If you've been with PALGN over the last couple of years, you'll notice that we usually only ever do one review of each game that is released. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a special case – it's the first time we've reviewed every version of the game released. We've done this with the best of intentions, as each individual version of GTA: San Andreas has had its own reasons for requiring in-depth investigation. The PlayStation 2 version was the leader of the pack, as the game was new and eagerly anticipated. The Xbox version was expected to be enhanced over its competitor, offering tweaked visuals, custom soundtracks and smoother gameplay. Now, we're up to the PC version of the game.
PC versions of Grand Theft Auto games have always been a different animal. The first two top down games were arguably superior to the console versions, with anti-aliasing, higher resolutions, lower load times and no slowdown. This superiority came into question with the release of Grand Theft Auto III – while the game was cleaned up, there were a few problems with polygons popping in, as though the game didn't appear to be tuned up to take the increased draw distance into account. Control seemed to be the main cause of debate; superior aiming (thanks to the keyboard/mouse combo) at the cost of greater control over your vehicle. Vice City's conversion was a remarkable improvement, but the issue of control still remained, especially when it came to flying the newly added helicopters.
Things are different with GTA: San Andreas. Rockstar North has really gone the extra mile to ensure that this is the PC version of the game doesn't fall behind the others – in fact, it's the best version. They've taken the massive environments, well rounded story and near endless amounts of gameplay from the original version of the game, and cleaned up the graphics, solidified the framerate, increased the draw distance, and sped up the load times. The best version of the best game in the series? It's a bold claim, but one that this reviewer is certainly inclined to explain (and defend).
San Andreas' narrative is much more grounded than the previous GTA titles. Rather than a high flying Mafioso, or a would-be bank robber, San Andreas' protagonist, Carl 'CJ' Johnson, is a much more regular guy. Having moved east to Liberty City after the death of his brother Brian, CJ returns to San Andreas after being informed that his mother was killed. It's now 1992, five years since CJ fled to the East Coast – a lot has changed in CJ's old neighbourhood of Grove Street. Carl's former gang, the Grove Street Families, is in disarray, his friends are still agitated about the fact that CJ abandoned them and ran from his problems after his brother's death. Grove's fiercest rivals, the Ballas, are running the show, with the Families all but out of the picture. After a memorial service for his mother, CJ and his friends Sweet, Ryder and Big Smoke decide to reunite the families, and stick it to the Ballas, or anyone else willing to get in their way.
Along with the solid plot, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has one of the best sets of secondary characters around. CJ's Grove Street friends Sweet and Big Smoke are really strong characters; their dialogue and actions actually make the player give a damn about the neighbourhood, and Ryder provides some comic relief. You encounter some other interesting characters in your time, such as Officer Tenpenny (who is voiced by Hollywood great Samuel L. Jackson), the officer in charge of gang conduct in Los Santos, The Truth (voiced by legendary actor/director Peter Fonda), a paranoid yet well equipped beatnik, Mike Toreno (voice by another Hollywood legend, James Woods), a devious government agent, and many more. Previous GTA games have also had a strong supporting cast, but San Andreas easily blows them out of the water.
GTA: San Andreas' plot is only a small part of a massive canvas. In fact, there's so much to see and do in the state of San Andreas that the sheer size of the game could be seen as overwhelming, or even intimidating, at first. You start out in Los Santos, but are confined to that city for the early part of the game – leaving the city limits will result in an instant four star wanted rating, and a bunch of rabid police officers on your arse. As you progress through the game's story missions, the different areas of the state will open; from major cities to small hick towns, to deserts and thick forests, San Andreas has it all. The sheer size of the map can be a minor problem in the mid section of the game, due to missions requiring you to drive cross-country – fail them, and you'll have to drive all that way again during the mission. There's a function called Trip Skip, which ensures you don't have to do this outside of missions, though its purpose is sometimes defeated, especially in missions where one is required to be armed to the teeth. The thing that really sets the Grand Theft Auto series above its many clones is the fact that the environments in the game really feel alive, and San Andreas is no exception. Even with the huge map size, every part of San Andreas has something going on – even out in the forests and the desert. Pedestrians and cars are strewn throughout the cities, and they change based on your location – for instance, San Fierro is rather multicultural, while Whetstone is filled with toothless hillbillies and 300 pound gorilla-esque women. The density of traffic, both human and vehicular, has been increased for the PC version, and that strengthens the overall atmosphere.
General gameplay sticks closely to previous games in the series, with plenty of driving, running and gunning. Rockstar North has added new types of cars, bikes, and even slightly more bizarre vehicles like the tractor and combine harvester. There are also some completely new vehicle types, such as the bicycle (which is better than you'd think) and expanded the range of aerial craft available to jets – both commercial and military. Handling seems to be improved over previous PC ports, which is pleasing, but some parts of the game may prove frustrating if your keyboard takes exception to multiple simultaneous key presses. Rather than constantly driving from A to B during missions, you might be required to torch marijuana crops or plant incriminating evidence in someone's car. The game still has plenty of regular missions for those who don't like the more obscure objectives. Elements from other recent Rockstar titles have been included in the game such as Manhunt – CJ will sometimes be required to use stealth during missions, and can execute stealth kills with certain weapons. Certain missions will have a noise meter which you must avoid raising too high, or things may turn pear shaped for CJ.
Unlike its many imposters, the GTA series has always provided an abundance of secondary missions – namely Taxi, Vigilante, Fire and Ambulance missions, as well as a few others directly related to your character's assets. San Andreas greatly expands upon the amount of secondary missions, adding courier, trucking, train, quarry, home invasion, valet and pimping missions. There are also low-rider races, stadium races, import/export garage, training schools and other one shot secondary missions to play.
Another major new time-killer in GTA: San Andreas is the addition of gang territories. In Los Santos, you compete with two rival gangs over various parts of land. If you venture into rival territory and fill a few rivals full of lead, you will trigger a gang war, and have to face three waves of opposing gang members before the hood is yours. As you gain more territories, you can collect a larger cash bonus outside CJ's Grove Street house. Gang fights can be pretty fierce, so you can recruit Grove Street homies to assist you – the more respect CJ has, the more guys he can take along with him. There are other little quests that also don't take on the form of missions, such as the graffiti tags, oysters, horseshoes and photo opportunities, which replace the old hidden package search, triathlons, and the new relationship system. At certain points in the game, you will meet women, and if you match their preferences at the time, you will be able to take them on dates, which involves going to dinner, or dancing (in a DDR style mini-game). The girls are rather unique, and if you succeed in your relationship with them, you will be able to gain certain advantages in gameplay, such as keeping your weapons after being arrested. There is also a small selection of mini-games to accompany the secondary missions. These consist mainly of two DDR clones – the low-rider contest and dancing, billiards, and a few archaic, arcade-style video games.
Probably the most notable change to gameplay in GTA: San Andreas is the level of customization that players can execute on CJ. You can change his hairstyle, cover him in tattoos and dress him anyway you want. There is also an RPG-style stats system for various skills such as driving, shooting, stamina, health and so on. As these stats grow higher, you will be able to pull off various driving maneuvers more easily, gain a pilot's license or even dual weild weapons. You can also take CJ to a gym to build up his muscles and stamina, or take him to one of the many fast food restaurants around and turn him into a portly gentleman – either one of these options will have an effect on how CJ controls; a CJ with high stamina and high muscle will be very athletic and can take more damage, while a fat CJ will waddle down the streets like the Comic Book Guy, and run out of breath after running for about 5 seconds. CJ isn't the only thing that can be customized however; as the game contains a few garages around the place that let you customize different cars – mainly low-riders and the faster sports cars. This isn't entirely useful, given the disposable nature of cars in Grand Theft Auto, but is still a welcome addition.
With all of these new additions to the series, along with a huge storyline and plethora of secondary missions, players can expect to get upward of 100 hours out of GTA: San Andreas – the story missions take about 45-50 hours on their own! San Andreas is a little bit easier than previous games – the PC version more so. Rockstar North has done a little bit of tweaking to some of the harder missions in the game to ensure they're a little fairer, so you won't be pulling out half a head of hair over Supply Lines again. The mouse and keyboard combination makes shooting a lot easier than the PlayStation and Xbox versions of the game, which makes most missions and the gang wars a lot easier overall.
Many critics and gamers have been a little hard on GTA's graphical presentation over the years, and while San Andreas isn't busting out billions of polygons and normal mapping, it is doing a hell of a lot at once, and does a hell of a lot better job of the whole living, breathing city thing than its many clones. The PC version of San Andreas looks a lot cleaner than the PlayStation 2 copy, and boasts much higher resolution, improved reflections, at least double the draw distance, and up to 3x anti-aliasing, all at a much improved frame rate – depending on your computer's stats, of course. Trails have been eliminated, so there's no more bizarre blurring all over the place. Various little environmental details have been either added or tweaked, such as heat haze in Los Santos, or motion blur when you are traveling at top speed in your car.
Vice City was filled to the brim with 80's nostalgia, and great voice actors – a hard act to follow up to, but Rockstar North has done a very good job. The soundtrack isn't as great a trip through memory lane as Vice City was, probably due to the early 90's setting, but it's certainly no slouch. There's a few classic tracks in there – Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name, Foghat's Slow Ride and NWA's Express Yourself. The radio stations offer up a good variety of music, and if there's a track you really wish to add, San Andreas offers a custom soundtrack option; which can now be set to sequential, random or radio style presentation. Rockstar North have gone all out once again with the voice talent, with mix of established actors such as Samuel L. Jackson, James Woods and Peter Fonda, comedians such as David Cross, Charlie Murphy and Andy Dick, and rappers Ice T and Young Maylay rounding up the pack. A few celebrity DJs are present too, with Axl Rose doing the duties on K-DST.
All in all, GTA: San Andreas is probably the most complete package you will see on the PC this year. The game has literally everything, and should keep players interested for at least 50 hours, if not more. If you've already played the game on the PlayStation 2, you should probably consider giving the PC version a look if you have a capable machine – the better graphics, easier control scheme and difficulty tweaks really make this the best version of San Andreas available.