Maybe you've heard of this one. San Andreas is the latest installment in Rockstar's prominent (and lucrative) Grand Theft Auto series, and as was the case with the other two GTAs of this generation, San Andreas has weaseled its way from the Playstation and onto your friendly neighborhood Xbox. How good was the transfer? Well, so-so. There are only minor improvements, and these are countered by some minor detriments. All in all, this is an average port of a very good game.
For the uninitiated: the gameplay here is appropriately similar to both Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City--the player is a lone man in a big city, and can either take on a variety of storied missions, or can run/drive/kill at will throughout the huge city that's provided. Truly, these games are so massive that one could easily sink in a hundred hours or more, and still have things to do.
But if the other GTAs were big, then San Andreas is downright epic. This time, there are three cities, not one, and with them is a city-sized rural area replete with trailer parks and tractors. Swarms of areas and secrets await the player's exploration, and numerous weapons and vehicles await the player's usage. The amount of things to do here is staggering.
The story itself feels much larger this time, and more varied. The player is young CJ Johnson, who returns to his hometown of Los Santos after spending the past few years in Liberty City. His mother has been murdered, and though he initially returns only to pay his respects, he quickly becomes embroiled in the gang warfare society that warranted his initial exodus. By the end of the game, CJ will have seen and done everything one could imagine--it really is a rollicking, epic tale.
The on-foot action is as playable as ever, and San Andreas features a couple of improvements over Vice City. Locking on is easier, and now the player can lock on to enemies with melee weapons as well as ranged ones, which results in some point-blank fighting that isn't nearly as clumsy as before. There's also the option to manually aim weapons by merely moving the right stick after targeting someone--this renders it much easier to manually headshot those hiding behind cover.
The on-foot movement can feel occasionally clumsy, although that's no surprise to GTA fans. It's far too easy to accidentally target an ally, or misjump off the roof to the street below. This sort of clumsiness becomes a real pain when some of the missions require the player to fight indoors, although such fighting is generally uncommon.
Driving is still the best-controlling portion of the game, feeling simple and smooth. The blur of the screen when traveling at high speeds is an excellent touch. There's still the lack of a speedometer, which is weird, but the controls are definitely solid.
Flying aircraft is still a nightmare from Hell itself. This is a carryover from GTA III, and it‘s incomprehensible--piloting planes is pretty much simulation-lite, and given the general pick-up-and-play nature of the game, the tricky piloting stands out like a three-digit IQ at a rap concert. It's even worse on the Xbox--the rudder controls for the planes are the black and white buttons here, which is just plain unwieldy. These horrid controls come to a head in a string of a dozen or so flying missions deep into the game, which must be completed, sequentially, in order to proceed with the story. If I said that the tantamount frustration of these missions compelled me to strangle soft and fluffy things, I would not necessarily be exaggerating.
Throughout the experience, San Andreas is unfortunately frustration-riddled. The missions can be tricky: too often they require the player to do unexpected things, and then give the player a small time frame in which to do them. Given the lanky nature of San Andreas's gameplay, this often results in exasperating mission failures--like when the player accidentally shoots the man he was escorting in the midst of a firefight, or when CJ is catapulted off his bike because of unseeable traffic. Many missions are large, several-missions-for-the-price-of-one ordeals, and failing these due to a slew of unforeseen factors is heartbreaking.
Compounding the problem exponentially is the total lack of a “retry mission” feature. Fail a mission, and you cannot simply retry it--you have to trek all the way back to the mission marker from either the prison/hospital or your last save point, and these points can often be far, far away. The lack of this standard game feature was an understandable fault in GTA III that became an unacceptable overlook in Vice City, and by now it's the sort of bungling, pretentious design decision that effectively scuttles one's enjoyment of the game.
Graphical prowess has never been on Rockstar's resume, and that tradition is continued in San Andreas. While “ugly” might be a bit too harsh a word, “near-ugly” doesn't sound too far off. There's simply a washed-out, utilitarian look to the game, and the color palette can look downright crappy in certain places (like the Las Venturas desert). The Xbox does alleviate some of this, and as a whole this version does seem sharper than its PS2 brethren, but the game sure isn't beautiful. The cut scenes themselves use the same engine, and these are surprisingly well edited--for such limited character models and meager expressions, the game exhibits an almost movie-like quality to its direction.
Sound has always been a stalwart component of Grand Theft Auto, a category in which it dominated, and this remains the truth in San Andreas. Nearly a dozen radio stations play a variety of early 90's tunes, from Guns ‘N Roses to George Strait, and these set the mood. Two entertaining talk-show stations are present, although the writing quality is somewhat down from Vice City and Lazlow is conspicuously absent (except for a brief guest appearance or two). The voice acting is top-notch, from CJ on down, and judging by the sheer number of actors listed in the manual's credits, Rockstar went all out on this one. The one unique Xbox feature is the custom soundtrack--an excellent touch for those with Xbox play lists.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment in the port of San Andreas is the lack of any true technical improvement. Saving the game is far quicker this time around, but it wasn't very long in the first place. The long loading process when booting up the game is back in full-force, and doesn't seemed to have shortened. Pop-up still occurs when speeding down the longer roads, though it‘s not as pronounced as before. Truly, the Xbox's power is somewhat underutilized here.
Those with an interest in San Andreas should definitely check it out. In my mind, the greatest fault of the game is the often inherent frustration--but for the most part, this is an epic game without equal, either in variety or in scope, and the game maintains a style all its own. Pursue and enjoy.
- Metallimoose, SwankWorld Media