GTA San Andreas

A Blast from the Past review

FBT, is the yay leaving San Fierro?

The Past

It always seemed deliberately provoking to make GTA San Andreas a free-roam Boyz in the Hood – the previous GTA let you play as Scarface in an episode of Miami Vice; it wasn’t supposed to be really real, yet now I was a gangbanger playing out the very real CNN headlines of Rampart and the LA Riots?

I admit, at the time I pretty much ignored GTA SA’s social commentary, blinded by the chance to behave like an OG in front of a PC. I was Straight Outta Windows, doing drive-bys and seeing how long my friends and I could last on a maxed-out Wanted Level. That’s pretty much my only memory of GTA SA, a game I often describe as one of my all-time favourites. But why? I only actually finished it once, and while I found the story compelling, I never got far before the pull of stealing yet another tank had me sending CJ merrily into mayhem. I remember every garage I owned had at least one tank. About the only other thing I remember is "hood is under attack!" and having to stop what mischief I was up to and go defend it with my 3 homies. My love for GTA SA might just be based on how it allowed me to act like a total ass and get away with it.

In thinking back to my time as CJ, I’m not sure I ever ‘got’ San Andreas. Time to go back and play it properly. All I have to do is follow the damn train.

Still a Blast?

Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson returns to Los Santos for the funeral of his moms, finding the city just as divided as when he left. Collared by corrupt cop Tenpenny, CJ is framed and told to stay out of trouble. Meanwhile, his old gang the Grove Street Families have been driven out by other local gangs and brother Sweet and sister Kendl blame him for deserting the family. Now stuck in the neighbourhood, distrusted by his old gang and in the cops’ pocket, CJ has nowhere to turn. Time to OG up.

The world may be nearly fifteen years old, but it looks pretty good. When you play something like GTAV, which has an extraordinary level of detail and realism, you’re awed by it, but seeing SA in all it's mid-2000's glory, it’s not needed; GTAV is delicate, over-engineered, over-sized and over-stuffed, and it's all set-dressing that makes you nervous about breaking anything; GTA SA may not be detailed but it’s solid and there’s a real complexity and simplicity to the layouts, and the feel of it, down to the shimmering smoggy sunsets is still very real – I am in 1990s LA.

Ganton, CJ’s hometown has a destitute look, cut off by freeways and train yards, filled with empty offices, boarded shops, off-licences, gun sellers and budget outlet stores. Driving around puts you in the mindset of that scene in Boyz In The Hood where Furious takes the lads on a tour of their own ‘hood to show them what they’re not seeing.

There’s a lot more to see, but for now Carl is kept in check by the cops who want him in Los Santos. Staying in character and not free-roaming has given me a new perspective on the situation CJ is in, and I’m less inclined to go looking for trouble. I’ve been playing for hours and not gotten past 2 Wanted Stars. I’m not even missing the tanks.

AS CJ works to regain his old friends’ trust and prove to his brother he’s not a sell-out, we do tutorial-style missions that slowly build in scope and complexity. Everything just works. I like how Ryder’s missions are pure criminal acts while CJ’s bro is all about rebuilding the gang’s reputation and Big Smoke wants in on the money-making schemes. There’s also some nice social commentary folded into the cut-scenes, with CJ meeting old friends who are now dope-fiends or asking about locals who are now dead. If CJ’s going to escape this, I need to get out there, get some money, ammo and experience. And that means ...

It’s not long before I’m running over drug dealers and Ballas then hopping out to collect money and weaponry, recalling where bullet-proof vests are and doing the fire-engine missions to make CJ fire-proof. Hey, there’s that pimp car, I forgot about that. It all comes flooding back. The hooker with the knee-highs ... Before I know it, I’ve dropped the story and start picking up Wanted stars. Damn it feels good to be a gangster.

Is this insensitive? All the other GTA leads were movie-gangster crime fantasies, wish fulfilment games really, and GTA SA could seem exploitative, but SA was co-written by DJ Pooh, and it is played exactly right; there’s no sermonising or clichés, it’s not ‘gang-life’, it’s life for those guys - no excuses or statements; other than the sly note that of the twenty main characters, only three are white and they are a corrupt police officer, a DEA agent who blackmails you and a drug dealer…

Eventually, CJ realises he and Sweet have been had – and so have I. The Groove Street Families have been betrayed and CJ is dumped in the backwoods. I’d not forgotten about this middle section, but after the first third’s intense rebuilding of the Groove Street Families, the game suddenly veers off more unexpectedly than CJ on a BMX. The whole thing with Catalina and her mad-bitch behaviour hasn’t aged well and while I understand CJ just needs cash to get back on his feet, committing fairly large and murderous heists is not what Tennpenny meant when he said to lay low. It feels like filler and flies in the face of the realism that went before. And then it really flies out there.

Playing this section does shine a light on GTA SA’s age. There’s the large expanses of nothing, which could have been tighter – especially when CJ rolls his car and you’re miles from nowhere – and the NPCs can’t drive for shit (and be sure to duck if you see a plane overhead). Still, I’ll never get bored of hearing unexplained explosions or just coming across some carnage and wonder exactly what the NPCs got up to. The cops are very uneven – they’ll ignore some Ballas taking pot shots at me but come running if I knock someone off a bike. Still, it’s a huge step up from GTA VC, while VI and V went too far the other way; I can watch a Ricky Gervais show? I should obey speed limits? SA is the sweet-spot that works by not having too many distractions. I don’t want the digital worlds I inhabit to be true-life; I come here to escape that.

Trying to escape isn’t the easiest thing in vehicles. The cars aren’t too bad once you get into it, and they’re a lot more robust than GTA III or VC - CJ gets better at driving or riding as he goes but the planes are insanely frustrating. Not just to master; why the hell is CJ pissing about getting the funds to buy an airfield to learn how to fly to assault a naval base to steal a jump-jet to take out spy boats for James Woods? Not exactly the plot of Menace II Society is it.

If I’m honest, I might have given GTA SA too much credit with the whole observation of corruption, social injustice and street-life. Nutjob Catalina’s missions are one aggravating thing but racing cars against a blind man before winding up as the DEA’s stooge just gets daft. Even burying a foreman in cement for insulting your sister is more gangster than doing a time trial in a Monster Truck for the DEA’s amusement. Admittedly, CJ does bitch and moan about the missions, and it’s to protect his incarcerated brother, but it just all feels a bit removed – now my gangbanger character has a jump-jet parked up?

I have to admit though, all that 'be true to the gang' stuff goes out the window when I see Las Venturas in the distance and have flashbacks to becoming a whale, the mini-gun in the carpark and racing around all the neon roads. it's easy to see why CJ loses himself in this new city of sin, I know I do.

It’s only when Sweet’s released and kicks his bro’s ass for forgetting about the ‘hood that SA gets back on track again. Taking out rival gang territory is great fun and it’s still exciting to see ‘you have provoked a gang war!’ even when it happens accidentally. I still prefer the tactic of standing on roofs and sniping. I wasn’t even a digital gangbanger, more a cowardly pot-shotter. Story wise, reasserting the Grove Street Families is great, as is the Death Row Records subplot of helping disgraced rapper Madd Dogg (who CJ disgraced in the first place) and finally calling Tenpenny to answer. It all feels so far from where it started.

Cue the riots. I’d forgotten about this – the city turns into a mad house with NPCs hilariously running around looting and driving burning cars. It’s kinda quaint now but it still gets the point across without being crass.

CJ is one of the most sympathetic murderers I’ve played. He did it, he pulled the neighbourhood together. He’s also undoubtedly the best lead in the GTA series; most of his missions are him stepping up rather than being told what to do and as it progresses he’s less about gaining riches and more about the neighbourhood, for family. It is a little suspect when he’s cutting down cops and soldiers to do things like steal alien goo from Area 51, but that middle third aside, SA is all about CJ versus the future he’s trying to avoid, and he’s not indifferent to the acts he’s forced to commit, and the repercussions.

This has been an interesting Blast – GTA SA is still a solid game that’s aged really well; but Rockstar did fashion an extraordinary world with a subversive commentary not only on the LA Riots, but the corruption and wider social-economic issues that led to them; while the DEA missions are jarring, they could be seen as a parody of the government marginalising a minority until they have no choice but to do their dirty work – with little to no reward. Except a jump-jet. SA even found time to prick at the ego of the rap industry, without blaming it.

GTA SA is not exploitative or celebratory and the irony is, all those senators and politicians, parent groups and media fear-mongers were focused on the controversy of SA and not it’s commentary; who put Groove Street in that position in the first place?

The biggest revelation though was by sticking almost entirely to the story I realised the worst character in SA is me; I didn’t have to kill that prostitute to get my money back, go running around with a mini-gun shooting down police helicopters. While those acts don’t really come with consequences - pay ‘n spray is never far away - they’re my acts, not those of CJ. He didn’t inspire me to behave like a thug, he inspired me to save the neighbourhood. I was surprised at how un-sensational and responsible SA was. If you’ve not gone back to the old neighbourhood in years, or you’ve never been, you should be fittin’ to hit the block, see what’s happening.

2004 | Developer; Rockstar North | Publisher; Rockstar Games

Platforms; Win, PS3, X360