Revealing all the little bits and extras of the gameplay of San Andreas would make this review incredibly long, and would deprive you of the surprise of exploring the hugest game world ever to grace an action game. Yet, I will go through all the main aspects of the game - missions, character customization, vehicles, and exploration of the state of San Andreas.
If you are a fan of the series, you already know that Rockstar introduced many new features in San Andreas. Anyhow, while these new elements successfully make San Andreas more varied than Vice City, all those who hated Vice City or GTA 3 will hate San Andreas as well. In fact, behind the refinements, San Andreas doesn't really innovate over the formula of Vice City; it's true to the basics of the previous instalments, and that's also why players who have explored Vice City will immediately find themselves at home in San Andreas. This is also the game's most evident strength. The developers could reuse all the tools and models created for the preceding instalments and started building their new game from what they already had from Vice City; that's why in San Andreas you will enjoy not only a game world that's five-six times the one of Vice City, but also the richest selection of missions, weapons, and vehicles in the whole series.
Like in Vice City, you begin your adventure with no money, no weapons, and just one home where you can save your progresses. Anyhow, San Andreas has a much gentler learning curve than past games of the series, as all gameplay elements, new and old, are introduced little by little throughout the first storyline missions with great care. People who have never played a GTA game may have more problems in handling vehicles and may feel a bit lost at first, but everybody will master the game basics after a couple hours.
Missions and exploration of San Andreas
San Andreas is enormous; Vice City and Liberty City (GTA 3) have been replaced by a whole state, made of three cities - Los Santos, San Fierro, Las Venturas (modelled after Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas) - connected by highways and a countryside, filled with many small country towns and including different types of environments, from deserts to forests and mountains. Of course, you do not have access to the whole map from the beginning. At first, you will have to explore Los Santos, the city where CJ grew up, home of his family and old friends. The early missions will lead you to the most important spots of Los Santos, and little by little, many features and locations (like the local gym, and the clothing and weapon stores) will be unveiled and unlocked.
Each city is huge, and the wonderful work done by the developers to recreate extremely complex city layouts and detailed, believable architectures, makes Los Santos, Las Venturas, and San Fierro more intricate and realistic than Vice City or Liberty City. That's why also veterans of the series could have a hard time orienting themselves during their first rides through the cities; anyhow, if you pay attention to your surroundings while driving, you will soon realize that each city is clearly divided in different neighborhoods and areas. Once you have memorized the position of each area in relation to the others, and you have discovered some of the hidden shortcuts, travels and car chases become even more enjoyable.
The size and the complexity of the game world go occasionally against the fun you have playing the game. While San Andreas is enormous and extremely varied, interaction with the environments is still almost non-existent, so you must often travel very long distances across landscapes that may look realistic and detailed but that offer very little gameplay possibilities. Sometimes, long travels in between missions break the pace of the game more than in the two previous instalments, and while that's what gives a more realistic feel to the game (driving from one city to the other at sunset, while listening to the radio, is a strange, unique, realistic, alienating experience that only San Andreas can offer) it also makes San Andreas strangely "slower" than Vice City, less "focused", more "distracting".
The map works like in Vice City, with the small nice addition of player targets. You can put markers on the map, for example to remember the location of an armor or to plot out a route for a mission or one of the car races. Anyhow, the size of each city and the realistic but confusing street layouts, coupled with the simplistic map, can cause some headache during those missions where you really need to go from point A to point B as fast as possible. San Andreas has more missions than any other game in the series, and it offers a great, surprising variety in the tasks you are asked to accomplish as you progress in the adventure. The more you play, the more gameplay elements you must take into consideration while playing a mission; variations over the classic mission layout "drive to the spot, kill/pick up the guy, go back home" - still heavily present in San Andreas - help in keeping you interested in playing mission after mission, just to discover what's the next gameplay twist. As a whole, mission design in GTA keeps the game well above all the other "crime simulators" available right now, also because it's evident Rockstar has now more refined, complex, and precise tools to create missions than any other developer working on similar games; the experience with GTA 3 and with Vice City shows in almost every mission of San Andreas, and veterans of the series will be pleased to discover the classic elements they loved in past games mixed with all little and big new features.
Sadly, there are still plenty of missions that can be incredibly frustrating for the player. Like in previous games of the series, you should expect to find yourself stuck on a mission you are forced to play if you want to proceed with the storyline and unlock new stuff in the game; within the free structure of San Andreas, these moments of pure frustration are even more tedious than in a classic action game. It's like hitting a concrete wall while you are enjoying the freedom of sailing on the ocean. Tedious and inexplicable, because hard missions are scattered throughout the game, from the beginning to the end. Most of the frustration comes clearly from some of Rockstar's idiosyncrasies, for example when they ask you to complete a mission using always the same vehicle, even if this isn't justified at all by some storyline element; timed missions are as usual the most infuriating ones, but I also hated every single flying mission because of the clumsy plane controls. Worst of it all, the usual GTA's glitches and bugs abound also in San Andreas, and they occur more often when you must complete a mission in which you are accompanied by some NPC. Your stupid friends will remain stuck into walls, will forget to enter your vehicle, will start shooting the air, and everything else to instil in you the doubt they are actually double-crossing you. When you replay a mission you have failed, you are sometimes given the option to cut long driving sections within the mission, but unfortunately, this option is rarely available. Also, since there is no taxi to bring you back to the beginning of a mission like in Vice City, you will often have to drive long, long distances (longer than in any other GTA game) just to retry the same mission. Considering the size of the state of San Andreas, the lack of a simple way to restart a mission you have just failed (even a simple "restart mission" option would have been enough) is an inexcusable and inexplicable limit of San Andreas.
Like in past GTA games, many vehicles give you access to special randomly generated missions useful to make some good money; you just need to press the R3 button while you are driving one of the special vehicles in the game. "R3 missions" are more important than ever, especially early in the game, when the main storyline missions give CJ very little money as a reward. While I have never been a big fan of R3 missions in past games, San Andreas offers plenty of them. So you can play the classic vigilante missions, taxi missions, paramedic missions, firefighter missions, but also the all new burglary, pimping, and train missions.
Burglary missions are probably the most important of the pack. To access them you need a Boxville, a special suspect looking van you will find in many locations in San Andreas. You can start your robbery missions only during the night; you press the R3 button and then you must find a house in a residential area that can be burglarized. Once you have found it, you must park your van and enter the house. Inside the house, a noise indicator will be displayed on the screen. If you move slowly, you should be able to pick up one of the items into the house without the owner hearing you. You must then put it into the truck. You are now ready to hit a new house. Once you have stolen enough stuff, you can go to a special garage where you will be able to resell all the stolen goods; just keep in mind that this must be done before 6 a.m., otherwise all your stolen items will be lost. If you make too much noise, or if the owner spots you, you have 10 seconds to escape the house before the police is summoned. Playing burglary missions is definitely more fun than playing taxi missions, but like all R3 missions they are too repetitive to keep you interested for a long time.
Pimping missions work like taxi missions; you pick up a girl and then drive her to her customer. In train missions you must hijack a train, press R3, and then you have a given time to bring your cargo to the destination. Since I didn't even know it was possible to hijack trains, I was really surprised the first time I entered one; it's strangely, stupidly fun to go around with your train, at least for a while, and take a look at the always changing landscape of San Andreas.
There are also many more types of side-missions (including gang wars), activities, proprieties to own, and literally hundreds of little extra things to do in the game (including playable arcade games), but there is no need to spoil all the gameplay twists for you in this review. Anyhow, since many may be puzzled by the "1 or 2 player" indication on the back of the game box, it's worth mentioning that there are a few spots in San Andreas where you can play with another friend by plugging another controller to your console. There are two kinds of two-player games in San Andreas: rampages and free roam sequences. Rampages are like those of past GTA games, with the difference you can now wreak havoc with the help of a friend; to access the free roam sections you must find one of the many special red icons on the map and a second player will be able to join you for some good fun. In general, player 2 has automatically all the skills "your" CJ has and can choose his/her avatar from a series of typical GTA figures (prostitute, truck driver, police man) and many more "unique" characters. These small, simplistic multiplayer sequences can be quite exhilarating, even if players must stay close to each other as there is no split screen.
Customizing Carl Johnson - Gyms, tattoo parlors, barber shops, and lots of fancy clothes
The possibility to customize your character is definitely the most hyped element of San Andreas. Rockstar introduced many simplistic RPG elements into their action game that aren't aimed at changing the core of the experience (like many where fearing), but at giving players more freedom and more stuff to do in the dozens of hours they will probably pass with GTA.
Your main character, CJ, has now a series of stats that show his health, his strengths, and his abilities. These are health, muscle, fat, stamina, respect, driving, biking, cycling, flying, lung capacity, and sex appeal but you shouldn't think that playing San Andreas is like playing a RPG. In fact, you can play San Andreas almost like you played Vice City; simply, if you tend to drive cars a lot, your character's driving skills will automatically improve; if you use a lot pistols instead of shotguns, CJ's accuracy with pistols will increase; if you swim a lot underwater, your lung capacity will increase; and so on. Rockstar didn't want to reinvent the formula behind Vice City, they just wanted to let each player have his or her own unique character as they progressed into the game; theoretically, after 20-30 hours, you could have a character that's different from the one of any other player.
The only stats you must really keep under control are muscle, fat, and stamina. Carl, unlike the other heroes of the series, needs to eat in order to stay in good shape. There are many different restaurants and fast foods in San Andreas, so finding your favorite place shouldn't be a problem. By eating, you replenish your health, but you also gain some fat. Fat, like in real life, is needed, as it's a bit like the fuel CJ burns when he does some kind of physical activity; if CJ has not eaten for a long time, his fat level will reach zero, and the muscle stat will start to go down. This isn't really annoying as it may seem, as it's sufficient to eat once in a very long while to avoid loosing all fat. To build up muscles and stamina you must go to one of the many gyms in San Andreas, where you can find free weights, stationary bikes, and more machines to help CJ become the next Hulk Hogan. CJ can also become incredibly fat: you just need to eat a lot and avoid all physical activities.
While in a RPG you usually need dozens of hours to build up the stats of your heroes, in San Andreas it's sufficient to go to the gym for three-four in-game days in a row to reach the maximum muscle level. If you want to lose muscle, you just need to stop eating for a while; if you want to become fat, you must just eat a lot for a couple of in-game days; and so on. You can really change completely your character in a few hours, from fattest gangster of all times to the most muscular criminal you may have ever seen in a videogame. Anyhow, it's important to keep in mind that the physical conditions of your character will also affect his efficiency during missions and in "normal" everyday street life. A fat CJ will be terribly slow, a too thin CJ will be weak in battle, a muscular and well trained CJ (more on this later) will be able to use his hands to defeat even the toughest opponent.
You can change the look of CJ in many ways. There are barber shops, tattoo parlors, and clothing stores throughout San Andreas. Barber shops and tattoo parlors work in the same way; you enter the shop and you will be shown a series of available haircuts or tattoos to choose from. As you progress in the game, you will start seeing truly crazy haircuts and more intriguing tattoos. CJ can have his old tattoos removed at any time, but he can also cover every single part of his body with a different tattoo. Buying clothes is a true mini-game; there are dozens and dozens of different clothes available, from the most obvious stuff - like jeans or t-shirts - to crazy little things like eyepatches (which is available very early in the game, ahoy!).
Combining all the different stats and all the available clothes, you can really turn CJ into the character you want him to look like; CJ's sex appeal will change according to all these variables, and this means that if you want to have success with a girl (yes, you will also date virtual hot girls in San Andreas) you must carefully mould your character. For my first 15 hours into the game, CJ was the exact replica of Mr. T, complete with Mohawk haircut and beard. He didn't seem to have too much success with women, but who cares - thanks Rockstar for making one of my dreams come true.
Controlling Carl Johnson
If you have played GTA 3 or Vice City, forget about the manual and start playing the game. In fact, the control scheme is the same of Vice City, with the highly welcome addition of new moves that players have been expecting since the release of Vice City. The new moves, more than simple gimmicks, actually add depth to the game as they open up new possibilities to complete missions and survive during the most hectic fights and chases.
You run using the left analog stick and the X button; once Carl is tired, he will start to slow down. Like Tommy Vercetti, Carl needs to build up his stamina to run faster and further; anyhow, in San Andreas there are plenty of ways to do so: jogging or exploring the city on foot is just one possibility, as Carl can also build up his stats at a local gym.
Carl can also jump better than previous heroes of the series. By running toward a reasonably high obstacle and then pressing the jump button in the right moment, Carl will be able to jump to other side of the obstacle. Even more useful is the new possibility to climb walls, nets, and even trees, which helps you find unexpected shortcuts and make on-foot pursuits look much more like scenes from a classic '70s TV series.
One of the most irritating and meaningless limits of Vice City was that Tommy Vercetti could not swim. Basically, touching water in previous GTA games was as healthy as touching molten lava. Thankfully, things have changed. Not only CJ can swim, but he can also perform many different styles. By default, CJ will tread water; if you press forward the left analog stick, Carl will start moving slowly in the water, without consuming stamina. Anyhow, you might need to swim faster: just hold the X button while using the left analog stick, and CJ will swim with perfect freestyle strokes until he has consumed up all his stamina. CJ can also dive underwater (press the Circle button) and swim in search of hidden secrets, always keeping an eye on his "breath meter", which shows the amount of oxygen left in his lungs. Swimming opens up many possibilities. For example, a muddy river could be a nice place to hide while the police is chasing you; or you may want to try the unique experience of jumping with your car right into the sea, escaping just one split second before it drowns.
Another new feature is the possibility to recruit gang members and issue simple commands to control them. Unfortunately, while this is a feature fans of the series have been expecting for a long time, your A.I. controlled friends have the extraordinary tendency to die way too often, mainly because they are more stupid than a band of blind monkeys.
Fighting and hiding in San Andreas
Considering GTA games are often labelled as crime simulators, it is a shame the combat system and the aim functions of the series have always left much to be desired. San Andreas improves substantially both hand-to-hand fights and usage of firearms.
Carl has a true arsenal at his disposal. Weapons vary in range, speed, and power; there is an auto-aim function, which works substantially better than in Vice City and is available with almost any type of weapon. By holding the R1 button, CJ will lock on a target; if you keep the R1 button pressed, you can use R2 and L2 to target the next enemy on the left or on the right. When you lock on a target, the target indicator will indicate the target's current health, changing color from green (target has full health) to red (target is close to death). Early in the game, CJ's abilities are close to those of Tommy Vercetti in Vice City. Little by little, using firearms, CJ's ability with them will increase, exactly as it happens in many action RPGs. The more he uses a type of firearm, the better his proficiency with that weapon will become; after hours and hours of shootings, CJ will be able to target faraway enemies and hit them with ease, and he will be even able to double wield certain types of firearms, like mini machine guns, 9mm pistols, and even shotguns. Cool stuff, especially if you have a couple of machine guns and lots of ammo. Besides, you can now aim manually by holding the R1 button and using the right stick to aim. CJ can also dodge bullets; you just need to press the R1 button, crouch, and then use the left analog stick to roll left and right - surprisingly, it is a quite useful move if the enemy is not too close to CJ.
Anyhow, the true improvement is in the hand-to-hand combat system. You can finally lock on a target also while fighting barehanded or with a melee weapon, and this makes even simple punches much more effective than in Vice City's clumsy street fights. The best thing is that next to normal punches, CJ is able to learn a lot of different fighting techniques and moves at gyms and from martial arts masters; to learn a new move, you must defeat your master and a new combo will be added to your set of available moves. Moves range from simple "final blows" to cool looking and truly deadly martial art moves; while using firearms is a rewarding experience, fighting bare handed or with your melee weapons in San Andreas is even more fun, in my opinion.
And that's not all. Early in the game, you will be introduced to one of the best new little features of San Andreas - stealth action. The simple stealth system is borrowed obviously from Rockstar's Manhunt. Manhunt was definitely a below the average game with a mediocre gameplay; advertised as an ultra violent stealth action game, it featured a too limited set of moves and clumsy controls; anyhow, inserted within an enormous game system like the one of San Andreas, Rockstar's simplified approach to the stealth action genre is a great little addition. When you use stealth, CJ icon in the map will turn blue if CJ is well hidden in the shadows. To move silently, CJ can crouch (press R3), and approach enemies from behind; now if he has a melee weapon equipped, CJ can perform stealth kills - you must target your victim and then press the attack button. CJ will kill the poor guy with a violent but silent move, avoiding that other enemies in the area spot him.
Grand Theft Auto
Vehicles are arguably the true stars of each Grand Theft Auto game, and San Andreas has more vehicles than any other game of the series. Carjacking is one of CJ's favorite activities, and like in previous instalments, you just need to press the triangle button when near to a vehicle to steal it. More often than in Vice City, your victims will turn against CJ and will attack him to have their car back, also using weapons. If you hold the circle button once you have thrown the driver our and entered his car, the driver will not be able to open the car door. Like Tommy Vercetti, CJ can bail out of a vehicle (hold triangle), and do drive-by shootings (you are introduced to them very early in the game). Vehicles give you the possibility to perform stunts across the streets of the three cities and in the wilderness of San Andreas and they let you compete in car races, which will please those who like fast paced driving action.
In San Andreas you will drive cars (including a lot of off-road vehicles useful to explore the wilderness of San Andreas), motorcycles, boats, helicopters, and also bikes, trucks, trains, and airplanes; yes, you can finally drive real airplanes instead of just the wingless dodo - like cars, planes come in different models (about 10), all with different physics. Too bad that flying missions are often just annoying instead of being as fun as you would expect them to be, mainly because of the somewhat clumsy plane controls. Things get better as your flying skill increase, but at first, expect massive doses of pure GTA-style frustration.
You can now modify your cars in the many modification garages found throughout San Andreas; some of them offer modification for almost all cars, others are specialized in modification for just one or two types of vehicles. The possibility to create a unique vehicle adds true depth to the driving experience in the game; not only can you enhance your car's performance, but you also start caring about your rides, something that was missing in Vice City. Maybe it's just me, but I didn't care too much when my Inferno was badly damaged in Vice City, as I knew I could easily steal a new one; in previous GTA games vehicles felt all the same, while in San Andreas you can really drive a unique vehicle. You can modify lights, paintjobs, colors, spoilers, roofs, wheels, hydraulics, and even car stereos in San Andreas. You can also add one of those fancy and totally illegal nitro systems to your car for a crazy driving experience. You can use nitro speed boost for a limited amount of time, and once you have used all your nitro charge you must go back to a garage and buy it again.
Overall, while remaining true to the previous instalments, San Andreas is a concrete, impressive improvement over Vice City. There are many limits in its design and many evident flaws in some parts of the game, but San Andreas is so big, so huge, so generous in the amount of content and in its variety that all these limits are excusable, even more than in Vice City. Rockstar must be praised for addressing many problems of the previous instalments, showing they do care about the feedback they received from their audience.