• GTA San Andreas Review - Sony PS2 - Grand Theft Auto

    It’s funny, the things that can be achieved when you’re standing still, faced with a brick wall, nothing to play with but a confined and ageing workspace. Consider GTA Vice City – a game with almost no forward momentum, instead expanding to fill those last vacant gaps within the limits of PS2 hardware. Behind every new interior, chainsaw and motorbike are the same building blocks, polished and rearranged with undeniable finesse.

    The overwhelming presumption when approaching yet another GTA is that there are none of these gaps left to fill; that here is a game with its eyes on pockets instead of progress. Boasting a map some four times the size of Vice City’s, the game would surely require a string of destructive concessions to even approach becoming reality. Rockstar North’s ambitions – based on what has gone before – seemed destined to be crushed by natural gaming law.

    Incredibly, it’s these boundaries of technology and creativity that are ultimately crushed by GTA San Andreas – an ingenious colossus of a game that frequently defies belief.

    As a series, GTA is unique in that its mere expansion can yield unusually impressive results. Details - regarded as polish in most games – are the lifeblood of its virtual reality. The more expansive, convincing and distracting its world, the more we are temporarily severed from our own. San Andreas isn’t great because it’s bigger – it’s great because, despite its epic geography, it’s somehow even more detailed than the series has been before. With three cities and a wealth of territory in-between, the game is truly at a stage where, if you squint with your mind’s eye, you can see a functioning society sprawled out before you.

    Of course, a drama requires more than just a stage – San Andreas, commendably, has a very mature approach to both its characters and story. Importantly, there is more to this game than the gangbangers, pimps and hos that first impressions might suggest. Rockstar have shrewdly identified that, compared to the 1980s and the Gangster genre, the world of gang violence and Hip Hop lacks the mileage for a grand enterprise such as this. What San Andreas represents is homage to the entire West Coast region and its rich cinematic heritage. Though CJ - the player-character – is a bona-fide Gangsta and the trunk of his story is derived from the likes of Juice, Menace II Society and Boyz ’n’ The Hood, the overall picture is far more eclectic. As it sweeps through thinly veiled interpretations of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, the game references a mesmerising range of movies from Terminator 2 and First Blood to the works of Don Siegel and Michael Mann.

    ‘Eclectic’ is a word one frequently attaches to this game, apt as it increasingly proves to be. Mechanically, the GTA engine is so versatile and so perfectly geared towards mimicking reality that its usage is as diverse as the imagination allows. With San Andreas, the margins of that engine have extended to keeping your character fed, clothed, exercised and generally trained in society’s essential arts. In this case, those arts include posing, romancing and, most importantly, orchestrating untold amounts of mayhem. Physical, vehicular and combative skills can all be upgraded, leading to noticeable increases in the ease and deftness with which you perform associated tasks. The tasks themselves now include the likes of fence-hopping, cycling and, not before time, swimming (both on and beneath the water). To cap it all off, CJ’s physical form adapts to the manner in which you keep him; too much junk-food makes him fat, too much muscle and he becomes an ambling meathead.

    Here is a game – a project, moreover – that has crossed a boundary of depth crucial to its goal. GTA wants to replace your life, transplanting you to a playground of social misdemeanour that you’ll never want to leave. With San Andreas, that playground has become so enormous and complex that it exceeds the periphery of a person’s imagination; it simply can’t be appreciated without indulging, at enormous length, in its labyrinthine design and endless minutiae. The car modification, the two-player missions (a crude-yet-serviceable addition), the time-devouring gang wars, the glorious pimping – it’s all too much for the escapist gamer to take. Because so many human and social actions and interactions are implemented, San Andreas can construct seemingly endless varieties of missions; burglaries, turf wars, parachuting, dancing, photography – on and on it goes.

    By its nature, however, San Andreas can prove a bumpy ride. This is a series that frequently clashes with the limits of technology, breaking through them but occasionally being broken in return. Frame rates and load times, inevitably, are the Achilles heel. Put simply, some will find the routine pattern of chugs and grinds to be fatal. Others (the majority, most likely) will gradually adapt to the inconsistency, falling deep beneath the surrounding spell. The game is undeniably a masterpiece of dynamic rendering and throughput, constantly cycling data from the disc while providing an always playable experience. Moreover, it serves as a perfect candidate for hard drive installation, as facilitated by recent third-party software such as HDAdvance. The game’s performance when liberated from its DVD is remarkable, loading times reduced to practically zero, your optical drive most probably saved from an early demise. Say what you like about the ethics of this practice – the benefits here are significant.

    It seems that, in terms of flaws, optimism is the ongoing prerequisite of the GTA experience. The regularity of these games has made us privy to a continuing experiment in scale, complexity and alternate reality. Of the participant, this requires a varying degree of tolerance for the sake of overall effect. Though the blurry trails are out and widescreen support is in, San Andreas still employs a raft of visual workarounds to keep it afloat. There are drops in resolution when moving at high speed, mixed-res environments and often heavy aliasing. Though there’s a fun-factory without equal behind the borders of San Andreas, there are terms you must accept when you go in. The PC and (as yet unannounced) Xbox versions are, for sure, going to be very interesting prospects indeed.

    Like all experiments, then, with GTA’s trials comes error. So when, for example, San Andreas confronts us with missions like ‘Supply Lines’ and ‘Vertical Bird’ – genuine airborne horrors – we think of those hundred-plus other missions that are seldom less-than-enjoyable. Likewise, when a quirk of collision detection or handling turns our pristine convertible into an upwardly-mobile fireball, we remember that it is but a ‘quirk’. There are, after all, dozens upon dozens of vehicles here – all enjoyable to control in their own way. The variety and consistency of pleasure within San Andreas is so astounding that its faults are, for the most part, wholly forgivable.

    Let’s not forget, also, the high production values that we’ve come to expect. Samuel L. Jackson, Jonathan Anderson and Young Maylay provide superb vocals for their characters, backed by a talented and often surprising supporting cast. The game’s radio stations, yet again, provide an impeccably selected, finely mixed and hilariously delivered soundtrack. This is, in fact, the most impressive licensed soundtrack a game has ever had.

    Still, though, areas do exist where eyebrows will rise and smiles will drop. Targeting, for one, is as cumbersome as ever with a lock-on that frequently requires help rather than offering it. Close encounters are a complete lottery, one time culminating in a clean kill, the next degenerating into aimless and painful disarray. While the combat system has successfully integrated many of Manhunt’s stealth and fighting controls, it has failed to shake off its own particular demons.

    Rest assured, though – there’s more at work here than a review such as this could hope to describe. Between its towering mountains and vast waters there are surprises, in-jokes and events in San Andreas to fill at least a hundred hours. Should GTA4 be any more involving, there’ll be no one left to see how GTA5 turns out. Half of us will no longer have the jobs to afford it; the other half will be motoring back and forth in the neighbours’ stolen car, endlessly prowling for prostitutes.

    A review by Duncan Harris