After Rockstar delivered the one-two punch of Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City in successive years, they could have been forgiven for resting on their laurels a bit, phoning in a third game which took the player around another fictional city and told a rote story of the fall and rise of yet another criminal empire. Instead, they went big. Really big. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004) is to its two predecessors as The Lord of the Rings is to The Hobbit: a story so much huger in scope and scale that it's almost mind-boggling that it came from the same creative team.
The previous two games in the series featured a single city. San Andreas features three - each more or less the size of Liberty City from the first game - plus sizeable tracts of land between them. This includes hills, forests, farmland, a large mountain and a desert, not to mention several small towns located along the way.
But the game reveals its gigantic scope slowly. For the first 10-15 hours (almost as long as Grand Theft Auto III in its entirety, if you mainlined the story), the game is tightly focused on events in Los Santos, particularly in and around Grove Street. Riffing hard on Boyz n the Hood (1991) and the rap and gang culture of the district formerly known as South Central Los Angeles, this is a (very relatively) grounded story about the intersection between family, friends and gang loyalty, with rival gangs and the police complicating the life of CJ and his friends. Missions range from relatively hardcore stories of drug addiction to family matters (such as CJ's sister dating a Mexican gang leader, whom CJ initially dislikes but then befriends when he realises he's an honourable guy) to lighter stories about CJ and his friends reluctantly helping a fellow gang member break into the rap game, despite a lack of any discernible musical talent.
The story pivots hard into an unexpected, bloody betrayal, which sees CJ exiled from Los Santos and forced to work for Officer Tenpenny's corrupt cop unit out in the sticks around Mount Chiliad, during which time he befriends an aging hippy named "The Truth" and then a psychotic criminal named Catalina (who previously appeared as the main villain of Grand Theft Auto III). Eventually, he earns the respect of a Yakuza crime lord named Woozie by beating him at racing, which in turn leads CJ to the city of San Fierro (based on San Francisco, complete with a surprisingly-underused Golden Gate Bridge analogue) and the establishment of his own business empire. Further events lead him into the deserts and badlands of north-eastern San Andreas and then the casino city of Las Venturas. But CJ's heart remains in the hood, and eventually he has to go home and take care of business once and for all.
This structure neatly divides the game into four distinct acts, each long enough to almost be a full game in itself and each featuring its own supporting cast of characters. More surprising is that each of the first three acts has its own distinctive tone, becoming wilder and less grounded in turn. If the start of the game is Boyz n the Hood, by the time you get to Las Venturas it's gone full Austin Powers, with CJ roaring through the skies in a jetpack (that he stole from an Area 51 analogue, obviously), stealing alien technology and engaging in melee combat with an oversized dildo. The game handles this tonal variation quite well and even leans into its insanity; CJ explaining his exploits to his incredulous brother Sweet late in the game leads to an amusing tonal reset, which anchors the game back in the grounded urban conflict of the start of the game.
The epic and consistently entertaining story - as bananas and (deliberately) incoherent as it is - is one of the game's aces in the hole, a relief after the more predictable Scarface fanfiction of Vice City and the very loose narrative of Grand Theft Auto III. It's also told through entertaining characters with superb voice acting throughout, particularly rapper Young Malay as CJ, Samuel L. Jackson as Tenpenny, Chris Penn as Pulaski, Peter Fonda as The Truth, David Cross as Zero, Ice-T as Mad Dogg, Danny Dyer as Kent Paul (reprising his role from Vice City), Frank Vincent as Salvatore Leone (reprising his role from Grand Theft Auto III), James Woods as government agent Mike Toreno and Shaun Ryder as washed-up British pop star Maccer. After this game Rockstar would drop their reliance on using actors from TV and film, preferring more established video game actors with less of an ego (reportedly much more of a problem on Vice City than San Andreas, to be fair), but it has to be said that the celebrity voice actors here all do sterling work.
Grove Street, a location so iconic that it reappears in both Grand Theft Auto V and Watch_Dogs 2.
In terms of actual gameplay, it's business as usual, but there's a hell of a lot more of it. You can follow several missions at any one time, as well as the usual battery of repeatable side-missions (paramedic, firefighter, etc). These are augmented by new options, such as burgling houses, engaging in dance and lowrider contests and acting as a pimp or a long-distance lorry driver. You can also play pool, basketball and poker, bet on horse races and slot machines and engage in car, bike and aircraft races. You can also modify vehicles to enhance their attributes for racing, the result of a new car system influenced by Rockstar's race-focused game, Midnight Club. Car physics are massively improved and all the vehicles are now much more fun and realistic to drive. Combat is also hugely improved, with Rockstar taking ideas from the game Manhunt and featuring a much better aiming system, along with a stealth mode (for the first time in the series). There's a much wider array of weapons, and CJ is more versatile in his character movement. He can now climb up and over walls, and can even swim (both Claude and Tommy in the previous games drowned almost instantly if they landed in water), as well as learning unarmed combat moves in three different disciplines. Even more insanely, CJ has a full range of body stats which you can improve by taking CJ to the gym or having him get tattoos. CJ can also eat at restaurants and can even date certain female characters in the game.
The game also adds in a whole new element with gang warfare. After a certain point in the game you can start taking over neighbourhoods in Los Santos from rival gangs, and you can get members of your gang to help you out. The gang warfare mechanic is relatively primitive - defeat three waves of enemies in each district - but it adds a nicely unpredictable element to the game and gives you more control over the game world. In friendly districts you'll be greeted with respect by passers-by and you can call on your homies to help you out; in enemy neighbourhoods you may be shot at on sight.
It's this which is the most remarkable thing about San Andreas: Rockstar both expanded the size and scope of the game outwards, but simultaneously improved the detail and fine texture of the game. You not only have a much bigger world but you also have a huge amount more to do in it, to the point that Grand Theft Auto III - only released three years before this game - now only feels like a prototype of a prototype of what the franchise could be when fully realised.
This mixture of scale and detail has arguably never been bettered than in San Andreas: later games in the series featured much bigger and more realistically-proportioned cities, and obviously vastly superior graphics, better saving options and even better combat, but shied away from the fine detail here. Perhaps stung by a few critics grumbling at CJ having to hit the gym so often (an exaggeration; four visits to the gym at the start of the game will max out CJ's strength, and only a few maintenance visits are needed later on), Rockstar stripped back those options in later games and also reduced the amount of optional side-activities, so you can no longer be a paramedic or firefighter. For that reason, San Andreas is sometimes cited as the zenith of the series in terms of scale and scope, despite its clearly dated looks.
The negatives about San Andreas are surprisingly few. It's dated nowhere near as severely as GTA3 or Vice City: in terms of driving, combat, roleplaying, writing, acting and design, it's a much better game than either of its forebears, and arguably in many respects it's a better game than its successor, Grand Theft Auto IV. The biggest weakness, other than the graphics (and there are a few mods which dramatically improve the visuals), remains the geriatric save system. Having to manually find a safehouse to save between missions can be a pain in the backside, especially during the stretches of the game when you're working in the countryside and safehouses are spread thin, leading to the temptation to do several missions in a row without saving to save time (this, invariably, turns out to be a bad idea). The game also pulls an annoying stunt a few time of replacing whatever favourite weapons or vehicles you've chosen to bring along with you on a mission with its own choices, making your (sometimes expensive) preferences vanish into the aether. The biggest problem is the lack of mid-mission saving: San Andreas has several massive missions divided into multiple stages and running into trouble at any point means a full reload and replay of the entire mission from scratch. This was a big enough complaint at the time that GTA4 - or more accurately, its expansions - finally implemented mid-mission checkpointing.
Some may also bemoan the size of San Andreas's map; I've repeatedly said how big it is, but that's only relative to the constrained map sizes of Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City. Almost every open world game released since San Andreas has a much larger map, including Grand Theft Auto V (which also depicts San Andreas, albeit with just one city, Los Santos, and the surrounding countryside). However, San Andreas's map is certainly big enough, and making it bigger wouldn't necessarily make for a better game. Sure, it's silly that it takes maybe 10-15 seconds to drive between the outskirts of Los Santos and Las Venturas when they're supposed to be as far apart as Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but just making it a longer trip between the two cities for the sake of it wouldn't achieve much.
One criticism levelled at the game is more of a feature than a bug for some, I think: the game's sheer size and scope sometimes means that narrative tension is diffused, especially when the main bad guys vanish for a good half of the game's length whilst CJ is pursuing unrelated side-missions. There is a hardcore set of OG GTA fans who believe that Vice City is the better game because of its tight focus on Tommy's misadventures and its ability to use humour without going as completely bonkers as San Andreas. Back on release I think I favoured this viewpoint, but almost twenty years later, it's clear that San Andreas has aged much more gracefully than its forebear, and is a more rewarding game to play, even if it sacrifices focus for scope (and its soundtrack, although still banging, is not quite as accomplished).
The question I asked in the reviews of the previous two games - is San Andreas still worth playing in 2021? - is much more easily and definitively answered here. If you can overcome the blocky graphics and limited save system, then yes, absolutely, San Andreas is still worth a decent investment of anyone's time.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (****½) is the biggest-selling game on the biggest-selling console of all time. It's the game that started to fully realised the potential of the open-world action genre that the previous two games in the series hinted at. An improvement over its predecessors in every department (and over its successor in many areas), it remains an unabashed classic of the genre.
Technical Note: As with the previous two games, I used Qualcom's Definitive Edition modpack to play San Andreas. This fixed some technical issues, updated textures, improved lighting and generally made the game play nice with modern hardware, as well as moderately improving the look of the game without ruining the original aesthetic (a perennial problem with more ambitious San Andreas mods).