Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Review

I cannot begin to explain my fascination with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. For a one month period, the game consumed me to the point where I referred to it as “my precious.” On the one hand, the game is absolutely addictive and will have you glued to your seat with “just another mission” syndrome in full affect. On the other hand, you might need a second controller after you break the first one out of sheer frustration with the numerous bugs, glitches, and general idiocy of the game’s artificial intelligence. I seriously wish there was a happy middle ground, but after playing the entire game for over a month, I can speak authoritatively when I equate the flawed beauty of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to Van Gogh’s earless self portrait. In your head, you know it’s a work of art, but it’s difficult to get past the fact you’re looking at a portrait of a guy who just hacked off his own ear.

First and foremost, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a game of staggering size. I honestly never knew so much data could fit onto one PS2 disc, so color me surprised. What surprised me further was that I needed another memory card just to fit the save games on. The only load times I encountered were during transitions from indoors to outdoors, and changing clothes or hairstyles. Otherwise, you can drive from one end of the map to the other and see everything in between and at no point will you see a load screen.

All that information comes with a hefty price tag on it. The game’s engine will frequently buckle under the strain, manifesting itself in missing textures, bizarre AI routines, and pickups that are stuck to the ground. Make no mistake, it would take a can of RAID to get rid of all the bugs in the game and maybe a dozen bug bombs for good measure. It is unbelievable then as to how much fun I had with it, and how much I loved the good guys and hated the bad guys.

Rockstar is in real danger of becoming the next Eidos due to endlessly recycling an out-of-date engine on a series that continues to increase in scale. After playing through Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in its entirety, I have to believe that Rockstar knew its engine could not hold up the enormity of the game. As the games of any generation increase in size and complexity, the static console hardware is naturally eclipsed. This leads into the next generation of hardware where the cycle continues. Rockstar absolutely must build a brand new engine for the next generation hardware, because the current one is embarrassing.

How many other games can you literally move faster than the textures can load? There were times when I would drive down a street and come to a screeching halt, and wait for upwards of 10 seconds for the surrounding textures to load. In the meantime, I would stand in the vastness of an empty land devoid of color. To put it simply, I’d be standing in thin air waiting for the ground to load. A lot. The complete lack of timely texture loading is unforgivable when you take into account the age of this franchise. Then for good measure you throw in clipping issues, the ability to get stuck in walls and ceilings, secret items getting stuck to the ground so you can’t pick them up, and you start to recognize the host of problems on screen.

Fortunately for Rockstar, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is feverishly addictive to play because it sure is ugly to look at. The engine is the exact same as Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, so if you’ve played either of those then expect nothing different. If you’re new to the series, you might ask yourself why the game looks like it was made five years ago. Veterans of the series, like me, have asked that question too, so do not feel like you’re alone. I understand the limits of the PS2 hardware, but was there nothing Rockstar could do to increase the quality of the graphics?

Where all of the Grand Theft Auto series have shone the brightest is in the audio, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas continues this tradition. The voice acting is particularly top-notch with Samuel L. Jackson riffing on Denzel Washington’s crooked cop from Training Day, Chris Penn as his scummier partner, none other than Ice-T as dazed and confused rapper Madd Dogg, and a few people you might recognize from the previous games.

Whomever thought to cast Peter Fonda as The Truth and James Woods as Mike Toreno needs a promotion pronto. Woods in particular is flat-out brilliant as someone whose loyalties are shady at best. Late in the game he will insist you learn to fly, which opens up the flying school, but before you complete the training, leave the school and drive around. When you get out of your vehicle, Toreno calls CJ’s cell and taunts him. He did it three times with the third being one of the most deliriously profane and achingly funny things I’ve heard outside of South Park: The Movie. Fonda also has countless inspired moments, with his first mission, the “polar bear conversation,” and the “Don Peyote” mission being highlights.

The music did little for me as I feel the early 1990’s were a wasteland of grunge and gangsta rap that collectively amounted to a bunch of noise in search of a message. I do love how every car you jack in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has a different station playing, but the music gets really old really quick. There is none of the nostalgia from Vice City present so the end result is performing drive-by’s while listening to below-average music by Tupac instead of flashback-tinged Twisted Sister. The talk radio channel, however, is as scathing as ever and the running commentaries brilliantly spoof modern talk shows.

I do wish there were more powerful sound effects for the weaponry, because the present effects are weak. A combat shotgun and a Desert Eagle piston should both sound like a thunderclap, but no such luck. I never felt that CJ was armed with anything other than really big cap guns, and that includes the rocket launcher. The cars all peel out with the right amount of noise and the explosion effects are the same ones from Grand Theft Auto III.

The voice acting is nothing short of incredible. The sound effects and music are either weak or uninteresting, but where Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas takes a major hit is in the sound menu. One of the options is to turn off the radio by default, but it doesn’t work. It’s easy enough to figure out how to change this setting to “all car radios off by default” but it does not work at all. I was frankly stunned that something so glaringly obvious could have made it into the game, thus the score barely deserves to be as high as it is. Blessings aplenty must go out to Woods, Jackson, Fonda and company for turning in better performances here than they have in recent movies.

Simply put, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has really tight handling when it comes to the motorcycles, yet fails utterly to have even competent handling on aircraft. The handling for the cars and trucks fall some where in between. The game has four schools available, one for each vehicle, and completion of the schools will boost your driving skills. The hardest by far is the plane school due to the horrible controls. Rockstar either went out of its way to make successfully controlling aircraft the toughest thing in the game, or intentionally overlooked the fact that people might scream in frustration at REQUIRED flying missions. Idiots. I had a tough time controlling the motorcycles in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, yet that’s what I exclusively drove in San Andreas because of the improved handling. Maybe Rockstar will fix the airplane mechanics for the next game.

The control scheme is the same as the other two games, neither great nor terrible. You press the triangle button to activate things and get into and out of vehicles, the R1 button targets while the circle button fires your weapon. The square button jumps, climbs, and blocks during fist fights. The more you work out and buff CJ up, the better you will be at hand to hand fighting. Or you can just bring a gun to a knife fight and win every time because no one ever said you had to fight fair. Holding the X button will cause CJ to sprint, and the higher his stamina rating the longer he can sprint for. When CJ recruits gang members, you have to target them with the R1 button first, then hit the up button on the directional pad. I forgot by the end game that you have to target someone first before they will follow you, so keep that in mind and you’re good to go.

Who knew that Rockstar could create the type of role-playing game SquareSoft never would? The longer I played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the more apparent it became that I was no longer playing some mindless car-jacking thug on a power trip. The stats aspect has received some heat but I enjoyed having to work to get better at things. For example, the more you shoot your guns, the more your skill increases and the chance you will hit your target goes up. It’s far too easy to increase the skill, however, as you can shoot a tire until you level up. I also like how the character physically changes based on how much or how little you work out, how much junk food you eat, and so forth. You can also change details on your clothing, though the load times for going into and coming out of the dressing room take so long that you will likely stick with a preferred clothing set. The character of CJ Johnson feels and acts like a real person to the point where I would categorize Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as an RPG instead of an action game. When you couple this aspect with a world that has so much rampant diversity among the non-player characters and the geography, the result is a game which feels less like a game and more like a movie. If only the graphics were better…

Any game that sucks up every waking minute I have for a month straight is something special. With so many things to do and so many places to go and so much stuff to just blow up, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas might be one of the most elaborate PS2 games I’ve ever played. It genuinely feels like a sequel to Grand Theft Auto III, whereas Vice City felt more like an ’80’s-themed expansion pack. As such, the theme of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is bigger, louder, more, thus it compares admirably to large-scale summer movies like Terminator 2 and True Lies (both of which are spoofed here).

I simply love the layout and personalities of the cities this time. Los Santos is a large-scale version of South Central Los Angeles and looks and feels like a dingy ghetto. San Fierro is San Francisco, and high speed chases over those large hills beautifully recreate the legendary car chase from Bullitt. There is no mistaking Las Venturas as a make-shift Las Vegas, and the casinos all feature a half dozen gambling mini-games that are each extremely addictive.

I will not say the countless missions varied a great deal from one another, but there were enough unique ones to make the game worth playing. I re-played the final Smoke mission in the early game several times because of how thrilling it was. The final Mike Toreno mission features CJ trying to “liberate” a certain vehicle from the military. The hilarity begins when you realize exactly what vehicle CJ is supposed to go for, and the results are flat-out awesome. There are dozens of in-game missions that will lead you to do one thing, and then suddenly change the objective on you while simultaneously throwing you under the bus. In other words, many times CJ will be on a mission only to realize he’s incredibly screwed. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas keeps you on your toes, and it certainly kept me playing into all hours of the night.

I had issues with two main things: the map, and the relevance of the customizations. First of all, the in-game map is a joke. The color is dark, so did Rockstar opt to use bright colors for the location markers? Of course not! Why, that would make sense and we cannot have any of that. The result is sitting closer to the television than is comfortable just trying to read the bloody map, and that’s with it zoomed all the way in. On the other hand, you can place at least one directional waypoint to help you find your way so at least that’s something. The other problem I have is with the vehicle mods. It’s really cool to trick out your car, but if you can’t use the vehicles in one of the dozen city races, what exactly is the point?

For a final thought, I have a recommendation to Rockstar for their next game in the series. Please have it based on Mike Toreno during the early to mid 1980’s and set it in some random Latin American country, Buenos Aires if you need a specific city. If the contras and the Reagan administration are involved, then so much the better. Make sure James Woods is the star, and show him in all of his bad ass glory at the height of his prowess. That’s a game I would play endlessly, and I thank you for your attention to this matter.

When I first flew out to my wife’s home town of Lubbock, TX, she warned me that it was flat as a board. Even then, nothing prepared me for exactly how flat that part of West Texas actually was. In that regard, nothing can really prepare you for just how big Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is until you see it for yourself. If you’re looking for an R-rated Pokemon (gotta catch ’em all, motherf&*%er!) then Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the ticket because there are more collectibles, mini-games, challenges and missions than should be allowed in any one game. I would argue that despite the bugs and glitches, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is well worth the full price if only for the sheer amount of game. When you add in the fact that the game is just plain fun, then it should be a no-brainer on owning it immediately. I felt the need to take a very long break after completing it, but I plan to go back soon and complete everything I missed. That alone will net me another few weeks with it, and what more could you ask for?

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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