Friday, November 18, 2011

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas review


    Grand Theft Auto is the King of Controversy in video games. There's been talk about how they're a bad influence on kids, contain inappropriate content, and are a glorification of crime. It's also a game series I, until recently, never really played. It's not that I paid these accusations any attention, it's more that crime games weren't my thing until recently. I preferred to be the hero and, as a result, missed out on some extremely interesting stories.

    I actually tried to get into the GTA-series with Grand Theft Auto IV and its spinoff, the Ballad of Gay Tony. However, the learning curve was too much for me. I really needed a tutorial for Grand Theft Auto IV and was under the mistaken impression that wrecking your car was a bad thing as opposed to an inevitability. The Ballad of Gay Tony was a poor way of easing me into the series because my first real mission was Luis killing thirty or so cops. So, I swore off the series and ironically picked up Saints Row and Saints Row 2. Those two games are equally violent as Grand Theft Auto but are much more ridiculous in tone, letting me remove myself from the violence of the game.

    So, knowing Saints Row was inspired by Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, I decided to try and give the game another shot. The game is, thankfully, available for download off Xbox Live and I got it for a steal. So is San Andreas different from Grand Theft Auto IV? Certainly. Is it better? That's subjective, but in my opinion, hell yes. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a much more cheerful, for lack of a better term, game than Grand Theft Auto IV. It takes place in sunny California, or an analog thereof, rather than a dark and gritty analog to New York City. The game's learning curve is much more forgiving than GTA IV, giving you much more time to ease into the role of your protagonist and learn the ropes. You move from tagging walls to car chases to bigger crimes and, frankly, I appreciated that.

The game takes inspiration from Spike Lee's Boyz-In-The-Hood. Obviously, it takes a somewhat different approach to gang life.
    Players take the role of Carl Johnson, a young African-American gang member who is returning to the city of his birth after a five-year-absence. Not minutes after arriving in Los Santos, Carl is framed for the murder of a police officer and made the pawn of the corrupt Officer Tenpenny. It occurred to me as I played that, barring Jax from Mortal Kombat, there aren't that many black protagonists in video games. It's kind of disappointing that the first lead in a sandbox role-playing game is a gangster, but it's better than nothing--which is what the video game world usually provides for black protagonist. Carl is a likable enough character, despite being willing horrible stuff over the course of the game, and I quickly bonded with him.

The fact all of this is visitable, on foot, just boggles the mind.
    The game is huge, really, giving you a lengthy map and mission set which left me feeling like I'd gotten my money's worth less than halfway through the game. The graphics hold up surprisingly well and it didn't feel too dated. Like Symphony of the Night, I don't think that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will ever go out of style. It's just a good, good game with excellent voice acting and storytelling.

    The soundtrack isn't as good as the one in Saints Row 2, "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses being the standout song, but it was passable. Really, my favorite channels were the talk radio ones, routinely going in bizarre and oddball directions.  Just about every aspect of American culture is satirized at one point or another, sparing neither the Left nor the Right. I think the whole ridiculousness of the setting was necessary to make it feel like a fun game, otherwise the violence CJ sometimes engages in would be unsettling.  Indeed, one of the game's few flaws is that the storytelling is tight-enough that the mayhem and conscienceless sociopathy contrasts sharply with the character of CJ as established in cutscenes. It's hard to believe the pleasant, upstanding, and friendly CJ is the guy who would bury a man alive in cement for whistling at his sister.

    No, seriously, that's a level.

    The gameplay is wonderful, though. It's as fun to steal cars and wreck stuff as complete the story missions. The sheer variety of activities is amazing. One thing that always put me off most Shooters is the fact that every single mission is more or less the same. GTA: SA is all about variety. There's car chases, stealth missions, gun-play, martial arts brawls, and more. Just about every mission requires you to react in a different way. It makes the whole thing a great deal more rewarding. I think my favorite missions would be any of the elaborate chase sequences and a later Ocean's Eleven-style casino heist.

The fact you can travel around the city by air, sea, or plane is innovative now--let alone when the game was made.
    I mentioned it above but the storytelling and voice acting deserve a special note. Samuel L. Jackson turns in a stellar performance as corrupt cop, Officer Tenpenny. He reminds me of Vic from The Shield and it's obvious that Tenpenny has gone off into his own little world of crazy self-justification for all the horrible things he does. As bad as Carl Johnson is, Officer Tenpenny is worse. Yet, you can tell that Tenpenny was probably made the way he was by his job. You can't stare too long at the abyss without the abyss staring back and all that. Despite how impressive Samuel L. Jackson's performance is, I actually liked the supporting character of Big Smoke better. Voiced by Clifton Powell, Big Smoke is a simultaneously endearing and skeevy character. Compared to CJ, Big Smoke is much more cynical about the gangbanger lifestyle. Yet, simultaneously, he's probably a lot less hypocritical about it. CJ talks repeatedly about protecting the neighborhood and doing right by his friends yet they consistently manipulate him and try to incite him to violence. Big Smoke seems aware, often quoting Bible passages with dubious applicability, that there's something wrong with the world they live in. He just doesn't have the courage, or perhaps the strength, to escape it. I really liked the guy and wished I could have had more interactions with him.

     Other members of the cast are interesting and memorable, albeit not as much as these two. There's aging hippie pot-farmers, cynical government agents, the incredibly annoying OG Loc, and the likable but surreal Woozie. One of my favorite sections of the game is the extended homage to Grand Theft Auto III, which I've never played, involving the psychotic Catalina. Watching her manipulate CJ into being her partner in crime was hilarious and disturbing. The fact there's dozens of memorable characters alone makes this game a cut above regular video games.

    Finally, the game-world is massive, covering fictionalized versions of Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and Las Vegas with a farming community thrown in. There's even an analog to Area 51, adding to the sense of the world's immensity. The number of activities possible in the game are tremendous too, including everything from dating mini-games to working out. This is all in-addition to the staggering number of vehicles you're capable of stealing from cars to planes to, I kid you not, jet-packs. If you're on PC, the number of Mods available to GTA: SA players staggers belief. The storyline missions provide you with all of the tools necessary to enjoy the craziness of the world while being good storytelling on its own. I admit, I had to cheat in several places but it was worth it.

Boxing is just one of the many mini-games available.
     Were there faults? Well, the game is almost ten years old but I think it holds up remarkably well. A good game is a good game, irregardless of whether or not it's older and GTA: SA is a great game. The violence can occasionally be shocking but for those who identify with their protagonists, I suggest they simply turn off their consciences and remember, "It's only a game."

    Overall, I enjoyed GTA: SA and I hope others will download it from Xbox Live or Steam. I might not agree with all of the design choices but the sheer variety of activities, size of the gameworld, and quality of the writing trumps any objections I might have. With so many linear, boring, and short video games out there--it's nice to see something showcasing serious effort. No wonder the designers decided to rename themselves Rockstar.

10/10

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