GTA: San Andreas Retrospective – A Gangsta’s Paradise

As we continue our look back at Rockstar's seminal franchise, let's take a retrospective glance at GTA: San Andreas. Considered by many to be one of the best games ever made, it represents much of what makes the franchise a first among equals in its genre. How does Rockstar’s Magnum Opus fair sixteen years later? Let’s find out.

GTA: San Andreas retospective

GTA: San Andreas is one of the best games ever made. To an extent it represented the limits to which technology could be pushed at the time, draining every pixel from the 6th generation consoles. Few third-party games could have the honour of representing an entire generation of hardware, but the argument could be made for that honour going to GTA: San Andreas. As we continue our look back at one of gaming greatest franchises, we’ve arrived at the game that evolved the genre, though not without a few controversies on the way. 

California Dreaming

Success can be a double-edged sword. The anticipation of what is to come will always trump the satisfaction of what you currently have. The challenge Rockstar Games faced after the release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was nothing short of Sisyphean. How do you top the greatest open-world game ever made? That answer came in the fall of 2004, with GTA: San Andreas, a game that renewed the developer’s title as the kings of open-world gaming. Before release, it was questionable as to whether such a game would be possible on current-generation (PS2, Xbox) hardware. But, the developer was never one to not rise to a challenge. 

The Los Angeles neighbourhoods of Compton and Inglewood acted as inspiration for Grove Street, Carl's hood.

The Los Angeles neighbourhoods of Compton and Inglewood acted as inspiration for Grove Street, Carl’s hood.

Rockstar was pushing itself beyond anything it had ever developed before. San Andreas wasn’t simply a city, it was an entire state, encompassing approximations of real-world US states, California and Nevada. Controversy would dog the game for years, but the developer would absorb the hate and ignorance from parenting lobbies and lawyers. Rockstar masterfully manipulated the media attention using it to create a feverish hype, elevating the game’s release to an event-like status. Few games realise the hype generated around them, but Rockstar wasn’t in the business of release sub-standard experiences. As time has shown, GTA: San Andreas realised the hype, and then some. 

Boyz In The Hood

It’s 1992, and after five years on the east coast, it was time for Carl Johnson to go home. Things are far from homely upon arrival, however. Arrested by an old adversarial police officer, Carl is informed of the bleak situation he and his family find themselves. The crack epidemic has swept through Los Santos, haemorrhaging gang loyalties, and leaving the city in a perpetual war for turf. Reunited with his brother, Carl returns to the gangster lifestyle. Things soon come to a head, leaving Carl and his closest allies travelling around, trying to survive, thrive and escape the hood mentality that had blinded them for so long.

Rockstar has always relied on the real-world for inspiration, including its character models

Rockstar has always relied on the real-world for inspiration, including its character models.

Narratively, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas represented the pinnacle of what was possible on that generation of hardware. Four years of evolution had allowed Rockstar to create fully realised characters that didn’t just fit basic stereotypes. Carl wasn’t simply a hood or psychopathic killer, he appeared multi-faceted; the first protagonist to do so. While the protagonist breaks the mould Rockstar themselves created, many characters have clear inspiration, like Ryder, who is inspired by the west coast rapper Eazy-E. Rockstar faced accusations by several rappers for taking their likeness unlawfully, including fellow former N.W.A. member, Ice Cube. 

Each city has a self-contained story, complimenting the main narrative. Los Santos explores street gang culture and the rampant corruption within the police department. San Fierro (San Fransisco) delved into the complex system of Triad and Vietnamese clans and clandestine drug operations. Las Venturas (Las Vegas) shined a light on the mafia operations in various casinos, as you prepare to rob them blind. GTA: San Andreas’s story is one that has stood the test of time, acting as a bow around the two prior entries in the franchise.  

Ventura Highway

Freedom with constraints has always been the motto of the franchise. The game wasn’t just more extensive, but more mechanically complex. Elements you’d expect to see in a role-playing game, like the ability to customise your characters clothing and maintain his weight through exercise. Mission structure was more varied than ever, moving past the simple fetch quests often found in open-world games. One mission sees C.J. racing a jumbo jet, jumping onto the back and planting a bomb,  jumping out James Bond style. It’s a short, but an ultimately memorable mission in a game full of them.

Annoying R.C. missions managed to weasel into the story, without telling the player they’re not compulsory. These controller-smashing tasks deserve to burn in Hell. Acting as a constant companion is the radio stations of San Andreas, a collection of classic pop, rock, country and rap. I found myself changing up the station, depending on my location. In the hood, I’d have some classic N.W.A playing. If I was robbing stores in Flint County, K-Rose would be delivering soothing country tunes. Like GTA: Vice City before it, the music station were the soundtrack of my life at that time. To this day, hearing Queen of Hearts on the radio puts a smile on my face. 

The PS2 version of GTA: San Andreas didn't look great

The PS2 version of GTA: San Andreas didn’t look great.

Even when the game released, the PS2 version struggled to keep a stable frame rate and suitable draw distance. Rockstar was pushing the console to the umpteenth degree, and it showed. The developer used several ways of combating these issues, like blanketing the landscape with a sunny haze that softened your surroundings while fitting in with Californian vibe. I’ve gained an appreciation for how developers handled the limitations place on them by console hardware.  

Conclusion

Objectively, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the best games ever made. It represents the pinnacle of open-world gaming for an entire console generation, and remains playable today, without appearing too archaic; something its predecessors don’t have going for them. The game remains frozen in time, forever enjoyable to play. There are a handful of games that every gamer owes it to themselves to play; GTA: San Andreas is one of those games. No matter where the future takes Rockstar Games, San Andreas will remain a monument to the developer’s boundless talent.  

GTA San Andreas Trailer

GTA: San Andreas is available on PS4, Xbox One and PC

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