Developers: Rockstar North
Publishers: Rockstar Games
Plot: CJ returns to San Andreas to attend his mother’s funeral and finds a hometown ravaged by a gang war that he can help stop.
When it comes to racking up the best game of all time, San Andreas just has to be one of the top contenders. It is almost a childhood favourite for everyone and when it comes to both the Grand Theft Auto series, and perhaps open world games in themselves, it remains the one to beat.
To a total newcomer, this game might seem a little underwhelming. Look at those graphics. It is almost impossible to come to terms with using them on a first playthrough. The characters are clearly pixelated, the controls have a habit of jumping from smooth to glitch-ridden and the characters are exaggerated stereotypes, their personalities often defined by their nationality or employment. However, newcomers won’t have that warm, welcoming feeling of opening up this game. From the opening music kicking in over the stylised drawings of several of San Andreas’ character models to the first mission, where a ‘I-cannot-believe-you-are-actually-in-this’ performance from Samuel L. Jackson, takes your car and leaves you with a pushbike. As you slowly are introduced to the world of San Andreas, the game introduces you to more and more features, so slowly the entire universe of Los Santos is revealed to you. It starts simple with little things, like being able to walk into a clothes store with your hard-earned cash and picking the attire you want your player to be known for, to the more complicated stuff like attending pilot school. That is the genius thing about San Andreas. It opens up this world for you, gives you an entertaining story to tackle, but at the same time, is more than happy for you to just wander off and have your own adventure. San Andreas is your oyster. Perhaps you want to try and hunt down the enemy graffiti and spray over it. Perhaps you fancy taking part in a street race or a burglary for a friend. Or maybe you just want to park several cars in front of a train track just to see what will happen. Open world has never been done this well, perhaps only rivalled by the latest Elder Scrolls game.
Perhaps a reason that San Andreas remains the best Grand Theft Auto to date is also the ‘working out’ system. It seems like such a simple addition to the game yet it is something that has really helped San Andreas achieve cultdom. Early on in the game, you are given the option to visit a gym, one you can return to whenever you wish, and simply pump weights and use the gym equipment. This is a good thing to hone early on, as the bigger your stamina and strength bars are pumped up, the easier you will find later missions. However, the cool thing is that the more you lift weights, your character will subtly grow bigger muscles to the point where you can end up with a hulking figure of a character. Alternatively, you can visit fast food joints continuously to the point where your gangster figure is an obese giant. For one, this is a monumental achievement in terms of character models, instantly forgiving the game for any animation flaws it has. Another benefit is that this helps make your character of CJ yours. You start with this character given to you and you get to model him, as the game progresses. Of course, this suggestion of freedom and uniqueness is imagined, because almost everyone ends up going for the ‘working out until the game refuses to make you any bigger’ route, but the thought of having your own slice of San Andreas still works. In fact, it has got to the point where I don’t want any other Grand Theft Auto game to try and re-do it. The working out mini-game should be something indigenous to San Andreas, keeping it in that spotlight that we can look back on fondly and enjoy.
But the thing, for me, that really makes San Andreas one of the best games ever is the nostalgia. It is more than simply turning on a game that you remember enjoying. Whenever you fire up a game of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, you are not just playing a video game: you are coming home. The world of San Andreas just instantly welcomes you. That first city is ingrained into your memory. Like a homing pigeon, spend five minutes driving in any direction away from the Grove, and you will be able to easily find your way back, the roads and map so memorable and deep-rooted in your muscle memory. After completing a hard mission, driving into your little cul-de-sac is one of the best feelings in the world. The little extras on the road, the ones that bring no purpose to the story other than making the streets look busy, become close friends. You know every gang member hanging out on the pavement. When it comes to buying your property, everyone has a specific building in mind, one they know and trust like their own home. While this makes a second act where you are ripped from your home to the country, admittedly the weakest point of the game (Catalina’s terrific supporting part aside), feel particularly criminal, but on the whole, every corner of this world has been masterfully and creatively imagined. This is why no other Grand Theft Auto game has quite matched San Andreas when it comes to fun. Sure, the newer game might boast more impressive visuals, better mini-games and a more intricate story, but there’s nothing quite like your first love, is there?
Final Verdict: One of the firm columns of gaming, San Andreas doesn’t age, simply remains a solid option when you are lost for a game to play.