Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
24th Jun 2005 | 15:26
As proud PC gamers, you may feel a little aggrieved to be reading this review now, rather than nine months ago when this game first reared its tabloid-baiting head on the PlayStation 2. I myself crumbled in typical lily-livered fashion, holding out until around last Christmas, at which time I decided that I couldn't wait another half a year for a game that all and sundry were raving about. And I had a blast with the PS2 version. I really did. But now I wish I'd had the patience to wait that half a year, because after spending time with this version I'd much rather be playing San Andreas through for the first time on my PC.
Unless you've been squatting in a Saddam-style hidey-hole for the past ten years, I'm going to assume you know what the GTA games are all about. But here are the revision notes for anyone who may have recently awoken from a coma: you're a career criminal in a fictional city (although one that's clearly inspired by a real-life metropolis) filled with people and vehicles, any of which you can kill/drive (delete as appropriate). You have the option of undertaking missions - some of which keep the story ticking along, some of which don't - but you are also free to roam around the city if you wish; the game world is very much your oyster. Embark on the sort of whore-murdering rampage that recently got Hillary Clinton's knickers in a public twist, or simply cruise around town looking cool - the choice is yours.
Rockstar North's latest sticks closely to the formula. The main departure is that instead of being given the freedom to roam around a single city, you get a whole state in which to indulge your gangsta leanings. Inspired by California (and a certain neon-lit corner of Nevada), the game world is huge. Fully five times bigger than Vice City, it's home to three cities and numerous small towns, with plenty of redneck-packed, hillbilly countryside in between.
But as with other GTA titles, you can't see everything right from the start. Wisely, Rockstar feeds you fresh slices of San Andreas as you advance through the game's story, opening up routes to new areas as you progress. The plot is pretty much thus: it's the early 1990s, and you're Carl 'CJ' Johnson, a Los Santos native who's spent the past few years thugging it up out of state. Dragged back to the 'hood by the death of your mother, you start running with your old homies once more. It's not the most interesting of hooks - although there's a pleasing amount of backstabbing, betrayal and brotherly love thrown in - but it works, and the promise of new areas to explore helps drive you on.
MENACE II SOCIETY
The core gameplay has changed hardly at all from Vice City. A typical mission might see you tasked with beating up a drug dealer. So you jump in a car, burn it round to the crack den and proceed to knock seven shades of shit out of your target with the baseball bat you looted from the corpse of an earlier victim. Other mission types include illegal street races, heists and lowrider bouncing contests.
But if you're thinking that this is simply a rehash of earlier GTA games with a bigger map, think again. San Andreas adds an incredible amount to this core gameplay, and it makes the game feel even vaster. For instance, CJ can get tattooed, have a haircut, bulk up in the gym and buy clothes. Hell, you can even trick out your ride in several garages dotted around the map. None of this is purely cosmetic: changing your appearance gets the cops off your back, while weightlifting increases the amount of damage you deal in a fight. We haven't even mentioned the numerous girlfriends you can squire, the burglaries, the fat stat or the properties available for purchase. There's a mind-boggling amount of stuff to do.
ROLE WITH IT
Other additions include RPG-style skills, which become improved through practice: bump up your rifle skill and shooting becomes sharper; increase your motorcycling proficiency and you won't tumble off as often. Another important stat is 'Respect', which rises as you plough through missions. The higher it is, the more gang members you can entice into your entourage. San Andreas has a turf war system that requires you to grab rival gangs' territory and claim it as your own. Any areas you control will be populated by recruitable thugs who follow you around, attacking enemies and performing drive-bys. While not the best fighters, they do provide a welcome extra dimension to GTA's combat.
|Ah, combat. This brings me nicely to the point I touched on earlier. Like I said, I wish I'd waited for this version of San Andreas before picking up my digital Glock and embarking on a pixellated life of crime, as the newly arrived PC version is better than the PS2 version in a couple of significant ways.
Thanks to the mouse and keyboard combo, combat is vastly improved. You can actually manually aim the guns accurately and quickly, which is nigh-on impossible to do on the PlayStation 2. Gunfights are more tactile, enjoyable and far, far less frustrating. Then there's the visual side of things.
OH YOU PRETTY THING
You can probably tell from the screenshots that San Andreas is not particularly impressive when compared to the likes of Half-Life 2 - most of the textures are blurred and fuzzy, and none of the latest graphical effects have been implemented. But it's still far superior to the PS2 version: the draw distance is further, the frame-rate is better and the resolution is higher. Real-time shadows replace indistinct blobs. All told it's a smoother,
Rockstar has also thrown in some new features for the PC. Photos and stats can be exported, there's a 30-second replay function, and should you get bored of the ludicrously fantastic soundtrack and fancy yourself as a bit of a Dave Lee Travis, you can create your own radio station using MP3s. Commercials are even spliced in between tracks to create a more authentic feel, and the game is now moddable - something that will open things out even more.
One thing that's missing is the co-operative two-player mode of the PS2 version, which Rockstar claims wouldn't work given the PC's control options. Debatable perhaps, but it was a pretty insignificant part of the game to begin with, so it won't be missed too strongly.
So has San Andreas on PC been worth the wait? Well, yes, quite frankly: it's a marked improvement on what was already a bloody brilliant game. If you've played through the PlayStation 2 version then we wouldn't suggest spunking another 35 notes on it, but if you've been more patient than stupid old me, go out, buy it and play on, playa.