Summary: Welcome to the jungle
We've got fun 'n' games
We got everything you want
Honey, we know the names
We are the people that can find
Whatever you may need
If you got the money, honey
We got your disease
Or maybe the time is now. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas makes a good case that games have already outstripped movies, because the characterization and story set in the West Coast gang underworld in the early 1990s create an experience that is a hell of a lot more gripping than anything I’ve seen on the silver screen in years. And Rockstar hasn’t just done it again. Even though San Andreas uses the same graphic engine and car-jacking conventions as its two most recent predecessors, this is a lot more than a sequel to Vice City with gangbangers and NWA replacing the mob and Flock of Seagulls. While the developer has written a tremendous new chapter in the controversial history of the GTA franchise, it has also reimagined the series. So many different roleplaying options have been added and the size of the game world has been increased so dramatically that I felt that I’d really stepped into somebody else’s high-tops while playing.
Bangin’ in the Grove
Plot is the biggest reason why San Andreas is so bewitching. You play Carl “CJ” Johnson, who returns to his home neighborhood of Ganton (think Compton) in the city of Los Santos (think Los Angeles) in 1992 after the murder of his mother. He’s been living the straight life in Liberty City for the past five years, so he’s grown out of touch with his brother, Sweet, and the rest of his crew in the Grove Street OGs, like Big Smoke and the perpetually dust-smoking Ryder. Despite CJ’s years out of the life, the death of his moms and the lure of being home with his friends encourages him to stick around. Of course, it isn’t all friendly reunions. There’s a crooked cop to deal with named Tenpenny, crack dealers encroaching on the Grove Streeters turf, a gang war brewing with the Ballas, and the prospect of being forced to live in the sticks for a while, or even relocate to Los Santos’ sister cities, San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Ventura (Las Vegas).
Like I said above, this ain’t Vice City. The attitude here is more serious, the characters more grim. Where Vice City played off old episodes of Miami Vice, which were far too rooted in Don Johnson smirks and pastel suits to be gritty, San Andreas takes as its inspiration the gangsta movies of the early 90s like Boyz N The Hood, New Jack City, Menace II Society, and Juice. Vice City lampooned the 80s through clothing styles, music, and goofy missions that were played solely for laughs, like the entire series of late-game stunts running the porn studio. That isn’t the case here. One of the very first missions features a crack house, with an addict so messed up on the pipe that he’s become the dealer’s slave.
Fried Chicken and Watermelon
This isn’t to say that San Andreas lacks a sense of humor. It doesn’t. The game’s probably funnier than Vice City, especially if you think the predecessor leaned too heavily on parodying the 80s. A lot of the humor is darker, though, especially in Los Santos, and since you’re playing a black character in a black gang this time out, the racial context is so singularly focused that you’ve got to wonder if you should be laughing at some of this stuff. Vice City made fun of everybody from Jewish lawyers to Gary Coleman, so everything was so absurd you couldn’t take it seriously. Now the funny moments revolve around black gang stereotypes like smoking crack, constant dropping of N-bombs and motherf---ers, cruising in low riders, and so on. One mission even centers on gang members heading out for drive-thru fried chicken. On the other hand, this theme doesn’t stereotype black youth any more than flicks like Menace II Society. At least some of the old cornball Rockstar stuff is present—there’s a hotel called the Vank Hoff, the San Fierro Packers football team is sponsored by a fudge company, and a diamond merchant called de Koch (as in “Give her…”) is advertising on the radio. Overall, I certainly wasn’t offended, although at times I did miss the more lighthearted tone of Vice City.
I didn’t miss the smaller scope (although its hard to call Vice City small by any measuring stick) of the earlier game. As I noted above, San Andreas encompasses three cities and the countryside between them. CJ starts in Los Santos—which, incidentally, seems to be as big as Vice City all by itself—doing drive-bys, beating up crack dealers, spray-painting over rival gang tags, racing low riders and recruiting busters. Then he has to move on to the countryside, where he occupies his time in exile by running weed, burning dope fields, and playing Bonnie and Clyde with a babe named Catalina. Next it’s off to San Fierro, a city by the bay filled with pimps who must be murdered, porta-potties that must be overturned, and shipments of cash that must be intercepted. CJ finally ventures to Las Venturas, a Vegas lookalike complete with neon-splashed strip and loads of casinos, before a last stop in Las Santos just in time for a race riot and the settling of old scores.
Mission structure is similar to that of Vice City, with lots of racing, package delivering, and assassinating, along with the familiar ambulance, taxi, vigilante, and fire-truck escapades, weapon rampages (including some co-op ones), and half-hidden mini-games like pool, dancing, and basketball. The new and varied terrain makes almost everything seem fresh, however, and stealth has been added in a missions that revolve around breaking and entering. Rockstar also hasn’t included as many frustrating, multi-objective, timed missions. I didn’t find anything here on the same scale as Autocide, for example, although perhaps the three or four hundred hours I spent with Vice City colored my impressions of the difficulty.
I’m Lovin’ It
In addition to the diverse cityscapes and mission objectives, the roleplaying aspect of San Andreas has been bumped up over Vice City. CJ comes with stats like Stamina, Strength, Respect, and Sex Appeal, and ratings in skills like driving cars, planes, boats, and the newest addition to the GTA vehicular universe, bicycles.. You even have to keep fit by stopping off for regular meals at fast food joints like Cluckin’ Bell and Burger Spot. Stats are boosted by completing missions—almost all of your assignments come with a reward of both cash and a boost in the Respect category—and specific activities like working out. Gyms provide the opportunity to pump iron, run on the treadmill, and get into the ring with a trainer who teaches special moves if you knock his lights out. Most of the workout stations are used by pumping two gamepad buttons in a rat-a-tat-tat style with your index and middle fingers. Do enough reps and you’ll soon get pretty buff, a fact that gets noticed by your buddies, who say stuff like “You’ve been spending too much time in the gym,” and the ladies, as with nice pecs comes added Sex Appeal handy when dating babes later in the game. Cool haircuts like afros and jericurls also help in the latter category, as do tattoos and designer duds.
Okay, all of the above sounds like a real pain in the ass, or at the very least, too gimmicky to be of much value. But it’s not, because Rockstar has taken pains to make these chores not so onerous as to take away from the carjacking and killing sprees. Getting pumped up in the gym, for instance, just requires regular visits over the course of a few days (there’s a limit on how long you can work out each day), and the effects of your exercising immediately show up in how long you can run and how hard you can hit people. Eating is necessary only on relatively rare occasions. And the haircuts and tats are pretty much optional after initial visits.
What’s more, this stuff is fun. Lifting weights is a neat button-pressing challenge similar to classic sports titles like Summer Games. Chowing down is a kick because there are loads of options in each joint—everything from salads to buckets of chicken is available—and because the register jockeys have so much hilarious dialogue. My fave is the “How may I degrade myself for you today, sir?” line, spoken in a total deadpan by one of the guys in a chicken suit at Cluckin’ Bell.
Beat the Cop
But best of all, these additions give San Andreas a real roleplaying feel. While I had fun playing dress-up with Tommy Vercetti, the clothing changes were the only way to personalize Vice City. Here, I could pork out on burgers and get fat (although it’s actually difficult to get that rotund because you’re always running). I could work out till I dropped, gaining six-pack abs that could be showed off by leaving my shirt at CJ’s crib. I could have my barber style me a huge ’fro or I could cover my hair with a do-rag. Most of the options remain pretty cosmetic, in that there really is just one way to progress (there aren’t any pluses to becoming a fat slob, for instance, and dressing poorly will get you turned down by the ladies), so this isn’t exactly roleplaying. Still, I tried out at least a dozen different looks over the course of the game and felt like I was really building an individual. Also, there’s something satisfying about spending a few days in the gym and then being able to flatten a crooked cop with a single punch. Hearing compliments from pals and on the street was also a plus.
Older, more familiar aspects of the game have undergone refinements as well. Jacking a vehicle now requires two button pushes, one to open the car door and another to convince the driver to relinquish the ride. This was annoying at first, as I’d gotten used to the one-button auto thefts of the past, although I came to prefer the new system because it let me deal out added punishment. Carjacking became a riskier prospect with cops on my tail now, too. Before, I could throw a driver into the street and peel out with no worries, this time I had to know just how close the fuzz were, as the added step made it easier for them to bust me before I could step on the gas. Getting away from the law was easier, though, as CJ could clamber over fences that would have stymied Tommy in the last game, and add extra spice to sprinting by button mashing. And water no longer led me to an instant demise, because CJ could swim.
And in This Corner…
More options are available when you have to fight, too. Enemy attacks can now be blocked, and you can pull off combo moves learned in the gym to throw flurries of punches, charge rival bangers, and so on. These tactics usually aren’t as useful as simply whaling away the old-fashioned style, although they can be helpful in a pinch. Using weapons is easier now as well, as you gain in experience every time you fire a gat. After a fair bit of killing, you move up to the Gangster and Hitman levels, and are able to use the targeting icon on farther away enemies and even hone in on heads without fail. The only issue with combat is the lingering problem with the lock-on system not always targeting the right opponents. It’s still more difficult than it should be to lock on to the bad guy you want to pound, and far too easy to lock onto a dead guy at your feet.
There are only two areas where San Andreas falls flat, and I’m still debating their impact. First is the graphics. The PS2 is starting to show its age these days, and Rockstar can only get so much out of the three-year-old platform. Overall, though, this is still a better-looking game than Vice City. The art department has tossed in nifty frills like heat waves radiating off the pavement on hot days, and countryside foliage that contrasts with everything else in the game, so I can’t complain.
Second is the sound. While the in-game dialogue is better than ever, despite a cast that includes far more unknowns than the star-studded Vice City (unknowns play CJ and most of the key parts, with the only big names being Samuel L. Jackson and James Woods in supporting roles), I find the music lacking. Part of this is a scattered focus in comparison with Vice City. Where that game could hone in on the 80s and make fun of the era’s pop and new wave, its sequel had to be more diverse because 90s music wasn’t as iconic. There’s a great selection of tunes on the nine music stations in the game (deejayed by slumming celebs like Axl Rose and George Clinton, although the themes are so all over the place that nothing stands out. There’s something for everyone in the selection of classic rock, 70s funk, hip-hop, country, and so forth, but not enough to satisfy anybody. I loved some great individual tunes, like Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause,” and, of course, Guns ‘n’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle,” though I spent a lot more time surfing the dial and listening to GTA alumnus Lazlow on the talk-radio channel here than I did in Vice City.
Play mechanics, the movie-epic plot, the sheer scope of the landscape and the missions—all combine to create the most near-perfect experience that I have ever had with a game. Unless you’re a Mennonite without electricity, or one of those social do-goodniks who thinks that the GTA series is shredding our moral fabric, you need to try San Andreas for yourself.
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