Friday, 27 June 2014

The Past and Times of Yore: Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, The Original Gangsta of all Trades

Release date: 29/8/2004 (PS2)
Genre: Action-Adventure
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Platforms: PS2/XBOX 360/PC
Players: 1-2
Online Classification: M (ESRB)

Well well, I can’t really believe I haven’t done a review of this gem, and what a gem, it’s like a giant ruby, like the giant rubies I used to collect on the Forbidden Bridge, actually I’m not thinking straight as looking back now it’s like an old car that was amazing and cool for its time but now looks as unfashionable as baggy pants these days but you still drive it even if people ridicule you for it or in my case still wear the damn pants cause I CAN. Well actually I wasn’t wearing pants when I was playing, and before you all reel back in disgust it’s because I was wearing shorts, yes that’s correct. The reason being was during a particularly warm period in Melbourne’s summer where it was constantly over 40 degrees and I had moved in to my new apartment not so long ago which only had air conditioning in the main room (only fans in the bedroom) so playing on my computer would have been unhealthy for both me and it (goddamn I came home some days and it was 33 degrees in my room alone) When I moved I took the Playstation 1 and 2 consoles that my brother and I had both bought but not the PS3 as my brother played that much more than me, so I only had those to choose from.

Oh yeh, that's how we rolled back then.
 So for my hot weather couch gaming sessions I obviously needed to choose a console and a game, I chose the PS2 as I tried some PS1 games inc Tenchu 2 and Spyro the Dragon but they looked so awful on new TV’s I couldn’t do it. I actually have a Playstation 1 Emulator which I use to play the games as the anti aliasing you can get on them makes them look much better, unfortunately as the Playstation 2’s “Emotion Engine” is quite difficult to emulate PS2 emulator’s don’t work so well, one seemed to work when I tried it though they still look ok on newer TV’s. I needed a game which was long enough to last the period but also be fun in an nostalgic way. So I chose San Andreas as since I’m currently waiting for GTA5 to come out on PC, I needed a GTA fix again, and it would be good to reminisce.

The infamous Grove st cul-de-sac
So back on topic Grand Theft Auto San Andreas was quite a milestone in the GTA history, probably not so much as GTA3 which when it arrived on Playstation 2 in all its 3rd person 3D glory, but saying that San Andreas was by far the biggest GTA for its time. After the success of GTA3 and then Vice City things just seemed to get better, and bigger, and when the next instalment was announced my brother and I hungrily anticipated what would come next reading over all the details and previews of the game. And when it finally came out it caused nothing less of a stir achieving the best-selling video game of 2004 and selling over 27 million copies as of 2011; it remains the best-selling PlayStation 2 game of all time. San Andreas is based primarily around the fictional state of San Andreas (which is actually an earthquake fault line in California) The “state” of San Andreas consists of three metropolitan cities: Los Santos, based on Los Angeles, San Fierro, based on San Francisco; and Las Venturas, based on Las Vegas

A fill landscape map of San Andreas, as you can see it's quite large.
 When you boot up the game and hear that excellent soundtrack you know that you are immediately going to be immersed in 90’s gang culture argued by some as to where it was at its peak in the early 90’s and undeniably in LA was where the action was especially with black culture. A few previous GTA games namely Vice City set in the Miami in the Mid 80’s and the older expansion for GTA1 London 1969 were based around parts of the world which had some historical significance around them at the time and San Andreas was no different. I always knew that GTA comes come with a huge amount of references and easter eggs through the game from movies and TV but I had no idea that it had this had so much reference to real-life events such as the rivalry between the Bloods and Crips street gangs, the crack epidemic, the Rampart scandal, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The different areas are also packed with movie referenced gameplay from Boyz in the Hood to casino Heist films such as Ocean’s Eleven but it could be anything really, in this game you do so much it’s hard to keep up with the story and remember you’re just a two-bit gangsta from the “hood”.

Your sworn enemy the Ballas gang, possibly akin to "The Bloods" of real-life LA
The story this time begins with Carl Johnson (CJ) who is the main protagonist of the game. Carl is a twenty-something black male who is returning to Los Santos to attend the funeral of his mother who has been killed, the opening scenes show him at the airport then being removed from his Taxi by the C.R.A.S.H Officers, Frank Tenpenny, Eddie Pulaski and Jimmy Hernandez who take his money and bag and dump him in enemy gang territory. This is the classic down-on-your-luck-slow-to-get-started kind of opening I like, you start off with nothing and you have to work yourself by starting off slow and everything is easy and simple to start with, too many games these days want you to “hit the ground running” I hated this statement in job descriptions and I hate it when applied to games. It’s happened in a few of the games I’ve played namely Battlefield 3 and most of the Need for Speed series they sort of just throw you into the action where you got this high end car or weapon and most of the time you have to win, it’s supposed to be a sort of “taste of what’s yet to come” and some people like this but frankly I don’t.

Ahh the classic beginning for an RPG, you start with nothing, no money, no weapons, nothing.
 But anyway as with previous GTA games you play as Carl throughout the entire game. The story revolves around the main theme of Carl who is part of the Grove Street Families (GSF) Gang and the C.R.A.S.H officers who were involved with the murder of his mother, their liaison with the Ballas (GSF’s rival gang) and their apparent vendetta against CJ’s brother and Grove Street Families Gang Leader Sean "Sweet" Johnson. The first part of the story plays out in Los Santos and shows how CJ decides to stay in the city and help his brother Sweet and their fellow OG’s Big Smoke and Ryder build their gang back up from the brink of destruction. A first it play out small time with you invading crack dens and shooting up gang members but then gets to some rather cinematic moments like car chases that could have been out of a blockbuster action film. Following the climatic ending to the Los Santos story you get booted out into a hick town in the country which is quite a difference from the cityscapes that you spent almost all your time in the previous GTA games. That’s right San Andreas had a quite large stretch of country woodland (and rocky desert on the Las Venturas part of the map) which was amazing to see in a GTA game, there’s quite literally a dense forest on the map and boy is it fun to hoon around in on a quad bike or buggy. I’m not going to describe in detail the whole storyline but basically CJ starts off in Los Santos then gets exiled to the (presumably LA) countryside then heads to San Fierro where he acquires a garage, then on to the rocky desert where he obtains an airstrip and infiltrates Area 52, he then goes on to Las Venturas where he helps set up a Casino and also helps do a heist on one. He then trots on back to Los Santos to finish things off with some high stakes shenanigans and a showdown with the main villain.

CJ with Smoke, Sweet and Ryder
 So as you’re probably thinking wow you go through 3 cities in the one GTA game this must be huuuuuge, and it is, it may not have been huge to early MMO’s but for an action RPG it was gigantic and you have so many extra real-life activities as well as the story. My brother mentioned at one point back then that his favourite part was in Los Santos at the start as when you get to the country and start robbing country town banks, doing high speed chases on quad bikes and using a flamethrower to destroy evidence of a weed plantation before the cops come it gets pretty silly not to mention what you do in the desert which is even more ridiculous and harder still to identify a young black male from downtown LA to be doing these things.

Now really this is getting kinda silly
But I suppose that doesn’t need to matter cause these things are fun and I had a heap of fun doing them. Controlling CJ hasn’t changed much from previous GTA games, you move around and run and jump using the same buttons as before. The lock on reticle that you used to aim and fire now has various colours to show the health of the enemy, going fright bright green down to red then black for dead. There is however some more advanced combat techniques that you get shown at the start such ducking and rolling to avoid fire and shooting a cars gas tank to blow it up, you can also now move while crouching which is used in a  few missions which require stealth as well as stealth kills with the knife.

The game now includes new lock-on and crouching mechanics
CJ can also climb and swim, bringing some much needed athletics to the GTA characters as it was kind of silly before where you could only do a small jump to get over things, Rockstar themselves said  “We added swimming because we got tired of people saying “why can’t you swim in the game?”” and goddamn rightly so if you ask me.  I mean seriously was that the only reason? It was kind of stupid how you couldn’t swim in the first previous games anyway though I think the real reason was that the water was there to act as a barrier to the other islands while the bridges were either broken or blocked off but in San Andreas you can swim or even take a boat to the other cities regardless of whether you have progressed there or not. They did put in feature though that if you did manage to get to another landmass before you were meant to be there you automatically gained a 5 star wanted level and that of course meant that armoured SUV’s full of FIB (no I didn’t spell that wrong) agents armed with MP5s pull up and shoot you to pieces, I would have thought this would be unnecessary but apparently Rockstar really want people to play the story mode through.

Swimming, underwater too (though there's not much to see) a much needed addition to the series
In addition to climbing and swimming there’s now various stats including Respect, Stamina, Muscle, Fat and Sex Appeal. Stamina is gained over time by running and walking while Fat and Muscle are both raised and lowered by eating and going to the gym respectively, for example if you eat too much you get fat obviously and the more you go to the gym the more muscle you get. The gym has various activities including dumbbells and deadlift for gaining muscle and exercise bike and treadmill for losing fat though fat can also be lost by not eating of course and just simply running around, you can also learn new fighting moves at the various gyms around the city. Respect can be gained permanently by completing missions or temporarily wearing certain clothes while sex appeal can be raised by wearing certain clothes and bulking up.

Yes, he does lift
The customization in the game is greater than ever before, most of the beginning missions teach that the player that they can change CJ’s hair, clothes and tattoos in various shops around the game world. To be perfectly honest though these mechanics were more annoying then useful, my brother and I got a bit annoyed with the constant nagging of the game that “you are getting hungry and need to eat” (or your muscle bar will go down) got pretty annoying especially when you weren’t doing the story mode just mucking around and we were glad that they were removed in GTA 4. Another thing I found quite a waste of time was the Girlfriends mechanic as when I tried dating girls it became more tedious each time, dancing to those annoying rhythm based minigames, going out to restaurants and of course you never saw the sex, well at least you weren’t supposed to. Goddamn it’s seems scarily akin to real life.

Don't do it CJ!
It’s amazing how large this game is, as it includes a hundred things that you can do but forget about inc Pool (8-ball), Arcade games, Basketball and even small things like being able to get cans and snacks from vending machines to replenish your hunger. Once Las Venturas is unlocked the player can also gamble in the casinos as well as gambling on Pool and other things. There are the usual missions from previous games including Vigilante, Paramedic, Taxi and Fire truck missions, you can also go to strip clubs or enjoy service of prostitutes.

Pool is cool, though hard, lost a bit of money to this.
While I won’t go into details some new extra features include:

Pushbikes: There are a variety of bicycles introduced (as wekk as a bike skill) for the first time to a GTA game, these include mountain, BMX and chopper style bikes

Mod Garages:  Los Santos has a Lowrider shop which allows you to customize lowrider cars, San Fierro has a shop called “Transfender” (lol) which is a haven for street racing which is a big feature in the storyline in and leading up to San Fierro and there is at least one auto shop in each city which caters for modifications including NoS and body mods depending on which kind of car you have.

Burglary: Introduced in the storyline and only available at night via accessing a certain black van in each city, you drive around and silently infiltrate houses to steal things like TV’s and Microwaves with a risk to alerting the police.

Import Export: Obtain various vehicles from a  list on the board near a freight ship and load them on with a crane for moneys.

Trucking Missions: Drive a truck and either get to a destination fast, carefully, or avoiding the cops depending on the cargo.

Train Missions: Unlocked in Las Venturas (though you can driver a train anytime) commandeer a train across the whole map again and again for cash, much exciting!

2 Player Co-op: The PS2 and Xbox versions feature a co-op mode, which allowed 2 players to either 'free roam' or go on a 'rampage'. This is limited in a way as both players have to be on screen at the same time but still created some hilarious scenes from my tiem playing with friends, it was quite annoying however that two player could only travel in a vehicle with two doors and two visible seats so you couldn’t both travel in vehicles like buses and passenger planes which was kind of stupid.

Bikes: Another welcome addition to the GTA series

 There are various boards with race meets similar to Vice city which involve all kinds of terrain and vehicles including offroad buggy races and time trials in planes and boats, winning these races is made easier depending on your skill with various vehicles (Bike, Boat, Driving and Flight) and there are 4 schools which have various lessons/challenges to complete and depending on whether you get Bronze, Silver or Gold for all of them gets you up to 3 vehicles spawning outside the school. All I can say is getting all gold is freakin hard especially in the driving school. There is also various events on at the stadiums around the world, from destruction derbys to motorbike "trial" style events.

Wooo Barnstorming!
San Andreas has the biggest list of Weaponry so far, with various types of each slot of weapon, a new feature is weapon skill which when shooting accurately with certain weapons allows you to gain skill with them eventually allowing you to move while aiming, and your lock-on range, accuracy, rate of fire, and strafe speed increase and eventually move while firing. The shooting gallery missions in the Ammunition stores also make a return allowing you to hone your skills there.

And you’re going to be needing skill with weapons as you’re going to be doing a shitload of shooting , most of east Los Santos and some other parts of the map are “gang territory” indicated by coloured overlays in certain areas. CJ’s “Grove Street Families” gang is green and around the area you can see your homies which when enough respect is gained, you can recruit to roll with you. When travelling around enemy gang territory they will obviously be hostile towards you and your homies will be towards them, it’s kinda fun to see them hanging out of the car while shooting and having to move around depending on which way you turn, you do quite a lot of shooting either while driving or being a passenger making the tec-9 and Uzi type weapons important. Gang territory can be won and lost and this is a large part of playing in Los Santos just remember it comes back into play when you get back to the city so don’t try to take over all the damn territories at the start like I did lol.

Gangsta shot
If enemy gangs weren’t enough there is also the ever present 5-0, the Police, like in Vice city thankfully aren’t always out to get you and might occasionally attack enemy gang members depending on who shot first, though most of the time it’s you. The tiers are relatively the same as before with four, five and six stars bringing in SWAT, FBI and the Army respectively.

Cops on bikes! yeeeow!
 Lastly the collectibles bracket includes more than ever before with most unique to each city:

Los Santos Gang Tags: CJ can spray over enemy gang tags with his own.
San Fierro Snapshots: Take photos of unique buildings/locations
Las Venturas Horseshoes: Nothing special here just collect for money.
Oysters: These are scattered underwater throughout the map which CJ has to swim to get to.

"Collectibles" are now kinda fun to do I especially like the spraying over gang tags and collecting oyesters
  Of all the good parts of San Andreas the graphics probably were the most lacklustre, I mean yes there were games that looked better but these graphics are slightly better than Vice City anyway and most people really didn’t care, I certainly didn’t. Most of the people I talked to at the time didn’t even mention the graphics, but reading some of the reviews now at least some people were disappointed. San Andreas at times can look really bad, like intermediate Tafe 3D animation bad and parts of the game can appear very murky, this is often felt at certain times of the day, I noticed that the explosions looked much better at day rather than night as at night there was this sort of neon-effect which gave the fire and explosions this green and blue tinge. You could really sense the hours changing as the game featured very orange sunsets and sunrises and for some reason there seemed to be this glitch that vehicles appeared very dark although it was sunny outside.

A bright day in eastern Los Santos, the cars look ok in this instance.
The world overall most of the time appeared quite bland of course you could argue that’s what it’s supposed to be like as based in gritty gangster neighbourhood LA but technically this doesn’t apply to the rest of Los Santos or San Fierro or Las Venturas for that matter, but hey let’s face it, the PS2 graphics although not spectacular were still better then the blocky polygonal people from the PS1 days and hey it looked and felt heaps better then GTA3. There are still some great scenes in the game, the desert and woodland country looks great and so does the raised flora including tall grass and wheat, the cities and towns although somewhat lacklustre are appropriate, with the right people in the right places, people around the gang territories predominately black or hispanic, people in the country are hillbillies and people in Las Venturas are extravagant, exotic and also Elvis, lots of Elvis.

Landscapes like this were unheard of in previous GTA games
A few people have said that the cars don’t look to detailed enough though I don’t know why, the interiors look more detailed than ever and you don’t even have an in-car view. The annoying Blur effect is still there however and you didn’t get a reprieve of this until GTAIV and I don’t even know whether the console version had the option to turn it off. For the most part the graphics are fine, it’s very hard to judge by today’s standards which are obviously much better than this. Just playing GTA4 I was amazed at the ragdoll physics and level of details that had come about but of course that’s what GTAIV was about, gritty realism, you didn’t go parachuting our of planes in that one oh no, and you can forgive them for giving up some graphical quality for a huge amount of game play in an immense world.

The cars looked fine to me, FOOM!
 The Radio and Music in general are spot on I reckon, it’s got that awesome smooth hip hop intro and all of the music in the sequences and film clips are great too, I especially like how there’s a sort of ‘theme’ for when the CRASH cops come into the screen. The Radio has a good selection of music, there the two appropriate rap channels which play modern and classic rap and hiphop respectively which are a given when you’re riding around the Los Santos Hood  and you also have a host of others inc modern and classic rock stations, party music stations and an excellent country music station that really gets you into the spirit when out in the er country (and desert). There is some excellent voice acting in the game mainly because Rockstar have managed to pull together quite a cast featuring Samuel L Jackson as Officer Tenpenny, Chris Penn as Officer Pulaski and James Woods as Mike Torreno who make some rather convincing villains (or semi-villians). Other voice and Radio DJ personalities include Chuck D, George Clinton, Ice-T, Wil Wheaton, Axl Rose and last but not least: Andy Dick.

From left to right: Samuel L Jackson, Armando Riesco and Chris Penn
 The sound effects are ok, everything is at it should most of the time, though some of the gun sounds are kind of muted and weird like they’re really low quality, but I spose everyone does their gun sounds differently and these sounds just don’t seem right or sound good for that matter and when sound effects don’t sound good that’s a problem. This is made kind of worse by other sound effects which are either not quite right or annoying being played over and over again in certain areas like the odd grinding sound of the minigun and the aircraft jets which make your ears hurt after a while. But apart from this most of the sound effects are ok, there’s some great sounding car engines and some very satisfying crash sounds, especially when you run over people.

Brakka brakka brakka! ironically t tried searching for a movie of the original San Andreas gun sounds but all I could find was videos for mods that chnage them to make them sound more 'realistic' who'd have though?
Summing up, If you haven’t played GTA San Andreas then I highly recommend you do, it can be purchased as a classic game on most stores inc Playstation Network, Xbox Marketplace and Steam store, it remains as one of the most expansive of the GTA games which may actually be overtaken by GTA 5 which I am yet to review I might add as I am waiting for a PC version to be released possibly next month but who knows. San Andreas was the biggest and most feature-rich of all of the GTA games by far when it came out, words can’t really explain how massive it is though looking at the maps for both GTA3 and Vice City I still really can’t see how people can say that one of the cities in San Andreas is as big as Vice City or the Liberty City from GTA3. One of the best things about this game is that you an go absolutely crazy, tear down the highway in a  truck, shoot up a store, hijack a train, steal a  fighter jet then jump out midair, the possibilities are plentiful.  The game is most rewarding to the player who doesn’t rush through the story but takes the time to look around and see what the game has to offer with its hundreds of other features, the replay value is huge and if you can be bothered striving to do everything you will be playing for weeks, even months.

Joyriding in a fighter jet, yep carjacking is for pussies.
 If there was a top ten list for greatest PS2 games Grand Theft Auto San Andreas would definitely be on it. It’s probably in my own top 5 as it’s one of the few PS2 and PS1 games I can go back and play without getting bored and the magic being lost forever, though I will state that as with most GTA games once you’ve finished the main story.  Even if you have already played GTA5 and haven’t played this you still should go back and see what things used to be like where you didn’t have 3 men, you had one, the original gangster of all trades.


Crazy.... Crazy for feeling so lonely

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