Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PC)

By Phill Parker

Published on Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Graphics: 6.50
Sound: 10.00
Gameplay: 9.00
Replays: 8.00

Oh. My. God. The best way to describe Rockstar Games’ newest chapter in the Grand Theft Auto saga is to say “Huge!” If you’re a dedicated player who simply must explore every nook and cranny of a game world, and one who absolutely has to complete every side quest and bonus mission, and find every hidden Easter Egg, then San Andreas will provide at least 150 hours of entertainment. There’s so much to do and see in this fictional clone of 1990s California and Nevada, it’s impossible to describe in one short review.

If you’ve been wondering if the full-featured PC version of GTA San Andreas is worth the wait (the PlayStation 2 original was released in late October, 2004 while the PC iteration didn’t reach store shelves until June, 2005), then wait no longer, because GTA: SA really is a sublime experience on your desktop rig.

The PC version is the best one. I sampled a bit of San Andreas on the Xbox, and it was obvious current generation consoles can’t compete with the PC port’s crisper, high-resolution graphics. San Andreas on the computer nevertheless shows its console roots with blocky, low-polygon models and architecture, but the frame rate is smoother, and the draw distance is much longer, thus avoiding “fog-of-war” surprises and graphics pop-up. Loading times aren’t even a passing concern. Plus, precision aiming with the mouse and keyboard is a snap compared to console gamepads.

San Andreas on the PC also lets you configure your own custom in-game radio station by selecting your favorite digital audio tracks. It will take a long time before you want to exercise this option, because the included soundtrack is almost as expansive as the landscape. Another nice little PC bonus is the ability to watch cinematic-style replays of particularly cool moments.

Your character, Carl “CJ” Johnson, is a gang-banger with heart, one of the boyz in the hood who actually hates drugs. He embarks on a wide variety of highly dubious adventures that boil down to driving and shooting missions, all done with the ultimate aim of saving what’s left of his family. These missions are presented with such flair that it’s impossible not to care about the San Andreas storyline. Excellent voice acting goes a long way toward convincing you the plot is worth your time and energy. James Woods deserves the video game equivalent of an Oscar for his hilarious performance.

You start the game in Los Santos, an equivalent to Los Angeles. Later you unlock San Fierro (San Francisco) and finally Las Venturas (Las Vegas). But it’s not just urban areas that provide the backdrop for your criminal shenanigans – the countryside contains small towns, farms, mountains, lakes and rivers, beaches, desert and forest. I’ve never visited Los Angeles or San Francisco, but Las Vegas is a familiar stomping ground. In real life, I landed at McCarran International Airport, toured the Hoover Dam, stayed at Circus Circus hotel, wandered up and down the famous Las Vegas strip, and cruised the desert freeways of Nevada. All these recognizable landmarks are part of San Andreas, which added to the thrill of playing this game. The only thing missing is Las Vegas’ new monorail.

Besides story missions, what can you do in San Andreas? Work out, eat fast food, car jack (of course), gamble, shoot hoops, play classic video games, fly helicopters and airplanes, date women (just like real life, this process is a pain in the butt because they’re all high maintenance), embark on trucking excursions, burgle homes, swim, and race – in stadiums, on the road, off-road and on mountains. It goes on and on. After finishing the story, I’ve kept San Andreas on my hard drive to merely enjoy the immersive pleasure of running around and doing “stuff.”

Movies use music to establish mood and atmosphere, and San Andreas employs this technique quite effectively. Instead of generic instrumentals, you’re given classic funk, rap, rock, alternative, country and house, all from established artists. Axl Rose, George Clinton and Chuck D even provide the voices of DJs on three different stations. Chuck D from Public Enemy is amazing – he should host a radio show in real life.

Unfortunately, the fun of San Andreas for the PC is interrupted by a few technical difficulties. The most galling is the game’s refusal to save your progress if your Windows XP user account name includes – get this – a space. My user account identification is my actual name, and like everyone else, a space separates my first and last names. For some reason, Rockstar didn’t program their PC port of San Andreas to work for people who employ common sense. After contacting Rockstar’s technical support, I had to wait a week for their reply, which said I must rename my user account to remove the space or any other “special” character. Moreover, this problem didn’t occur in the PC versions of Vice City or GTA III, so why did it happen with San Andreas? They’re all made with the same engine. This is inexcusable.

The game also likes to crash once in awhile, which hurts after you spend a lot of time finding hidden collectibles or performing repetitive tasks to build up your RPG-like stats, or to earn ownership of a given property. You can’t save on the fly, so crashes inevitably lead to a lot of lost progress.

But don’t let these otherwise minor distractions dissuade you from investing in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Missions aren’t so frustratingly difficult as they were in the past, and the game world is larger than anything Rockstar has presented before. The gameplay of San Andreas for the PC isn’t much different from Vice City, but the sheer amount and variety of content makes this latest chapter a genuine step forward. The bottom line is that it will provide you with hours and hours of awesome PC gaming goodness.

Overall Rating: 9.50

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