Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: June 7, 2005
Buy 'GRAND THEFT AUTO: San Andreas': PC
Honestly, do I even need to explain what Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is? Is there even a person in the audience who hasn't been exposed to the title in some form or other? I guess for all three of the people who just raised their hands, an introduction is in order. GTA: San Andreas is the fifth iteration (or sixth, if you count GTA: London as a standalone product) in the wildly popular Grand Theft Auto franchise. It can be argued that the series didn't really stand out until GTA 3, and it's also been much debated whether or not GTA: Vice City broke new ground for the franchise. GTA: San Andreas, however, is another definitive marker for the series, keeping the distinct GTA style gameplay mechanics while at the same time really fleshing out the title and bringing it into its own.
Recently, we at Worthplaying were able to fly out to NYC to spend some quality time racing through traffic (at least, until the limo got a flat tire) in order to get some hands-on time with the upcoming PC version of GTA: SA. For the three clueless people who raised their hands earlier, GTA: SA's universe takes place in a fictitious state based in California circa the early 1990s. Gang warfare is rampant, drug use is as commonplace as drinking water, gangster rap is in full effect, and the law enforcement is as crooked as a fence after a tornado. Carl Johnson tried to escape it all when he moved to Liberty City, but had to return when he found out that his Mom had been killed in a shooting. Upon returning, CJ suddenly found himself penniless and framed after being shaken down by a group of crooked cops. His old gang, the Grove Street Families, is close to nobodies in the gang scene and all of his friends are spiraling towards destruction. Much of the game revolves around remedying this, restoring the Grove Street Families to a position of power and solving the mystery behind the death of CJ's mom.
In the PS2 version of GTA: SA, the age of the console was readily becoming apparent. While still a decent performer overall, the PS2 version often had framerate drops and suffered the same limitations that plagued GTA 3 and GTA: VC. For instance, although the draw distance for buildings is fairly large in GTA: SA, the draw distance for cars and characters was rather short, making driving down the incoming lane even more suicidal as cars would just appear in front of you moments before impact. Still, the game looked pretty good, and other complaints were much lesser in severity.
Of all of the changes to the title, the biggest change in the PC version of GTA: SA is how much change the graphics engine has undergone. The original high-resolution textures that had to be scaled down to accommodate the PS2's hardware are now used in their original form, which looks staggering when you compare the look of the PC version to its PS2 counterpart. The overall draw distance has improved considerably, and many of the models have gotten an increase to their polygon count, resulting in a bit smoother and cleaner look. Vehicles now sport a real-time reflection of the horizon, and damage to the car affects the quality and angle of the reflection accordingly. When slamming into a fence or wooden barrier, they no longer just flop over as a single object but actually break apart in a matter not unlike what you would see with a physics engine.
The biggest graphical improvements come in the form of the lighting and shadowing engines, both of which are way ahead of the PS2 version in terms of quality. Lighting in-game is now much smoother and vibrant, thanks to the added muscle the PC can flex, and the characters themselves are lit up much more evenly and realistically by streetlights and headlamps. Vehicles have real-time shadows now, as do the characters themselves, but the biggest addition to the "things that cast shadows" category is such things as telephone poles and power lines. Unlike previous GTA iterations, objects with shadows will now realistically drape their shadows onto other entities such as your character or other items, which, although a seemingly small thing, really adds significantly to the overall look of the title.
The aural end of GTA: SA hasn't quite received the same buffing and polishing, although it can obviously be expected that the jump from PS2 to PC gives gamers a lot more control over the quality of their sound. The voiceovers are all still very well acted, just as the sound effects all have their own distinct character. The most immediately recognizable facet of GTA: SA's audio repertoire is the music, which runs the gamut of popular songs from the era such as Rage Against The Machine's "Killing In The Name" or 2 Pac's "I Don't Give A F***." Each radio station in GTA: SA plays its own set of music, such as the gangster rap blasting from Radio Los Santos to the rock blaring from Radio X. The ability to introduce your own mp3s as game music is once again a feature in the PC version, only now the player has much more control over them. The mp3s you place in the game's audio directory can now be played either sequentially, randomly, or randomly interspersed with a sort of "best of" grab bag of the commercials from the other radio stations to give it a "radio" feel.
What about other changes? The core content of the game remains unchanged, as Rockstar doesn't want to alienate the owners of the PS2 version. The same-screen cooperative mode has been removed entirely; apparently, a few iterations of a multiplayer mode were cycled through during development, but none of them were really up to snuff. For those who still want to get their multiplayer on, Multi Theft Auto is an enjoyable community modification to GTA 3, GTA: VC, and the upcoming GTA: SA that has been receiving some amount of loose support from Rockstar. The general structure of GTA: SA's resources hasn't changed much so that tool creators won't have too much work ahead of them to port their works to the new title, but the flexibility and potential of the title has been increased. For instance, not only can you now reskin and remodel characters and cars, but you can also feasibly replace individual parts in the chop shop to really give your car that custom look. Replays can now be saved and the camera controlled using the mouse during playback, but they can also be shared with other GTA: SA owners to show off a particularly awesome sequence.
Game controls are similar to the PC version of GTA: VC and are, as a whole, much closer to the precision that you can achieve on a controller. Once again, the ability to aim your weapon with the mouse is a godsend, and while it allows you to get headshots much easier, you can't simply lock on and fire at an enemy as quickly as you could on the PS2, which is a good balance. You can use the mouse to steer your vehicle, which means that the player has a much higher degree of control over their vehicle once they get used to it. The biggest advantage that the PC version of GTA: SA has going for it is the ability to bind whatever keys you want to a slightly larger number of commands.
Sure, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was originally a PS2 exclusive title, but it is very easy to see that it is much more at home on the PC, where the admittedly aging engine can flex its muscle one last time before we see the series enter the next gen. While the content remains the same (even less if you count the cutting of the co-op mode as a true loss), the upgrades to the graphics engine not only make the game look much, much better, but they also improve the quality of the gameplay, thanks to cars and characters no longer appearing out of thin air. The increased modability should make for some interesting additions to the title such as Multi Theft Auto, and the only slight changes to the structure mean that mod makers won't have to get totally new tools. With enhancements across the board in the graphics, audio, and control areas, the PC version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas looks to be the version to own if you haven't had a chance to pick one up yet, as it's the definitive title to date that represents the series as a whole.