Review: Grand Theft Auto – San Andreas

When it comes to gaming, it’s not that unusual to hear claims about a particular title being one of the “greatest games of all time” or how it “changed gaming forever”. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard things like this about a specific game, only to end up disappointed when I finally get my hands on it. From my experience, nine times out of ten these types of claims are overstated. Are they good games? Sure. But much of the hype surrounding them is inflated at best. One particular title that always comes up in these conversations is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Finally, after many years, I’ve had the chance to experience this game. And let me tell you, the hype is well earned.

Before I get into my actual review of this legendary game, let me start with some technical details. Like the other GTA games I’ve reviewed recently, San Andreas was originally released on the PS2. Over the years it has been ported to several systems, including the PC. However, with the recent release of the GTA Trilogy, all of the digital versions of the original game have been removed from sale. This is a shame, because the modern “remasters” included in the GTA Trilogy are riddled with problems. Admittedly, a majority of the issues that appeared at release have since been resolved. But there’s still plenty of problems that were simply not present in the original games. Of course, the biggest issue with these new versions is the fact that a number of classic songs present in the original soundtracks have been removed due to licensing issues. And for many players, the music is a BIG part of the atmosphere that makes these games special. To date, a handful of third-party mods have appeared that add back a lot of this missing content. But we’re not quite to the point where I feel comfortable calling GTA Trilogy the “definitive version”. Unless you’re able to get your hands on a physical copy of the PS2 game, the best way to experience San Andreas is going to be on the PC. Yes, as I mentioned above, the legacy versions are no longer for sale. But, if you buy the PC version of GTA Trilogy directly from Rockstar, you will also receive the classic versions of all three games for free. (At the time of this writing, this is only way to legally obtain digital versions of the original games).These PC versions can then be upgraded and all missing content can be re-added through third-party mods.

My copy of GTA: San Andreas was actually purchased on Steam years ago. For this playthrough, I used the Steam version and upgraded it with the GTA Definitive Edition Project mod. For the sake of completion, I also added another third-party mod to restore the infamous “hot coffee” content. For those unaware, the D.E.P mod includes a number of improvements like upscaled textures, better UI elements, widescreen support, and it even restores all of the original PS2 content to the PC version. To be candid, it arguably makes the PC release of the game even better than what you get with new GTA Trilogy. If you’re going to play the legacy version on PC. This mod is the way to go.

GTA: San Andreas follows the story of Carl Johnson (aka: CJ). It is set in the fictional state of San Andreas (basically California) in the year 1992. After several years of life on the East Coast, CJ has returned to his hometown of Los Santos to attend the funeral of his mother, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting. No sooner does he arrive, he is accosted by local law enforcement. The police imply that they intend to frame CJ for a recent murder unless he is willing to play the role of errand boy for the officers. With no choice, CJ agrees. The police then dump him out in the middle of a rival gang’s territory. The game begins with CJ trying to make his way to friendly turf while avoiding rival gang members. Before long, CJ is reunited with his old friends and learns that his gang, the Grove Street Family, have lost most of their power. The Grove Street turf has largely been overrun by a rival gang, the Ballas. CJ agrees to stick around and do what he can to rebuild his gang’s reputation, while getting revenge for his mother’s murder.

At first, the game is heavily focused on the Grove Street storyline. The player is tasked with carrying out gang activities like spraying graffiti, attacking rival gang members, etc. But as players progress through these early missions and meet new characters, a wide variety of options become available.

Anyone who has played the other PS2-era GTA games will feel right at home with San Andreas. For the most part, the gameplay is largely similar. The basic concept is still front and center. And the game’s controls are almost identical to earlier titles in the series. Players can roam the world freely, engaging in whatever activities please them. Whether it’s following the storyline, or just driving around and crashing into things, all of the classic GTA fun is still there. But there are a number of new and impressive changes that really make San Andreas stand out from the games that came before it.

For starters, this entry of GTA incorporates a number of RPG-like elements. CJ has a handful of stats that can change depending on what actions are taken by the player. For example, in this game, the main character will need to eat or they will starve and die. Eating adds to the character’s Fat meter. Having a lot of Fat helps prevent starvation, but lowers the characters Sex Appeal. To manage this, players must balance eating with physical activity. Staying active also has other benefits like increasing the character’s strength and stamina. There’s also other skills that players can work on, mastery in different weapons, different types of hand-to-hand combat, etc.

But let’s backtrack a bit. Above, I mentioned the Sex Appeal stat. This ties-in to another new feature in GTA: San Andreas – the dating mini-game. As the game’s story unfolds, CJ will meet a number of a female characters. These characters form a romantic relationship with CJ that is also measured. By maxing-out the relationship meter with a particular girlfriend, the player will unlock a specific perk that makes the game easier. For example reaching maximum relationship with the nurse means CJ doesn’t have to pay for medical care. Each girl also unlocks a special outfit and vehicle. In the words of CJ himself, it is “soooo interesting”.

It’s also worth mentioning that this girlfriend mini-game is also one of the most controversial aspects of GTA: San Andreas. Once you reach a certain point in your relationship, after taking your girlfriend on a date, she will invite you inside for “coffee”. Now, when this happens, the camera stays focused outside of her house, but players hear the sounds of obvious lovemaking. Whatever, no big deal. After all, GTA is rated M for mature. But, here’s the big secret… When San Andreas was originally developed, it actually included a sex-based mini game that started after being invited inside. At the last minute, the developers decided to omit this content from the final release. But the mini-game still existed, it was just inaccessible by normal means. Well, as you might expect, hackers quickly found a way to access this content and once this became common knowledge, the media went into an uproar. These days, the “hot coffee” content has been patched out and is no longer available on console versions of the game. Of course, PC users are still able to access it via a third-party patch.

Each entry of the 3D GTA series has added and improved on the one that came before it. This game is no exception to that trend. The world of San Andreas is massive and there’s so much to do that players will often have a hard time deciding what route to take. More than once during the course of the game I found myself completely engaged by the storyline, only to get sidetracked by some alternate activity that ended up being just as fun.

Whether it is illegal street racing, gang-turf wars, or managing a side-hustle, there’s plenty of activities for players to engage in. These things that I’ve just mentioned are new to GTA: SA, but all of the classic side quests are also available (taxi, ambulance, and vigilante missions). There’s no shortage of content for players to enjoy in this game.

It seems that each of these new activities also comes with a new location to explore. The game starts in the urban area of Los Santos (ghettos of South-Central L.A.). But quickly expands to Red County (a rural redneck haven), San Fierro (San Francisco), Bone County (the Nevada desert), and Las Venturas (a Las Vegas-like metropolis). Each area has its own culture and cast of colorful characters.

As is always the case with GTA games, a big part of the game’s atmosphere comes from the soundtrack. The majority of the game’s music is found from the in-game radio stations that are played when driving around the world map. Radio Los Santos features classic gangsta rap tracks, while Radio X features slew of alternative and heavy metal tunes. There’s also stations that feature country, R&B, and even dance music. Each station is complete with a unique DJ and zany commercials. The music found in the game is so good, and fits the activities in the game so well, that to me, they are an essential part of the experience. That’s why it is such a travesty that so many of these classic tracks have been removed with each re-release or remaster.

Until I had sat down and started my playthrough of San Andreas for this review, I had only known this game by reputation. I’m excited to confirm that everything I had heard turned out to be absolutely true. This game is nothing short of fantastic. All of the elements that made GTA III, and GTA: Vice City great are still present in this entry. Only this time, they are expanded on and added to. But, make no mistake, just as this game has earned a reputation for being a stellar title. It has also earned its mature rating. GTA:SA is not a game for children. It’s chock full of violence, sex, graphic language, drug use, etc. You name it, it’s here.

Still, there’s no denying the fact that this game is a work of art. Everything from the fantastic storyline, to excellent soundtrack is just top tier. On top of that, it is a blast to play! I’ve said this before about other GTA titles, but even after I completed the game, I didn’t want to stop playing. It’s so much fun to drive around, listen to the radio, and just explore every nook and cranny of the game world. There’s so much attention to detail, so many clever jokes to find. All of this is why I can say without a shred of hesitation, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas really is, one of the greatest games of all time.

Version Reviewed: PC

Difficulty: Hard – There’s an endless argument between gamers about the difficulty of these titles. Compared to the majority of games released today, I find GTA: San Andreas to be a little on the tough side. But, I don’t think it is nearly as challenging as GTA III or GTA: Vice City. Still, if your goal is complete all of the missions and see everything this game has to offer without cheating, you’re going to be in for a challenge. Thankfully, advancements like auto-aiming do make this game a little bit less punishing than those that came before it.

Multiplayer: No.

Story: The story that unfolds in this game is absolutely amazing. It’s expertly crafted, and quite engaging. By far, I think this is best storyline in the GTA series thus far. In fact, it is so good that I’d love to see an animated or live action adaptation.

Originality: Despite being the third entry in a series of similar games, GTA: SA introduces enough new elements to really make it feel unique and original. The interactivity, mini-games, and stat managing bring a whole new level of engagement that’s both welcome and refreshing.

Soundtrack: Nothing short of perfect. The majority of the music found in this game comes from the in-car radio stations. These stations play host to everything from classic county to west-coast rap. Sadly, newer versions of the game have a significant number of songs removed due to licensing issues. Thankfully, for PC players, there’s a number of ways to restore this cut content. Aside from the music, the voice acting in this title is as good as it gets. The cast features a number of famous actors and musicians and they all do a fantastic job.

Fun: This game is the best in the series so far. A great storyline, a number of entertaining activities, funny characters, it’s got it all. You know a game is good if after you complete it, you still find yourself starting it up again because you don’t want to stop playing. This was true for me.

Graphics: These days, the graphics in this game look pretty dated. But at the time the game was released they were top of the line. The character models are better than in previous entries, but still a bit blocky. Still, with a few exceptions, they are way better than what most games were doing at the time. It still looks decent today. Of course, I’m only talking about the original version. I’ll save my thoughts on the recent remaster for another post.

Playcontrol : The playcontrol in this entry is a massive improvement over the other 3D games in the series. It still has its odd moments, but everything from the camera to the aiming of weapons has been improved. As always, each car has its own handling and quirks. Some cars are tougher to drive than others – but that’s actually by design. Even on a PC, I always play these games using a controller.

Downloadable Content:  N/A

Mature Content: Violence, Language, Sexual themes

Value: At the time I’m writing this, the original release of this game is not available digitally. Unless you purchased this game in the past, the only version you’re going to find on any digital store is the new remastered trilogy (which currently sells for $60). At this time, I can’t really recommend the remaster for a number of reasons. But, I suppose if there’s no other option, the $60 is a pretty good value for three games. Thankfully, the remastered trilogy on PC does include the legacy versions. So I suppose you do get your money’s worth. When I bought this game on Steam it only cost me $10 and for that price it was an absolutely steal. If you’re looking for a copy of the original PS2 release, prices can ranger anywhere from $20-$60.

Overall score (1-100): 100 –  The third time’s the charm it seems. This game takes everything great about the other GTA games and improves upon them tenfold. The gameplay is fun, the story is great, the music is fantastic. It’s all here! The gameworld is diverse and entertaining and there’s more content than most players can manage to experience. If you don’t mind the mature content, this is one game that every gamer should take the time to experience. It really is that good.

Original System: PS2

Available today on:  PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox X/S, Nintendo Switch     –  (List updated as of  Early Winter 2022)

Best Modern Experience:  PC (original version)   –   (As of Early Winter 2022)

 

Other Reviews In This Series:

GTA    –    GTA 2    –    GTA III    –    GTA: Vice City    –    GTA: San Andreas    –    GTA IV    –    GTA V

Liberty City Stories    –    Vice City Stories    –    Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto Trilogy – The Definitive Edition

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