XBOX REVIEW: GRAND THEFT AUTO: SAN ANDREAS

If you haven't played San Andreas on the PS2 yet, you're either not a big fan or you've just arrived on Earth. Perhaps you're one of those "Meh. I'll wait til it gets to the Xbox or PC in 6-7 months" kind of gamers. I admire your restraint. In many respects it was worth the wait for this franchise phenomenon to reach the two most powerful gaming systems, but as previous GTA ports have shown us, not everything is always hunky dory.

I am going to break the game journalist code for a moment and assume you know what this game is about and jump right in. You can read the rest of the review which will immediately follow the Xbox and PC segments to fill in the holes.

Xbox Version

I would love to tell you that the horrific load times present in the PS2 are all but a memory, but I'd be lying. If anything they might be a hair faster, but we're talking milliseconds here. I hated the costume change load times in the first game and they're just as insufferable in the Xbox version. This meant I never changed my clothes unless it was important. I detested Rockstar North for those self-glorifying stock animations of CJ coming out of the changeroom to display his latest threads. Should it really take 20 seconds for him to put on a cowboy hat?

What has improved is the framerate. But that seems to be dependent on what type of drive you've got in your box. On the Phillips and Samsung drive I experienced very little in the way of slowdown. On the box in the office with the Thompson drive, it stuttered and chugged in certain areas - and it also DDE'd a few times which pissed me off.

The graphics have been prettied up and the orange glow of Los Santos is gone. There were times in the PS2 version when I couldn't even see due to the orange. Thank god someone eradicated that. The character models haven't underwent any significant changes although everything has been crisped up so most models in the game (people, vehicles, buildings) appear to look enhanced over the PS2 version.

The controls have been altered to accomodate the Xbox controller and it's definitely not a perfect fit. They really blew it by not allowing configurable controls. You're stuck with them the way the are and some of you may not like that too much. The drive by controls will require contortionist finger dexterity because you'll need to use the L and R triggers for acceleration and braking while using the black/white buttons in conjunction with the A button. For those lucky enough to own a PS2, Xbox and an adapter that allows you to plug a Dual Shock into your Xbox, let me recommend it highly. I found the control to be the worst aspect of any of the versions and therefore it lost a half point from the overall score.

The story remains the same and plays out identically to its PS2 brethren. Let me say for the record that Rockstar did not include all of those insane little myths like Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts in the graveyard et al that captivated gamers after the release of the original game into these latest ports.

One bonus to the PC and Xbox version is the custom soundtrack support. While that may not make or break the purchase, it's a great option. The downside of the this is that you'll miss certain aspects of the DJ's whom are hilarious at times, but if you've already heard their shtick while playing the PS2 version, it might be a wonderful alternative.

The Xbox version isn't miles ahead if you've already played and beaten the first release. Aside from the toned down orange glow, crisper framerate and enhanced visuals, there really isn't anything here to jump and down about. It's the same San Andreas game in slightly fancier packaging.

PC Version

Don't be fooled by the minimum requirements posted on the outside of the box. You will need one hell of a system to run San Andreas properly on your PC and even then, you might run into problems depending on your choice of videocard, RAM etc.

Playing San Andreas with a keyboard and a mouse is a little like shooting fish in a barrel. Due to the instant mouse aiming, firefights are over in a matter of moments. Some of you will love this; some will hate it. Personally I have always preferred to play these kinds of games with a controller. They are meant for analog control. Running CJ around using the keyboard is a huge pain in the ass as far as I'm concerned. I finally just gave up and plugged in a controller so I could play the game the way I was used to.

If you've got a sweet tooth for eye candy, then the PC version is your drug of choice. With a powerful system you can eliminate the pop in that is rampant in both the Xbox and PS2 versions (with an easy to use slider) and of course the high res graphics you've always dreamed of will be front and center.

Everything isn't perfect. Due to circumstances beyond my control, the game crashed to the dekstop about a half dozen times and I'm running the game on an Alien Ware system that the office just brought in about a month ago. I was able to contact someone in support and there seemed to be no apparent reason for this or known issues with any of the hardware. There is NOTHING this system can't handle. Except San Andreas that is.

The PC version is only available on a DVD-ROM, which means if you don't have a DVD-ROM drive, you can't play. But hey, don't freak out. The other GTA games for the PS2 and Xbox are also on DVD, because the music takes up a GB of space. The only difference is that the consoles already have DVD drives, so don't be hatin' Rockstar. They had no choice but to put this bad boy on DVD for the PC.

By far this is the best version of the game available, simply because of the graphics and reduced load times. You will need a workhorse to have it run smoothly, but it's definitely worth it in the end, whether you've an old homie of CJ's or you've just been introduced.

Original Review

While not a huge fan of either GTA 3 or Vice City, I respected the vision of DMA - now under Rockstar's umbrella - for turning this quirky little top down game into a 3D world where anything goes and often does. The more I read about San Andreas, the more the concept of creating an actual state complete with three cities and surrounding countryside intrigued me.

The level of freedom in the GTA franchise has always been it's biggest selling feature. Any gamer will tell you that.the over the top violence is wildly funl, but every action game these days has over the top violence. The coolest aspect of GTA is that you can literally do anything you want to and I'm here to tell you that San Andreas takes this concept beyond anything you've experienced in a GTA game.

Let me address the issue of San Andreas being nothing more than an upgrade which has been floating around forum boards for many weeks and months. In many ways this is true. The fundamental gameplay elements remain almost identical to what Rockstar accomplished with GTA 3 and VIce City. That being said, the sheer amount of growth, character development and freedom afforded to the player is unparalleled and when you pack your bags for San Andreas I imagine many of you won't be returning for weeks, possibly months.

 

Minor Spoilers Ahead:

You can imagine the pressure of having to review a title like this. With 107 main story missions and countless hidden items to locate such as gang tags, oysters etc not to mention simply experimenting with insanely cool extras such as base jumping, it's simply impossible to test everything out in the time given to review San Andreas. I managed to see and do quite a lot and I still don't believe I've scratched the surface as to what can be accomplished with a little devilish imagination. I suggest playing SA with a pen and paper and jotting down all the cool places you want to investigate and things you want to experiment with. After awhile you will forget because so many new ideas are popping up constantly.

There is no point rehashing the story (located below). Needless to say you're CJ who reluctantly rejoins his gang in the city of Los Santos. While the entire state appears to be opened from the beginning, you won't be able to make your way into other areas until you pass certain objectives or you'll be met with force. Don't attempt "border crossing" either as that won't work. Trust me on that one.

Again the beauty of this game is being able to decide when you do anything. If you play the game straight through, mission after mission, you'll miss out on awful lot. Some will argue and have, that the extra side missions in the series have been useless busy work artificially prolonging the game until the inevitable linear end and yes, San Andreas continues the tradition of screwing around for hours, days, weeks maybe even months of exploration without even touching a mission. But it should be noted that this time around, you'll need to progress through the storyline to actually progress CJ's character.

Much has been written about the cosmetic enhancements that you can put CJ through in the game and it works to incredible effect. Not only do the clothes make the man, but also the tattoos, food, hair and attitude. As you get further on in the game, your character will be a direct result of how you have treated him. Conversations with characters on the street can be handled nicely or not (with a directional d-pad selection) and you'll notice that if you take CJ one way or the other (call it the dark side or light side if you will) his responses will start to gravitate towards his "attitude" whatever that happens to be. You will also notice the insane amount of voicework in the game - not only through the hundreds of conversations CJ will have with scripted characters during scripted events - but the comments made by passerby who just can't help themselves and need to comment on the way CJ looks. You can also listen closely as they'll be talking to each other this time around.

One of the elements I have sorely disliked in the series is the terrible shooting and aiming. It has always been the weakest part of the franchise. I was surprised to see that Rockstar has made an attempt to change this for the better in SA, considering they didn't seem to think it was "broken" after GTA3 because Vice City was more of the same. In SA CJ will have to get a lot of experience with handling weapons before he can start using them to great effect. The more you practice, the better you will become and what I discovered was that just shooting people on the street didn't help. You'll need to fight in real situations.

Powering up and education is an underlying mechanic in SA, in some ways giving the game a pseudo RPG feel, which I really like. From driving to shooting to skydiving (and more!) you will need to educate your character before you can really dig in to the depth of control that Rockstar North has afforded you. These usually come in the way of schools where you can test your abilities. Some players won't take kindly to this dramatic addition to the series, but I welcomed it as it added challenge and depth to the foundation of the gameplay. Without it, SA might have been too much of a cakewalk for vets of the series.

Using that as segue point, I can assure you that even oldskool vets will have their asses handed to them over and over again. Even carjacking this time around isn't like taking candy from a baby. These guys fight back. But harkening back to the education system, spend some time weightlifting and CJ will be able to handle himself in physical situations. One of the best innovations in SA is the ability to not have to rewind the tapes to the beginning of a particular mission if you fail. It's a godsend and makes the game flow much smoother, while still allowing you a chance to get it right.

Everything you loved about previous GTA games is present and accounted for: the numerous vehicles (land, sea, offroad, air) with quite a few suprises that you haven't seen in screenshots, plethora of side missions, empire building, drivebys, hidden items and so much more that I literally cannot remember it all. Rockstar didn't just leave it at that though; there are a lot of new gameplay modes and minigames you've never seen before. Hint. Better bring a friend along.

Once you are able to travel freely between cities, San Andreas literally and figuratively opens up to the player. Making your way from Los Santos to San Fierro or Los Venturas is an adventure on its own. Encountering rural life is often hilarious and you can tell that Rockstar enjoys skewering the simple folk as much as they do the urban folk. That's not too say rural people are simple. I meant they lead a simpler lifestyle. Throw in CJ and you've got one fish out of water story going on in the backwoods of Flint County.

As much as I hate to do so, I have to rag a little bit on the visuals in San Andreas. I think it might be too ambitious for the aging PS2, but as you might argue, that's not the fault of Rockstar. It's too bad they couldn't have released this on the Xbox which could have used the HD and extra horsepower to good effect. With the sheer amount of area taken up in San Andreas corners had to be cut in the graphics deparment and I'm sure the one thing you'll all notice is that the game never looks as good at home as it does in those high res screens Rockstar sends out in abundance. While the engine has been tweaked in terms of control, the graphics engine holds up admirably but at times you can tell it wants to gasp for breath. San Andreas suffers from framerate drops, graphic glitches and of course, pop in, and while it's awesome that the entire area streams from direct from the disc, it's obvious that new technology would fix these problems in a jiffy.

From an audio point of view San Andreas is as fresh and fantastic as ever. A great voice cast punches up a script that would have delivered a well received Hollywood movie and the soundtrack is second to none. The radio stations are back in full force and you might just find yourself taking a midnight stroll in the countryside just to listen to them.

After all this, I feel I'm not even close to finishing this review because there is just so much going in San Andreas it's like 5 games in one: part RPG, part adventure, part action, part racer and part sim. And it does it just as well as the best games in any of those genres. It's daunting simply to review a game like this, nevermind give birth to it. Rockstar has created one of the best games ever released on any system...and remember, I wasn't a fan of the last two games. As I sit here staring at this page I suddenly realize that the only possible way this review can ever be finished is if you, the reader, buys the game and experiences it for yourself. I don't remember the last time I gave a game this close to a perfect score, but I stand by this one. It is a masterpiece of gaming even with it's visual flaws.

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System: X (PS2 shown)
Dev: Vicious Cycle
Pub: Global Star
Released: April 2005
Players: 1 - 4
Review by Cole
RATING (OUT OF 5)
OVERALL
4.0
GRAPHICS
4.5
CONTROL
3.0
MUSIC/FX
4.5
VALUE
4.0