The third Grand Theft Auto in the PS2 era remains a game of contrasts, not least in terms of opinion. Going back to San Andreas 10 years on, is it evident now that we were tricked by its gigantic world, full of freedoms that had been little more than dreams a few years before? Or is San Andreas an enduring classic that changed open world games forever?
The first thing to note about San Andreas is how peculiarly it was announced- in a way almost impossible to imagine for a big AAA release today. The game was announced in March 2004, barely six months before the game's launch. A couple of trailers and a short teaser site later, the game was released to incredible critical acclaim. In an era in which Rockstar releases a couple of GTAV screenshots to incredible fanfare, perhaps the kind of release experienced by San Andreas would be a welcome change.
San Andreas was an incredible success. The game went on to be the Playstation 2's highest selling game (by a significant margin), and more than 27 million units were sold across all platforms, putting it in the top ten bestselling video games in the history of gaming. The game did well critically too, amassing a 95% critical average on Metacritic, though it didn't quite reach the same levels of incredulous praise as GTAIV, which sits at a staggering 98% (more on that another time).
And yet despite this success, the game's (significantly smaller) predecessor, Vice City, is often touted as the best PS2-era Grand Theft Auto, with reasons like 'atmosphere', 'setting' and 'storyline' behind such claims. And indeed despite the large amount of truth in those arguments, it is easy to see why Rockstar chose the setting San Andreas is in.
The gang situation in the Los Angeles of 1992 was an incredibly interesting time- a time when the middle class 'flight' to the suburbs became more and more prevalent, until the inner cities became home to huge amounts of crime. It was a time when violence in poorer urban areas more than doubled, along with the homicide rate for black teens, and when the crack epidemic claimed the lives of millions and changed America forever. It was a time when the systemic racism by the LAPD erupted into some of the worst riots the country had seen in decades, and yet also a time when black actors and artists were beginning to break through the kind of 'glass wall' that had meant that white talent dominated American televisions and radios for so long.
In short, San Andreas' cities had a huge amount of potential, but it was potential that the game squandered. SA takes place during an awkward phase of GTA history- a time when the game strived for realism and social commentary, and yet remained filled with toilet humour, rape jokes, and ridiculous missions. While the wide-eyed, drug-fuelled 80s Miami fit perfectly with Vice City's missions, perhaps an approach more like that of GTAIV would have fit San Andreas' era better. Instead of exploring the horrible (and at times probably darkly humorous) side to the drug and racism problems of the city at the time, San Andreas' missions involve you mostly driving your friends to a location, occasionally stopping to chase somebody or kill someone, and then going home. Attempts at stealth tried to break up this monotony, but they were often even more clumsy than the game's awkward combat, already outpaced by other shooters of the era.
Instead of exploring a hugely interesting setting, Rockstar simply rehashed the same rags-to-riches story of Vice City in a new setting. And yet this was perhaps the least of San Andreas' narrative problems. The game's opening is horrifically bloated, comprising 29 missions (at least a dozen or so hours) until the player even leaves the starting city for the first time. San Andreas speeds up after that, but it is not until the final third (or so) of the game that the narrative really comes into its own, and comes anywhere close to competing with Vice City or IV. Indeed this over-indulgence is evident throughout San Andreas, and detracts (in my opinion) from more successful elements of the game.
The open world in San Andreas is full of things that don't need to be there. Go to the gym, spend hours playing a grindy minigame to build muscle! Compete in a strange and repetitive rhythm game in which you bounce your car up and down to make money! Participate in hundreds of side activities, very few of which are actually fun! Edge Magazine disagrees with me, calling San Andreas the "ultimate expression of [last-gen] freedom, before [current-gen] reigned it all in". But playing San Andreas now, when its mechanics are creaky and its holes begin to show, the side missions feel pointless- there to provide 'content' at all costs, as if Rockstar saw Morrowind and decided it needed its own version.
Indeed Skyrim feels like an apt comparison to San Andreas- another game released towards the end of a generation, filled with a detailed (but graphically sub-par for the time) world and a lot of missions, albeit ones that cannot compete with the more authored narratives of focused, cinematic titles. So much of San Andreas hinges on the fact that a lot of mediocre systems come together to provide enjoyment that, a decade on, it doesn't really offer anything special. GTAIII is a classic because it was a pioneer, Vice City has one of the greatest and most immersive settings in gaming, and GTAIV was one of the first truly 'convenient' open world games, and its navigation systems and even the multi-function mobile phone itself were duly copied by almost every open-world game this generation, from Saints Row The Third to Sleeping Dogs. But San Andreas? It subscribes to one simple notion, (the same that Skyrim does, in my opinion), that if you cram enough content into an average game, it suddenly becomes a 'sandbox', and suddenly becomes a classic.
And yet San Andreas is not a terrible game by any means. Its open world was gigantic for the time, and despite the drab textures it had a huge amount of variety, from mountains to deserts, forests to inner cities, posh hotels and mansions to the 'streets'. Indeed it's certainly possible to argue that a more varied open world as content-rich as San Andreas didn't really appear until Just Cause 2, well into the next generation.
People often call GTAIV a game with an 'identity crisis'- a campaign designed to be a thoughtful and provocative social commentary, set in a franchise whose main selling point has always been the ability to challenge yourself by mowing down ever larger amounts of civilians until you die. But though GTAIV allowed the player to break their immersion, though it allowed you to take a break from the (at times) darker narrative to go on a rampage, it was never forced upon the player.
San Andreas' story has absolutely no connection to the game whatsoever- its missions seemingly chosen purely based on how much fun it might be to shoot some people on a train, or jump between two aeroplanes. That's OK if, like Just Cause, the story is a completely irrelevant 6 hour campaign that most players don't even bother with. But San Andreas forces the player through exposition after exposition, meandering cutscene after meandering cutscene, through a 30-40 hour critical path that just never truly pays off. This is not a crime only committed by San Andreas, mind you- Assassin's Creed III is an offender of particular note. But SA's story damages the world, and when (as mentioned above) the world is filled with a series of mostly sub-par side activities anyway, you start to run into problems with the game at large.
[It would be interesting to see Grove Street 20 years on in GTA V]
San Andreas is perhaps a game that should never have been made, though clearly it succeeded from a financial perspective. It feels like Vice City made bigger and 'better', but without the charm and the atmosphere. It tries to tell a grounded, darker story, but it does so through missions more ridiculous and over-the-top than anything seen since in a GTA game. San Andreas was not a 'bad' game when it launched, and compared to other open worlds released at around the same time (like the original Mafia or the first Just Cause) it wasn't majorly deficient in any area. But whereas I would still recommend you play Vice City today, because despite its poor graphics and eccentricities it offers a feeling that's truly unique to that game, I would not recommend you play its sequel.
Despite the fact that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas undoubtedly influenced many modern open world games, the fact remains that most of them do what it did significantly better, and in the absence of any defining colour, storyline moments or atmosphere, the game is simply not worth playing today for anyone but the most dedicated GTA fan.
Every week from now until September 17th, Cimeas (that's me!) will recap a major GTA game of recent years. Next week we dive back into the 80's, and one of the best games of all time, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
[All images from GTAgaming.com and theGTAplace.com]