sanandreas-wasted

Review – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Grand Theft Auto:  San Andreas

I did not complete San Andreas when it was originally released. I can’t quite remember why, which is strange as I adored the GTA that came before it, Vice city.  I enjoyed it so much that it was one of the rare games with which I wanted 100% completion.  Every car, mission, package, property and other side goal was obtained.

I spotted this game on the recent steam sale an purchased it as part of the GTA complete pack. The game now reacquired, I wondered if San Andreas would endear itself to me as Vice city had all those years ago.  Perhaps if I stuck with it all the way through I would find the enjoyment I apparently missed the first time around.

Getting Started

It is difficult to stick with something when you cannot get started.  Many issues appeared when trying to get the game configured.  I don’t remember this being the case when I played originally (years ago), but I guess that particular memory wasn’t important enough for my brain to retain.  I brought up these issues in conversation with a friend, who proceeded to argue that this game was originally released for console and that problems can occur in the transition to PC. Maybe that is true, but it in no way excuses it.  I feel that this will become a recurring argument of mine, that it doesn’t matter how the game was originally made or how old it is.  If it is being sold today, for money, then it should be required to have basic functionality.  Especially when it’s advertised for use on the windows platform.

 The initial installation was fine, as it always seems to be with steam. The main menu appeared in it’s default large resolution (which is normal), so my first step was change this setting.  I upped the resolution to highest and hit apply.  The screen went black as expected, but never came back.  There was no countdown that undid the change, a safety feature that most other games have in case of this exact situation.  After Ctrl+Alt+Deleting, Alt-F4ing and trying to force the task manager I had to manually shutdown the PC and restart to the desktop.  The game still saved the setting so after relaunching the game it went straight to another inescapable black screen, forcing another shutdown and reboot.  After some research on the forums (and to make a long story short) I repeatedly had to test a resolution, force a shutdown, lower the resolution once more (by deleting a config file) and repeat until I found the setting that would hold an image.  The only thing preventing the physical manifestation of my frustration was that the solid state drive at least makes the boot up quick.  Eventually I was able to set the resolution to 1280 x 768.

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Wherever possible I try to use a game pad (Xbox 360 Wireless). I set the control option to ‘joypad’, launched the game and found that the right analog stick was not working.  This too turned out to be an issue reported by many players (as with the resolution).  Some pads work, some don’t.  The game isn’t advertised as having full or even partial support on it’s steam store page, which is surprising for a game that was made originally for console first (and has a joypad setting).  If you are thinking of buying this game it may be worth researching compatible controllers.  Otherwise (as with my experience) you will be playing with mouse and keyboard.

The mouse came with it’s own issues. Specifically the mouse/camera look didn’t respond.  Another trip to the forums was made and found the problem to be common to many players.  Fixes suggested and tried were: Running in Windows XP SP3 compatibility mode.  Running as administrator.  Changing the visual theme (for some reason).  Moving a .dll file.  Downloading a new .dll file.  I eventually got it to work, though I made the mistake of trying too many solutions at once – so I don’t know which fix the problem.  I was then afraid to change anything in case it would cause the issue to reappear.  Even at that point it still wasn’t fully functional and worked when the game was in the mood.  Occasionally I had to switch to the main menu and back whenever the mouse stopped responding.

I realize that I have yet to speak about the game itself.  The reason being is that the above issues were considerably frustrating.  I have had to skip through the introduction scene so many times  and to check each fix that about an hour had passed between the game’s first launch, to when I could comfortably control my character.

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Welcome to San Andreas…

For those unfamiliar, the Grand Theft Auto series is at it’s core an open world game where you, the protagonist are free to run, drive, fly and swim through a large area, divided into roughly 3 sub-areas,  usually to wreak havok.  You have a large selection of guns and vehicles with which to complete primary missions, sub-missions and mini-games.  There are also collection missions that involve finding packages, signs, collecting car’s and so on.

The primary story begins as the protagonist Carl Johnson (CJ) returns to his family home from his life in liberty city, after his mother was killed in gang warfare crossfire.  While in a cab from the airport, CJ in intercepted by 3 police officers lead by Officer Tenpenny, who are acquainted with CJ from his past.  They rob and then threaten to frame him for the murder of another police officer.  This treat is used to make CJ do their bidding, which usually involves criminal activity where the officers would not risk themselves.  They also forbid CJ from leaving town.

CJ returns to his family home to find his street gang and family’s influence in major decline.  The territory has been reduced to their own street and are under constant threat from the neighboring gangs.  The story follows CJ as he struggles to break free of Officer Tenpenny’s control and re-establish the gang’s influence.  Throughout the story CJ meets a variety of criminals from his own neighborhood friends and family, to triads, corrupt politicians, rappers, drug dealers and more, who help with CJ’s rise in power, or try to stop it.

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Outside of missions you are free to do as you please.  To advance story and main missions you visit points indicated on the map representing a particular person/gang’s story that you wish to progress.  Money or respect is usually awarded on mission completion which will allow you to purchase weapons and armor, or increase the amount of gang members that can follow and aid you.

There is a lot to do on the main world.  There are many side activities and quests which can be participated in such as cab missions, vigilante missions, ambulance driving, dance contests, racing, destruction derby and truck delivery to name a few.  Some of these need to be unlocked by progressing the main story, but these are done early on.  Each will usually reward money.  They also count towards the completion of the game (in regards to percentage completed).  For the most part these are not necessary for main progress, though some are used in main missions.  As a sandbox game these are what can activities that you participate in, and are free to initiate at almost any time.

The soundtrack to the game is delivered through the radio stations of the vehicles you drive, and as the majority of the time spent in San Andreas will be commuting from one mission to the next or in races, chases and getaways, you will usually be tuned into one station or another.  The music genre depends on the station selected and includes an alternative rock, rap, hip hop, country and so on.  All have licensed songs appropriate to the early nineties (when the game is set)  and help set the mood of the time.

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A lot of the humor is found on the Radio stations.  Mainly in the form of advertisements, DJ’s and chat shows.  Personalities are exaggerated stereotypes of what they represent, are almost completely corrupt and are 100 percent hypocritical.

That is the set-up of the game and world.  My next goal here was to describe how all this works together, but it will probably end up describing how it doesn’t.

This game has many bugs and glitches.  There were many instances where a bug or glitch resulted in a mission’s failure, usually because my character died through no fault of my own.  Here are some examples:

There was a burglary mission that required me to sneak into a house, collect crates and sneak out.  On apparently random occasions I would sneak to a crate, hit return to pick it up then spontaneously die.  There were no external forces that I could see that did this.  I would hit the interact button, the camera shake and CJ would drop dead.  Wasted, mission failed.  I would end up at the hospital with guns removed and reduced money . This reminded me of a glitch you would find in older first person shooters whereby you seem to get your foot stuck in the floor, or a step, or a door and all of a sudden you are instantly killed.  Gruesomely squished as if stomped on by the invisible foot of god.  Due to my refusal to be at a loss of a death whose fault was not my own, I reloaded my saved and started again.

This is also another point of frustration.  There are no mid-level checkpoints or saves.  So each time I was insta-gibbed I had to start the mission again, drive to the destination, sneak in and hope that I didn’t randomly die.  It took about 10 reloads of the same tedious, slow paced mission before I managed to find a combination of crates that were the least likely to summon the invisible piano from the sky.

 sanandreas-nightcar

The sudden death bug appeared in another mission later on where, during a chase I fell off my motorbike.  I quickly ran back to the bike and part way through the mount animation the character dropped dead.  Mission failed.

One mission has you loading boxes into a van with a fork lift.  Manoeuvring the forklift was difficult enough as the controls aren’t suited for precision, but the issue was that the forklift knocked over one of the required boxes and it fell part way through the ground.  Its lower half was clipping through the scenery and impossible for the fork’s lifts ‘forks’ to get under and lift.  Trying to figure this out took too  long, resulting in a build up of enemies and my death.

A mission where an NPC had to be forced out of a car was instant failed when I pulled up to the car and fired one bullet at it’s side causing it to immediately blow up killing the NPC.  This was not a tank shot (which was is an instant explosion) but a a rear window shot.  Again, mission failed.
An airport mission involved making a getaway with mission critical NPC’s in the car.  I accidentally bumped another car, causing mine to explode, killing me, my passengers and of course, failing the mission.  This particular mission by the way, was considerably long and had to once again be restarted.  There is a mechanic whereby a car can take so much damage before it explodes, and the above examples were not consistent with this.  They weren’t shot in the gas tank, nor had received much impact damage.

Confusing mission objects resulted in failures.  A bike chase where I had to shoot down robbers (also on motorbikes) required me to pick up the cases they dropped.  I killed one, the suitcase dropped and since this was mid-pursuit, the case flew past me.  ‘Pick up the case!’ the ingame message said in green text.  The mini-map showed the case with a similarly green square.  I turned the bike around to pick up the case at which point the mission failed because ‘You let them get away!’

sanandreas-carjump

There were a couple of more instances similar to this but this was the most frustrating as it seems almost deliberate in it’s design to irritate.
When not on foot or driving there are missions and opportunities where you fly vehicles.  Either RC toys or actual planes and helicopters.  I genuinely believe that these were the most frustrating controls I had experienced in a game.  The helicopters were the worst.  There are two separate buttons to move forward and back, another two to strafe left and right.  Two to turn left and right.  Two to ascend and descend and two to increase and decrease power.  All of which had to be used in concert to fly stably.  Forget about using the mouse to fire unless you have a third arm, you will need another button to do that (L-Alt).

What made it all the more frustrating is that a lot of missions are timed and too many bumps would cause the helicopter to explode, which was easy to do with the confusing controls and time limit pressure.  Completing these missions felt like surgery.  I understand that this may reflect the complex controls in real life, but it was at the expense of enjoyment and patience.  I don’t mind challenges when the mechanics are fair, but this seem to think challenge means ‘frustration’.  Plus, real life mechanics don’t seem to apply to the rest of the game.  Driving for example, isn’t based on real life.  I don’t go to work every day be hitting enter in front of my car and hold ‘up’ to move.

What was exceptionally disheartening was that during the main storyline there is a quest to pass all the flying tests.  These required time and precision and the slightest mistake would require a mission restart.  It was very difficult to figure out which button caused the craft to go out of control, or how wide a turn would swing when manoeuvring.  This was by far the most frustrating experience I have had in the game.  I didn’t even get the sense of satisfaction of beating the challenge, only that I lucked through it.  No reward was given for this quest either.

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– More like it.  90 percent of flying looked like this

This iteration of GTA introduced a swimming mechanic.  Though rarely used, there is one main mission that requires you to have a certain amount of swimming experience.  My first time swimming occurred when I lost control of my vehicle and served into a river.  I bailed from the car and headed to shore and the first thing that hit me was how slow travel by swimming was.  This does not mix well with the fact that you can only exit the water at certain points of shore or climbable ledges.   I had entered the river at a point in the countryside with no ledges or shores to boost myself out of the water.  It was over 10 painful minutes later that I was able to exit.  After I got to the shore I robbed the nearest car and tried to cross a patch of grass to a nearby road.  The bank was too steep, my car too heavy, and I swung right off a bridge and straight into the water.  This time I was closer to the shore, but still took another 4 monotonous swimming minutes to get out.

Finally on swimming, there is a strange bug in the PC version whereby you cannot dive under water.  After another forum search it turns out this can be resolved by turning off the frame limiter in the graphics settings.  I can’t comprehend the logic behind this, but I’m surprised that such a bug got through to the final game, especially when one of the missions requires you to swim underwater.

In spite of what I have said up until now, there is some fun to be had in this game.  There are story aspects that I like.  The voice acting was convincing and natural, and the actors behind the voices really seem to understand their characters.  One particular character I found hilarious was that of OG Loc.  A criminal recently released from prison who wants to be a gangster rapper, but is awful at both.  His horrible rapping, pretentious street attitude and whining, strained voice was so cartoonish and goofy that I couldn’t help but be impressed by the voice actor behind it.  I imagine it takes skill to be so ridiculous.

sanandreas-swimming

The depiction of CJ’s poor and run down neighbourhood is also convincing.  The first home/save point you access is CJ’s family home on Grove Street.  A not so modest, well lived in house in a street that is full of them.  Groups of armed gangs cluster on the footpaths and the vehicles in look like older models; cheap boxy cars that survived the eighties.  This helps establish the environment as a dangerous place for CJ and his family to have to grown up.

The aforementioned actors and dialogue help with this mood setting.  This early part of the story is clearly influenced by gangster movies of the early nineties (see Menace II Society and Boyz n The Hood) and as such the dialogue adheres to the same use of foul language and racist terminology.  This was a risky move as video games are less likely to be taken as seriously as movies and are more likely to be jumped on for insensitivity.  The convincing delivery from the voice actors does help the game succeed in maintaining the seriousness it intended.  I felt it was a representation of the life style, as opposed to degrading it.  The developers and publishers likely wanted to get this aspect just right.  Rockstar doesn’t mind offending people and stirring controversy, but racism is not likely something for which they want to be (in)famous.  I believe they succeeded here,  even if people were, or are offended, I don’t think it was the goal of developers.  There doesn’t seem to be any intended hate.

If you can get past all the bugs and glitches then there can be some fun to be had, particularly outside the structure of missions or time limits.  The driving mechanics are probably the most competently developed.  That’s not to say its all enjoyable.  Most vehicles are large, slow and sluggish, however you learn to identify the quicker, more manoeuvrable vehicles and focus on acquiring these.  Motorbikes are reliably quick and nimble.  Enjoyable albeit with the danger of falling off.

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Controlling vehicles can also be confusing at first, but when you begin compensating for any delays in the camera/mouse controls and braking/turning, you will soon be zipping around traffic and speeding through the city. You will likely want to configure the mouse/camera settings though as by default, the mouse is used for steering.

Driving is most intense in race missions and pursuits, you will find yourself impressed by your own ability to hop into a car, pursue, catch up and skilfully set a car on fire with your machine gun, after which you see it explode behind you. Feelings of pleasant surprise occur when you manage to pull off an escape from the cops while on a high wanted level.  You spot a ramp and go for it, shoot through the air in slow motion and land on the free way overpass, skidding into place and making a clean getaway.  This is what the game does best.  Surprise moments of intensity and luck that are satisfying and exciting.

Gun mechanics function without much trouble (after the initial mouse issue was fixed).  The aim was fine.  Targets have health indicators over their heads and the more powerful the weapon the less shots requires to reduce this health to zero.  Head shots will result in an instant kill (aside from ‘boss’ npcs’ which take a few more) –  and is a nice touch as the quicker you can take out enemies, the less time you will be open to attacks.  It rewards efficiency.  It is not the smoothest or fast flowing, and the melee weapons are awful (though rarely used), but it’s seems to be consistently functional.

I enjoyed story aspects of each mission.  Mission generally begin with a cut scene whereby characters explain what needs to be done and usually why.  The characters are varied and fun to watch, as they can range from wacky to completely insane. Mission cut scenes will usually advanced the plot, sometimes minor advances, other times major.  It is what kept me going through to the end.  I wanted to see what they would do next

My main criticism with the story (and perhaps with the entire GTA series as a whole) is the inconsistency in tone.  I am not referring to ludo-narrative dissonance here (where story conflicts with game play),  Though that does happen, it is not as noticeable as how the characters conflict with themselves.

sanandreas-cutscene

Earlier I mentioned that there was a genuine feeling of a dangerous neighbourhood environment with which the main characters were raised.  This really does give the impression of a violent world where people survive rather than live.  The kind of place where drugs destroy lives and it is suicide to be without a weapon.  An early scene where the family unites further establishes this:
CJ meets his brother, sister and friends at the cemetery to visit the grave of his recently deceased mother.  What follows is a scene so full of clichés that I cringed watching it.  CJ’s brother ‘Sweet’ chastises him for leaving the hood and abandoning his family.  He proceeds to point out all the graves of their friends and family that have died since CJ went away, how out of control things have gotten.  Sweet and sister Kendl begin to argue  which each other about how she is dating a Hispanic man from a rival gang and how she dresses like a whore.  CJ’s neighbourhood friend and self appointed wise-man ‘Smoke’ laments how drugs have taken over the neighbourhood, for which people now kill each other.  It’s every plot line I’ve seen in urban gangster movies.  Though slightly embarrassing to watch, it really tries to push how a human life has become almost worthless – and isn’t that just awful.

A couple of missions in and CJ happily agrees to killing most of the in habitants of a drug den, gruesomely.  Most of which appear to be incapacitated.  CJ seems all too happy to kill at the slightest hint, and not even for the cops that are blackmailing him, but for considerably more  minor characters, for childish reasons.  Example, the comic character OG Loc wants to be a gangster rapper, but a former cell mate claims that they had sex in prison, so CJ and OG Loc track down the man, chase him on a motorbike and murder him. They killed a man for calling him gay.
The game sets up a gritty dangerous environment, having the characters lament all the killing in the hood to just have them completely ignore it and act just as bad.  As if to say ‘Look at all the people that have died, isn’t it sad….well, best to kill more people!’

The hypocrisy stands out so much.  One could argue that this is what they need to do to survive.  Though that may be true for some situations such as with the rival gang attacks, it can’t be said for when CJ merrily goes along with killing people he knows nothing about.

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More Bodies!

I can see the reasoning I guess.  It’s a sandbox world where you are encouraged to do what you like, so this is best suited to psychopathic character, which CJ definitely is.  But the story clashes horribly with itself when it’s telling you that killing is tragic one moment and completely routine the next, by the same character.
Graphically the game looks dated but still fine.  The characters are boxy and show their mannequin design in some aspects, usually outside of cut scenes and on less important NPCS, but none of this was obvious enough for me to care too much.  The delivery of dialogue and atmosphere goes far enough so that the low resolution textures, design and graphics don’t disrupt the illusion too much.

The radio stations and talk shows are amusing to listen too. The select of music is great and makes travelling almost pleasurable.  The humour isn’t too subtle though and for the most part they simply amplify stereotypes to the point of ridiculousness.  Such as liberals are hippies, southerners are gun nuts, foreigners are weird and so on.  Each radio personality takes on their respective stereotypes fully, while denying it with irony in almost every line.  It’s not as laugh out loud as I remember Vice city or even GTA3 but its fun and good for the odd chuckle.  It comes close to being offensive but the sheer ridiculousness of what is said and the not too subtle irony made it hard (for me anyway) to take seriously.

 San Andreas suffers from a clash of it’s own world and story. The open world sandbox nature can be a fun and enjoyable place to inhabit, but this clashes horribly with the strict objectives, unforgiving, easy to fail missions.  A mission where you need to chase and keep up with a vehicle can come to an abrupt end due to a random world event such as a police car chasing another criminal and casually blowing you off the road and into a river. Characters are interesting to watch but inconsistent with their attitudes making it impossible to really sympathise with any of them. The game is at it’s most fun where one aspect doesn’t interfere with another.

sanandreas-cemetary

Recommendations

I want to immediately mention that currently this game is on steam for €9.99.  One of the main objectives of these reviews is to help value games you may buy with money now.  No matter how old or new the game is or when you will play it, €9.99 is in my view, far too much for a game that has so many issues, bugs and problematic mechanics.  IF you do buy this game it would be worth searching other sellers/platforms to see if another version experiences the same issues.  Either the game is poorly ported to PC by default, or steam’s version is simply optimized poorly.  Either way for this alone you should wait for a substantial drop in price.

I believe that people who enjoy open world games and spending time getting 100 percent completion through the games activities will get the most out of this.  If story or missions are not things you care about then this game will last a very long time as there is a lot to do.  The randomness of intense moments can deliver excitement, and the driving mechanics can facilitate insane stunts, close calls and rampages.

You may also enjoy this game for it’s humour and collection of characters.  Inconsistencies aside, I still found myself eager to progress the story missions to see what they would do next. There is amusement in how ridiculous they are, such as a blind triad leader who races cars to a tech shop owner who goes to war with his rival with toys armed with lethal weapons.

You Will not enjoy this game if you are easily frustrated or get frustrated normally, or even if you are particularly hard to frustrate.  The game is unforgiving to mistakes – regardless of whether the mistake was yours or the game’s.  I now remember why I didn’t complete this game all those years ago and this was it.  It’s like a bully shoving your hand to your face and giggling, telling you to stop hitting yourself.  You will fail many missions due to bugs or poorly implemented mechanics.

It’s as if they felt the game would be too easy otherwise and kept in all these problems to increase the difficulty.

A final point as to why you may not like this game is the main character.  Its depends on your tolerance for playing immoral people or anti-heroes.  I understand the draw as playing as a criminal/villain, but CJ switches from trying to – do right by his family – and gleefully robbing and murdering. He comes across as disingenuous.  His is not a complex or conflicted character, he is what the writer wants him to be at the time to set mood or progress the story.  He is too inconsistent to be likable, relatable or even understandable.

If you are still unsure then I would always recommend you find a demo before committing, but I do not believe one is available for San Andreas, so in this case a lets play would be probably best so hop on over to youtube.

sanandreasarrival-cutscene

Finally as I purchased this game on an impulse and didn’t have much memory of the last time I played it, nor did I look up any reviews prior, the question I now ask myself is this:  Would I have bought this game had I known what I know now?  No, definitely not.  There may be some fun to be had, but this is completely shadowed by the frustration that I felt and regardless of the price, the anger you have to get through in order to experience the fun is not worth it.  There are too many bugs and glitches, too many instances where unclear directions and unpredictable mechanics cause mission failures and death, and times where you are dropped right into a fire fight surrounded by enemies and have to retry the mission repeatedly just to learn how to survive the first few seconds.  Fun is eclipsed by frustration.