How do you follow up a runaway success like 2001's Grand Theft Auto III? Rockstar North responded a year later with GTA: Vice City, a game that took the gameplay of its predecessor and expanded it considerably. At the same time, Vice City gave the series an extensive and amazing stylistic makeover, drenching the experience in the sights, sounds, and attitude of Miami, Florida from the mid '80s. So where do you go from there? You take it statewide. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas expands the series' concept to encompass three entire cities, as well as the countryside between them. The gameplay similarly expands, packing in some explosive set pieces and amazing action-movie-like thrills while maintaining that same remarkably fun, freefom GTA feel. In short, Rockstar has done it again. San Andreas definitely lives up to the Grand Theft Auto name. In fact, it's arguably the best game in the series.
Carl Johnson is going (going) back (back) to Cali (Cali).
This latest installment takes place in 1992 in the West Coast-themed state of San Andreas. San Andreas is an island containing three cities. You'll begin the game in the city of Los Santos, which is based roughly on Los Angeles and consists of a mixture of ritzy downtown areas and the gangland ghettos of South Central. San Fierro is based on San Francisco, reproducing the real city's hilly terrain and ever-present fog. The game's third city is Las Venturas, which is a great take on early-'90s Las Vegas, complete with a strip full of casinos and the surrounding desert. While one-to-one measurements against previous games in the series are difficult in practice, San Andreas definitely feels like a much, much larger place than Vice City ever did, but at the same time, the growth is handled intelligently. There are plenty of things to do both in and out of the cities, which makes all this real estate matter.
While Grand Theft Auto III was inspired by movies like The Godfather and Vice City took several pages from the Scarface playbook, San Andreas draws its inspiration from the ghetto and gangsta struggle films of the early '90s. Movies like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood are the clear influences here. In San Andreas, you play the role of Carl "CJ" Johnson. The game opens with Carl returning to Los Santos after spending the last five years in GTA III's Liberty City. But his homecoming isn't a happy one--he's returning home because his mother has been killed. Carl isn't on the ground for more than an hour before he's picked up by a pair of crooked cops and thrown right back into the middle of the street life he left Los Santos to avoid.
Your first order of business in Los Santos is to put your set back on the map. Your gang, the Grove Street Families, has fallen into disarray over the last five years, and their influence is minimal at best. So you, along with the three other leaders of the gang--the long-winded Big Smoke, the dust-smoking Ryder, and your stubborn brother, Sweet--set out to take back the streets from your rivals, the Ballas, who have turned to dealing crack to earn money and gain influence in the hood. You set out on a series of missions to take back your territory, starting small with things like spray-painting over other gangs' tags (which is one of the many new types of actions that replace previous GTA games' more-generic hidden package collecting here), but quickly moving up to drive-bys and other acts of extreme gangsterism. But there's a whole lot more to San Andreas than just set tripping.
Just when you think you're getting used to gang warfare, everything goes sour. We're certainly not interested in spoiling the game's many interesting plot twists, so we'll leave out the details, but it should suffice to say that you'll eventually need to get the heck out of Los Santos. You wind up in the country outside the city, where you'll encounter many more great characters and officially embark on your quest to put right what's gone wrong. Once you get out of Los Santos, you won't really have to worry about gang warfare for a while, and the game settles down into a more GTA-like feel.
The San Andreas story is well written and packs in some really great surprises that tie this game to the previous GTA games.
Like the previous games in the series, San Andreas features a fairly linear story that takes you through the game's areas. You'll start off restricted to Los Santos--something the story justifies by claiming that an earthquake has taken out the bridges and roads that link Los Santos to the surrounding area--but it doesn't take long to unlock the other two areas. The game also throws in some pretty great surprises in the form of characters from previous entries in the series. These characters tie the GTA games together really nicely, so while San Andreas feels pretty different from the other games in the series, it still feels like you're playing in the same universe.
As in the previous games, most of your progress is accomplished by completing missions for a variety of individuals. These missions are oftentimes similar to missions you've seen in previous games in the series. You'll drive people around, take out specific individuals (an early mission gives you the straightforward objective of beating up a crack dealer, for example), do drive-bys on your enemies, and so on. But as you proceed through the game, the missions get crazier and crazier. Along the way you'll pull off a daring casino heist, steal some wicked military hardware, "take care" of plenty of Mafia bozos, and much, much more. The missions in the game are a lot more exciting, on average, than they have been in some previous GTA games. Additionally, the game is a lot better at spelling out what, exactly, needs to be done. It does this with onscreen text that color-codes each specific piece of a mission differently. Yet while the basics of the gameplay--taking on and completing missions--are similar to past GTA games, there are plenty of details to uncover, and plenty of new things to try.
The first addition to the game is the ability to ride a bicycle, which you encounter almost immediately upon starting the game. You'll ride it like any other vehicle, but you'll find that tapping the X button makes CJ go faster. This is true on foot, also, as holding X will make you sprint, but tapping it makes him super sprint. The melee combat is a bit deeper now, as you can block and execute combo moves with the square and triangle buttons, respectively. The targeting system has received a slight overhaul that makes it look more like the targeting in Manhunt, but it's functionally very similar to the system in Vice City. CJ is also a little more athletic than previous GTA protagonists. For one thing, he can swim, both on the surface and underwater, which causes a breath meter to appear near your newly redesigned health meter. And if CJ's in shape, he can jump up and climb over high walls.
There's much more to San Andreas than just running with a gang and dumping on your enemies.
Yes, that's right. CJ needs to stay in shape if he's to perform at his best, which is a new feature for the GTA series. The game keeps track of a lot of different statistics that increase and decrease as you play the game. Your physical fitness is the most overt statistic, as you're able to work out in gyms to work on your muscle and stamina ratings, and you'll have to occasionally eat to prevent your muscle stat from occasionally draining a bit. Eating, however, can increase your fat statistic. CJ's body shape will change, depending on what you do and for how long. While this might sound like a whole lot of busywork, it's actually a very small part of the game, and the best way to handle it is to spend a few minutes working out in the early parts of the game to build up your muscle (giving you a bonus to your melee attacks) and your stamina (which dictates how long you can sprint before getting tired), and then eating occasionally to maintain the ratings without gaining too much fat. You really don't have to spend too much time on it, and earning the ability to sprint for long periods of time makes getting around (and getting away) much easier.
The game also tracks a lot of other statistics. Respect is a big one, as it's what you'll be earning the most of as you complete missions. Not all missions earn you money, but almost all of them are good for a slight respect bonus. A higher respect rating lets you recruit more and more gang members to follow you around and shoot at rival gangs, which is another new addition and a nice perk, but not something that comes in handy very often. You're also rated in a lot of different vehicle categories, like driving, riding motorcycles, bicycling, and piloting aircraft. As you use a vehicle, your skill with it slowly increases, which seems to tighten up the controls a bit. In the case of motorcycles, it also makes it less likely that you'll fly off the bike in a wreck. Your bicycling skills translate into higher bunny hops. Similarly, you're given stats for every type of firearm in the game. You'll start with poor skills with all weapons, but don't let the tag of "poor" fool you--CJ's skills feel roughly the same as Tommy Vercetti's when you first squeeze the trigger. After getting in some time with a weapon, you'll upgrade it to "gangster" level, which extends your lock-on range with the weapon, speeds up reloading, and in some cases lets you walk around while locked on. Upgrading your skill with a weapon to the highest level, "hitman," takes a relatively long time, but it extends the lock-on range and speeds up reloading even further, and it also opens up the ability to dual-wield some one-handed weapons. Unloading two full clips of submachine-gun ammo is extremely satisfying here.
Increasing your weapon skill makes mowing down foes pretty easy.
Probably the best part about the game's stat system is that it's all extremely subtle. It would be easy for something like exercise and eating to monopolize the game, but in practice you really don't have to think about it. All you really see is a quick pop-up in the upper left-hand corner of the screen whenever a stat changes, and if it's changed enough to make a big difference, the game offers a text description of what has changed and what that means for you. You will have to think about your stats a bit when you come across the first flight mission, as the story won't proceed until you've gone through flight training. The training program is frustrating, but once you pass it, the flight controls seem to tighten up a bit, and you'll have had enough practice to make it through most of the flight missions without too much trouble. The other time you'll think about stats is when you first take on a mission that requires swimming. If you haven't leveled your lung capacity up to a certain point, you simply won't be able to continue. Up until that point in the story, though, you haven't had to go underwater at all, so at the beginning of the mission you'll have to spend some time going underwater and resurfacing until you've developed the lungs required to swim out to a boat and silently kill everyone on board.
But enough about statistics. The important thing about GTA: San Andreas is that it's insanely fun to play, regardless of how you decide to play it. The missions are less frustrating this time around--there are still plenty of challenging objectives for you to meet, but the game does a better job of pacing the missions and keeping you informed about what you're supposed to do next. As a result, players who might not have been able to complete Vice City will have a better chance of finishing San Andreas' story, but at the same time the game never really feels like it's too easy. Experienced players should be able to make their way through the game's epic tale in 35 to 40 hours, though if you've been playing Vice City every day in anticipation of this game's release, that number could conceivably fall as low as 25 to 30--which is a pretty lengthy adventure, any way you slice it. On top of that, players who stick to the critical story path and ignore all the side stuff will finish the game with a completion percentage somewhere in the 50s, so obviously there's a lot more to San Andreas than just getting out of the hood and building a criminal empire. Even players who devote all their time in GTA to causing mass destruction will still have a great time here, though you may want to play through the story long enough to unlock the game's other areas. And this time, you'll be able to start trouble with a friend.