Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181424)
Written on  :  May 02, 2007
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars

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Quintessence of free-form action

The Good

San Andreas is the logical next step in the growth of a series that continued to expand in size and variety. Suffice to say that this game absolutely dwarfs its already very impressive predecessor in size and content.

Like the previous games, San Andreas has a huge, open-ended world that you can explore to your heart's content. Unlike them, San Andreas has three large cities instead of one, and a lot of wilderness between them. The presence of countryside makes the open world seem more coherent and immersive, adding a sense of breadth and scope and re-defining the very concept: indeed, the playground here feels more like a real world than ever before in the series.

Everything in the world of San Andreas is detailed and created with love and attention. There are diverse neighborhoods bustling with activity, memorable landmarks and little atmospheric spots you'll be seeking out. One of the most fulfilling experiences for me was climbing up Mount Chilad, standing on the top, gazing at the beautiful world beneath, and then jumping down on a motorcycle.

The game's many story missions are an absolute triumph of inventive design - which is particularly remarkable considering the fact that the earlier games weren't exactly repetitive themselves. San Andreas has plenty of ridiculously fun missions ranging from simple races and chases to challenging, hardcore shooting levels and often hilarious arcade-like scripted events of all sorts. The amount of vehicles you can commandeer in this game is truly mind-boggling: from simple bicycles to war planes, from monster trucks to tractors, trains, and everything you can think of that has wheels or can fly. And don't forget fun equipment such as a jetpack on top of that.

The gameplay is generally more fleshed out and even more varied than in the two previous games. First of all, the interaction with the world was significantly expanded. You can finally swim. You can also dive and hunt for oysters. Another important addition is climbing. Don't see a way into the house? Climb over the fence. Climb onto the roof, maybe there is some weapon there. Or just go and jump on the roofs for fun.

Another interesting addition is the new RPG-like system. Run around a lot and your stamina will increase. Ride a bike and you'll gain better bike skill. It's a simple, effective mechanic, and it works quite well. People who disliked it may have not grasped the meaning of this system. Don't you think it was annoying to fail a mission in the previous GTAs, ending up in a hospital without your weapons? Most people just reloaded, to spare themselves the trouble of getting new weapons and going back to the starting point of the mission. In San Andreas, this feature finally has a meaning. You can fail a mission several times, but you can always gain something from it. You might gain muscle, maximum HP, weapon or driving skill, which are all saved. It's like leveling-up in an RPG - you can return and redo a hard mission, having more of an edge in it each time you try.

But there is a lot more. You can customize your protagonist's appearance, changing his clothes and haircut. You can also eat to gain health. If you eat too much, you'll become fat. You can exercise or simply run around to lose weight. But if you become too thin, you'll be exhausted. And no, you don't have to eat regularly to keep your character alive, as some people say. It is just attention to detail and design generosity.

As always, there are plenty of things to do outside of the main missions. You can be a taxi driver, get an ambulance and care for sick people, become a vigilante cop, break into people's houses, gain territory by starting gang wars, participate in races, and more. Some of those minigames return from the previous GTAs, some are exclusive to San Andreas. The best of those exclusive ones is probably the dating. You'll be able to have girlfriends in the game. You can take them to dinner, drive them around, give them presents, and build up your relationship. Finally, if you do everything right, the girl will invite you to "have coffee". As everyone knows, the official version of San Andreas was censored; the developers already programmed a whole explicit sexual minigame, but removed it from the final version. Luckily, you can download the "hot coffee mod" from many places. I don't quite see why game developers have to remove fairly meaningful sexual content from a game that focuses on killing other human beings - which, apparently, is quite alright to present in a digitized form.

The ability to download the mod is not the main reason why you should get the PC version. First, the graphics are much better than in the console version. Second, the controls are way more fitting. The console version has idiotic "auto-aiming" that makes shooting sequences a total mess. Every enemy takes several shots to kill, and more often than not you won't be able to target the enemy you want to kill first. In the PC version, it's very simple: just target with the mouse and practice headshots.

The game's story is long and deals with a wider variety of themes than just the rise to power among greedy gangsters. The presence of family and friends make the protagonist seem more humane, though some missions do everything they can to overturn that assumption. The more down-to-earth atmosphere allows introduction of more believable characters joining the ranks of totally grotesque figures that surpass the wacky madmen of the previous games. The main villain is appropriately repulsive, and there are interesting moments in the story when the issues of trust and betrayal are brought forth.

Much of the dialogue is marked by careless, profane humor that distinguished the series - but it is also quite well-written. Voice acting is top-notch as well. There are weird characters with totally crazy lines, and sometimes the whole thing almost feels surreal. The game's script goes absolutely over the top, making mean fun of everyone and everything. Of course, there are also very funny pop culture references, And some of the stuff they say on the radio is absolutely hilarious.

The Bad

There are some problems with the pacing. The game is very long, and the story is just "smeared" over dozens of missions, most of which don't advance it at all. Which brings me to the next flaw: all the so-called "story missions" of the game must be completed. All of them. If you miss one, you won't trigger another one, and so on. You can often choose the order in which you want to complete the missions, but that's it.

Problem is, many of those story missions have nothing to do with the story, and the inclusion of some of them into the canvas of the narrative feels forced. Much of the material here turns the main character into a schizophrenic with mutually contradicting values and more than a vague personality. For example, during one of the missions CJ rescues a girl he has never met before from a house he himself set on fire. On another mission he has to drown two people he barely knows. You can do those two missions in a row if you so wish. This kind of jarring ambiguity could have been avoided if the game let you choose the missions you actually want to do.

Obviously, GTA games can't afford being too squeamish because of their very concept, but San Andreas can cross the line between understandable gangster violence and pure murder. There is a mission that forces you to kill an innocent valet, even though knocking him unconscious would have been a more plausible solution. In another mission you must bury a somewhat hostile worker alive in cement. I find this kind of black humor unnecessary in a game where violence is already easily glorified.

Again, the ability to choose your own missions among those often gratuitously violent escapades, the right to skip any or all of them and just stick with the gangster wars for the mandatory story missions would be welcome. The plot suffers from that as well, being actually involving only in the beginning and in the end, with the largest chunk of the game dedicated to absolutely disjointed activities in a deranged theme park.

The Bottom Line

San Andreas is more than just its series taken to the most radical heights: it is a massive sandbox adorned with incredible gameplay variety, a giant that throws fun at us with royal magnanimity and from a seemingly inexhaustible source. It may not be the deepest and most thought-provoking experience, but it is one of the most purely entertaining games I have ever played.