Whether you only just picked up the series for the first time with San Andreas on the PS2 recently, or have been an avid fan since the days of the original, Grand Theft Auto would have likely redefined your gaming ever since in one way or another. While the PC version of San Andreas has only just seen release months after the PS2, for the strictly PC gamers out there, this is now time to check out what is being touted as one of the best games ever created. While general society's popular opinion no doubt casts this series as foul and corrupting, Rockstar have not stepped back, but have indeed taken the series much further into the realms of crime, violence, sex and drugs than ever before with GTA: San Andreas.....and boy do we love it!
San Andreas tells the story of an ex-street thug, Carl Johnson, as he makes his way back from the east coast to his old home on the west side. Soon CJ falls back in line with his past and finds himself defending and attacking under the Grove Street banner once more. As you progress further into the game, the storyline takes many twists and turns ultimately leaving you guessing on every corner, creating what is no doubt the best storyline experience so far in the series. While some elements do feel a little "Hollywood", there is also a good mixture of humor, so the game itself doesn't always take itself too seriously.
The amount added to the core gameplay since Vice City is phenomenal. To list just a few, you now have far more interactive gangs and territory battles, a far larger map, girlfriends, localised radio stations, in depth character stats such as stamina, max health etc, as well as the ability to completely customize your character 'CJ' with everything from his clothes and jewellery, to his fat and muscle levels - the game feels like a complete transformation and it almost seems like any aspect which reminds you of the previous titles has been improved vastly. Of course, as expected, a plethora of new vehicles and other transport machinery will also be found, as well as a few new weapons. A few examples include push bikes, which are incredibly useful in getting around your Grove Street hood, and even the ability to fly a range of aircraft and parachute from them at high altitudes.
The character customization is particularly worthy of individual praise. As mentioned, there are stats you can work on with CJ and these influence his abilities and styles. For example, to bust around with dual pistols you'll need to work on your pistol shooting skills to reach that level, and to fly planes, you'll need to earn your pilot license. On the other hand, visually CJ can look just how you want him. Want him to be juiced up? Get him to the gym often. Want him to wear nothing but underpants and a hat? go to a clothes shop. The amount of character customization options is really amazing and rivals that of most "Create-a-player" modes in the WWE games.
When you add everything up, GTA: SA has so much gameplay on offer, it really leaves pretty much every other game even remotely in the action genre in the dust. Even if you put the primary missions aside, which themselves will take at least 24 hours of straight heavy gameplay to complete for most gamers, you have so many sub missions and games, it is almost insanely overwhelming. As expected, the Police, Fire and Ambulance sub missions are still here, but there are also so much more, including Pimp missions, delivery missions, keeping a happy girlfriend which includes dates etc just to name a few. If that's not enough, you have other various tasks such as collecting 50 horseshoes and overwriting rival gang graffiti with your own spray paint tags - the amount on offer is stunning, and this is all on map with 3 regular GTA sized cities and small rural communities. What's the most impressive though is the fact even if you complete the game 100%, you have a fully functional 'sandbox' mode still to enjoy where you can pretty much run around and do what you want. Even if the next GTA isn't for a while yet, you'll probably still be playing SA.
It isn't all peaches though. One issue I've had with the GTA series ever since it went 3D was the "robotic" like interactions the police in the game have towards your character, by which I mean the way police know all and see all when it comes to you, but don't treat NPC characters in the GTA world the same. While it has improved slightly in San Andreas, i.e. the cops will now chase NPC's for wrong doings, it is still clearly obvious the game treats CJ differently to other people in the game. For example, if you recruit gang members and they attack people including police, the police don't come after them by the dozen, but if you so much as shoot the sky with a single bullet near a cop, they'll try to kill you in waves of what sometimes seems like unlimited cops. The cause is obviously the fact your character has a star system and no one else does, which creates the balance issue, and it does impact the otherwise impressive authenticity of the game. It's tricky, though - a more realistic cop system would mean an easier cop system, which doesn't sound great - there just has to be some way for Rockstar to slightly dull down the "big brother" feel.
GTA has always been a reasonably buggy series basically due to the sheer amount of varied gameplay on offer - when you can do this much, there are bound to be some glitches here and there. Sometimes you'll see physics and graphical based glitches, such as poor clipping and see through walls (not to mention 'shoot through walls'), at other times cutscenes will go off their rails as it seems they are played out in the engine and aren't pre-rendered. On top of this, we had some instability issues mainly when watching cutscenes in their entirety, where as bypassing them early stopped any crashes. As you can imagine, this is a game you'll certainly see quite a few oddities in so don't expect a silky smooth experience. It's understandable, because as mentioned there is just so much on offer here there are bound to be a few quirks, it is just a shame there are so many as the PC version is primarily the same as the PS2, and the delayed release could have at least been used to perhaps iron a few out.
When it comes to visuals, GTA: SA is more about quantity than it is quality - it basically substitutes individual detail for environmental detail, meaning there are a lot of things going on around you and when you look at the picture as a whole, it is an impressive sight. That's not to say the game looks poor when in closer range situations, there are just definite signs of sacrificed visual quality, particularly in the textures, which are ordinary at best on the highest visual settings. These are obviously measures to keep the frame rate up, which is arguably more important, but the fact remains this is a classic symptom of a console port, and perhaps a little more PC specific attention could have been given to the engine to improve the performance/quality optimization.
The PC version supports gamepad gameplay, which is no surprise seeing as GTA3 and VC did too. Unfortunately though, mapping is quite difficult, as the game doesn't allow you to designate a controller's D-PAD to functions rather than movement like it does on the PS2 (at least, it wouldn't for us), leaving 9 or so buttons for 12 or so functions active at any one time. Obviously, the result here is some functions had to remain keyboard only. With a persistent attitude, you will manage to make a controller profile that allows comfortable gameplay, just expect a bit of a wrestling match with the setup menu in the process.
Even with the few minor annoyances aside, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas PC does the series proud and clearly comes right off the bat as a strong candidate for 2005's PC game of the year. It has the same impressive depth and ability as the highly acclaimed PS2 version, which instantly makes it a must have title for any serious PC gamer. While it offers little to gamers who have already played the PS2 version thoroughly, there is no harm in revisiting the latest addition to what has to be one of the best game series ever made all over again on a new platform, and for anyone who hasn't played it at all yet, either jump on board now or find a new hobby, because you're way behind on the whole gaming thing.