GTA San Andreas – A Retrospective

There has been a rumbling beneath the surface. A familiar rumble that tends to happen in tandem with a new system coming to the forefront of gaming. The tremors, of course, are being caused by Rockstar games. Fresh off their RDR2 success and still reaping the rewards of now eight year old title GTA 5. It seems they are ready to tease another installment of GTA, with rumors beginning to float to the surface.

There have been whispers that there may be a character near and dear to our hearts returning to the series. The embers of these rumors have, for now at least, been extinguished. As Young Maylay, rapper and voice actor of one Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson, stated in no uncertain terms. That despite the rumors, he had not been approached by Rockstar games and would not be returning to the franchise. This is, of course, paraphrased, as Mr. Chris Bellard was just slightly more explicit with his actual statement. You can find it on his Instagram if you are so inclined.

GTA6 Could Be On The Way

Despite Maylay’s disposition towards the role, the rumors haven’t disappeared in regards to CJ’s return… Many are also suggesting that the release may come in tandem with the launch of new consoles this holiday season. With this in mind, it’s brought GTA back to the forefront of gamer’s minds. It’s put itself in contention for the most anticipated title of 2020, without even confirmation of any key details. Which is quite impressive, really.

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So in honor of gaming’s colossus, Grand Theft Auto. We aim to take a look back to a time before Rockstar was leaps and bounds ahead of the pack. To a time when they were among the gaming rat race for supremacy. When they were looking for the next cutting edge move to cement them as untouchables in the industry. We look back to 2004’s release of West coast ghetto opera, GTA San Andreas.

Grove Street… Home.

Just a quick background of how successful this title would become. This game produced sales figures of over 34 million copies worldwide—stats that are only accurate up until 2014. Sales will have only went up due to more re-releases and ports on newer consoles. The title is even available now on mobile devices. This game received phenomenal critical acclaim with many gaming blogs, critics and gamers alike referring to this title as one of, if not the best game ever produced.

This was a spectacular achievement. Especially considering the scale of the challenge that the developers had before them. Rockstar had galvanized a top-down shooter from the PS1 era. They crafted it into an open world juggernaut not once but twice. This was through the releases of gritty New York inspired GTA3 and the neon heavy, MTV crystalline daydream that was GTA: Vice City. They had taken each successful title and tweaked the engine, game mechanics, and style. They were raising the bar with each new GTA they released.  So the challenge was, what now?

Rockstar looked at improving in the most simple way they could. What I imagine is a boardroom of developers with the words ‘grand’ ‘theft’ and ‘auto’ written on a board. In this fabrication, there is a tick beside ‘theft.’ They had the ability to vicariously live your criminal fantasies through your avatar down to a tee. They had ‘auto’ checked off also. The previous titles had the ability to steal and drive a multitude of cars, boats, planes, and bikes. Much more than any title could offer at the time. That only leaves ‘grand’ unchecked on the imaginary board.

The bigger, the better

Yes, the games before were reasonably large in scale. Though they had limitations in place to keep players somewhat contained in the set environment. Not being able to swim underwater being a prime example. So the scale of GTA San Andreas had to blow the proverbial roof off, and it did in a spectacular fashion. Rockstar decided to not just focus on one select area of America. They instead created a microcosm of America itself. Focusing on three cities which were Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas.

It’s probably best to say this now. In 2019, the graphics aged like curdled milk. The blocky character designs that have appearances that somewhat resemble faces. The animations that are poorly timed or just nonexistent. Or the low poly textures that sometimes drop out altogether when traversing the world. These aspects do nothing to prove that wrong. Despite this, however, what has to be commended is that every other aspect of world-building you encounter which has aged like a fine wine.

The Ultimate Sandbox

The game has an innate ability to take the player by the hand and place them into this world. This is by allowing the player to have a true sandbox experience. By giving the player all the tools to play in any way they choose. Yes, of course, there is the main story and a great one at that. Yet how many of us have played this title for hours simply driving around or evading capture from the cops. Starting mass shootouts or doing insane bike stunts. All the while, completely oblivious that there were missions waiting for us to start.

The developers gave players the option to play the game like a real life simulator. You could date, dress, and style your character. You could go to the gym, learn to drive and fly planes, go to bars, or hit the casino. This was among lots of other side content that just urged the player to delve into this sprawling world and create a unique personality for CJ. It got to a point where something changed. It was no longer you playing as CJ. Who was a very well written and complex character. CJ  began to blend into the background despite being in the center of the screen at all times. The world surrounding you began to take center stage, and it’s no surprise with the level of detail that Los Santos boasts. Even by gaming’s lofty standards today, it’s really impressive.

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A Nineties Ghetto Opera

Then you take a look at the story itself. As the player plays through the campaign, the game naturally opens the map up for the player. Allowing them to gradually see each fleshed out area of this mini-American landscape. The story has an almost cartoonish lens on real life American issues. A narrative style that the franchise has built it’s fame on. Yet in comparison to the titles before it, it does try and deal with these issues in a more gritty and serious nature. The opening scenes see CJ return home as his mother has died.

He left Los Santos to get away from the thug life years before. Yet, predictably, he is dragged right back into the fold. Crooked cop Officer Tenpenny, played by the amazing Samuel. L. Jackson forces CJ to stay through nefarious means. From there, the silliness that the series is known for is still present. However, it’s clear that it’s being blended with a more gritty and mature subject matter.

Plenty of Pop Culture

The game presents themes of the 1990’s gang culture scene with a fine level of detail. Whether that be through the voice acting and writing. The rap genre influenced theme that opens the game and the tunes throughout accessed through the vehicle radios. Or through the missions that, although obviously over the top, do stay culturally relevant through their satire.

The game also has clearly done its research in this respect. Proving why Rockstar is the king of bringing pop culture to the gaming landscape. Within the story, you encounter the east coast vs. west coast rap/gang war that was present in the nineties. The war on drugs that was present in prominent in the eighties and the Los Angeles riots of 1992 is also referenced in the late game. This is also bundled with more lighthearted references to the likes of bigfoot, Men in Black, and Top Gun.

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Has Gameplay Aged With Grace?

Looking back at the gameplay, it’s fair to say that it is a mixed bag. At the time, the gameplay was undoubtedly phenomenal. Staying similar to the formula of the previous title. Though with necessary tweaks to make it ultimately more enjoyable. These changes, most notably being the free aiming ability during gunplay or the ability to swim, making the world even more exploratory and immersive.

However, looking through the lens, that is the year 2020. It has to be said that the title has very cumbersome game mechanics by today’s standards. GTA5 uses a lot of the same mechanics that are used in this title. However, they are refined within an inch of their life and have been made better through a much more intelligent physics engine. This game suffers through the fact that it just feels dated. Controlling CJ’s movement isn’t a giant leap away from basic tank controls, and the handling of vehicles is arcade like.

In certain scenarios, this can be more frustrating than fun, especially when simply traversing long distances during missions. The number of times that you are tasked to drive miles to another destination. Only to crash the quest vehicle in the water and have to travel all the way back to begin again is anger inducing, to say the least, which brings me onto what may be my biggest pet peeve with the title.

If you fail a mission and wish to restart that mission, you have to travel all the way back to the starting point and try again. To the game’s credit, you can usually save games at these areas before you begin and load past saves to cut travel time out. Regardless though,  it feels almost medieval that you cannot simply enter the pause menu and select retry mission.

A Laundry List Of Things To Do

The mechanics do themselves justice in other areas, however. The gunplay, although simplistic, fits the setting well and does exactly what it needs to without impeding the player in what they want to achieve. The vehicle and core gaming mechanics lend themselves to creating a fun gaming experience despite its arcade like feel.  Though the real wealth in terms of the mechanics comes through the variety on offer. These come through mission based mechanics and mini games as well as optional side events.

Just for context, her is a list of things you can do, which is by no means exhaustive. You can start turf wars, sell stolen vehicles, drive eighteen wheeler trucks to make deliveries. CJ can operate cranes to export luxury cars, go to the gym and lift weights, run on treadmills, box, and do martial arts training. You can dress your character, go to fast food joints, do taxi runs, and police vigilante missions through operating the appropriate vehicle. Also, you can enter low rider competitions, modify your cars, pick up sex workers, operate an RC helicopter, recruit gang members as companions and run in marathons. These plus many more features culminate to create a game full of content and possibilities to explore. Can I also highlight, this was all in 2004. That is staggering.

Tacked on Two Player Mode

There was also the ability to play the game in multiplayer mode. This function, however, was not one of the most inspired decisions present within the game. It didn’t offer a split screen and instead zoomed out the camera to accommodate two players. This, however, felt clumsy and tacked on. You could only inhabit the open world and were unable to play missions together. Also, due to the limited screen space, if the second player was to peel off in another direction. Which, with jet packs, only one cheat code away is inevitable. When the two players drifted too far apart, the camera would center on CJ once more, and play would return to normal. In short, the novelty was appreciated but implemented badly in hindsight.

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A stepping stone to greatness

With this power of hindsight, we can then look forward to what this game created. GTA IV was the next installment, and it was clear that this title was very much influenced by the shift in attitude that GTA San Andreas brought to the series. As although it was not strictly a massive step away from the usual formula, GTA San Andreas brought a certain level of realism and depth to characters with reference to their emotions and motivations. GTA IV took this and ran with it, arguably with too much focus on gritty realism. However, what this allowed GTA to do as a franchise from there forward, was create a great narrative without the crutch that was over the top silliness and gimmicks.

With GTA 5, Rockstar addressed the fact that they perhaps over stepped the mark by taking almost all the silliness out of the franchise. This was in favor of an ultra gritty, realistic romp through Liberty City. So they gave us a re imagined Los Santos that married the best of both approaches. With the power of hindsight, you can’t help but feel that San Andreas truly played a major role in creating this refined GTA experience that we have available today.

Grove Street for life

Summing up GTA San Andreas in 2020, if you can get past its rough around the ages appearance and gameplay, this game holds up beautifully. In many ways, it feels like the alpha version for the GTA we have today. Yet it still does things that GTA 5 couldn’t even achieve. One notable thing this game can boast over its successor is that despite GTA 5 boasting a much larger map. San Andreas feels so much more alive and interconnected. This is down to the fact that it boasts three separate cities and the outskirts in between. This allows for so many varied characters and American demographics that are right at home in their respective environments.

It’s no surprise that GTA 5 is the more complete experience when all is stacked up in comparison. Though it’s commendable just how competitive GTA San Andreas can still be today. After all, it’s the aim of all parents to see their children reach heights that they never could. San Andreas allows GTA 5 among other Rockstar titles with great narrative such as Red dead redemption or the Mafia series, to stand on its shoulders and reap the rewards.

Leaving a Legacy

GTA San Andreas may not be the most polished game ever produced. Though it leaves behind a legacy that will be next to impossible to dethrone. It is the benchmark when it comes to an urban open world sandbox and serves as a time capsule. Inside, holding a representation of Nineties American culture immortalized through the Southcentral projects, NWA, and the Iconic landscape that is Los Santos.

What are your views on GTA San Andreas in 2020, has it aged well, or is it obsolete and not worth another look? Are there any other retro titles you want to see covered? Leave a comment in the comment section. Also, if you like this content, why not check out our most recent reviews on 7th  Sector, or It came from space and ate our brains. Or why not try some of our other GTA content. Thank you for reading Culture of Gaming!

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Callum Marshall

Just a dude that loves games. Platinum trophy enthusiast, Sony fanboy and gaming journalist. Feel free to contact me at callummarshall555@gmail.com

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