I seem to be one of the few people who’ve noticed a key irony of San Andreas: the game was developed by Rockstar North. Rockstar North is headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland. This means that a game about black and Mexican gangs in California - I mean, San Andreas - was in all likelihood developed by pasty-white, middle-class guys from a country whose worst gangsters bear more resemblance to Robert Carlyle in Trainspotting than Ice Cube in Boyz N the Hood.
I could be falling into movie stereotypes, but it’s fitting to mention them because San Andreas’ main references are early-90's gangland films such as Boyz and Menace II Society. The shocking part is that the writing (aided by D.J. Pooh, who wrote the original Friday) manages to do justice to them. The characters and dialogue are halfway naturalistic, and brought to life by A-list actors including Samuel Jackson, Peter Fonda, James Woods, and David Cross. If it weren’t constrained by having to be a fun Grand Theft Auto game at the same time, SA would make a great movie. With two major exceptions the PC port (of the PS2 original) is just further enhancement.
To recap the premise: it’s 1992 and Carl Johnson is returning to Los Santos in the wake of his mother’s murder. His former gang, the Grove Street Families, is dwindling. As if things couldn’t be worse, he, his brother, and others are being blackmailed by a group of corrupt LSPD cops. Broke and wanting revenge, Carl goes back to doing what he knows: gangbanging.
The rest of the plot emphasizes that SA is big. Whereas GTA3 and Vice City each stuck to a single city, in SA the player will guide Carl through three cities (Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas) as well as the connecting countryside before events come to a close. Some missions take place statewide.
Travel alone prolongs gameplay, but at a minimum of 20-30 hours, the game is as lengthy as it is because the missions are numerous and varied. A lot of these are to be expected; the “pick up X here, drop off Y there” formula is back, but then there are missions where you have to perform drive-bys, steal packages off of moving superbikes, or fight battles using RC toys. Only someone who’s been jaded by playing GTA for years would find SA (completely) boring.
The game continues the GTA tradition of providing gratuitous extra content to mess around with, between or after the story missions. There’s gang territory, an advanced driving school, and more. Rewards for these objectives vary. At 100% game completion though, players receive, among other things, infinite ammo and permanent respawns of a jet and tank at Grove Street. In spite of the chance that 95% of players will never achieve this, it might be worth attempting it for bragging rights, not to mention supplies for the inevitable five-star shooting sprees. Having so much room to be chased around in can’t help but be entertaining.
The aging GTA3 engine has been tweaked again in some subtle yet important ways. Leading the pack of visual changes, the draw distance has been extended to miles if your hardware supports it, which it should if it’s a mid- to high-end system. It comes as a result of Rockstar having shrunk map loading to nil outside of start-up and transitioning to indoor environments. The effect is particularly pronounced on the PC, since it benefits from gobs of RAM and hard-drive space. That such an enormous game can run this fluidly is amazing.
Physics have been altered most noticeably in wheeled vehicles. There’s increased give in their suspension, and they’re more prone to losing grip in hard turns, which can be fortunate or unfortunate depending on the situation and/or your driving skill. If nothing else it makes for spectacular crashes.
Speaking of skills, Carl has stats for actions like driving that can be enhanced by the player. Often it’s as simple as repeating the action; the longer you drive, the better Carl can handle a vehicle. Some stats are cumulative, such as for the painfully overdue ability to swim. “Swimming” doesn’t exist as an individual stat. Muscle, Stamina and Lung Capacity all have to be built up before Carl can do much in the water - diving and going to a gym will help. Finally, Respect is earned nearly exclusively in the social sphere (missions, territory, girlfriends, etc.) and affects the number of Grove Street OG’s Carl can recruit.
Considered whole SA has improved as a PC port. Textures are de facto sharper, though they blur at closer range than they ought to. Anti-aliasing, higher resolutions, and the previously-mentioned draw distances are scalable. User-made radio stations now have the advantage of multi-format support (MP3, OGG, WMA, etc.) and the option of having Rockstar’s fake ads blended in.
The first of the exceptions to the port’s quality is with the controls. A mouse and keyboard are superior to a gamepad for running, swimming and shooting, but Rockstar is still too literal in translating console controls for flying. They cry out for reduced sensitivity. With the keyboard flying accuracy is virtually impossible, to the point that in playing for review, I was failing missions that would be a cinch in comparable titles. And the mouse? I’d honestly laugh at trying to drive or fly with that.
The second exception involves bugs, one of which might stop you from finishing the game. A mission called “Amphibious Assault” requires swimming through porous crags off a beach in San Fierro. The trouble is that these holes are submerged and by some bizarre logic, you can’t dive deep enough unless the frame limiter is set to “on” in the Display menu. I’m indebted to a poster on Shacknews.com who solved this for me.
Any remaining problems are endemic to SA’s design. The time spent driving between cities can be monotonous, and should’ve signalled to the mappers that the highways could stand to be straighter, or that the mission boundaries could be smaller. In early country missions you can drive an eternity before the game presents a nearby save location.
Console gamers would probably agree that the “Supply Lines” mission should never, ever, ever have been included in the game with the physics currently applied to the RC plane. The plane rolls over without even touching the controls, so what hope does a PC player have of completing the mission, except through superhuman patience? The gym I practice kickboxing at advertises “guaranteed stress relief;” it’s a good thing they’re right, otherwise my entire day might’ve been ruined. Literally, flying a real plane can be easier. I’ve done it.
But damn it feels good to be a gangsta. When you’re not stuck with vehicles that simulate drunk driving, SA represents the best entry in the GTA series to date. There’s an unbelievable amount of things to do and fun to be had, much of it at the player’s whim. If developers have any sense we’ll see dozens of copycats in the future, as if there weren’t enough for GTA3. Any mistakes in San Andreas due to consumption of haggis are forgiven.