Rockstar North is facing its stiffest competition yet as it prepares the latest installment in the GTA series with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. While the years since Grand Theft Auto III's release have profoundly affected game development--in fact, everyone and his or her mother has since busted out one game or another that is best summed up as, "It's like GTA but with [insert concept here]"--to date, the only developer to top Rockstar's efforts has been Rockstar itself.
This brings us to San Andreas. How do you go about keeping pace with two of the top-selling, most popular games of all time? To a certain degree, it's almost impossible for a game as highly anticipated as GTA: San Andreas to fail. The appearance of a single screenshot, detail, or even the smallest rumor engenders a feeding frenzy you don't often see outside of a school of starved piranha.
The game already appears to be headed down the path to creative success, based on what's already been revealed. So far, it's known that the game will feature an early '90s urban setting that's spread across an entire state. Additionally, it's public knowledge that the game will include a customizable main character who can change his hairstyle, gain or lose weight based on diet and exercise, drive new vehicles (like BMX bikes and monster trucks), and so forth. But the real question is, "Will everything come together to create the ultimate end cap for GTA on the PlayStation 2?" Or is that sound you hear Fonzie getting ready to jump the shark? Read on.
The State of San Andreas
GTA: San Andreas will feature a quantum improvement in terms of its scope, essentially giving players the run of an entire state--not just a single city like in Vice City or GTAIII. The state of San Andreas will feature three main cities, each inspired by real-life locales. The city of Los Santos is based on Los Angeles, San Fierro is derived from San Francisco, and Las Venturas will mirror the glitz of Las Vegas. Each city will feature its fair share of distinct landmarks to ensure that you know its source material. You'll see palm trees, Compton-inspired urban sprawls, and a fair share of seedy locales in Los Santos. San Fierro will have its own Golden Gate-style centerpiece, as well as its fair share of hills. Finally, Las Venturas will undoubtedly have a neon tube or two popping away amid the casinos that will line its streets.
Getting to and from each town will (initially, at least) require you to travel the highways and byways of the state. Rather than just send you driving through miles of open road, you'll find that the fast lanes of San Andreas will feature their own locales to stop by and their own folks to interact with. Rockstar promises that the badlands between each of the cities will be anything but the boring, desolate places you might expect them to be. Furthermore, Rockstar promises that GTA: San Andreas will include no discernible loading times whatsoever for when you're traveling around, so you'll theoretically be able to cruise cross-state without any interruptions. Brief loading times will only be present when entering and exiting all the different buildings in the game.
The Story So Far
While Rockstar intends to keep the bulk of the story under wraps--so as to not ruin the experience for players--what has been revealed certainly feels like a natural evolution for the GTA series. The game has moved up in time from the gaudy '80s to the harsh, early '90s. It will focus on the fertile narrative-and-gameplay ground of West Coast gang life. You'll play as Carl Johnson (aka CJ), a refugee of Los Santos who returns home after having left the twisted city--which is rife with corruption, drugs, and gang violence--to seek a more stable existence in Liberty City.
When the reality of gang violence performs a fierce pruning of his family tree, Carl finds himself back in his old 'hood reconnecting with his older brother, Sweet, who's still a card-carrying member of the local gang. Together they try to find out what happened to their relative. Unfortunately for him, CJ is framed by corrupt local cops for homicide and finds himself undergoing the full thug-life experience as he embarks on a bloody journey through the state of San Andreas to clear his name, protect what's left of his family and friends, and retake the streets.
CJ will accomplish all of this by using a variety of means, some of which will be familiar to GTA veterans and some of which will be entirely new to them. Read on for never-before-heard details about San Andreas' ambitious gameplay.
How to Be a Player
As we're sure you know, GTA's brand of free-roaming, mission-based mechanics has launched countless imitators across a number of genres. For GTA: San Andreas, Rockstar North has kept the basic systems from the previous game intact, while it has tweaked some systems (as you'll see) and it has introduced some other, all-new features out of a desire to offer players the ability to have experiences that are unique to them and how they want to play the game. Before we detail what's new, here's a quick primer on what's the same.
The game will still be a single-player third-person-perspective action adventure that will send you exploring a vast environment and have you "interacting" with assorted non-player characters. You'll gain mission objectives by talking with various characters, who will send you to perform specific tasks. You'll likely find that your missions will invariably involve some violence and require you to beat or shoot your way to success. And while some missions may be a walking distance from where you pick them up, others will require that you procure transportation--through normal or criminal means--to get to your destination. An onscreen radar will let you navigate your way around the city (and state), and markers will denote places of interest and mission-critical locations. Completing your missions will earn you cash that you can use in a variety of ways. You'll generally be able to proceed through the game's content at your own pace, and you can opt to explore, goof around, attempt crazy stunts, and so forth.
While you can see that the core gameplay of GTA: San Andreas hasn't fundamentally changed, Rockstar North has added some new twists. Take transportation, for example. As before, CJ will be able to make use of a variety of vehicles to get around. While we'll touch on cars in a bit, we'd like to talk about the newest addition to the modes of transportation in GTA: San Andreas--the BMX bike. CJ will be able ride a dependable BMX bike throughout the colorful neighborhoods of Los Santos, which are often not very hospitable. While not quite as fast as a sports car, you'll be surprised by how quick the bike is.
Obviously, riding the bike is much faster than walking or running. At any rate, it will let you zip through traffic-clogged areas inconspicuously, and you can more easily head down alleys that larger vehicles couldn't squeeze through. Rather than handling like a car (or a Vice City motorcycle), the bike will require you to pump one of the PlayStation 2 controller's buttons to build up speed by pedaling, which will give the added benefit of affording you a great deal of control over the bike. Additionally, you'll be able to perform a number of tricks and stunts, such as bunnyhops, wheelies, and endos, as well as 360s and 180s. While cool to ride, the bike is also limited in how it can be used. This, of course, means that you'll eventually have to get yourself a car...which brings us to carjacking.
Any GTA player worth his or her Glock knows how to jack him- or herself a car. The mechanic for "borrowing" someone else's vehicle has been an easy-to-perform staple in all previous games in the GTA series. So, we're terribly sad to report that the days of wine and roses are over, friends. Whereas the previous GTA games pitted you against docile citizens who flatly refused to lock their doors, the times have changed in San Andreas. The locals will be quite a bit more savvy and aggro than the "car donors" you've dealt with before. From the sound of things, there won't be many pushovers in the game when you make moves for their cars this time around. The surly citizenry won't give up their wheels without a fight, which you just know isn't going to end well.
Thankfully, CJ is a resourceful young man with an expanded carjacking move-set. If the driver of your preferred vehicle won't leave, you can convince him or her to do so via kicks, punches, pistol-whips, or simple bashes of the head against the dashboard of the car--which should ensure hours of fun. Performing the latter action usually results in having the driver of a specific car come around to your way of thinking. Remember the first time you jump-kicked someone off of his or her lousy scooter in Vice City? There should be lots more moments like that in San Andreas. Carjacking at gunpoint is a natural progression for the series, so we're excited to see how it plays out.
As everyone knows, "Grand Theft Auto" has become a misnomer. Sure, the carjacking is fun, but there's going to be a ton more to do in San Andreas. Read on to find out just how much more can be accomplished in the Golden State than could be accomplished in Vice City.
Things to Do
Once you have a car, you'll be able to explore the city you're currently in, or you can travel the highways to a new city entirely, depending on your whim and the mission you're currently engaged in. (Rockstar hasn't yet verified whether you'll be free to explore the entirety of San Andreas from the get-go or whether some of the cities will be "locked" when you first begin play.) The missions in GTA: San Andreas will feature a mix of the same style of tasks that we've seen in the previous games, though they'll also incorporate some newfangled conventions from early '90s thug life, such as the four-man drive-by, which will put you behind the wheel of a car packed with computer-controlled hoods packing some heat.
You'll also see rail-shooting segments, like those of Vice City, which will find you trying to pick off policemen as you're thrown about in your car, thanks to some spastic driving by one of your homies. One very cool, new detail in San Andreas is that cops (and other characters) will be able to clamber onto your car. You'll need to be careful while trying to run people down, because they might just grab ahold of your fender to try to jack you. At any rate, San Andreas' mission system will also be more open-ended, allowing you to make some side trips on your way to completing your latest task. What can you do to earn yourself a change of pace while on a mission (or in between missions, for that matter)? Funny you should ask.
Getting Made and Working Out
One of the major aspects of GTA: San Andreas is likely going to be the high number of indoor locations to visit. We covered some, like restaurants such as Cluckin' Bell, Well Stacked Pizza, and Burger Shot, in last week's look at the game's entirely new food system. But those are just the tips of the icebergs. You'll also be able to visit places such as Reece's Hair Facial Studio, and you can throw down some money for that high-top fade you've always wanted CJ to have--in addition to any other type of do. Careful, though. Choose a goofy appearance and you might just rile up the wrong crowd. Meanwhile, St. Brutus Motel will offer a place to meet new folks and cut some deals. Furthermore, beloved places such as the Pay & Spray will help you freshen up that car you borrowed to make sure it isn't reclaimed by its owner (the Pay & Spray seems to work just like in Vice City). You'll also be able to wash your vehicle down, since, in San Andreas, cars will get dirty over time.
While completing missions and visiting the different locales in a city will all work toward helping you to become the man in GTA: San Andreas, your actions will also help build CJ up via an RPG-like system in the game. For example, shooting guns will gradually increase CJ's weapon skills, thus making him more and more accurate. Along the same lines, having CJ ride his BMX will let him build up stamina so that he'll be able to keep riding for longer durations. At the same time, his riding skill will also increase, which will both make the bike easier to control and reduce the amount of times CJ will fall off of it. While the above character developments will happen naturally over the course of the game, you'll be able to take a more active role in CJ's physical health by going to the gym.
We briefly touched on the whole workout system in our food preview last week, but now we've got some more info on the mechanic. Basically, you'll be able to visit one of several gyms spread throughout San Andreas so that you work out to stay in peak physical health. The gyms are all different in terms of equipment and patronage, but each has a variety of workout options to help you burn off unwanted pounds, build stamina and muscle, and learn to fight. You'll be able to ride stationary bikes or use a treadmill to build stamina, and you can perform barbell curls or bench presses to build strength. You can even step into the ring to spar with locals, which builds up your fighting skills. Stamina, as we mentioned, is a key component to success in the game. The more stamina CJ has, the faster he'll be able to run, cycle, and swim. Did we mention that CJ could swim (unlike those past GTA wimps you controlled)? He can also catch his breath, which should help you get through your missions faster.
CJ will be yours to mold in GTA: San Andreas. Keep going to both find out how you'll be able to customize his combat abilities and learn how combat has changed in Rockstar's upcoming game.
Building your strength will be a key activity at the gym, because it will increase the power of your punches and kicks. The hand-to-hand combat system in San Andreas should be more complex than that of Vice City. One thing to note about going to the gym in the game to build strength is that the relationship between fat and muscle isn't just inversely proportional. Each represents a separate stat, which allows you to mold CJ in any way that you'd like. Consequently, you can make CJ skinny and lithe, fat and powerful, or somewhere in between.
Beefing up your fighting skills will probably get very interesting, because doing so will let you learn new fighting moves that complement the basic ones CJ starts out with. By taking on an opponent in the boxing ring, CJ can learn a variety of pugilistic methods, which include punch combos, punching on the ground, and punching while running. These new skills appear to be abilities that you can only learn at the Los Santos gyms, which makes sense since you're likely to need them the most in that city. Meanwhile, the gym in San Fierro, modeled after a martial arts dojo, will let you learn and practice an entirely new set of fighting techniques that will be revealed at a later date. The gym in Las Venturas, a suitably seedy, down-on-its-luck boxing facility with a ratty ring in the middle and numerous holes in the concrete floor, is where you can learn street fighting and some pretty nasty below-the-belt moves. As you have probably figured out, the hand-to-hand combat in San Andreas should be much deeper than in past GTA games.
Training in gyms will also let you get a handle on the melee combat system, which expands on the modest system used in the previous games. You can now lock onto opponents during combat, which makes it easier to get your beat-down on. The system also incorporates a second button to allow for more-advanced moves and combos. Finally, self-defense has been incorporated, allowing CJ to block incoming blows from attackers. Some of these improvements have already been seen in Rockstar's Manhunt. That game also introduced a key, new shooting mechanic that will find its way into San Andreas--the ability to lock on to enemies to squeeze off headshots with any ranged weapon rather than with just the scoped weapons (as was the case in Vice City and GTA III).
911 Is Not a Joke in This Town
Speaking of CJ being attacked... Let's face it. Not everyone you'll be fighting will be a gangsta. The fact of the matter is that you'll eventually find yourself coming up against the law. Rockstar North has gone ahead and made some tweaks to the police artificial intelligence in the game by ensuring that there will be some serious scuffles in store for you if you're not careful. The police will attack with a variety of tactics in an attempt to take you down. During high-speed pursuits, police will open fire with their weapons, and they'll follow you from all possible angles. They'll come at CJ from head-on and from side streets, and they'll cut him off or ram his car to end the pursuit.
If you somehow manage to lose the ground forces, the police will also be very skilled at tracking you with the spotlights on their helicopters. Not only will this make you much easier to spot for those on the ground, but the bright light will obscure your vision, thus making it much harder to take out the helicopter or to aim at the cops on the ground in the direction the light is shining from. The police will also look out for their own safety and will seek out and use cover during gunfights, making firefights all the more challenging. The final kick to the junk comes in the form of motorcycle cops, who will have the ability to fire their guns while in pursuit. GTA: San Andreas will feature a "wanted" level system similar to that of previous games in the series, so the more trouble you make for the cops, the more trouble they'll give you in return.
So what about the technical details? The past two GTA games have been loaded with great graphical style, and San Andreas promises to be no exception. Find out next about some of the new visual frills and features you can expect from the forthcoming game--in addition to what you can expect from the game's audio.
The graphics in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas are shaping up to be ambitious, even by GTA standards. From a top-level perspective, Rockstar tells us that the game will be pushing 35 to 50 percent more polygons than its predecessors, depending on where you are. The game's draw distance is also being tweaked to reduce pop-up. As a result, you'll be able to see roughly two times as far as you could in Vice City--when in one of the three major metropolises in the game--and you'll be able to see up to four times farther when in the countryside. Drilling down a bit, we can say that the character models and animations have been improved considerably over the previous games thanks to much-more-intricate skeletal-animation systems that show a broader range of motion.
In fact, you can actually watch CJ as he chews gum. The improved game detail nicely complements the food mechanic, because CJ's model will change throughout the course of the game to reflect his condition. Besides subtly changing CJ's weight on the fly, the character model for him will also reflect whatever you end up deciding to change on him, be it his clothes, hairstyle, or whatever else. Furthermore, the environments have also been improved by incorporating various amounts of detail that range from artful effects, such as wind that causes the palm trees in Los Santos to sway, to more noticeable things, such as more-interactive elements in the environments, like billboards that you can send your car crashing through.
Perhaps the biggest new aspect of the game's visuals, and one that gives San Andreas an impressive layer of graphical polish, is the new lighting system. The new lighting system gives the visuals a richer and more-varied texture than the previous entries in the series offered. Lighting is used to give the state of San Andreas many different atmospheres to set the mood for each major area. As a result, the lighting in downtown Los Santos will differ from the lighting in the open countryside, which will be very different from the artificial glare of Las Venturas, for example. The specific lighting schemes will take into account various factors for each city. For example, Los Santos is being designed to reflect the lighting environment of Los Angeles. Due to the smog in the air, you'll find dramatic sunsets. In San Fierro, the dynamic weather will run the gamut from clear, blue skies to fog and rain. The Las Venturas strip will re-create the blistering heat of the desert with shimmering heat waves that come from the ground.
To help flesh out the new system, every item in the game is being modeled for both day and night. The team's goal is to have shadows and textures that are unique to each item at specific times of day. Cars will look different from day to night. Shadows will change with the time of day, too. As for the game's style, San Andreas looks to refine the cinematic presentation the series has pioneered by featuring nicely framed cinemas and in-game blacking. Furthermore, Rockstar North's art posse has done a good job of re-creating the sparse urban feel of house interiors. And as far as the game's frame rate goes, what we've seen so far is fairly solid, although we did see some frame rate hiccups similar to those in past 3D GTA games. How much these will be addressed remains to be seen. At any rate, we'll be curious to see how the aging PlayStation 2 hardware finally ends up handling Rockstar North's clearly ambitious goals for the game.
Given that the version of the game we've seen so far is still a work in progress, it's been hard to draw a bead on the quality of the audio. The rumor mill has been cranking on just who will be voicing whom in San Andreas. It seems clear that, in the wake of Vice City's savvy use of notable Hollywood talent, San Andreas will also have plenty of celebrity talent in the ranks of its voice actors. (Well, that and the fact that every rapper on both coasts has expressed more than a little interest in appearing in the game.) But we'll have to wait a little longer before that information is revealed. Judging from the placeholder voice we've heard so far, though, it seems clear that Rockstar is taking the same attitude that it took in its previous offerings here. The game will feature a large and talkative cast, as well as a robust array of ambient sound, to bring its unique world to life.
Read on to learn what we know so far about San Andreas' musical score, in addition to our final thoughts on what's certainly going to be the biggest GTA game yet.
The other hot topic regarding San Andreas' audio obviously involves the game's soundtrack. While Rockstar reps confirmed that the various radio stations would again return in San Andreas, details on what exactly they are and what they'll be playing are still scarce. We can, at least, confirm that the game will follow the approach taken by Vice City, which incorporated lots and lots of licensed music. Specific details will be revealed in the coming weeks and months as Rockstar locks down its musical roster. Considering the game's theme, we'd view it as a crime not to have some N.W.A. and Public Enemy in the mix, but time will tell. Incidentally, Rockstar has clarified that, despite San Andreas' superficially hip-hop trappings, the game's soundtrack will feature a full range of early '90s music. So expect to hear rock, alternative, and other types of genres, in addition to rap and R&B.
While all this sounds well and good, how does it all come together in the actual game? Not too long ago, we had a chance to see a demo of the game for ourselves during a visit to Rockstar's New York offices. The demo gave us brief looks at three successive episodes that took place early on in CJ's adventures. The first chapter we saw, Menace, focused on CJ as he headed out with his friend, Ryder, to teach the local pizza parlor owner a lesson after he washed the Orange Grove gang-graffiti tags off the side of his building. The demo showed off the ability to take on side trips while on a mission, because CJ stopped in for a haircut before wreaking havoc at the pizza parlor.
The next chapter, Drive-By, found CJ meeting up with his old gang, Ryder, Sweet (CJ's brother), and his old friend, Smoke. The quartet, comprising the heads of the Orange Grove Families, decided that it was time to make its presence known. To do so, the four headed out to say "Hello!" with a drive-by of a rival gang, the Ballas. This chapter was more straightforward, and it offered a focused look at the four-man drive-by mechanic and how the artificial intelligence handled the other characters. Sure enough, the gun-packing thugs were able to draw beads on nearby foes, while you--as CJ--had to concentrate on driving.
The final chapter we saw, Reuniting the Families, was the most ambitious of the three chapters, and it found CJ's crew attempting to meet with the different factions from within the Orange Grove Families to get them to see that they were all in the same gang. Unfortunately--perhaps due to their lack of a catchy theme song featuring an all-star cast of rappers--all hell broke loose, because the police were informed of the meeting and invariably descended on the hotel where the gathering was taking place. The level began with CJ on foot, who was running to the hotel in search of Sweet, who was trapped by the raiders. The sequence climactically concluded with an intense rail-shooting segment that saw the crew trying to escape from a horde of police. The indoor sequence was particularly interesting, because it was there that we got to see the Manhunt-style aiming and shooting mechanic in action.
The chapters all seemed to play out well, and they maintained the look and flow that we've seen in previous GTA games. Each chapter offered a taste of some of the different styles of action San Andreas will offer. Of course, though, it now depends on how well all these many, many elements come together. And there's still so much to the game that we don't know for certain. How will house break-ins work? Will you be able to spray graffiti? What other types of vehicles can we expect to see? What kind of gambling will we be in store for in Las Venturas? So many open questions...
The Verdict So Far
From what we've seen so far, GTA: San Andreas is shaping up to be the most ambitious entry in an already-bold series that has single-handedly changed the face of gaming. The ambitious approach the team is taking appears to be expanding on all the right things. The new mission structure, combat mechanic, character interaction, and carjacking systems are all looking like the collective parts of a solid evolution for the series' polished and uncompromisingly fun gameplay.
Meanwhile, the addition of some unexpected twists--such as the food and workout systems--are intriguing and leave us cautiously optimistic. We'll admit to being a little skeptical as to how well the food part will mesh with the rest of the gameplay--especially given how it could affect pacing--we're still keeping an open mind. After all, if Rockstar North has proven anything over the course of the series, it's that it has a knack for making things work. Although this is it for today's look at Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, come back for more next week when we look at another aspect of the game while we impatiently wait for its October release for the PlayStation 2.