some of the same problems that have dogged earlier releases.
Star names were also attracted to this release, as with previous outings, including Chris Penn, William Fichtner, Peter Fonda, Ice-T, Debi Mazar, W. Axl Rose, Shaun Ryder, Casey Siemaszko, Sly & Robbie, James Woods and Samuel L Jackson.
For this story this time, though, it’s 1992 and you play Carl Johnson who’s come back to San Andreas after five years because he couldn’t handle gang life in his hometown of Los Santos. One major factor has called him back, though – his mother’s been murdered and, like Dirty Den in Eastenders, he must try and put things straight so his family can reclaim the neighbourhood. However, unlike Dirty Den, he’s been framed for a homicide, but hasn’t been sacked from his job after being exposed as a kinky internet pervert.
You arrive at Los Santos International Airport and go home to a setting that looks like the 1991 Boyz in the Hood movie, but set on the PS2.
You know the drill – go about your missions, which will take you across the city scape and over a far wider area than before, while you chat to your ‘homies’ and go ‘dissin’ the bad guys.
For this latest edition, it’s easier to just first describe what’s new since that’s what seasoned GTA gamers will want to know.
You now have a health meter, in which you have to eat to maintain health, as well as work out at the gym. Get too fat and you’ll be no good on the job, although running around will help you lose fat, as well as the usual of helping you run longer distances without having to take a stop for breath. You can buy tattos, a new haircut and work out at the gym. Go for a spin in a customisable hydraulic-happy Low-rider vehicle, and note that this time, if you shoot at people in the street, they’re far more likely to kill you than they were in previous games.
At home, there’s a 1980s-style videogame in front of the TV, you can store more than one vehicle in a garage at any one time, there’s new weapons with a targeting system (not 100% improved as you’ll find later), new vehicles including a bicycle – although it’s far more interesting to steal a motorbike, since the fast cars are few and far between, you can go on a drive-by shooting on said bicycle, take part in “Parappa the Rapper”-style dance games where the situation allows, you can swim, beat people up to get respect and there’s the new “Trip Skip” feature – the game knew I’d done a long trip to attempt a particular mission before so let me skip the travelling when attempting it a second time. Phew!
The graphics aren’t much different compared to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. There’s still the same old jaggies, but this time you do get a good warm glow as flickering fire reflects on your clothes, and there’s also nice scraping effects from the car as you go against the side of a barrier. Presumably the Xbox version won’t arrive until next Xmas.
Musically, since over time I’ve got used to some of the cheesy stuff that passed for pop music in the early ’90s I wondered if I could stand hearing it over and over in this title, but that turned out not to be an issue since the choice of radio stations is limited to mainly rap or seemingly one apiece of ’80s and dance/ambient music.
On a playability aspect, you can now climb up onto ledges and edges of motorways, instead of randomly jumping badly. Again, thankfully, the cops are still as stupid, and you can easily steal their car when there’s just one inside – try to open the passenger door (it’s locked), the cop gets out (unlocking the doors) and you get in. Easy! However, when they subsequently shoot at you, you’ll find it’s ten times harder to drive with your tyres shot out.
It’s not all good news though. There are still some things which could so easily have been corrected.
You can’t steer left/right using the D-pad as I used that often in the previous games. On a lesser point, it’s rather a grim-looking area so far from as colourful and vibrant as Vice City and there’s still no classical music in the car – in fact, the music in general is a disappointment if you don’t like the same old “gangsta” nonsense.
Targeting at very close range can be impossible when you need to shoot a cop and CJ just sticks the bloody gun into the sky!
And one big no-no – Rockstar have removed DTS sound! Vice City had added DTS 4.1 and the damn thing kept asking if you really wanted to save a game with that format applied – YES! STOP ASKING! (and relax)
On a lighter note, in amongst the abundance of strong language, it’s funny when they start calling each other a fool, sounding like Mr T!
Overall, I know at this point I’ve only barely scratched the surface of this title, but I’ll keep playing it more and more and, despite all its faults, it’s still hands-down the king of all free-roaming games around. If you loved the previous 3D games in the series, you’ll love this one too.
SOUND EFFECTS AND MUSIC
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.