Friday, October 14, 2005

FROM THE VAULT: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

I imagine some of you would like to have seen more comics content on the blog this week. However, someone did ask me to post this review of "San Andreas" that ran way back on Nov. 11 of last year. So here it 'tis. I promise to make it up to all those disgruntled comics fans this weekend with a preview of Seth's marvelous new book, "Wimbledon Green."



"GRAND THEFT AUTO : SAN ANDREAS"
Rockstar Games, for thePlayStation 2 and Xbox
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, intense violence,

strong language, strong sexual content, drug abuse)

RATING: 4 stars


Critics of the controversial "Grand Theft Auto " games have consistently focused on their violence, ignoring that their success was largely due to open-ended, nonlinear game play and -- believe it or not -- a sharp sense of humor.

While there was certainly the visceral thrill of playing an irredeemably amoral character, 2002's "Vice City" was in many ways a subtle yet savage satire on American pop culture of the 1980s.
Don't believe it? Consider the over-the-top characters, and the constant, sly references to films such as "Scarface" and"Goodfellas."

Anyway, when it was revealed that the new "GTA" sequel would take place in a West Coast ghetto circa the early 1990s, and that the lead character would be African-American, there was cause for concern.

Would the developers at Rockstar Games be able to rein in the cartoonish aspects of past games in order to create a more compelling experience? Would they avoid charges of racism?
Would the game be an original, thoughtful look at life in the 'hood or would it be a pathetic attempt to cash in on white America's love of hip-hop?

I needn't have worried. While "Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas" is not as reflective as "Boyz N the Hood" and "Menace 2 Society"(films that clearly influenced it), the game is nevertheless an immense achievement and easily the best in the series.

In "San Andreas," you take the role of Carl "CJ" Johnson, a former gang banger who moved away from home and went straight after his younger brother died.

Now, he's back in his hometown of Los Santos (i.e., Los Angeles) following the mysterious slaying of his mother. And it isn't long before he returns to his old ways, busting caps into the bodies of drug dealers and rival gang members who have taken over his neighborhood.

This game is huge. HUGE. Besides Los Santos, there are two other cities you eventually get to explore, San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas). And that's not counting the missions that take place in the desert or countryside.

Then there are the countless mini-games you can take on if you don't feel like following the main story. Don't want to gun folks down? You can drive a taxi, become a firefighter, race BMX bikes, dance at the club or go out on a date. Ten hours into the game, and you'll barely scratch the surface of what "San Andreas" has to offer.

Some of that has to do with the difficulty of the game. Many of the missions -- which vary from going on drive-bys to stealing arms from the National Guard to raiding a casino -- involve a series of trial and error.

Improvements have been made to the controls, allowing for better aiming and driving, but don't expect an easy time. And if you fail a mission, you have to start all over again.

One of the more interesting updates involves Carl's health and statistics. You'll need to eat at various restaurants in order to keep up your strength, but eat too much food and you'll balloon out and be unable to move quickly. You'll also have to stop by the gym to work out regularly to improve your strength and stamina. As you progress through the game, your skill level at various tasks also will rise.

For the most part, the central storyline in "San Andreas" is played straight. Most of the jokes are saved for the smart aleck comments of passers-by or on the radio.

Rockstar had the good sense to try something with a more serious bent, and the result is a gripping, tightly focused story with characters that show more depth and personality than in any other game I've seen.

The voice work is stellar. James Woods, Samuel L. Jackson, Ice-T and Peter Fonda lend their talents to the supporting characters. Rockstar even managed to get George Clinton and Axl Rose to provide the voices of two of the radio DJs.

Of course, this is still "Grand Theft Auto ." There still are missions that might give pangs to gamers with a code of ethics (one mini-game, for instance, involves pimping girls by driving them to meet their, er, clients).

While CJ is a more sympathetic character compared with past GTA incarnations, he still seems willing to kill at the drop of a hat and never seems perturbed by the body count he racks up.
The villains in the game are often little more than cardboard cutouts that pop up and shoot.

It's not that I'm looking for moralizing from my video games, but a game this epic deserves to have a storyline matching its ambition. As good as it is, the "GTA" series always has been a little overly gleeful in its carnage. It would have been a neat trick if CJ had ultimately been forced to confront his violent nature.

Still, while "San Andreas" falls short of true greatness, there's no question this is a stunning package that raises the bar for games of every genre. Fans will love it, newcomers will be won over, and critics, well, they'll still have plenty to be indignant about in the months to come.



Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

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