"Simply put, this game is HUGE ó so large that a representation of one of Americaís largest cities only takes up one corner of its world. Also in the game are San Fierro (San Francisco), Las Venturas (Las Vegas) and miles upon miles of the surrounding countryside, which is loaded with farms, villages, mountains and even a top-secret military base. And very little space is wasted. During the course of play, Carl will find himself doing either mandatory or optional missions that force him to cover virtually every square inch of this vast realm."
After spending an ungodly number of hours playing it, Iíve come to the conclusion that despite its imperfections, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is perfect.
A contradictory statement? Sure, but itís the most concise way to explain my feelings about this game. While there have been times where aspects of the gameís mechanics caused me to gnash my teeth in rage, Iíve become so immersed in its world that no number of frustrations can induce me to return to reality.
Like the previous games in the GTA series, San Andreas allows players to have all the fun with crime they can stomach. Former gang-banger Carl Johnson returns to his old home in the ghetto streets of Los Santos (based on Los Angeles) after hearing his mother was gunned down. While he doesnít get a warm reception from some of his old running buddies, he soon works his way back into their good graces thanks to a willingness to help the gang of his youth, the Grove Street Family, reclaim its former glory from the drug-pushing hoodlums who are slowly taking over the streets.
Things get complicated, though. A trio of crooked cops led by a particularly manipulative bastard (played by Samuel Jackson -- one of many recognizable names lending their voices) has framed him for the murder of a more upstanding officer in order to force him to do their dirty work. Also, some of Carlís buddies seem to have their own motives for enlisting his help, which eventually leads to his forced exodus from his hometown.
At this point, despite having done a couple dozen missions, Carl has likely explored less than one-quarter of San Andreasí map. Simply put, this game is HUGE -- so large that a representation of one of Americaís largest cities only takes up one corner of its world. Also in the game are San Fierro (San Francisco), Las Venturas (Las Vegas) and miles upon miles of the surrounding countryside, which is loaded with farms, villages, mountains and even a top-secret military base. And very little space is wasted. During the course of play, Carl will find himself doing either mandatory or optional missions that force him to cover virtually every square inch of this vast realm.
Not that thereís anything wrong with that, as the gameís diversity made me want to see everything. Cities have tons of real-life buildings and landmarks scattered throughout vast urban sprawls. Take a trip out to the countryside and enjoy speeding down winding dirt roads that may lead to a peaceful country village or up the side of a mountain. Add in the fact there are about a dozen radio stations playing 12 or more songs, as well as humorous DJ commentary and hilarious satirical commercials and simply driving around in San Andreas can be a treat.
Just as diverse as the terrain are the missions. Carl will find himself doing a lot of killing, as he gets into confrontations with gang members, cops, government agents, the mafia and pretty much just about any other breathing life form -- but thatís only one GIANT piece of the puzzle. Heíll also master the art of driving a variety of vehicles in order to win high-stakes races, as well as learn to fly airplanes, infiltrate a rival gang, burn down a marijuana field before the cops arrive to bust its owner and help a geeky store owner defeat his rival in battles involving toy airplanes and other miniature vehicles.
And this doesnít even take into consideration all the non-story things Carl can do. Getting on the bicycle parked near a particular Los Santos convenience store allows him to deliver packages throughout the city. Complete four levels of this and that store becomes a money-making venture as long as the player remembers to stop by to collect the profits. Hijacking various vehicles, such as taxis, ambulances and police bikes, gives a number of short missions ranging from transporting people to the hospital to taking out (other) criminals.
To be honest, at times it seems San Andreas is almost an action-RPG. Virtually every little thing Carl does affects some aspect of his skill. Going to the gym and pumping iron enhances his strength, making his fists far more lethal. Frequently firing guns makes him more proficient at aiming them, while spending lots of time driving vehicles improves his ability to stay on the road. Add in little things like Carlís ability to get into relationships with certain female characters and the number of barber shops, tattoo parlors and clothing stores that allow players to customize nearly every aspect of his appearance and this game has far more depth than most action titles.
It does have its flaws, though. Iíve noticed a few graphical glitches from time to time and it does become a bit amusing to notice the infinite number of residents in San Andreas seem to come from a mere dozen or so different designs. More vexing is the way in which the camera tends to work against players, especially in close quarters. Iíve been in a few gunfights where Iím trying to lock on an enemy, only to watch the camera wildly swing around as Carl takes slug after slug to his chest. Then, as I attempt to retaliate, instead of shooting his enemy, Carl simply raises his gun above his head and fires into the air. Shortly thereafter, heís dead and Iím reloading the game to try again.
Amazingly, what could have been a crippling flaw doesnít seem to really bother me. I admit Iíve screamed a few profanities at the TV screen from time to time after some of my cheaper failures, but I always find myself trying again and again until I succeed. San Andreas is more an experience than a game. It takes players into a scaled-down (and comically hyper-violent) version of reality and gives them the freedom to do virtually whatever they want. While I enjoyed the plot, after a while I realized it isnít what the game truly is about.
Itís about the euphoria of ramping a motorcycle off the top of a mountain and feeling my stomach try to leap into my throat as I watch the airborne Carl plummeting to the ground, only to (hopefully) remain seated upon impact and casually drive away.
Itís about the thrill of intentionally getting the cops REALLY ticked at me and leading them on a high-speed chase through both city and countryside. Iím not looking to get away -- my only desire is to see how long I can keep the hunt going before I slam my car into one too many walls and it bursts into flame.
Itís about those lazy days where I donít feel like doing any ďseriousĒ work. I can stroll into a casino and gamble to my heartís content....or play pool in a tavern....or maybe just stay near home and sample a simplistic arcade shooter on Carl's gaming system before heading next door for a game of basketball.
Most importantly, itís about the realization that Rockstar Games succeeded in creating an interactive environment with so much to do that, at times, it seems like the only restraints on what I can accomplish come from the limits of my own imagination. Flaws or no flaws, this game is perfect.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (September 14, 2007)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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