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SummarySome bad stuff still couldn't ruin the game for me...
The GoodI didn't like GTA III that much. It had an awesome concept, but I couldn't quite connect myself to its content. Was there any? It was more a demonstration of a cool gameplay idea than a real fleshed-out gaming experience.
Vice City was a big step forwards. It added characters and a real story line to the gameplay concept. I was glad to discover that "San Andreas" continued evolving in this direction, surpassing its predecessors in every possible aspect.
The big difference between "San Andreas" and "GTA III" is the content. "San Andreas" creates a real game world, not just a decoration, as a stage for events that have a value of their own. The plot and the characters of "San Andreas" are much more than just devices to go from one mission to another. It is actually the other way around - you'll want to go through all those missions just to learn what happens next. It won't be an exaggeration to say that "San Andreas" is worth playing for its story.
"San Andreas" starts strong. The hero's mother was killed, presumably by a rival gang, and he is back to his home town Los Ang... eh... I mean, Los Santos, to attend her funeral. He meets his brother and his former comrades, and they all agree that something must be done. The old gang begins to work together again.
This short part was already more interesting than the entire story of "GTA III". Finally, there seemed to be a good story in a GTA game, to provide motivation and the desire to finish the game. It involved personal feelings. It was something that promised to grow into a real gangster epic.
And that's why I kept enduring one mission after the other, only to push this story forward. And from time to time, the story did deliver. There are many characters involved in it and some well-made plot twists. There is a good deal of suspense and complexity, and a lot of variety that made the story go into some really unexpected directions. It was clear progress, even though it still left a lot to be desired.
Where "San Andreas" succeeds even more is characterization. Here, the quality change compared to the previous games was even more noticeable. Some of the characters in this game are truly interesting and memorable. Sometimes a character's personality revealed itself with just a few lines and characteristic manner of speech. I really didn't expect this quality, and that was the most pleasant surprise that awaited me in "San Andreas".
Along with such serious characters like Sweet or Kendl, there are also some totally grotesque figures, such as for example the insane Catalina or the hilarious hippie The Truth. And there is also a really repulsive main villain, the corrupt police officer Tenpenny. You'll really grow to hate this person. He forces you to perform hideous actions, and his cynicism is unbelievable.
The conversations in the game are really outstanding. They are lively, natural, and full of dark, grotesque humor. There are weird characters that say totally crazy lines. Sometimes I really didn't believe my ears. The game's script goes absolutely over the top. There is nothing sacred for it, it is merciless, it makes fun of everyone and everything. Really, the conversations of this game deserve a special award. But the humor was not only evident in the conversations. If you look carefully, you'll find some very funny pop culture references. And some of the stuff they say on the radio is hilarious. In fact, "San Andreas" (and GTA series in general) is one of the few examples of black humor among video games.
The game has top-notch, movie-quality voice acting. The actors delivered a stellar performance that deserves special mention. I really loved the accents of those black guys. Everyone sounded authentic, but not goofy or over-the-top.
Like its two predecessors, "San Andreas" has a huge, open-ended world, which you can explore the way you please. Unlike the two previous games, "San Andreas" has three large cities instead of one, and a lot of wilderness area between. If you think size doesn't matter, check out "San Andreas" and see how much more immersive a game becomes when it is not confined to just one city. The presence of countryside makes the game world feel just like that - like a world. The countryside was a fantastic location that enriched the game very much.
The game world is marvelously crafted and is undeniably one of the game's greatest appeals. It is one of the most beautiful game worlds I've ever come across. It reminded me of Ultima IX; even though the two worlds don't have much in common, they are both breath-takingly beautiful. Everything in the world "San Andreas" is detailed and created with love and attention. And once again, the countryside stands out; I think one of the most amazing experiences for me was climbing up Mount Chilad and just looking down at the whole thing.
The gameplay is much more fleshed out than in the two previous games. First of all, the interaction with the world was significantly expanded. You can finally swim. It was a great and much needed addition. So many times I fell into the water and died in "Vice City"; here, you can simply swim out of the car. 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. You'd say that those additions don't matter much, but they do. In a game that offers you such a large, detailed world to explore, interaction possibilities do matter. I only hope they will include more objects and the possibility to talk to people in the next GTA.
Perhaps the greatest innovation of "San Andreas" 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 system, and it's really a fantastic addition. People who disliked it didn't grasp the meaning of this system. Don't you think it was annoying to fail a mission in the previous GTAs and to end 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. All this is "saved" even if you fail a mission. It's like leveling-up in an RPG. You can just return and keep doing a hard mission over and over, and it won't be for nothing.
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 the kind of attention to detail that takes the series onto a whole new level.
There are plenty of things to do outside of the main missions. You can be a taxi driver, you can get an ambulance and care for sick people, you can become a vigilante cop, you can break into people's houses, gain territory by starting gang wars, participate in races, and more. Some of those mini-games return from the previous GTAs, some are exclusive to "San Andreas". And the best of those exclusive mini-games is the dating. You'll be able to have girlfriends in the game. You can take them to a dinner, drive them around, give them presents, and build 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 mini-game, but removed it from the final version. Luckily, you can download the "hot coffee mod" from many places. Be sure to do that, because this is not a real mod, this is a part of the game the way it was supposed to be. Game developers shouldn't be ashamed of adult content, especially when it comes in a form of an amusing, entertaining mini-game.
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 PS2 version. Really, the difference is too big to be ignored. It seems like PS2 was unable to handle those graphics, they were beyond its capability. Don't let the poor graphics of the PS2 version disappoint you: on the PC, the game looks fantastic.
Second, the controls are way better in the PC version. PS2 version has idiotic "auto-aiming" that makes shooting parts 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 the headshots.
The BadThere are some problems with the story line. The game is very, 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, most of those story missions have nothing to do with the story. They are just obstacles on your way to advancement. Sure, you get some rewards for them, but the fact they are obligatory completely annihilates their appeal as potential source of extra rewards. By their nature, they should have been optional side missions. It is as if an Elder Scrolls game forced you to do all its side quests. They could have been fun if you could choose which one you wanted to do and which one you didn't.
Let's move on to the more serious flaws. I must mention the game's protagonist, CJ. The designers really screwed this character. In the beginning, he seemed so much more than the stupid thugs from the previous GTA games. But they had to turn him into a total mess, into a character without mutually contradicting values and more than vague personality. Could you describe CJ? What kind of a person is he? Is he kind? Is he cruel? What's the most important thing for him? What does he like, what does he dislike? Let's say I'd try to conclude the answer from what CJ does in the game. Very well. During one of the missions, CJ rescues a girl from a house he himself set on fire. He doesn't think twice. This is an obligatory action: you have to enter the burning house and save a totally unknown girl. From this I conclude that CJ is a really good, compassionate, brave person. And then in another mission he has to drown two people, one of which is a girl. So he just saves, for no reason, a totally unknown girl, and within a very short time period, kills another unknown girl? Does it make any sense at all?
And this is just one drastic example; there are plenty more of those inconsistencies in the character. And no, nothing happens that would change the hero's values. The order in which you undertake the two aforementioned missions is not set. Both are obligatory, but you can do them in any order you like. You can first drown one girl, then rescue the other one. Or the other way around.
This reveals the attitude the developers have to their games. They don't take them seriously. That would be okay with GTA III, because it wasn't serious to begin with. But in "San Andreas", they managed to lure me in. It was supposed to be a serious, dark revenge story, but they carelessly turned it into a disjointed plot with a randomly acting protagonist.
But my biggest problem with "San Andreas", something that nearly made me quit playing the game, were some disgusting, revolting missions the designers felt obliged to include in the game. Usually, the missions of this game involve killing other bad guys. Most of the time they attack you the moment they see you. Unfortunately, the developers probably felt that all this stuff was too "good, and therefore boring", and decided to add some more "cool evil" stuff - obligatory, like everything else in the game. There is a mission in which you must kill two unarmed people. One of them is a manager who must be killed only because he dislikes the songs written by your twisted friend, the one who gives you the mission. The other is his girlfriend. You have to kill them by driving them into the water, allowing them to drown. Okay, the manager was obviously a bastard, but what about the girl?
Then there is another mission in which you have to kill a valet in order to get his uniform. You have to kill him. The game forces you to. You can't intimidate him. You can't beat him up. You can't knock him unconscious. When I knocked him down, hoping the game will be satisfied with that. But it was satisfied only when the valet's blood started gushing out of his body. And the valet didn't even resist. He didn't even hit me back once. He was a completely innocent person the game forced me to kill.
But there's more. In another mission you must bury a worker alive in cement just because he whistled at your sister. Okay, so he was the foreman of the workers who tried to kill me after I destroyed their constructions, but why did the game make me kill him in such a fashion?
Can I ask you something? Am I the only one who was bothered by that? Am I the only one who thought this was distasteful? I really think the developers of this game might need a psychiatrist. I've seen much worse cases in games (the rape scene from Three Sisters' Story), but this was close enough. Sure, it was supposed to be black humor. But I don't think it was amusing.
I have no problem that this game allows you to kill innocents. That would be your choice, and your choice only. I actually love this kind of freedom, I like it that you can always choose whether to be good or evil. But here, they made me do evil things for no reason at all. That's where I draw the line. And I'm very, very surprised that nobody else seems to have been bothered by this design philosophy.
The concept of a protagonist turns games into a moral medium. The protagonist is your alter ego. It is you, the player, reincarnated on the game screen. No matter how you feel, it is so. You can watch "Silence of the Lambs" and still come out clean because you weren't controlling Hannibal. But you can't come clean out of this. If a game leaves the protagonist choices, it would be your fault if you make him do something evil. But if a game forces its protagonist to do something evil, then it is its own fault, and its own moral responsibility.
The Bottom Line+ Much more interesting characters and story
+ Great dialogues, voice acting, and humor
+ Fantastic gameplay additions
+ The world is huge and more detailed than ever
+ Same addictive fun
- Some missions are morally disturbing
- The personality of the protagonist is messed up
- Too many obligatory missions
There were a couple of missions that nearly made me quit playing the game. It is sad that the developers didn't have enough good taste to leave those missions out. But other than that, "San Andreas" was an overwhelming experience for me. Strong story line that forces you to press forward, grotesque characters, and lively dialogues with unique black humor make the game much more than just driving around and killing people. It builds upon the successful formula of "GTA III", adding to it content and gameplay depth. It expands this formula so much that it almost becomes a real epic, open-ended RPG, with all the furious action still intact. "San Andreas" is an engrossing game, and I hope it will be appreciated for the right reasons.