Ten years ago, Rockstar Games wowed us once again with the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Following in the footsteps of the iconic Grand Theft Auto 3 and fantastic Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, it aimed to one-up its predecessors by offering a larger world with more things to do, including gambling and skydiving. The result, in many folks’ eyes, was the greatest open-world video game up to that point, although I’ve always been more partial to Vice City. That Scarface-inspired 80s vibe was amazing.
To celebrate the game’s ten-year anniversary — which just passed a few days ago — Rockstar has decided to re-release San Andreas in technologically upgraded fashion. At least, that’s what the Xbox 360 exclusive, Games on Demand version promises. Unfortunately, however, it fails to deliver and ends up being a rather flawed and frustrating port.
If you’re late to the proverbial party, then it’s important to know what you’re entering into. That is, the tale of one Carl “CJ” Johnson, a former gangster who returns home to sunny Los Angeles (or Los Santos if you will), to mourn the loss of his murdered mother. It’s not a brief trip or any sort of vacation, though, because shortly after arriving and rekindling his relationships with his brother and other homies, CJ decides that he’ll call the West Coast home again, thus ending his five-year-long residency on the opposite side of the country.
The overarching storyline found within Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is full of crime, drama and, most of all, betrayal. However, I won’t spoil anything for those who’ve yet to experience it. Still, it’s important to note that a gangster motif runs rampant throughout, and hones its sights on a group of uneducated and low income African Americans who don the colour green to represent their Grove Street gang. Grove Street, of course, is their particular hood in the city’s underprivileged ghetto, and acts as the game’s first hub.
Truthfully, some of the included writing hasn’t aged incredibly well. Despite that, San Andreas remains a relatively interesting experience, story-wise. That said, it relies heavily on caricatures, much like other GTA games, and sometimes goes a bit far. Then again, that’s something we’ve come to expect.
Carl Johnson, himself, is a flawed character who finds himself entwined in a plot that he never would’ve fathomed. He’s an interesting protagonist, too, and comes with some unique factors that haven’t really played a part in other series iterations. What I’m talking about are his upgradeable skills — which are improved through practice — as well as his need for exercise. Fail to lift some weights, run some laps or use an exercise bike with regularity, and it’s likely that you’ll end up with an overweight avatar who’s not as good at doing things as he otherwise would be. It’s a neat system that works pretty well here, but I understand why it has disappeared from the series’ DNA.
Outside of upgradeable skills and an ability to respond to NPC comments either positively or negatively via the press of a button, CJ plays like the franchise’s other protagonists. Underneath the special wrapping paper lays traditional Grand Theft Auto gameplay, involving stealing cars, driving around, committing crimes and engaging in shootouts. The gunplay mechanics have not aged well, though, as the game tasks players with holding the right trigger then aiming with the right joystick, before they can fire using B. It’s cumbersome, difficult to use and frustrating in this day and age. In fact, it actually makes me dread shootouts.
I’ve been wearing rose-coloured glasses with regards to this series, and I’m not afraid to admit that. After all, Grand Theft Auto 3, Vice City and San Andreas were responsible for some of my favourite gaming moments, and I sunk more time into them than I can even comprehend. So, when I heard about this re-release, what with its 720p resolution, smoothed out visuals and achievement support, I was excited for a return to Rockstar’s masterpiece. Unfortunately, however, my rose-coloured glasses were partially shattered by the mess that this particular port happens to be.
I can’t say for certain, but I have an inclination that this is a port of the mobile version that was released not so long ago. The visuals remind me of that, and it seems as if there are less civilians on each sidewalk. Then again, it’s been almost a decade since I first played this game, and quite a few years since I last played it on consoles, so don’t quote me on that. The undeniable fact, though, is that Rockstar has unfortunately botched the porting process, in their attempt to allow fans to recreate interactive memories.
Problems were apparent from the opening cutscenes, wherein CJ’s taxi jutted forward in unnatural fashion as it drove along. Then, not long after that, I had the sound cut out during another cutscene. When I retried that mission, it worked, but it later dropped out of other videos. That was the most common issue that I encountered, but frame rate hitches did occur from time to time. Additionally, there was one mission that looked as if it’d end up being unbeatable, due to an annoying bug.
The mission in question was one where I had to dance in order to seduce a DJ whose expensive sound equipment was set up in a van down by the river. It was a beach party, and a bumping one at that, but my drugged out, wanna-be hip-hop artist of an ally wanted me to put an end to it by stealing the young lady’s speakers. To do so, I had to dance in a Guitar Hero-like mini-game, which was more difficult than I remembered it being. It took a decent amount of tries to complete, not only because it wanted near perfection, but also because there were two occurrences where the note bar completely disappeared on me and left me with no idea of what buttons I’d have to press in order to earn more points. To say that I was frustrated would be an understatement.
It’s too bad that a tenth anniversary re-release of an iconic game such as this would be so problematic. I mean, you’d think that they would’ve ironed out the kinks before putting it out there for people to download, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case, because there are more glitches now than ever before. I’m not even counting the occasional moments where a character’s head or arm will go through an environmental object, either, because that tends to happen in sandbox games.
If you’re a huge fan of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas like myself, then you’ll still want to download this version of the game, because it is, after all, only $3.74. At that price, it’s easier to overlook the port’s noticeable flaws, yet they still mar a great game. Even improved visuals and 720p resolution can’t hide coding problems.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Although Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas remains a really great game to this day, its Xbox 360 port is a mess. It's a shame that Rockstar Games didn't give it the attention it deserved, and instead released a version of the game that is inferior to the original.