Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (XBOX)
Tons of variety; Well-written dialogue; Terrific casting; Terrific casting; Same strong gameplay;
Random audio problems on the PC; Gang AI not too bright; Soundtrack could have been a bit better; Xbox version tends to get a little too blurry in spots;
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a stupendous thrill ride that shouldn't be missed.
By now, you probably know how this works. The new Grand Theft Auto game comes out in October, but only on the PlayStation 2. Xbox and PC owners have to wait a half a year or so for their versions of the game, and each always has the potential to be better than the original release. That's saying something, because we're already talking about one of the best games of 2004 and the best game in the Grand Theft Auto series. Once again, the wait is over, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is now available on the PC and Xbox. While both versions have aspects that are better than the outstanding PS2 game, visual weirdness on the Xbox and a handful of technical issues on the PC prevent either version from being the clear-cut best of the bunch.
For those of you already familiar with the game, let's quickly discuss the differences between all three versions. The Xbox one has 480p support, but when enabled, the aliasing is out of control. Portions of the environment look so unbelievably jaggy that you'll wonder if your eyesight is failing you. At times it looks like you're playing a 3D game without putting on the glasses. But if you can get past that (it isn't quite as noticeable in standard resolution), the game generally looks great. Loading times on the Xbox don't seem to be much faster than the PlayStation 2 release, and for some weird reason, a loading message occasionally appears onscreen, even in situations where the load times are supposed to be hidden, like when changing your hairstyle. Control in the Xbox version is sharp, and just like the GTA Double Pack, your vehicle gas and brake controls have been moved to the triggers and made analog. This works well, but the flight controls, which have also been remapped to fit on the Xbox controller, are a little weird.
The PC version comes on DVD only and is packaged with a fully bound book that serves as the manual. It's definitely some of the coolest PC game packaging around. This version also has the potential to be the best-looking version of the game by a long shot. Support for higher resolutions makes the textures and characters look sharper and much better than either of the console versions. There's a draw distance slider that, when turned all the way up, almost totally eliminates the draw-in and fogging that's become synonymous with the series. Your Grove Street home looks much more like a run-down South Central neighborhood when you can see more of its surroundings. But all this graphical quality is offset by some serious problems with the sound. Testing on three different machines that exceed the recommended system specs got us three results. On one machine, we didn't experience any audio glitches. On another, the audio simply cut out a lot, leaving you to drive around with only music to keep you company. It's tough to play when you can't hear your mission descriptions. On the third machine, loading up a save game caused a loud grating noise--which sounded like the bike-riding audio mixed with a helicopter--to scream out from the middle of the Grove. We had to hop in a car and drive away from the area to make the noises stop. Also, the cutscenes occasionally desynched from the audio, making the lip movement appear to be way off.
Control in the PC version is full of options. You can decide to hook up a dual analog gamepad so that you can play it just like the console versions, or you can instead opt for mouse-and-keyboard control. Either method works, though we had several cases where the game would simply stop responding to any mouse input until we alt-tabbed out of the game, moved the mouse, and then jumped back in. This isn't exactly the sort of thing you want to have happen in the middle of a shoot-out. Mouse control also removes the lock-on aspect of the targeting, giving you easy access to manual targeting. The refined control the mouse gives you seems like an unfair advantage at times, because it's very easy to rack up one-shot kills by aiming for the head. If you have a smooth mouse hand, even the roughest firefights are really basic...provided the mouse doesn't die on you.
Both versions have custom soundtrack support, though using it robs you of the great DJs that populate the game's radio stations. You'll still hear a lot of the funnier ads on the custom station, though.
Overall, each version of the game has its share of differences and minor issues, but the core game is fantastic, regardless of the platform you play it on. While the list of games that can list GTA as an influence grows longer and longer, there's still nothing quite like the real thing, and the "bigger, better" approach to sequel design definitely works in San Andreas' favor.
OK, all that information is fine and good if you've already played San Andreas. But if you're new to the loc'ed-out streets of San Andreas, there's much more you need to know.
By Jeff Gerstmann
Posted Jun 7, 2005 4:16 pm PT