San Andreas. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…
…or was that New Jersey?
Released on October 24, 2004, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was Rockstar’s then latest entry into their wildly popular Grand Theft Auto franchise. Hot off the heels of their previous title Vice City, San Andreas changed its setting from a fictional 70’s Miami area, to a more gritty, vastly larger 90’s interpretation of three different west coast cities. The anticipation of San Andreas led me to wait outside for hours just to pick up my copy at midnight, something I have only done once before then and once since (coincidentally enough, it was for Grand Theft Auto IV.) Rockstar’s title left such a profound impact in my gaming life, that I labeled it as the third best game to be released in the previous decade.
When it comes to the biggest draw to an open world title, the two I’d have to pick would be exploration and activity. Having a massive world around me helps set up the illusion that I really am living out the life of the protagonist in my control. Exploring every alley, every pier, every nook and cranny each location provides is, in its self, a deviation from the plot at hand. Having a myriad of activities to go along with the exploration further satisfies my desires for the genre. I’m not particularly picky either; I can find hours of entertainment through the most plain Jane additions that most gamers would brush aside, or completely ignore.
Some of the more critical responses came from these activities and mini-games. Critics and gamers had some concern over the fact that, optional or not, maintaining a physically fit CJ (your tour guide of San Andreas) seemed a bit too extreme for this genre. Why should they take time out from the more mundane, always present mechanics, just to spend two minutes lifting weights or learn new fighting moves? Why should they have to eat food to restore health (as if picking up hearts on a city street to replenish your health is anymore plausible) On top of that, some naysayers complain about hairstyle changes, tattoos, and other physically altering customization pieces that are optional for the players. You might even hear negative comments here and there about the burglary segments, which some thought were unnecessary in a title that lets you run pedestrians down with an RV, or slap them cops in the face with female sex toys.
My question is — why not have all these things, and more?
Sandbox titles are supposed to offer an unprecedented level of freedom and creativity compared to other genres. Many games within the genre do their best to add in as much content in both activities and exploration, in order for the player to become even more engrossed into the world that they are visiting. While certain games stick to a more plausible set of activities (burglary, gambling, taking cab fares), others go for the extreme, and offer a rather silly, though often addicting mini-game (throwing your avatar into traffic to claim insurance fraud, as featured in the Saints Row franchise.) However, no sandbox title before, or even after Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, has offered more to do, more to see and more surprises coming at the player, even years after its release.
The micro managements to the main character offered by San Andreas, as well as the plethora of mini-games, remain some of the more innovating options offered. While there are franchises that have featured complete character customization before you enter the main game, how many offer optional weight-lifting mini-games? While not a minuscule alteration, maintaining your build will be more apparent when taking to the streets in your wife-beater. Don’t care about your physical well-being? How about taking on one of the numerous vehicular based mini-games? Carjack a taxi cab and press R3 to unveil a timed fare chase and deliver game that spans throughout all three major city locations. Hell, you can find a designated spot in the game world that initiates a tractor trailer hauling mini-game that requires the player to go from one point to another within a specific amount of time, without losing the load you are carrying with it. Even the more subtle inclusions of boosting the proficiency of CJ’s vehicular abilities, whether they are four wheeled, two wheeled or not, leads to its own set of experimentation periods. In short: if you’re a gamer that enjoys deviating from the main story, just do partake in the most mundane or mischievous, San Andreas is where you want to relocate to.
If you just want to cruise around and soak in the sights offered, this game is definitely for you. Nearly seven years later and, while playing on a near completed game save, I am locating homes I have not yet purchased, store locations I don’t recall seeing, and mini-games that I had either forgotten about or was just completely oblivious to. It’s not just back-alleys and dead ends that await those that enter San Andreas; a rather robust highway system, wooded area, rocky backdrops and so on, are all sprinkled throughout. On top of that, each of the three main cities have their own distinct looks, from the glitz and glamor of the Las Vegas inspired Las Venturas, to the San Francisco inspired, hill laced San Fierro. Even the starting area of Los Santos, inspired by Los Angeles, has its distinct look and feel.
Not only are environmental factors diverse between each area, but the inhabitants are diverse as well. Los Santos is more gang friendly, leading to groups of a rival gang trying to gun you down as you drive by them, whereas Las Venturas has tons of Elvis impersonators, as well as a more high classed cast of characters. Taking in account the desolate areas sprinkled in-between each of the main cities, and the illusion of a legitimately living, breathing game world is all but apparent. That often panned “dead space” only enhanced this feeling tenfold. By car, it does take a while to drive from one end of the map to the other, but so what? There’s nothing exasperating about it since, along with the mini-games, physical alterations and inner city locales, San Andreas has become the very first believable open world video game I have played, that was made for a home console. Sure, The Sims came to console eventually, but the translation didn’t necessarily work well from keyboard and mouse to video game controller.
You’d be hard pressed to find a game in this genre that offers as much freedom, visual diversity and numerous activities littered around the game world. Years after San Andreas dropped, Grand Theft Auto IV was released on a vastly more powerful gaming system, with not only less visual deviance (it felt like one large city with little change between each sectors population and activity), but even less to do in-between missions. No more fire truck missions. No more home burglaries. Hell, Niko Belic significantly less options in his physical alteration. While the game world was breathtaking, with more to explore (thanks in part to the partial representation of a few of the boroughs of New York City, as well as parts of Jersey), there wasn’t a sense of surprise or wonder that was present in San Andreas. Players could even enter certain buildings and ascend to the rooftops, something that wasn’t necessarily present in San Andreas. The drawback to this is the fact that there’s little to find in GTA IV. No pool halls, no basketball hoops, not even the 69 cent stores that are randomly sprinkled around San Andreas, With less to do, it felt like every stone was turned in GTA IV after the final area was unlocked. In some respects, GTA IV is a regression over what Rockstar had presented previously.
Planes, trains or automobiles. Pimping hoes, putting out fires, driving truckloads of product from one point to another. Cornrows, afro or buzzcut. The sin of the faux Sin City, the rocky cliffs and the grassy hilltops. San Andreas offers a world with a diverse enough set of activities and locales that puts some present day sandbox titles to shame. Some call it fluff, while others call it padding. In the eyes of a realist, that is what sets Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas ahead of any game like it. Tired of Liberty City? Have you overstayed your welcome in Vice City? Try taking another trip to San Andreas. Even with all that time you previously invested into it, you might just find something you’ve never seen before, all the while rediscovering, or perhaps even discovering, why San Andreas is the premiere game world to get lost within.