Reviewing a video game is a lot harder than I thought it would be. Playing a game is easy enough, but writing ‘this game sucks’ or ‘this game rules’ still leaves me about 747 words shy of my limit.
In writing this review, though, I encountered a different problem. Nothing I could possibly say about the game could prepare you for the actual experience of playing it.
Let me start by saying that I really wanted to beat ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ before I wrote my review, but it’s just too big.
Really, really big. As in it takes over 15 minutes to travel from one edge of the map to the other.
It’s also huge in the scope of its gameplay, incorporating elements from such disparate genres as racing simulators, first-person shooters and role-playing games, as well as some unlikely genres, like dating and dancing simulators.
What makes ‘San Andreas’ so great? Put succinctly, you are Carl Johnson, a 20-something gangster living in Los Angeles in the early 1990s.
When I say that you ‘are’ Carl Johnson, I don’t simply mean that you play as him, but that you are completely immersed in his universe; your experience when playing this game is virtually indistinguishable from what the real-life Carl Johnson would have experienced in this time and place (if such a person existed).
Sure, you still guide C.J. (as he’s often called) through missions as with respective characters in previous installments in the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series, but you also lead him through the minutiae of daily life, such as eating, sleeping, working out at the gym, buying new clothes, getting haircuts and trying to score with girls.
Think ‘The Sims,’ but with a lot more gunplay and swearing.
The attention to detail is what really makes this game excel.
Take, for example, the oft-praised radio stations in the game. Upon stealing a car you may choose between 11 different stations serving up musical offerings from Conway Twitty to N.W.A. to Grand Funk Railroad. Each station features its own call sign, advertisements and disc jockey. To comprehend the quality and variety of the soundtrack, simply consider that three of the stations are hosted by Axl Rose, Chuck D. and George Clinton. (Elsewhere in the game, Samuel L. Jackson lends his acting talent as a crooked police officer.) If you were a big fan of listening to commercial radio in 1993, you will probably enjoy listening to it again here.
Another impressive aspect of the game is the map and the variety of terrain that it covers.
Three major cities, based on Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, are situated in three corners of the map. In between stretch vast expanses of land, from forested mountains to deserts. Driving from one city to the next provides a seamless transition and the lack of loading time really adds to the immersive quality of the experience.
Another great detail is the ability to overhear fragments of the conversations of random passers-by, such as, ‘In Hawaii, they put pineapple on their pizza.’ Stopping to eavesdrop will often unearth a wealth of humor.
The gameplay is a bit more hit-and-miss. The programmers seem to have strived to incorporate something for everyone, resulting in a bewildering hodgepodge of missions and side quests. One minute, you might be gunning down the Russian mafia from the back of a motorcycle, and the next, you might be trying to bounce your lowrider’s hydraulic shocks in time to music.
As in the previous ‘Grand Theft Auto’ games, many missions are of the ‘get from point A to point B and kill Mr. C’ variety, but the more inventive tasks are in abundance, and the game never feels monotonous.
Conversely, however, while everyone is certain to find something to like, everyone is also certain to find something to dislike somewhere in the mix. I don’t know how many people would be equally enthusiastic about off-road racing, choosing a stylish wardrobe and flying explosives-filled model airplanes into rival gang members, but my guess is not very many.
You should be aware of the game’s extreme adult content. It is rated ‘mature’ for ‘blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content and use of drugs.’ I would say that it’s about on par with an R-rated gangster movie; probably not a great choice for very young children.
‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ is more than just a ‘great game.’ In many ways, it obliterates any old conceptions of what a ‘great game’ can be. It sets a new benchmark for video gaming. Even if one doesn’t enjoy the game, I think that it gives us all great hope for the games of the future.