Written by  :  EboMike (3137)
Written on  :  Jan 25, 2005
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  4.57 Stars4.57 Stars4.57 Stars4.57 Stars4.57 Stars

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Taking The Series To The Next Level

The Good

First of all, I admit that I’m biased: I’m a sucker for ghetto movies. My favorite movie of all times is Menace II Society, so any game in this genre automatically gets bonus points from me.

That said, let’s have a look at the newest installment of Grand Theft Auto. I can’t help but make comparisons with True Crime occasionally since the games do have a similar theme… but who is better? We’ll find out.

The graphics aren’t extraordinary, but adequate. They don’t shine in quality, but they simply work. Los Santos really looks like Los Angeles, including the tall buildings of downtown, the dirty homes of South Central, and the luxurious mansions on the hills in Hollywood.

What’s even better is the variety: There are three cities and rural areas in-between, and they all have their own, distinct style – just one look at the screen and you can instantly tell in what city you are in right now. It really shows that each area has been designed by a different artist.

From the very first part, Grand Theft Auto has had a tradition in having an excellent soundtrack, and San Andreas is no exception here. Quite the opposite: There are many different radio stations, each one with its own genre of music. The most important one of course is Radio Los Santos, which features excellent work from artists like Dr. Dre and Eazy E from the early 90s (which also is the setting of the movie).

Just like the unedited soundtrack, the dialog is extremely explicit and pretty authentic. It sets new standards as far as language goes. I loved it (and at the same time I wish the M-rating would be taken as serious as the MPAA's R-rating).

The missions deserve a special mention: SA is loaded with missions, and they are all very different. Unlike True Crime, where each mission is simply one of the few types (fight, shoot, drive, with only the character models and background art replaced), every single mission here has its very own flavor. The variety of the missions is as diverse as in barely any other game.

Not just are the missions unique by gameplay, the details also make them worthwhile. In one early mission, you are rapidly driving through the city with three of your homies in the car, trying to shake off some bangers from an enemy hood... while one of your passengers keeps complaining about his fries spilling all over the car.

You might find yourself sneaking into military bases, hijacking cars, scaring people with some aggressive driving (and the person tied to the windshield), speeding through the LA River-equivalent on a motorcycle… it is simply amazing.

Also, as is tradition with each new version of GTA, there are new moves and features: It is now possible to climb over walls, there is a more sophisticated hand-to-hand combat system. There are also lots of minigames, including a DDR-alike dancing game and even a 2-player game where you can go on drive-bys with your girl-friend.

The greatest thing however is the sheer vastness of the possibilities the game offers: In addition to virtually anything you could always do in the previous games, you can now also try to pick up girl-friends, assemble clothes for your character (you can mix and match pants, shirts, tattoos, jewelry, shoes, hats), you can work-out to show off your muscles or eat too much to become a meatball – this is a step towards a role-playing system in the game.

And, as usual, the voice talent has been chosen with great care: While the cast isn’t as star-ridden as Vice City (with exception of Samuel L. Jackson), people who are into this genre will love the classic voices: Mc Eiht and Clifton Collins Jr. (aka Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez) had both been in Menace II Society, other talents - like Kid Frost or Yo-Yo – were big artists in the early 90s. People from Southern California will also recognize Big Boy from the Power 106 radio station.

I haven’t been talking about the story yet – for a reason. Let’s go for that one next:

Carl “CJ” Johnson, an ex-gangbanger, left for Liberty City several years ago but returns to his home in Los Santos after hearing about the death of his mother. Arriving at home, he finds his old hood torn apart, his friends disrespecting him, and corrupt police officers framing him for murder. As the game progresses, Carl will have to work on all that….

One thing I didn’t like about True Crime was that the missions didn’t seem to accomplish anything. You got into a mission, “do hand-to-hand combat with [generic character A]”, you won, but that character ran away, and that was it. You didn’t feel like that mission helped you in away.

In GTA however, each mission gets you a step closer to a goal. The storyline has several threads; sometimes they run parallel; later on, the plot focuses on a particular thread, then moves to another one, but in the end, it all comes together again. It is not strictly linear, although you will eventually have to work on all threads to progress.

You can feel how you advance – as you help your hood, you see more gangbangers with your color on the streets. As you have more money, you can buy better clothes and homes. Then, when something bad happens, your environment changes. There is one particular event close to the end of the game where the entire city changes. The world seems very dynamic in this way.

The Bad

But why did I put the storyline to the end of the “good” section? Because it’s good and bad. In the beginning, the story starts off just like you would expect: You’re in the hood, you put in work with your homies, the police is after you. You advance, things get better, then something bad happens. This is all very well done and drags you into this entire story… but then, the storyline digresses. A little bit. Then more, and more. At that point, you expect the story to turn back soon – but that doesn’t happen. It makes another turn and another turn, and what started as a ghetto drama with a hoodlum in South Central now involves jet-packs, parachuting, top secret CIA missions, running a casino, helping an annoying nerd…. And feels miles away from the original premise.

This might not be necessarily bad – maybe the game would have been too boring if it had stayed on the same track the entire time. Besides, as you could imagine by just reading the paragraph above, there are many more interesting missions. But still – it felt out of place to me. Then, finally, finally, as you couldn’t get away any further, you end up going back to the hood and start more gang wars to control territory, like you did what seems like years ago.

What is really horrible though is the aiming system. The idea is not too bad: You press R1 and end up in free-aim mode where you can aim at whatever you want and shoot. If there is an enemy nearby, R1 will automatically lock on to this target. Sounds good so far… with the only problem being that if you press R1 and happen to go to free-aim mode, the camera looks at a random position.

Imagine you’re being shot at by somebody, and you can even see that person somewhere in a corner of the screen. You press R1, but the aiming system decides that that person isn’t close enough to the center and switches to free-aim mode, so the camera now looks behind you for whatever reason and you end up turning your back to your enemy! This has cost me many lives and would have been totally avoidable. I can’t believe that QA didn’t catch that.

Most of the missions are balanced neatly, but some of them are just too long. The problem is that if you fail it, you’ll have to go back to the mission’s origin, wait through the loading times, and play that mission again from the beginning. Some of them have several sub-sections, some of them easy but long… so you’ll end up playing the same thing again and again.

The role-playing element is nice, but could have used some more tweaking. You are supposed to eat to bump up your health after getting hurt, which in turn will make you fat so you have to work out to avoid becoming a greaseball… but in the end, all I did was save the game after each mission, which automatically filled my health back to max. So what’s the point of eating then? I finished the game without eating once.

Speaking of which, I’m still not fond of the saving system. You can only save at property you own. This is an inconvenience that doesn’t a lot of sense. After each mission, I had to drive to a property to save. If you die, you end up in front of the police or a hospital with all your weapons gone. And you still have to somehow get back to a mission origin to restart a mission. So I ended up just reloading the game instead.

And, like most games, well, there are still some bugs left. The collision system particularly has some flaws, I fell through the collision several times (i.e. slipped through the ground).

And a final note about the CJ character: He is supposedly a thug from the hood, he says all those badass one-liners when killing people… but then again, he often acts like a wuss. He helps out this stereotypical nerd – okay, it is for his own advantage since he later benefits from that nerd’s technical knowledge – but a real banger would never act in that way. It is simply out of character.

The Bottom Line

This game is awesome. I love it. A lot of work has gone into it, and you can tell. I loved the huge amount of possibilities this game offers.

One last thing I’d like to add though. This is more of a pet peeve of mine, but still: Back in the early 90s, the age of movies like Boyz N The Hood, Menace II Society, and the story of San Andreas, hip-hop was real, because gangbanging was real.

Now, things have changed a lot. There are still countless Blood and Crip sets, but things are very different, and therefore hip-hop has turned into a commercial franchise. It has become very popular among white people who all of a sudden start pathetic attempts at speaking Ebonics and talking about blastin’ their nines, yo. This is starting to be really annoying, and I fear that San Andreas will just make all this more popular. Its huge success has moved other game companies to follow suit – there are many more games like this released very soon.

And, as I mentioned before, I’m also worried about the lax regulations regarding M-rated titles. My girl’s 10-year-old nephew (who is black) knows about this game, and so do his friends. Virtually every line of dialog in this game talks about my [email protected]#*ing n*!$az, and this is nothing I want the kids to be exposed to. I love movies and games for mature audience, but I wish parents had more sense to make sure that the audience stays mature only – this game just raised the bar by a tremendous amount.