I think this one is easily the highlight of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. While writing this series, I played just enough of the other games to get the screenshots I needed, but San Andreas pulled me in and got me to hang around long after I had captured the required images.
The world is immense, the gameplay is packed with interesting things to do, the story is slightly less dissonant than is typical for Rockstar, and the humor is better than it’s ever been. (Before or since.) Same goes for the soundtrack. There’s even a light dusting of sim / RPG gameplay where it allows you to build up the protagonist’s skills and physique. You can be skinny, pig out and get fat, or hit the gym and bulk up. All of this is driven organically by your in-game behavior, which means all that time fooling around in the open-world stuff is actually making some long-term progress.
It’s not a perfect game, but there’s a lot to love.
Go Big or Go Homie
I don’t think anyone would have complained if the gameworld was roughly the size of Liberty City or Vice City. So it’s admirable that Rockstar – already the undisputed king of open-world urban settings – was still pushing the technology forward. The technology had matured to the point where the game could support a map that was vastly larger than the one in Grand Theft Auto III, even though both games targeted the same hardware. Not only was the map bigger, but they got rid of the flow-breaking loading screens, making a huge seamless expanse of gamespace. On top of that, it wasn’t just bigger for the sake of being huge, but actually offered a great deal of visual diversity.
To the southeast is Los Santos. (Los Angeles.) To the west of that is a forested region with Mt. Chiliad, which I’m pretty sure is supposed to represent the Big Sur region of California. To the north of that is San Fierro. (San Francisco.) East of that is the mercifully undersized desert, and beyond that is Las Venturas. (Las Vegas.) This gargantuan map dwarfed anything the previous games had attempted, and in some ways it feels like the largest game they’ve ever made. Sure, GTA V is easily bigger in terms of square miles, but it only has the one major city. The three cities of San Andreas make the world feel immense, even if they’re undersized and comically close together.
To give a sense of how much the gameworld had grown, here’s the GTA III map on top of the San Andreas map:
Note also how much of the GTA III map is water, while the San Andreas map has a larger portion dedicated to playable gamespace. Again, both of these games ran on the same hardware, and San Andreas didn’t have inter-island loading screens. GTA III was already a technological marvel, and yet here Rockstar found a way to outdo themselves yet again.
This is not to denigrate the other entries in the series. I’m just saying this was a big game with a lot of content, and its clear it was created because the team wanted to go big, not because there was a strong business case for doing so. They could have chopped this map in half and it still would have been larger and more impressive than anything they’d done before.
In Case You Missed It
While released in 2004, San Andreas takes place in the world of 1992, in a setting made to resemble the inner city dramas and struggles of South-Central Los Angeles in that time period. The story contains all of the familiar markers: Gang violence, civilians terrorized by brazenly corrupt police, riots, non-glamourous drug dealing, and lots of rap music. Like the other games, it draws heavily from the movies set in the same period: Menace II Society, Colors, Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City.
CJ returns home to Los Santos from Liberty City after his mother is killed in a drive-by shooting. As soon as he arrives in town, he’s stopped by the ruthless Officer Tenpenny (Samuel L Jackson) and is coerced into doing dirty work for Tenpenny’s corrupt police unit.
CJ attends his mother’s funeral and then reconnects with his friends: His brother Sweet, his sister Kendl, and his friends Big Smoke and Ryder. At home, there’s a lot of tension between their street gang Grove Street and their larger and more dangerous rivals, the Ballas. Grove Street is a benignThey’re benign in the sense that they don’t actively use drugs and violence to extract wealth from otherwise peaceful people. They still shoot up the neighborhood in turf wars. gang focused on family, while the Ballas are more explicitly a criminal enterprise fueled by drug money.
Over the course of the game, Sweet gets put in prison. CJ ends up doing dirty jobs for Tenpenny, investigating his mother’s murder, and having a series of crazy adventures in the desert. Eventually CJ avenges his mother’s death, gets his brother out of prison, and brings down Tenpenny.
This provides a pretty stark contrast with the previous game. In Vice City, your entire goal was to build an empire on drug money. In San Andreas, your nominal goal is to stop the flood of drugs into your neighborhood. Rockstar could have taken the easy and obvious way and made this yet another game about building an empire, but that would have come off as crass and tone-deaf in this context. Instead they tried to harmonize the story with the setting,
This is also the only Grand Theft Auto game to show genuine heart. When CJ mourns for his mother, makes peace with his brother, or reaches across racial lines to connect with CesarKendl’s hispanic boyfriend, much to the disapproval of her family. the game is happy to play these scenes straight. The silent protagonist of GTA III kept us from forming any connections with the characters, so it all felt sort of distant. Vice City was too brutal and hard-hearted (which is in keeping with its Goodfellas / Scarface origins) to show much in the way of affection between characters. In GTA V, every possible moment of pathos is undercut with dumb jokes or reminders that the characters are all disgusting selfish creeps not worth caring about.
In contrast, the characters in San Andreas genuinely love each other and form relationships we care about. No, it’s not a sentimental story. But it allows itself occasional moments of sentiment, and I think those moments make the game so much more interesting. I cared more about Cesar than I ever cared about stupid bowling with Roman in Grand Theft Auto IV, even though Roman was central to the story and Cesar was just a supporting character.
Boss of the Week
The other thing that San Andreas has going for it is that it still has a sense of fun. You end up working for a lot of crazy people in the story. During your time in the desert you help hippie conspiracy-theorist weed dealer The Truth (in a brilliant turn by Peter Fonda) do some jobs. You work for the hilarious blind Triad gang leader Wu Zi when you get to Las Venturas. You do jobs for the dry-witted Agent Mike Toreno (solid performance by James Woods) who conscripts CJ into doing some off-the-books wetwork for whatever unsupervised government agency Toreno is running.
Sure, like the other GTA titles you don’t always have a great in-world reason to be working for these jokersI still can’t remember why CJ was working for Wu Zi.”. Or at least, it’s not always clear how their tasks advance your ultimate goal. But they’re still amusing characters with wild jobs for you to do. That all changes when we get to GTA IV and the writer veers away from humor and makes most of the bosses dull creeps.
Another thing San Andreas gets right is the “collectibles” minigame. In the previous games you just explored to find these generic “hidden packages” sprinkled around the corners of the world. It was an early precursor to the kind of thing Ubisoft would later overdo in their open-world games. But here in San Andreas instead of having you look for packages they have you hunting for gang tags. This brilliantly integrates the collectible hunt with the setting, while making the collectibles more visually interesting.
If I have to complain about somethingAnd let’s face it: I do., I guess I found the gang warfare stuff to be in poor taste. Once the story gets rolling, you can fight the Ballas for control of the city. There’s this mild strategy element to it, where the city is divided into neighborhoods, and you must conquer them one at a time. Just roll into a Ballas neighborhood and start shooting everyone wearing purple. The civilians will run for it and you’ll have to face several waves of guys. If you survive, then the ‘hood is yours and this section of the map will turn green.
The more territory you have, the more money you make. I’m not sure where this money is supposedly coming from. The story makes it clear that Grove Street isn’t a drug operation, so how are you turning a profit? Is CJ running a protection racket? Are the people donating to your cause? Am I just overthinking this?
Previously I’ve said that I didn’t like that the game has you engaging in so much gang warfare. Around the time I’ve blown up my fifth carload of young black men with hand grenades, I start feeling like maybe this is all pretty gross.
But that doesn’t make sense, does it? I’ll willingly run over random civilians while cruising around townAnd laugh while I’m doing it., but now I’m suddenly uncomfortable because my foes are shooting back? That doesn’t make any sense. What’s going on here?
I think the problem doesn’t have anything to do with the portrayal of gang violence. I think the real problem is that this violence is portrayed as an unambiguous “good” by the mechanics. As the game frames it, I’m killing “bad guys”, claiming territory, and (somehow) getting rich. The rhetorical position of the game is that this activity is productive. I suspect this is the bit that makes it feel weird. Yes, young men shooting each other in the street over gang colors was a real problem at this time and place and history, and since this is a game nominally about South-Central LA it makes sense to incorporate those elements into gameplay. But the game goes one step too far and portrays this terrible pointless waste of human life as a useful and quasi-heroic endeavor.
Yes, the game has a few other rough spots. I only bring these up to avoid people saying, “Shamus, I can’t believe you didn’t mention X!” in the comments. So here:
The mission “Wrong Side of the Tracks” is infamously unfair, and the ending taunt of “All you had to do was follow the damn train, CJ!” was just salt in the wound. This mission has you chasing a train on a motorcycle, and it’s filled with stupid “gotcha” moments. The challenge is poorly explainedOne of the major reasons for mission failure is if you get too CLOSE to the train, Big Smoke doesn’t properly adjust his aim and he ends up hitting the side of the train. You see him shooting and think you’re making progress, but you’re not., there are surprise obstacles that jump out in front of you, the barks are repetitive and unhelpful, and the whole thing seems to be designed to frustrate the player. Big Smoke only has three guys to kill and the player knows from experience that it should only take a few shots to kill each of them. But between their beefed-up hitpoints, Smoke’s terrible aim, and his inexplicable slow rate of fire, it takes him forever to bring these guys down. Blaming the player for the apparent failings of this annoying NPC companion was not a good design decision.
While we’re at it, the mission OG Loc is pretty obnoxious as well. It bears a striking resemblance to a similar motorcycle chase in GTA IV, where the designer pops up tutorial messages like you’re supposed to be shooting at your target, but he’s actually invincible and you’re just supposed to keep up with him. It’s another mission that changes the rules without telling you, lies to you about what your goals are, harrangues you with taunts to go faster when that’s the opposite of what you should be doing, and encourages you to waste all your bullets on an invincible target before dropping you into an ambush against a group of foesIt’s also got some ugly homophobia that’s probably accurate for this time and place in history, but is likely to make a lot of people sad / uncomfortable. I’m not really equipped to analyze this sort of thing, so I’m just noting it here so you don’t think I didn’t notice..
Nobody else has complained about this, but I always thought the mission Deconstruction was pretty messed up. A bunch of construction worker guys are giving Kendl wolf whistles and shouting crass stuff at her, so CJ attacks the site, traps the foreman in a port-a-john, and buries him alive in a grave of shit. That’s a more brutal ending than any of our main villains get, and the story never even makes it clear that this guy personally did anything wrong. I get that catcalls are annoying, but this seemed like such an absurd over-reaction that I resented CJ for it. I think it would help if we in the audience actually got to hear some of the catcalls for ourselves so we could feel some anger towards these guys. As it stands, Kendl just says the construction guys are bothering her and CJ decides to make someone suffocate to death in a box of public shit for an offense we never personally witness.
And it should go without saying, but this game also suffers from the same mid-game slump that all of the modern Grand Theft Auto titles do – the plot gets completely lost and we end up doing a bunch of missions for random people with no real connection to any of our main goals.
Having said all that, San Andreas is a stellar game. The setting is vivid, the characters are interesting and occasionally likable, the world is immense and full of detail, and the story is the best this developer has ever made.
 They’re benign in the sense that they don’t actively use drugs and violence to extract wealth from otherwise peaceful people. They still shoot up the neighborhood in turf wars.
 Kendl’s hispanic boyfriend, much to the disapproval of her family.
 I still can’t remember why CJ was working for Wu Zi.”
 And let’s face it: I do.
 And laugh while I’m doing it.
 One of the major reasons for mission failure is if you get too CLOSE to the train, Big Smoke doesn’t properly adjust his aim and he ends up hitting the side of the train. You see him shooting and think you’re making progress, but you’re not.
 It’s also got some ugly homophobia that’s probably accurate for this time and place in history, but is likely to make a lot of people sad / uncomfortable. I’m not really equipped to analyze this sort of thing, so I’m just noting it here so you don’t think I didn’t notice.
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