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What: GTA III / San Andreas
When: 2001 / 2004
Where: Bath / penthouse suite, London
Why: To play my part in GTA’s scoring…
Thing is, Grand Theft Auto wasn’t always so hotly anticipated. In fact, GTA III’s announcement barely registered a ripple, despite some promising (if suspiciously pre-rendered-looking) early screens and some ambitious words about its 3D reinvention by the Houser brothers - these appearing in an early copy of Official PlayStation2 magazine. When the game fell off the radar for nine months before suddenly appearing suspiciously ready for review, most journalists jumped to the same conclusion - it was rubbish, and Rockstar had been forced to hide it. The surprise, of course, was that it wasn’t rubbish... in fact, the first few hours suggested it was excellent, from the revolutionary ‘sandbox’ gameplay to the visuals to the in-car radio.
But because Rockstar hadn’t shown the game until it was complete, everyone was obsessed with finding fault. I remember my flatmate, another journalist, was writing the world-first review, and - despite clearly enjoying himself - trying to find the catch. In between washing the dishes and wondering when he’d let me get the TV back (which I’d kindly donated to the front room), I caught several glances of the game: my flatmate seemed to spend most of his time driving around similar-looking streets. When he asked my opinion, I just said it looked a bit repetitive and that, if he was unsure, he was probably right. The game scored 8/10, and in some small way, I can’t help think I helped to down-score possibly the most important game of PS2’s life.
Moral: don’t hide games from journalists, since the cynical sods will assume there’s something to hide. Or failing that, don’t let them review the things on my television. Several years and several million sales later, San Andreas was the most hotly anticipated game in the world. So being invited to play it under five-star house arrest in London was fairly exciting. Rockstar booked us into a penthouse suite in a posh London hotel - it, er, must have been good, because I recognized later the suite in an episode of Katie & Peter: Unclever (or whatever it was called) when she was forced to go into hiding for some reason or other - and gave us five days to review the game.
On one hand, it was bliss: unqualified access to the world’s hottest game and all the quartered cucumber sarnies you could eat. On the other, it was curiously oppressive: a nine hour daily shift with a superb, though repeatedly flawed, open-world game under the watchful gaze of an ever-present Rockstar representative. While they did their best not to intrude, every time you blundered a basically facile Los Santos mission you felt a silent murmur from the other side of the room - entirely imagined, of course.
On day three, forty hours in, as I failed - and cursed - the bloody impossible flying missions for the eleventy-ninth time, you could’ve played the chords from Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’ in the air alone, such was the tension. By Day Five, at 4.30 pm on our final sojourn, we were just leaving Las Venturas when our Rockstar rep spoke up.
“Know what?” he said, “Keep going, and you might be the first journalist in the world to finish this...” Six hours later, I wasn’t so sure. I had to hand the pad to the Rockstar chap so we could power through the Los Santos riots (he even rang New York to check how long it’d take) and it wasn’t until 2.30 am that I finally lined up to tackle the final mission. Amazingly, I did it first go - or rather, thought I’d done it first go. Then I realised you had to escape the burning building once the killing was done, howling in agony as CJ burnt to a crisp just metres from the exit.
“Sorry dude, I’ve got to leave” revealed my Rockstar friend, explaining he had to be in work (on Saturday) four hours later. It’d take him an hour to get home in the first place. Oddly, being politely forced to almost finish the game over 60-odd hours must’ve bent my mind, since I gave it an almost implausible 99% - two percent more than our equally ludicrous 97% score for Vice City. It was hard at the time to argue than San Andreas wasn’t at least that much better - though years later, I can’t help but feel Vice was maybe the tighter, more enjoyable game. Still, given my potential influence on the GTA III score, perhaps it was karmic redistribution. Or rather, what happens when I’m forced to review something on someone else’s 42” widescreen with an inexhaustible supply of room service savouries.