Often regarded as one of the greatest games of all time, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a true PS2 classic. Saying this, it should come as no surprise that I’ve been desperate to see this game for a long time on PSN. For at least a year or two now, I would find myself occasionally searching Google for any news of a release for it. I own the game on Steam, but it just isn’t the same without proper Dualshock support. Thankfully, the game has finally hit PlayStation digital shelves, and as I finally played this game for the first time ever…I realize that times have changed.
If you want, you can find countless reviews for this game all over the internet. For this reason, I won’t spend much time talking about the little details. I’ll assume that you know about the giant state of San Andreas, the huge selection of vehicles (both on land and in the skies), the 30-40 hour story (I found myself on the latter side), the crazy weapons, and the cheat code-laden experiences one can have. This “sort-of” review will be based more around observations I had playing the game (especially in comparison with GTA IV, one of my favorite games ever and a common game San Andreas is compared to).
What San Andreas pulls off spectacularly is the simple breadth of content in the game. The customization is leaps and bounds above GTA IV, offering full customization of protagonist CJ through all sorts of activities. CJ can get fat by stuffing his face with pizza, or he can get ripped through rigorous exercise. He can also get haircuts and plenty of clothing options, adding a personal touch to normally fairly static characters. I also love that San Andreas offers activities far more interesting than GTA IVs “racing, dating, and bowling”, like gambling and flying planes.
If you wanted to raise Hell, San Andreas is the far better game to do so in. The game has easily available tanks, planes, jetpacks, helicopters, and far better weaponry than IV. In IV, the cars were cooler, but there were no tank-like vehicles until The Ballad of Gay Tony, and the game only had two or three helicopters until the expansions added a few more options. That is not to say Grand Theft Auto IV is not still a blast to play in its own right, but this is one category where San Andreas is miles ahead.
The landscape is also quite impressive, pulling together the big city with a detailed countryside, featuring mountains, forests, and smaller communities spread across the map. A certain joy can also be found in finding a little remote town in the middle of nowhere. Still, I think it would be brash to simply write off Grand Theft Auto IV because of less diversity. While San Andreas has a big map, IV’s rendition of Liberty City feels like a living, breathing city, rather than a video game designer’s interpretation of one. Much of the San Andreas map is empty space where very little is happening, while IV always had something to explore and something to find. More importantly, the Liberty City NPCs acted realistically; the talking on cell phones, spilling of coffee, and car breaking down on the side of the road is really great, especially back in 2008 when it came out. I think it’s all down to a matter of preference, and I don’t necessarily believe a small map with more going on is inherently better than a huge, diverse map with less going on.
Regarding the missions and plot, I also think it’s tough to compare them based on quality. To me, Niko Bellic living the American dream was a far more gripping tale than CJ’s return to Grove Street. Both stories have great characters with good writing, but Niko’s story of immigration and incorporating himself into society is really excellent. And as far as missions are concerned, they both have their shares of Grand Theft Auto traditional amazing and horrible missions. While IV had missions ranging from an amazing bank heist to some awful chase sequences, San Andreas has missions just about as good and just about that bad (like “Wrong Side of the Tracks”).
For all of the great things in San Andreas, the game does very little to hide its age. It looks pretty good graphically, and the soundtrack is as amazing as any GTA game, but the camera and controls carry serious issues. As someone who never grew up with this game when it came out, I’m not coming into this release as someone used to the controls. And as expected, they definitely feel like they belong to a third-person game from 2004. Movement, driving, and gun control feels stiff and awkward compared to the significantly more polished 2008 Grand Theft Auto release. Even going into the options menu, the sensitivity never felt quite right to me, and I only marginally got used to it by the time the credits rolled.
And as far as the camera is concerned, I was getting a headache from seeing it jerk around so often. I suppose I should “blame” the time more than the game itself, as San Andreas does not have a camera any worse than similar games, but it is a great contrast to the superior camera found in IV.
If you asked me which game would be the one to get, I would say GTA IV simply on the basis that it’s the one I have the most memories with, and that it has a few years of polish over San Andreas (not mentioning IV’s fantastic multiplayer). If you asked someone else, they might say that San Andreas is infinitely superior thanks to having far more content and diversity, and view the glaring signs of age as easily forgivable. Whatever the case, it’s worth remembering this is Grand Theft Auto. Despite complaints, both games are fantastic marvels of their time, and since you can find both games for fewer than twenty dollars, skipping either would only be a disservice to yourself and your console of choice.