Game Review: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)

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First off, this masterpiece is so huge, that it merits a review done in segments; so I’ve cooked up a comprehensive look into the first part of GTA San Andreas, focusing on all the differences and similarities so you guys can determine whether it’s THAT different from Vice City or not. To be blunt, yes, it is. Now on with the speaker!

Let’s begin with the basics. You play as a homeboy named Carl Johnson, who just returned to San Andreas from Liberty City after hearing that his mother died, and was possibly murdered. Coming home to a broken up gang on the verge of being overtaken by the Ballas, CJ swears to his homies that he’s here to stay, and that he will bring Grove Street Families back to their former glory. It’s not just a plot element either – you can run a gang of X amount of homeboys depending on your respect level, one of your many stats in the game. Trust me, it helps having guys in the back of your car when pulling a driveby, and further adds to the gangster atmosphere of this urban nightmare. You can also fight over territory; soon after the midpoint of the first segment of GTA, you get a map marking the territories of the gangs, and you can fight and take over their cuts of the city. What does this do for you? A lot. First, it gains respect. Second, it secures a constant flow of cash for a part of the game where cash is thin at best. Third, it allows you to pick up sick weaponry off the Ballas, making you a one man army. Fourth – it’s just damned cool having to defend territories which are under attack in real time. But don’t worry, it isn’t tedious. If they do take it back from you, it’s as easy as going back over there and busting a cap in their asses to reclaim it.

Speaking of busting caps, this game introduces the weapon skill stat to GTA, another RPG element. Weapon Skill determines a few things, for example: In the beginning of GTA, you can shoot only the pistol and SMG while moving, and you aren’t that accurate. Shotguns and rifles, you have to stand still. However, after “practicing” by shooting up those Balla Busters your skill goes up, the game always alerting you when it’s upgraded, and what that upgrade gives you. A maxed out skill level in the Tec9 will let you Dual Wield machine pistols, making the weapon pretty dangerous, not to mention badass looking, to shoot both while running away from the Fuzz. For the heavy weapons, it makes you much more accurate, and allows you to move while shooting, special forces style. As for shooting, the controls have been refined tremendously – you can now aim with the R-Analog stick while holding R1 as if this were an FPS. Adding to the mix, CJ can duck and roll out of cover, even sneak up on his enemies and perform stealth kills! Given they aren’t as gory as Manhunt, the Rockstar Game which it borrows this system from, they are just as effective for use in missions and all around fun. Also like Manhunt, CJ can block while fist fighting, and deliver both heavy and light hits. Heavy hits being the moves you’ve learned from the Gyms, being either boxing or kung fu, and circle being just regular gangster punches. Yup, they’ve refined GTA to the letter in the combat department, even adding a “below the belt” fighting style which has the one and only throw move in the game, which guarantees a kill.

Now for the random Tidbits.

Vehicles: Every Single Vehicle from Vice City makes a return, albeit in a more modern form. There are so many new cars that I can’t begin to list them, no less than 7 types of sports cars, ranging from McLaren F1looking ones called the Bullet, to the Acura NSX clone INFURNUS, and the classic Cheetah, still tearing up the highways; you can even mod these cars NFS: Underground style and add nitrous, choose a paint job, add spoilers, etc. There are even Dune Buggies, and Go-Karts! Motorcycles have gotten some add-ons too, in addition to the Freeway and Crotch-Rocket bike coming in a number of variations; you get a cruiser bike and a police cruiser, even regular pedal bicycles! There isn’t much difference between the bicycles, but there are a few types. BMX, Mountain, and Generic. Now why would you want to ride a bike? Simple. It gives you exercise, they’re spindly and apt for maneuvering through traffic and alleyways, and by using the Bunny Hop you can actually GO OVER traffic and some walls, given your biking skill is high enough. Don’t worry, the driving skills don’t make or break you, they just make the cars more responsive the higher it gets. But driving isn’t the only thing you’ll be doing…you have full access to Jets, Biplanes, and Helicopters. The aircraft department is MUCH more complete this time around, with stunt planes, cargo jets, even Harrier Fighter Jets! The Helicopters too have additions, heavy copters, junkers, spindly whirlybirds, and of course the Hunter from Vice City makes its return. Remember to bring a Parachute though; you never know when you accidentally might go into a no-fly zone over a military base or whatnot…though mysteriously CJ can survive a 2 mile fall into the Ocean. But hey, what’s more stylish than Para-Dropping to your next mission? As for the ocean…all you seafarers out there will finally get the boat lineup you want. We got Hovercraft, which go on sea AND land of course, lots of speedboats, some big reefer boats for those long treks into the ocean. The only vehicle NOT in this game is a UFO, but then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rockstar threw one in that Area 51-ish base in Bone County, which as a matter of fact holds a particular vehicle that will prove very useful for finding secrets – the Jetpack.

Scene: San Andreas is a place of many contrasts and varieties – and yes, this game IS in fact four times larger than Vice City, Even more than that. Los Santos is basically Los Angeles, complete with the ghetto and the glitzy. The streets here are congested and interconnected like a tight network of circulatory veins, so it’s pretty easy to get lost..It’s also the biggest city in the game, but definitely not THE biggest area. Be on the lookout for the Ballas and the Varrios in these areas, two rival gangs that like to start trouble with CJ. Don’t’ walk around without your gat. The country is massive and sprawling, full of rednecks and shotguns. It really is a great place to hang out, and you can actually forget the game and just cruise around the highways till the sun goes down. Lots of off-road territory here, so come on out with your buggies and dirt bikes, and go nuts on Mt. Chiliad. San Fierro is San Francisco of course, complete with a Golden Gate Bridge of its own, and the trademark hilly cityscape. This city is the most open of the 3, and is well suited to supercars zipping all over. Unlike Los Santos, you don’t have to worry as much about rival gangs, but they’re still here. Now, for the best of the best: Las Venturas – which is obviously Las Vegas. Home of casinos, expensive homes and suburbs, and one of the most beautiful deserts I’ve seen in a videogame. Spend time gambling, jack some mega expensive cars, or mess with the local mafia syndicates…either way, you’re going to have a great time. This GTA is so big, yet you never feel overwhelmed, it’s just another area to scope out. I personally love the Deserts of Las Venturas…something about cruising on a Freeway after dark in the canyons is just too cool. Epic is the only way to describe the size of this game, and the scope of the plot. That also is it’s simultaneous flaw, for once you feel acquainted with a city, the game throws you into another one to do missions – leaving you wishing you had more time with some of the very well designed areas.

Playa: Don’t get worried by those stat numbers, this game isn’t turning into another Crap RPG anytime soon. Think of stats as above and beyond your regular performance – the in-game CJ at the beginning a boring default, and what you do and come up with your own personal asskicking homeboy. You can build up Muscles at the Gym; get fat off fast food at the Burger Joint, build up stamina by biking, and choose your own look at the local clothing shops…it’s like another life to an extent. But actually, it’s really easy to build up in this game, so don’t think it’s some arduous task to become beefcake CJ. All you need to know is – it comes natural to drop by the Gym whenever you’re in the hood, and after some minigames of alternating button presses for lifting or jamming on X for treadmill, you’ll soon have a chiseled Greek god physique. Or, if you prefer, you can be fat AND muscular. This game, unlike the warped perceptions of reality and popular media, re-iterates that you can be “fat” and still be healthy and strong. So for all you Beefcakes out there, you can be large and in charge, and still have that punch like a freight train. Just be sure to munch down those burgers to keep up the fat even if you are trying to be a skinny twit – because exercise makes you burn fat, and if you don’t have any, your muscles will be burnt off instead!

Rollin’ Out: The missions are unique, and Rockstar has made an effort to add flavor to the series, much like they did with Vice City. In fact, the missions are so different, as is the entire plot and atmosphere of this game, that I’d suggest keeping Vice City just because of it. The Dialogue is very high quality, Rockstar hiring reputable people to do the voicing and keep it real. The language is as heavy as you’d expect, definitely meriting an R-Rated Film, and the characters you meet are lively, and vastly different from any you’ve encountered in GTA 3 or Vice City. The plot too, is engaging as you’d expect for a GTA game, and though it still retains the “Movin’ on Up” ideal from Vice City, the situation is entirely different in context, and CJ is so much different from Vercetti it’s ridiculous. CJ is more of a mild-mannered yet hard when you provoke him kind of guy having to face the world outside of his hood, while Vercetti was a flat out psychopath who was the mastermind surrounded by morons (said in his own words) so it’s definitely a different experience from that perspective. CJ is also the first ever GTA character that isn’t TRULY a bad guy, he has friends, family, and a good personality – the kind of guy you can identify with. But really, since when did we play GTA for character development?

Bling Bling: The Graphics have maintained their look from Vice City, the main difference being limited use of the blur effect which was spammed all over in the past GTA games. Of course, cars now sport that slick realistic texture look, putting it on par with older NFS games in terms of car graphics which makes the vehicles look much more appealing. Character models are skinned about the same this time around, the main difference being the range of motions and fluidity. The cities are well detailed, but not much more or less than previous games. The skies are beautiful and turn shades throughout the day, the weather effects have been greatly improved as well; When it rains, a subtle film grain effect ala Silent Hill is added to make the game look gritty and murky. Fog looks deeply unsettling at times, setting the mood of a dreary day. Sunny days are a perpetual Orange Tint thanks to the pollution, and the starry nights are royal blue to purple depending on the location of the city lights. With all these visual effects, you’d expect slowdown, and yes, it does happen. Sometimes the game has a major brain fart and doesn’t load the texture for an area, the framerate is spastic at times as well, but we’ve seen that in all the other GTA titles, and it hasn’t gotten any worse, so it’s no big deal. Given there is NO MORE LOADING when going between zones, I’m content with these minor setbacks.

Beats: The Audio on this game in the SFX department is pretty much the same, but the gun sounds have gotten an upgrade, and sound a lot more sharp and dangerous. But of course, the main attraction is the radio stations, which have some variety, but still feel like it has too much in the way of rap and soul music. Some of the stations to watch for, K-Rose, the country station and home of Inbreeds, another Underground Techno station run by a freaky German guy, Radio X, run by an angsty punk girl and home of alternative rock, Dust, the home of old school rock and eighties style tunes, Bounce, home of dance club beats, K-Jah makes it’s return for all you rasta fiends out there, and TWO rap stations, one classic, one modern – didn’t even know there was a classic rap eh? Of course, there are other stations, including the Talk Show station (which I think is pretty weak this time around) but overall it’s a nice performance. I think Vice City had better radio material, but seeing as this is 90’s music; it must have been harder for Rockstar to get a hold of it.

All in all, this is a fantastic game definitely worth a buy, and will keep you busy for weeks to come. Buy it. Now.

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