Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas  
The hero, the world, the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

HarryAfter months and months of the usual dead silence, Rockstar Games have started recently to make small and big announcements about their upcoming story driven crime simulator game. Unlike Vice City, that can be considered a sort of Grand Theft Auto 3.5, San Andreas should finally be an entirely new game featuring innovative, complex mechanics for the genre. With clones of Grand Theft Auto popping out of every corner, Rockstar knows that San Andreas must be something unique, and not another Vice City.

First of all, San Andres promises to be huge. According to Don Houser, one of the founders of Rockstar Games, to complete the game are required at least 150 hours of varied gameplay. In this detailed preview, divided in two parts, we will go clearly through all the new announced elements of San Andreas, from the storyline to the eating system to the robbery side missions, also to answer the crazy amount of e-mails we receive daily asking information about the game. Whether you already know everything or not, get ready to read some cool stuff, dudes.

In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas you are Carl Johnson. For the latest five years Carl has been living in Liberty City, escaping from his home city, Los Santos, a place where drugs, corruption, and gang wars make of Liberty City a relatively safe place.

Five years ago, Carl's little brother, Brian, was killed in a tragic accident. Carl was blamed for the kid's death by his other brother, Sweet Johnson, now a leader of the Orange Grove Families gang. In the period in which Carl was away from Los Santos, two other gangs, The Flats and The Ballas have taken control of the city.

The hero of the game, Carl Johnson And... here is Carl again, after too many hamburgers
The hero of the game, Carl Johnson.
And... here is Carl again, after too many hamburgers.

Now, in the early 90s, Carl must return home. His mother has been murdered, and his old friends and family members are all heading toward disaster. But life in Los Santos is going to be difficult from the very beginning for Carl. On his return to the neighborhood, a couple of corrupt cops frame him for homicide. That's where your story into the game begins.

It's not difficult to see that San Andreas is based on a more dramatic and tragic storyline than its predecessors, and Rockstar confirms that San Andreas will be darker in tone than the other games of the series. Anyhow, the more mature story will be still accompanied by all the humor and the criticism against contemporary America that characterized Vice City and Grand Theft Auto 3.

Where? A whole state for your crimes
San Andreas isn't a single city, but a whole U.S. state with three different big cities connected by miles of highways and enormous out of city environments. The three cities of San Andreas, Los Santos, Las Venturra, and San Fierro, are based respectively on Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco; Las Venturra has even its version of Hollywood, called Vinewood. For the countryside, Rockstar took inspiration from the geography of California and Nevada.

Overall, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas takes place in an area five to six times bigger than the one of any other Grand Theft Auto game. And, according to Rockstar, this doesn't mean that players will see the same objects repeated throughout the game; the development team took the time to give a unique feel to the enormous countryside, to all the cities and to all the districts within them, to the shops and to the activities available in each city. Like they did for past games of the series, the developers and the artists at Rockstar "explored" the real life cities to make their new crime simulator an ironic but accurate recreation of nowadays life in a metropolitan area; they took photos of streets, buildings, shops, and even of hundreds of people to find the right inspiration for their work.

This time, a whole state can be yours Miles of highways connect the three cities
This time, a whole state can be yours.
Miles of highways connect the three cities.

The vast countryside connecting the three cities is an entirely unexpected addition to the series. San Andreas' countryside includes a mountain called Mount Chiliad, rivers, forests, deserts, but also a dozen of small towns, houses and farms. Rockstar took full advantage of the possibilities offered by the "wilderness" surrounding the cities, developing new types of missions and including new off-road vehicles. It's obvious we will see more missions reminiscent of Rockstar's Smuggler's Run, with crazy car chases through the desert, but we believe the guys at Rockstar will throw in many references to gangster and mafia movies that they have always loved also in the countryside missions. Do you remember the intense scene of Martin Scorsese's Casino, with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in the desert immediately outside Las Vegas, possibly the best place in the world to get rid of a dead body? We bet we will see something similar in San Andreas.

Also because of the enormous size of San Andreas, for the first time in the series, the game makes use of street signals to guide you in your travels across the city and from one city to another. There will be also a railway transport system, complete with working level crossings.

More indoor areas and missions
Fans of the series have been asking for more indoor areas since Grand Theft Auto 3 was released. Vice City added something from this point of view, with more shops and houses, but San Andreas is the first game to really emphasize the importance of indoor areas in the overall game balance.

The cities feature more indoor areas, which often are interactive places needed to support the new systems implemented in the game, like the eating system, the physical training system, or the dress-up system. So you will find plenty of fast foods, restaurants, gyms, stores, and even barber's shops and tattoo parlors in the cities of San Andreas. And to make things more interesting, many of the shops offer services or goods that you can't buy in other cities. For example, the tattoo parlor of San Fierro creates tattoos with an entirely different style from the ones in Los Venturra or in Los Santos; similarly, the gym in Los Santos will have different equipment from the ones in the other cities.

Carl in one of the game's many fast foods Night... the right time to break into rich people's houses
Carl in one of the game's many fast foods.
Night... the right time to break into rich people's houses.

San Andreas has also more missions taking place indoors, including the all new burglary "R3" missions, in which you must break into the houses of rich people in San Andreas and steal all their precious goods. We will take a closer look at the burglary missions and at the many new systems introduced in San Andreas to customize your character in the second part of our preview.

The weather - The day and night cycle - shadows are your friends
One thing we loved in the Grand Theft Auto 3 and Vice City was the night and day cycle; the system is back in San Andreas, and the effect will be even more impressive thanks to the more refined graphic engine developed for the game. The developers created separate models for each object of the game for daytime and nighttime, to create a more striking contrast. The game will also feature the usual dynamic weather; sunny, rainy, cloudy days awaits you in San Andreas - and god knows what surprises the desert and the mountain are keeping by for you.

The true novelty is that lighting will also play an important role in the gameplay mechanics. In fact, for the first time in the series, players will be really able to hide in the shadows, which move according to the time of the day, and use a stealth approach when needed. Like in Manhunt, players could have to kill all the enemies one by one, moving in the darkness, killing them before they can know what hit them. If well implemented, this should add depth to the experience, and also a new level of violence and suspense.

The people of San Andreas
The new graphic engine of San Andreas has enough muscle to show more pedestrians around the city; anyhow, not only you will see more people around, but you will also notice that pedestrians show a wider range of behaviors and more refined AI.

People will act differently according to their social status and to the place they live in; a group of ghetto boys won't act like a farmer or like a rich manager; you will see couples holding hands, people drinking, greeting each other, talking, and much more in the world of San Andreas. Facial animations will be better than in previous games, thanks to the improved character models created for the new game.

Like in Vice City, not all people will react to your provocations with the same violence. You will find defenseless people that prefer to run away as soon as you point a gun at them, and you will find people willing to risk their lives to protect their car or their house. For example, in the burglary missions you will never know whom you will find inside the house; there could be an innocent old lady, but also a merciless Charles Bronson waiting for you behind the door.

The game also implements a new Gang System, which lets Carl hire a few "friends" for his dirty doings. Of course, this means that San Andreas will be filled with gangs that will show a more varied and refined range of actions than what you have seen in Vice City. Rival gang members will be able to create complex strategies to catch you by surprise and lure you in a trap. Rockstar looked closely at the mannerism of gangs in big cities like Los Angeles, so the characters of the underworld of San Andreas will move, act, and communicate in many many ways that will make them more unique than in the past installments.

Cops, already annoying guys in the past games, will be even smarter in San Andreas. They will take cover, they will cooperate to take you out, and they will use more aggressive strategies during car chases. For example, they can now jump onto your car while you are driving, and it won't be easy to make them lose their grip; then, they will attack you from various angles, coming out at full speed from side streets, they will use the bright spotlights of their helicopters to temporarily blind you, and they will fire at you even from their motorcycles. Yes, the Chips you loved so much in the TV series could become your worst nightmare in San Andreas.

Each gang has its unique mannerism and style The infamous chips will be there to cause you some trouble
Each gang has its unique mannerism and "style".
The infamous chips will be there to cause you some trouble.

Like the recent installments of the series, San Andreas continues outside the game into the real world, through a series of "fake" websites created by Rockstar games. We will try to keep this list updated, but so far, the websites are just the following:
The homepage of a new "American religion" that seems to fulfill the spiritual needs of many important people in San Andreas - in exchange of some bucks, of course.
The homepage of a popular music artist. The website contains excerpts from lyrics, Maccer's personal thoughts, and even an audio file of a press conference. Maccer spent his life trying every sort of drug and self-abuse, but now he has changed - thanks to the Epsilon Program, according to his own words.

Being Carl Johnson
In previous Grand Theft Auto games, the city was the true star; in Vice City Tommy Vercetti could buy real estates and expand his business, but the city wasn't really affected by the way you played the game.

San Andreas offers an entirely new level of customization to the players. As the developers explained, each player's game will soon become unique, thanks to the character customization features and to the possibility to gain and lose control of territories of San Andreas with your gang. We will talk into detail of the character customization systems in the second part of this preview, but we can already say that Rockstar's new approach to the game could definitely address the many issues seen in past Grand Theft Auto games. A more personalized experience means that San Andreas could be a more realistic, more interactive permanent world, a place where your actions and your "behaviors" can change and shape the gameplay. It's a new step towards modernity, that if done properly could make of San Andreas a game as influential as Grand Theft Auto 3.

Controlling Carl Johnson will be a deeper experience than controlling Tommy Vercetti. Rockstar worked hard to create a better fighting system, a new auto targeting feature, improved camera controls - we must wait for the release of the game to see how the game actually plays, but it's sure that San Andreas will be a more refined game than Vice City.

It's important to underline that in San Andreas almost all of Carl's abilities are influenced by his constitution, that you can affect through the eating system and the physical training system. For example, a fat Carl will still be able to run, but he will be terribly slower than a well-fit character.

Hand to hand combat and firearms
In past Grand Theft Auto games the fighting and targeting system were pretty rough, especially for games that were supposed to be "crime simulators".

Hand to hand combat was very rough, and didn't even let you target onto an enemy. In San Andreas, you will be able to target while you are fighting with your bare hands or blunt weapons. Two buttons of the controller will be used to pull out different attacks, and Carl can even block incoming blows. Adding to that, CJ will be able to learn special fighting techniques in some of the game's gyms. San Fierro's gym, for example, is a sort or martial arts dojo where you can learn advanced fighting moves; Los Santos is where you can go up the ring and learn a bit of boxing; finally, the gym in Las Venturra is where you can learn the dirty but effective tricks of street fighting.

Using firearms is a must for any average American criminal, and San Andreas will finally give you the chance to wield two weapons at once. Of course, some weapons, like rifles, will still require you to use both hands. One of the most awful problems of the latest Grand Theft Auto games was the bad auto-targeting system. Rockstar tried to fix it in Vice City, but the results were far from being convincing.

You can now wield two weapons at once... Night... the right time to break into rich people's houses
You can now wield two weapons at once...
...but for some of the most powerful weapons in the game you have to use both hands.

For Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Rockstar focused its efforts on developing a new auto-targeting system and more intuitive camera controls, taking inspiration from Manhunt. By simply pressing a button on the Dual Shock controller, the camera will move to a behind the shoulder view of CJ; at this point, you will be able to aim easily and freely using the Right stick, with the possibility to perform head shots even with weapons that haven't a foresight. Free aiming will be extremely useful in the most crowded gun battles, especially if you have an automatic weapon like the Uzi at your disposal, lethal when you have the urgent need to kill as many enemies as possible in a few seconds. But the game also features an entirely new auto-targeting procedure; the developers tried to create a system more capable of choosing automatically which enemies you should kill first. Innocent pedestrians will be automatically excluded from your possible automatic targets if there are enemy NPCs in the surroundings.

Water doesn't mean death - CJ can swim
If you read our review of Vice City, you know that one of the things we really couldn't stand about the game was the fact that you were playing in a virtual recreation of Miami, that you could steal boats and yachts, but you couldn't enter the water because Tommy didn't know how to swim. Seeing the beautiful see under the hot sun of Vice City and being unable to even touch the water was a crazy thing, and one of the most evident limits of the game.

But Carl isn't Tommy Vercetti: he can swim. Once into the water, CJ will automatically stay afloat. By pressing forward the left analog stick CJ will perform the classical, slow breaststroke; pressing also the X button, CJ will start swimming faster in freestyle. Like running on land, swimming in freestyle requires stamina, so only by training CJ will be able to swim faster for a long period of time. A fat Carl will stay afloat, but he will be terribly slow at swimming.

Pressing the Circle button allows Carl to dive underwater, a useful move, not only when you must hide from nearby cops. Rockstar assures the underwater world of San Andreas has more than a surprise for those with good stamina - and good lungs. In fact, Carl isn't Superman: a breath meter shows the amount of air left in his lungs. You must be sure to resurface before you go out of oxygen, or, you know, you will be food for sharks.

Carl swimming... with his shoes on The underwater world of San Andreas will offer some surprises to the curious players
Carl swimming... with his shoes on.
The underwater world of San Andreas will offer some surprises to the curious players.

Since water no longer means death in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, many new possibilities are available in the game. Carl swimming abilities can save his life should his car fall into the water (or should he purposely jump with his car into the water), as long as you are fast enough get out of the drowning vehicle. Carl can also steal boats while he's swimming, and with good timing he can even hop on fast moving motorboats.

The new wave physics could make your life as a fish a bit more difficult; the weather, in fact, will have a direct influence on the water. In a stormy day you will see a very rough sea; in a peaceful sunny day you will be swimming in a smooth sea.

Owning structures, houses, and... building them
Like in Vice City, Carl Johnson will be able to own structures and run different types of businesses. According to Rockstar, owning structures will be much more important than in Vice City. We still don't know the list of businesses that await Carl in San Andreas, but we know that you will be able to own and manage a fully functional Casino in Las Venturra (once again, a reference to many gangster movies).

Apparently, Carl will be also able to build new structures, but this should imply a classic mission structure, and not elements typical of simulation games like Casino Tycoon.

Gang System - Finding and defending your place in San Andreas
The cities of San Andreas are dangerous place to live in, filled with dangerous gangs just waiting to eat some other gang's member alive. For this reason, Carl will need to rely on the help of his fellow brothers of the Orange Grove Families. San Andreas will feature a gang system that will let you recruit gang members for many purposes, including four-person drive-by shootings.

Carl's fame in the community if want to command respect to other people in San Andreas. Not only your enemies, but also your allies will look at your hairstyle, clothing, tattoos, constitution, and judge you for all these elements. Carl will need to integrate into the gang's social circle if he wants to survive and gain control over the state of San Andreas.

The world of San Andreas is a battlefield were gangs are constantly fighting to gain control over as many territories as possible. Carl can recruit a gang to occupy territories and then defend them from other gangs that are always ready to fight you and take over your territory; in this way, according to the developers, the city will really change according to the actions and strategies followed by the player, making each player's game unique.

Driving around San Andreas
The driving experience is the most important element of Grand Theft Auto games, and San Andreas will be no different. Yes, the game will be the biggest offline simulation of a metropolitan environment, with complex new systems implemented for the first time, but the cars of San Andreas and the driving experience remain the pivotal elements of the game. We don't have a list of cars that will be featured in the game, but we know that the final game will include models inspired by the 90s' most popular cars, as well as old models seen in past Grand Theft Auto games.

Vice City featured good car physics and an excellent real-time damage system that offered players also the chance to break windshields, shoot at tires, and so on. The system will be back in San Andreas, but now cars can also get dirty. Driving through parks and off-road areas will immediately start dirtying your vehicle; luckily, in San Andreas you will have the chance to bring your vehicle to one of the many Car Washes around the city. Dirtiness could also permanently ruin the body of your car degenerating in rust if you don't take care of it. But since we are in Grand Theft Auto, it's also true that stealing a fine new car could be easier and cheaper than cleaning your filthy, damaged car, unless the developers will implement a system to let players customize their cars and make them more "unique". Anyhow, you will immediately notice that also other people in San Andreas don't like to wash or repair their cars; you will see filthy cars with broken windshields and damaged bodies all around San Andreas - finding an immaculate car could be a harder task this time.

The game will also feature entirely new types of vehicles for the series, like bicycles. More than a gimmick, bicycles will be really useful during the games, as they let you move fast in the traffic, they are easy to maneuver, and they let CJ perform a series of tricks like 180s, 360s, and grinding rails. To pedal it's sufficient to press the X button repeatedly.

Carl swimming... with his shoes on The underwater world of San Andreas will offer some surprises to the curious players
New and old cars will be included in San Andreas.
Carl's BMX will be his best ally in the dangerous streets of San Andreas.

Each city will have its airport, so flying vehicles will be back in this new installment; helicopters are definitely into the game, and there are chances that we will see flying versions of the infamous dodo.

In the next feature will drive you through the new character customization elements included in San Andreas, from the eating system to the physical training system in the second part of our detailed preview, this Thursday. In the meanwhile, join our free forums and post your thoughts about the game in our Grand Theft Auto forum.

- Harry (August 29th, 2004)