Return home to bury your mother and discover the truth behind her murder.
PC Release: October 26, 2004
By Ian Coppock
It recently occurred to me that in my two years of blogging, I’ve never reviewed a Grand Theft Auto game before. Most will probably attribute this to an oversight on my part,and more still to the idea that Grand Theft Auto games do not have compelling narratives, and are therefore nothing I’d review anytime soon. I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that Grand Theft Auto games do have compelling stories. They’re just buried in the violence, satire and gore that the series is better known for.
My first review in a two-part series detailing my experience with GTA is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This installment is widely regarded as the greatest GTA ever made, at least until GTA V came out. It was my first foray into Rockstar’s infamous world of violent crime and biting satire. This and my review of Grand Theft Auto IV on Saturday will be written in the context of all the controversies these games have stirred up over the years, and my thoughts on whether they’re still worth playing.
San Andreas takes place in 1992 in the fictional American state of the same name, modeled after southern California. Carl “CJ” Johnson, a former gang member, returns home to the city of Los Santos to bury his murdered mother. After learning that she was killed in a drive-by shooting, Carl returns to the gang to investigate his mother’s murder and bring the guilty parties some pistol-popping, baseball bat-swinging justice.
San Andreas is an open-world game that Carl can traverse freely. You can carjack on a whim and trash the place up, or visit your friends’ houses and embark upon missions around the neighborhood. Carl is controlled from a third-person perspective. You’ll start out with baseball bats and 2x4s and will gradually upgrade your arsenal from there. San Andreas features dozens of cars and trucks modeled on real-world vehicles, and you can also drive motorcycles, construction vehicles, farm equipment, boats, helicopters, airplanes, pretty much anything with an ignition and a gas pedal.
San Andreas also encompasses light RPG elements. To keep your murderer healthy and happy, you have to eat food, work out at the gym, even swim laps. The game avoids the tedium such a system implies by upgrading your character rapidly through these mechanics. Cosmetic customization options include a wide array of clothing, haircuts and tattoos. You can even upgrade the cars you steal with jet engines, killer paint jobs and hydraulics. To top it all off, the cops in this game just do not give a shit. You can literally blow up cars and shoot people point-blank in the face, and evade the heat by hiding behind a dumpster for 60 seconds.
While you have a lot of freedom over how to make your character look and live in this hellish SoCal ghetto, it’s all anchored firmly to a plot that I found surprisingly engrossing. As San Andreas progresses, so does Carl’s character. It’s not an amazing, in-depth progression, but it’s still more than I expected from a GTA game. Despite the murders he commits and the chaos he causes, Rockstar still manages to create a sympathetic character. Carl rather reminds me of Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad; someone who commits crimes and atrocities but at his core is still a good person.
Surprised? So was I.
San Andreas’s supporting cast is made up of characters that don’t really evolve that much alongside Carl. As with most Rockstar games, supporting characters are there to provide a specific service, and stick stubbornly to a given set of quirks, humor and traits. Carl’s older brother Sweet is a war-weary gang leader more concerned about his neighborhood’s well-being than his own, while top-tier members Smoke and Ryder offer some of the funniest offhand commentary I’ve seen in games. They’re all horribly flawed people, but they’re still likeable.
As surprisingly compelling as the protagonists in this gritty world are, its antagonists make for some of the meanest bastards in gamedom. Carl finds himself up against a rogue’s gallery of crime lords and corrupt officials. Frank Tenpenny, a corrupt police officer voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, is determined to kill anyone who gets in his way no matter who gets caught in the crossfire.
Indeed, a lot of high-profile celebrities and comedians voice characters in San Andreas. James Woods takes the reigns of a steely, cynical CIA agent, and David Cross makes a cameo as a criminally inclined robotics expert. My favorite performance was from Andy Dick, who poses as a sadistic gardener and host of his own radio show, Gardening with Maurice. Hiring top-tier talent means that the game has high-quality voice acting, but it’s also a brilliant assurance of the game’s comedy.
Though there’s not a lot to laugh at in an investigation of your mother’s murder, San Andreas contains one of my favorite assortments of video game comedy. Sure, there’s the low-brow shit like Brown Streak Railroads and Juank Air (a play on “wanker”), but both the plot and the background comedy material contain some surprisingly deep social commentary.
The best source of this commentary is the radio. San Andreas is packed with some of the best that west coast hip-hop and new jack swing has to offer, but Rockstar’s writers also cooked up some hilarious and terrifying talk show programs. Programs like the Tight End Zone satirize America’s obsession with sports, while I Say/You Say parodies this nation’s political divide. When a caller phones in asking what to do with the murdered corpses of illegal immigrants, the liberal suggests using them for compost, and the conservative suggests using them in a scheme for tax evasion.
Dark? Yes. Depressing? Yes. But I promise you that few other sources of in-game comedy will have you laughing hard enough to bring tears to your eyes and puncture wounds to your lungs.
The reason why I bring up the comedy before more details of the plot is because the satire informs both the gameplay and the narrative. You’ll run into absurd scenarios while out on jobs. I myself barged into a Pizza Hut to rob the place blind, only to find myself facing both barrels of the in-store Pizza SWAT. Hell, at one point later in San Andreas, you’re using a jetpack to raid a train full of alien eggs. Grinding up fascist hillbillies in a combine thresher, or racing a blind Chinese guy through the back woods? Yup. Got those two.
San Andreas has an interesting formula that combines a serious narrative with comedy, and they play off of each other well. You’ll be told by a serious-faced man in a suit that you need to break into a casino, but the mission will have you beating a gas store attendant with a giant dildo. Oh CJ, I need you to go find some speakers for my record release party. Okay, I’ll just host a giant beach party and make off with a jet ski towing the sickest sound system you’ll ever see.
In this way, the game creates a surprisingly compelling story with some character development, but the comedy ensures that you don’t forget to have some fun.
Now we’re going to take a look at the controversies surrounding this game’s violence. Perhaps the most infamous is the ability to beat up prostitutes with a baseball bat after having solicited them. You can get your cash back and the cops apparently don’t care.
This was something I didn’t find funny or satisfying. I guess I’m not sadistic enough to think of that function as humor, especially when you consider the socioeconomic problems forcing girls and young women into such a dangerous, depraved “profession.” On that count, the angry parents and concerned sociologists who’ve brought this before Rockstar are correct. There’s no need to portray that violence, let alone offer an incentive for players to carry it out. Not okay. Very immature and callous.
From what I understand, the other two aspects of the game people are most concerned about are its gang wars and ability to rob places. I can understand how people who’ve lost family and loved ones to gang violence might not want to see it represented digitally, but this is not a gameplay element unique to San Andreas alone. And in case you didn’t read my preceding review of PAYDAY 2, in which I basically proposed marriage to all heist games everywhere, robbery is another one of those things that GTA can’t be criticized for by itself.
These two elements of gameplay are endemic to the wider world of video gaming, to the medium as a whole. It’s not fair to isolate these things to GTA and use them to tear that franchise down by itself. If you criticize GTA for featuring gang violence, you must also criticize Saints Row, Hitman, PAYDAY, etc. on those exact same terms. In other words, if you don’t like video game violence, you’ve got a LOT more to worry about than just Grand Theft Auto.
So, in conclusion, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has a few especially violent features that are unique to the series and in need of removal, but basically everything else, for better or worse, is nothing that dozens of other video games have not also included. The games are therefore undeserving of any sort of “especially violent” designation. For better or worse. Keep this in mind when you’re considering whether to try San Andreas out. I actually enjoyed it, mostly for the comedy and open-world gameplay rather than the story or guns. Take that recommendation for whatever it’s worth.
You can buy Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.