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Classic game appreciation section - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

How to lose friends and alienate people in one sentence: Grand Theft Auto San Andreas was the last game I’ve ever had to pay for with my own cash. Sure, the perks of living life as a games journalist means we rarely have to pay for games, but considering that I could’ve waited it out and been sent a copy a few days after release and still went to a shop to buy it on launch day says something about my anticipation of San Andreas.

I read every magazine article, poured over every screenshot and memorised each rumour regardless of how far fetched it seemed – there was no way I was missing the launch of San Andreas by a single minute, nevermind several days. In short, my anticipation levels were already through the roof.

I’d booked the day off, bought a load of nibbles in and prepared to lose myself in this latest Grand Theft Auto. From the moment I hopped on the BMX with lead character Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson I was hooked. “I’M DOING WHEELIES ON A BMX!” I shouted aloud to no-one.

Above: WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

There are tons of moments in San Andreas like this. Upgrading cars with nitrous, working out in the gym to make CJ massive and escaping the scene of a crime via a jet-pack were all stand-out moments for me, and it never really let up for the 30+ hours I put into it. For me, an open world game lives and dies by the amount of new stuff you see beyond the eight hour mark, and San Andreas has plenty to keep pushing you on.

Of all the GTAs, San Andreas is largest for sheer scale and scope and as a result remains my number one in the entire series. Although I thoroughly enjoyed GTA IV it felt stripped back compared San Andreas, and in many ways it is. The character customisation has been yanked out, the property purchases have been toned down and you can’t even ride a push-bike in Liberty City. Anyway, GTA V will bring all this back right, RIGHT?

I remember coming into the office and chatting with colleagues who were ahead of me in the game, and conversations regarding San Andreas were often talked about in code. A typical conversation went like this “Did you? With the thing near the bridge? Purple monkey dishwasher?". Anything more that could be considered a spoiler would see you cut from the social circle and eating lunch alone for a week. But that’s how much it meant to folk, and me, when blasting through the game.

Above: Hit the weights in the gym with CJ to make him look body-builder buff

What I really love about San Andreas is that the three big cities that make up the fictional state all feel unique and packed with personality. Los Santos (L.A.) feels as busy and bustling as you like when you head downtown and the out of town ‘hoods are pitched at a particularly menacing level – with gang colours paraded on every corner.

San Fierro (San Francisco) provided me with the hills that made for some terrific jumps in my tricked out cars. Plus, the hippy missions where you use the radio controlled cars to blow up vans is another particular highlight. And then there’s the neon lit Las Venturas (Las Vegas) with garish super casinos complete with the jingle-jangle of coins dropping in the slot machines.

But beyond these distinct areas there are dusty wastelands to explore on dirt-bikes, dense forests and the huge Mount Chiliad to scale and then base-jump off. Everything about the playground that San Andreas provides is done for a reason and I rarely felt the slog getting from point A to point B that many open-world games deliver.

19 comments

  • GrandmaSlayer - February 6, 2012 6:34 a.m.

    Amen to that
  • RedOutlive10 - February 4, 2012 9:45 a.m.

    Probably one of the most overrated ones. It had amazing missions and characters, but also had skill grinding, you had to do it for certain missions (like the one that asked you to have some high breath capacity skill, so you has to keep diving/surfacing for some dreaded time) it was just so boring. The whole turf wars concept was broken & sleep inducing, weapons sounded horrible and the gunplay was weak. Most of the content outside of the main plot was collect-a-ton not very fun to do.
  • Atari2600Forever - February 3, 2012 10:58 p.m.

    Amen. San Andreas is by far the best GTA game, and it's not even close. CJ is the most likeable character in the whole series. You can customize everything and level up your skills with all the guns and cars, which gives you an incentive to try everything. The map is incredible with dozens of places in which to play around. The cars are awesome and good cars are available everywhere. It's possibly the most fun driving environment in a game ever. The gang wars element was awesome. The story is serious, but the desire for seriousness and realism always takes a backseat to having FUN, which is why people (or at least I) play games in the first place. It truly is a sandbox game because you can do anything you want. I spent hours exploring the countryside and jetpacking around. There are a zillion collectibles. On the other hand, for the life of me I've never understood why GTA IV is so highly thought of in gaming circles. That game is the most pretentious, unfun piece of garbage I've ever played. I don't usually get worked up about how many stars or points out of ten gaming websites give games, but the absurd number of 10/10 rankings GTA IV got was just mind-boggling. Did Rockstar pay everyone off, or did every game reviewer on the planet go brain dead when they reviewed the game? The only way I can explain it is that everyone had gotten themselves so worked up pre-release that they felt they had to keep buying into the idea that it was an incredible, genre defining work of art because to admit otherwise would result in a colossal loss of face. Well, it wasn't. It was an awful experience from start to finish. If it didn't have GTA IV stamped on the box, it would have been (rightly) pilloried by everyone and the company that made it would have been out of business in a week. The main problem with IV, other than it being depressing as hell and Niko being about as interesting as watching someone else watch paint dry, is that it isn't any fun to play. The cellphone is possibly the most annoying feature in gaming history. Someone forgot to tell Rockstar that driving in New York is a total pain in the ass in real life. The cramped nature of the city offered few interesting sandbox opportunities. The achievements were lame (Fly a helicopter under all the bridges?). The minigames were pathetic. When the coolest thing about a game is a GPS feature, you've got a real dog on your hands, and that's what GTA IV was. I've been playing GTA games since the first one on PC and San Andreas is one of my Top 5 all-time favorite games, so I'm as big a fan as it gets, but if GTA V is anything like IV and nothing like San Andreas I'm officially done with the GTA series and moving to the Saint's Row camp. No one's ever going to confuse Saints Row games with art, but they're at least fun to play. GTA IV felt more like an obligation than a good time.
  • EwoksTasteLikeChicken - February 3, 2012 1:10 p.m.

    Definitely the best GTA game, my favorite mission was when you have bury the construction worker in cement. So crazy and so much fun!
  • RyoonZ - February 3, 2012 12:17 a.m.

    Best GTA games Best Sandbox games Best PS2 games Best Voice Acting Best Main character Best Storyline Hands down
  • RyoonZ - February 3, 2012 12:23 a.m.

    Nobody punches CJ
  • Defguru7777 - February 2, 2012 4:33 p.m.

    My hope with GTA V is that they'll find a nice middle-ground so that they can tell a good story like GTA IV, and still have insane crazy fun like San Andreas. I feel they tried to do that a little bit in The Ballad of Gay Tony.
  • fanfundy - February 2, 2012 3:52 p.m.

    Best game ever in my opinion. Too bad it will probably never happen again. If this game came out now we'd get only one city and the rest be charged extra as DLC, plus extra for online pass, and pay extra for customization. And probably pay for a couple unlock keys for stuff already on this disc. San Andreas is a prime example of a quality product from a quality developer, which will never happen again.
  • Zaphod Beeblebrox - February 2, 2012 2:25 p.m.

    Fantastic game, best PS2 game and way better than GTA IV. Although I will never forgive Rockstar for that damn mission with the remote control plane, it was the closest I've been to a nervous breakdown!
  • bebl09 - February 3, 2012 8:23 p.m.

    Ha I agree, the one where you had to fly a remote control planes and blow up vans, that was fucking awful. It seemed like it should be good but it was just ridiculously hard, what with the fuel limit and how easily your plane could be destroyed.
  • AGENTJORRRG - February 2, 2012 1:26 p.m.

    And Rockstar said "Let us unlock the full potential of our concept" and so San Andreas was to be born. Little did the unsuspecting public know, it would be the greatest game....of all time. Rockstar were immortalised into gaming and lifted into Valhallarcade where they would rule the sandbox realms and strike down their blasphemous opponents with ease. And it was good. Amen.
  • CitizenWolfie - February 2, 2012 12:45 p.m.

    Man, I spent HOURS looking for Bigfoot and Leatherface once I heard about them! Even though I didn't find anything I still had a lot of fun just finding cool Easter Eggs in the backwoods and desert... And then there was trying to get the highest wanted level possible with just a BMX, a Sniper Rifle and the lodge halfway up Mt. Chiliad... And then there was the brilliant NWA-esque story and some of the best characters I've ever seen in a game. Or any medium for that matter... And then there was the part where the people of Los Santos start rioting after Tenpenny gets off. Trying to drive your nitro-injected Infernus through the streets while citizens are throwing molotovs at your ride... Then there's that big where Rage Against The Machine kicks in when you go on a bad date... I loved GTAIV but all of that bizarre randomness was missing. The only thing that's come close in recent years for me is Fallout 3 and currently Skyrim.
  • TheVoid - February 2, 2012 11:03 a.m.

    Agreed - best game in the series, hands down. In fact I was so disappointed in GTA4 that I put it down halfway through and never went back. I recently bit on the lure of Saints Row 3 in hopes that it could successfully recapture some of the magic of GTA:SA. In some ways it does, quite well in fact, but aside from the smaller cityscape I found Steelport to be far less "alive" than SA's multiple cities. For example, I recently stumbled on a casino in SR3 that I could actually enter (which itself was a surprise - I was quickly saddened upon firing the game up to learn that that most of SR3's buildings are merely for show) but to my dismay not a single casino game could be played, whereas in SA you not only had slots, blackjack, roulette, video poker, and more to choose from, you also had varied minimum/maximum bets (the high-stakes blackjack in particular became a mainstay once I beat the game and had more moeny than I knew what to do with - a few hours at those tables nearly wiped me out completely). All at once I realized that GTA:SA set a bar that even the strongest competition - let alone the franchise itself - have failed to match in 8 years and a whole system gen later. I also have to agree that some of my favorite GTA:SA memories were more "organic" in nature (rather than something tied to a mission structure, although Black Project was pretty unforgettable). In fact I think I probably spent more time playing the game for shits and giggles after beating it than during my "proper" playthrough. For example, I would try to see how many hookers I could pick up in one night and then try and break my own record the next (in game) night. Or tempt fate with flybys over the parked aircraft carrier. Or just grab a car and start ramming to see how quickly I could rack up a 5-star wanted level, and then see how long I could survive, and how far my running would take me. Parking my harrier in a small town intersection only to hop out and make a bet at the local OTB. Grabbing the fastest bike and driving around Las Venturas at top speed ad nauseum. Creating a huge traffic jam in a heavily populated area in an attempt to set off a massive chain of exploding cars. Buffing CJ out, only to reduce him to a fat pig, and then back again. Ah, the memories. And then when all of that became boring - impossible as that was - there were oodles and oodles of cheat codes to play around with (provided I didn't save my game, lest I paint myself into a nasty corner). And graciously Rockstar didn't charge for those (whereas shame on THQ for pulling that bullshit, although the "free" SR3 cheats are pretty plentiful and fun). Please Rockstar, bring it all back. Even if it's just an HD repackaging (ala the recent Team ICO and MGS collections), you'd have my money immediately. Otherwise I'll keep pretending SR3 comes somewhat close while waiting (skeptically) for GTAV.
  • db1331 - February 2, 2012 10:14 a.m.

    By far the best entry in the series. The missions were incredible. Sneaking through an aircraft carrier and stealing a harrier jet, breaking into the Area 51 knock off and taking the jet pack, or racing a motorbike onto a moving plane, completing your objective and sky diving back out. I really hope V is more like SA than IV. My most memorable SA moment was the mission where you had to get to the witness protection guy being guarded in the cabin halfway up the big mountain. I rode an ATV up there but took a wrong turn and wound up going almost all the way to the top before I realized it. Instead of taking the long way back down, I decided to just drive over the side of the mountain and go from there. Based on my map it looked like I was right above my objective. I drove over the side, and after free falling for quite some time, I landed right on top of one of the security guys patrolling the cabin and killed him instantly. Then I walked in the cabin, completed the objective, and drove off on my ATV. I had done that mission probably twice before, and that was the easiest I've ever had it.
  • Ultimadrago - February 2, 2012 9:29 a.m.

    Love this GTA. Nice write up!
  • cracker33 - February 2, 2012 9:23 a.m.

    I remember upgrading my bicycle skills so much that I could kill people by hitting them with the bike. It never got old. I also vividly remember the plane crash landing and scaring the crap out of me. It came out of nowhere!
  • inkyspot - February 2, 2012 9:21 a.m.

    San Andreas was the Best GTA IMO, so much to do, side missions, main missions, the jet pack. The airstrip, las vegas baby. Bunny hopping a BMX while capping hoodrats. Hot coffee. THe graphic sucked, but the game was bad ass. I doubt they can recapture that for me. That vid with the plane, was really funny.
  • An_Awesome_Guy - February 2, 2012 9:18 a.m.

    I remember being hit by that plane, and trying to tell disbelieving friends that it really did happen. Although the internet did of course exist at this time, I usually consider this the last game that thrived on an offline community. I can recall all the rumours that swirled around this game, and all the conversations that were spawned out of the crazy situations the game created. In some ways, I miss those days. *Sigh*
  • WonsAuto - February 2, 2012 9:07 a.m.

    That video of the dude getting hit by a plane while jumping his ATV gives me laughing fits EVERY SINGLE TIME. Goddamn, I miss this game.

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