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If I were basing this review on packaging alone, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas would get a solid five. There is no sarcasm intended, and the graphic designers (and, no doubt, one or two packaging engineers) who designed the elegant hardcover book that serves as both a manual to the game and as a DVD-holder for the game disc should be lauded for their efforts.
However, at GamesFirst we like to look a bit deeper than a game's packaging to give it a review, and in the case of GTA: San Andreas, the packaging is a bit more impressive than what's inside. That's not to say this is a bad game, because it's certainly not. I am also not insinuating that Rockstar did a terrible job porting the game from the PS2 to the PC, but that is, largely, where the minor faults I found with this game lie.
For anyone who's been living under a rock for the past three years, GTA: San Andrea is the fifth installment in the Grand Theft Auto series, and the third game in the series to use essentially the same engine and gameplay mechanics (which were first revealed in Grand Theft Auto III). The game is played from a third person perspective (with the option for a first person view while driving), and the player is expected to make their way around one of the most detailed game cities in recent memory, completing various missions along the way. As with GTA III and GTA: Vice City before it, a lot of the fun in GTA: San Andreas is born of the player's ability to largely ignore mission goals for indefinite periods of time as they explore the environment, steal cars, solicit and then murder prostitutes, and avoid the police. As with previous installments in the series I take some objection to the idea that this is truly open ended? or free willed? gameplay, as your ability to do exactly what you want is largely related to your desire to live out violent street-thug fantasies on a CRT. This is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but you probably already know that, since this series of games has attracted more attention, both positive and negative, to videogames on the whole than anything since perhaps the first Mortal Kombat game.
The advocates of this series cite it's adult-oriented humor, open ended gameplay, and extremely detailed world as reasons that GTA is better than anything else on the market. Detractors cite the graphic violence, misogyny, and overall misguided ethics as reasons that GTA is worse than anything else on the market. My personal feeling is that these games should absolutely not be given to or played by small children, but that adult gamers should be allowed to make up their own minds on how they feel about it. My own experiences with these games are mixed in this regard: I agree that the gameplay is unique, sprawling and fun. At the same time, the violence is a bit alarming. I mention this mainly because GTA: Vice City had more of a 1970s feel to it that made it a bit easier to disassociate from reality. GTA: San Andreas has an ostensibly early 90s setting to it, but much of the dialog and action could be taken out of any number of contemporary movies about thugs in inner city ghettos. At a time when this country is heavily divided along class lines (and when has it not been), games that exploit inner city violence rub me the wrong way.
It's probably a safe bet that anyone reading this review has read one or more reviews of this game for the PlayStation 2 system. If not, our own Eric Qualls wrote an excellent review when the game was initially launched, and it is not my purpose here to rehash Eric's review. He decided that this was an evolutionary step up from GTA: Vice City, and that the game had been improved upon in almost every way. I think this is equally true of the PC version as compared to the PC version of Vice City (although I personally find the ghetto-oriented dialog a bit trying, as I alluded to above).
GTA: San Andreas is fundamentally unchanged on the PC from its PS2 roots. It performs quite well on high end systems, but if you don't have a DX9 generation video card with at least 128 megabytes of video memory, you may find the framerate dropping to the point where things look a bit choppy during sequences with lots of people and/or vehicles on screen at once. Experientially, I was able to solve this by lowering a lot of the visual detail settings, but this is problematic because it detracts from the overall appeal of the game. And even on a high end system where the game runs smoothly with all the detail maxed out, frankly, it looks like a game from three years ago (largely because it's using the same technology as GTA III). While the graphics are not bad enough to warrant serious complaint, they're certainly not good enough to deserve much in the way of praise. Rockstar alluded to the idea that higher resolution art and models would be used in the PC version of the game than in the PS2, but if this is in fact the case, I cannot tell the difference. Obviously, the game looks better on a CRT because of access to high resolutions and graphics-card-specific features like 8x Antialiasing, but past a point, cranking up the resolution of the game cannot make up for low-resolution textures and logo art that may have looked fine on a TV, but look blocky and pixilated at even a modest PC resolution such as 800x600.
The soundtrack is ambitious and in general fits in very well with the late 80's / early 90's feel of San Andreas. Additionally, there is a folder where you can drop shortcuts to your favorite MP3s, and use these in-game as one of the radio stations. Rockstar even went as far as giving you the option of using pre-recorded DJs and (fake) advertisements from the game radio stations to give dialog and advertisement to your mp3-based radio station if you wish. I thought this was a really bright idea, since I like being able to listen to a customized soundtrack while playing without giving up the illusion that I'm listening to a radio station being broadcast someplace called San Andreas.
The ability to use both the mouse and keyboard or a gamepad is a nice touch, too. Personally, I find that I prefer using a dual analog stick (read: DualShock knockoff) for most portions of the game, but like the ability to use the mouse to aim my guns during some of the trickier bits of the game where you're on foot and expected to kill a lot of people. In theory, you have to select which control scheme you want to use from an options screen, but I discovered that while my gamepad was not fully functional unless I had gamepad' selected as my control option, the keyboard and mouse remained functional when I did this (most of the time, for whatever reason). Thus, I found myself infrequently putting down the gamepad (in this case, a Saitek P880, which I recommend to anyone who's looking at this game but does not yet have an analog gamepad. The P880 is relatively inexpensive, and compatible with virtually all games I've tried it with) in favor of the keyboard and mouse, but was certainly glad to have the ability to switch when I felt I needed to.
Overall, this is an excellent port, but there are a few minor bugs. One one of my machines, I experienced severe audio cutting and popping that I have not noticed with any other game, and a little reading on the web convinced me I was not alone. The game flat-out crashed back to my windows desktop on two separate occasions, although I was not able to replicate these crashes. Loadtimes have been drastically reduced from the PS2, and if you have a large amount of physical memory and a fast processor, you may not notice any hesitation at all as you move from the outdoors into a location, or from one part of San Andreas to another. Conversely, if you have a slow computer, loading and even saving may get to be a bit of a drag. According to the box, you can play this game on a 1 GHz P3 with 256 megabytes of RAM and a 64 megabyte video card, but I would not advise it. I saw serious choppiness trying to run the game in medium detail on a 2 GHz P4 with 512 megabytes of RAM and a 64 megabyte Radeon 9500, so my advice is to avoid this title unless you have, or are willing to upgrade to, a 128 megabyte video card of some kind.
Essentially, this is a well done, if not perfect, PC conversion of the same game that people have been raving about having on their Playstation 2's since last fall. If you've been waiting to make sure nothing seriously bad happened in the translation, rest assured that it did not and you should go purchase this game immediately. However, if you were for whatever reason hoping for major changes or platform-specific advantages, you will be disappointed.
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