I’m feeling a lot better about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in my thirty-seventh hour than I was in my first, fifth, or even fifteenth.
Part of that, I think, is down to the questionably-advised RPG progression systems they grafted onto the gameplay. While it is somewhat satisfying to slowly get better at shooting, driving or running around, this necessitates the starting experience for all these things being absolutely terrible. To begin with you can barely sprint 30 feet or hit a barn door with any gun, and the series’ infamous milk-truck handling is turned up to 11 (exacerbated further by the starting area having the worst-performing cars).
By the end of the game you barely remember the struggle as everything is maxed out and you’re serenely mowing goons down (when a dodgy camera/aim system isn’t conspiring to screw you over) and turning muscle cars on a dime. But I don’t think it’s a worthwhile trade-off to put these things behind a series of hamster wheels. Several times during the campaign your momentum will be brought to a shuddering halt as the game insists you engage with one of these treadmills or other: one memorably awful half hour was spent improving my underwater swimming capacity by diving underwater, waiting for my oxygen bar to deplete, surfacing, waiting for it to refill, diving again…
The other thing that hurts starting out is how big the world is. It’s this big: massive. Getting anywhere takes forever, not helped by a Los Angeles that is 90% pokey streets, near-vertical hills and unhelpfully placed trees and walls. Once you get out of the city things somewhat improve, although traversing the countryside takes a long time and you’ll be frequently pulling up the map (which criminally has no dedicated button) to make sure that you haven’t missed the one turning for the next 10 minutes that will put you on the road you need to go. The San Fransisco and Las Vegas analogues are less of a pain.
But for all my griping, I still love these open worlds, for their immersive qualities, occasionally wonderful emergent playground behaviour, and capacity to surprise with an unexpected sunrise or impressive view. The moment where you get hold of an aircraft and can take in the streets you’ve been tramping around from a whole new perspective is always a thrill.
I suspect I’m more forgiving than most on here of Dan Houser’s particular brand of Hollywood crime drama pastiche. The writing is a very uneven bag in this game, but by the end I quite liked the story and characters. CJ undergoes a sort of modern Bildungsroman, getting swept hither and thither by fate around the game’s three cities on a journey that’s equal parts self-discovery and outrageous (mis)fortune.
It sets up an interesting contrast between the guiding principles of himself and those close him: of being there for his family, of the importance of staying true to the neighbourhood he grew up in, and of a desire to see the wider world and what it has to offer him. Ambition is a particularly complicated thing in this game, a sort of superrational impetus by which characters are impelled to variously strive, achieve, overreach, and betray others (and themselves). It’s sceptical about the American Dream without being entirely nihilistic: the path is dangerous, with many ways to go astray, but not impossible.
The characters you meet range from likeable to stupid, but they’re all brought to life by some first-rate voice acting that goes a long way to giving the game some charm. On the other hand, the overall tone is often as nasty and puerile as we’ve come to expect from Rock Star, and jokes miss more than they hit. The parody ads and talk radio in particular are just crushingly unfunny this time around, but the DJs are good and the music selection is pretty strong, albeit not quite as stellar as Vice City.
Which I think sums up where I’m at: Vice City is the tighter, more polished, and generally more charming experience. GTA 4 and 5 do the “omnigame” thing better. San Andreas is caught in the middle, carrying some serious bloat in both content and design, and its proudly un-PC brand of satire wears particularly thin this time out. It’s still a game about driving and shooting in which neither the driving or shooting feel especially good. But as a technical accomplishment I still find it impressive some fifteen years later, and in spite of everything, it has heart.