It's difficult to remember a time in gaming before Grand Theft Auto, since it's been such an incredibly influential series. But when Grand Theft Auto III hit the scene in 2001, there was nothing out there like it...except for the game's relatively little-known 2D predecessors. GTA III was a remarkable game for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most important of these was the game's urban setting. Here was a game that did the unthinkable: It proved that you didn't need some high-tech futuristic dystopia or some medieval fantasyland to make a memorable setting. A relatively mundane real-world urban environment could be even more exciting than any make-believe, fictional world. As well, this urban setting made it so that GTA III was easy to relate to. It all felt familiar, in a way. No logic leaps were required.
Since then, urban settings in games have become pretty played out, actually. It took a while for the Grand Theft Auto clones to hit the market, but they're here, and their effects undermine Grand Theft Auto's own authenticity. Fortunately, the next game in the GTA series is likely going to make yet another dramatic shift from what you've come to expect. The game's setting of the state of San Andreas, which will purportedly be five times larger than 2002's Vice City, will consist of three different cities (based on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas)...as well as vast stretches of countryside separating them from one another.
"Countryside." Say it aloud, and listen to the lack of excitement in your voice. No, it doesn't sound exciting or interesting at all? Hardly any games take place out in the countryside. With good reason, right? Nothing happens out there. It's flat. It's boring. It's empty. There's nothing to do...right?
But we're talking about Grand Theft Auto here--the series that took everyday humdrum tedium and turned it into one of the greatest gameworlds ever. With this in mind, we recently paid a visit to Rockstar Games for a firsthand look at Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' new countryside environments and corresponding gameplay elements. We were skeptical, since we had trouble imagining how something like this could possibly stand as an exciting, new component of what's still going to be known as an urban-themed game. Yet we left the meeting more excited for San Andreas than ever. If you're having trouble imagining what the wild outdoors can do for Grand Theft Auto, we're here to set the record straight.
If the crime-infested cities of San Andreas call to mind movies like Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society, the countryside will hearken back to Thelma & Louise and Deliverance. If you've never seen these movies, the point is, the game will retain its edge inside and outside of the metropolis. We got a chance to see a good chunk of San Andreas' countryside (which, in total, should be about 50 percent of San Andreas' entire landmass) and definitely got a good feel for the distinctively quaint-yet-dark style that the developers are going for here.
The countryside will be scattered with a dozen small towns, each with its own local populace. These are simpler folk, many of whom are clad in overalls or can be seen walking with their spouses hand in hand. The countryside includes all sorts of new vehicles you'd expect to see out in the boondocks but that would look out of place in the big city. We're talking RVs, ATVs, monster trucks, mountain bikes, tractors...even bulldozers.
The countryside will put San Andreas' stifling cityscapes into perspective. These cities don't exist in a vacuum; they're part of a bigger picture. And the bigger picture of San Andreas, the game, is this: Despite appearances, San Andreas is not just about early '90s thug life. The urban hip-hop thing's been done top to bottom already. Rockstar prides itself on staying ahead of the curve and being a leader in defining style and trends in gaming rather than being a follower. The all-encompassing style of San Andreas ought to put that reputation to the test. Learn more about the fringes of San Andreas next.
One of the interesting aspects of San Andreas' countryside is that it gives the developers license to get away from the flat urban sprawl the GTA series is known for. Case in point: Consider Mt. Chiliad, a San Andreas landmark that reaches an elevation of a good half-mile. We got a chance to see CJ, San Andreas' makeshift protagonist, bike his way up this mountain so that he could peer off the side of it. The increased draw distance of San Andreas--which is four times greater than that of Vice City--is perhaps most apparent from this point, because it's possible to see way out on the horizon, which is dotted with evergreen trees. The expansiveness of the outdoor environments seems like a refreshing change from the density of the city--and it represents a dramatic contrast, since the city really is never going to be too far away from the country.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the most impressive part of the demonstration was not so much any aspect of the countryside itself, but it was what happened as CJ drove (on a new motorcycle called the Wayfarer, which was reminiscent of a Honda Gold Wing) from the countryside and into the heart of Los Santos, San Andreas' LA-style capital city. Remember, this game will have no interruptions caused by loading times as you're cruising around the state, so you'll be able to drive for miles and miles without being taken out of the experience of the game.
It's one thing to read about this expansiveness, but it's quite another thing to actually see it. As the sky fills with smog and denser and denser networks of electrical wires--in addition to more and more traffic--a pretty amazing shift occurs. If you've ever driven cross-state or cross-country, you know the feeling, and GTA: San Andreas seems to capture it very well. One of the things that's always been great about Grand Theft Auto is the sense of escapism that the games provide. In essence, the world becomes your playground. San Andreas seems like it will take this notion one step further by letting you get away from it all even in the context of the game itself.
While the new towns and simple folk out in the countryside looked like they could offer up some promising gameplay experiences, we have to admit that the new vehicles are what got us the most excited. The new ATV featured the sort of bouncy suspension and throaty engine noise that distinguishes the real-world vehicle, only it's much faster here than in real life. CJ can easily catch air on this thing, and it just looks like great fun to drive. The physics for it look distinctly different from other vehicles, especially since CJ can do a lot of motorcycle-style stunts on the ATV. However, it does boast the handling of a small truck.
Speaking of trucks...the new monster truck handles differently from the smaller varieties, let's just say. This behemoth features four-wheel steering and independent suspension and is capable of pulling some wild donuts as you're skidding around on the dirt. You can just imagine the sorts of havoc you could wreak in a vehicle of this size. Rockstar reps used the monster truck to demonstrate the range of styles that the game would eventually capture by skidding around in the forest while listening to hard rock in an American flag-emblazoned monster truck that hardly suggests the hip-hop theme that San Andreas is already well known for. What is this? Grand Theft Auto: Hicksville? At any rate, it's very cool.
We didn't get a chance to see it, but Rockstar also gave us some new details about the bulldozer, which will feature new physics of its own, including rear-wheel steering, for one thing. The front wheels are locked, so you'll have to get used to some pretty unusual mechanics to get a handle on this beast. Its plow will be fully functional via the right analog stick, so you'll be able to use it...to smash stuff, of course, or to flip cars and stuff like that. The world of the game will also be filled with many more breakable objects, which should make bulldozer rampages that much more interesting.
The countryside won't just be about joyriding, of course. The plot of the game will send CJ out of the city and in to the woods with good reason. Read on to find out what types of things he'll have to do while outside the reach of the long arm of the law.
Flying the Friendly Skies
We got to see one story mission out in the wilderness in which CJ (who's apparently been blackmailed at this point in the plot) needed to hunt down a particular individual who was in witness protection. CJ then needed to take the man out. Finally, he had to snap a photo as evidence of his work. The "protection" part of witness protection, in this case, included several FBI goons, who CJ was able to take out with dual-wielded pistols (predictable yet new to San Andreas, nonetheless). The witness, at this point, bails, which triggers a high-speed chase down Mt. Chiliad, with CJ trying to spray the guy's car with Uzi fire from behind the handlebars of his BMX. The dust that was kicked up by the getaway car made pursuit difficult, and, in fact, CJ ended up blowing up the car rather than disabling it. As a result, the witness perished in the explosion, thus leaving behind insufficient evidence. Mission failed. But, man, that's a pretty cool way to fail a mission.
There was lots of other cool stuff to see in the countryside. Some always-interesting signage adorned the town streets, and we spotted other vehicles, like a police truck, lurking around. And we also got to see the new-and-improved flyable Dodo prop plane in action. Now there's full-on, fully implemented flight in San Andreas, and there will be no better way to cross the state than in one of these planes. The Dodo's handling looked pretty squirrelly but very realistic--like its sound effects. We were left wondering what other types of winged vehicles might be hidden in the game. (Bring on the stealth bomber!) At any rate, the Dodo again demonstrated the sheer scale of San Andreas' landmass, which obviously appears much greater than previous games. Yet, what we learned from seeing the details in the countryside is that it won't just be empty expanse. The sorts of interesting incidental events that make the world of Grand Theft Auto so entertaining are going to be out there as well.
It's worth mentioning some of the technical details that have evidently gone into San Andreas. You've seen screenshots of the game, which feature GTA's unmistakable art style...but seeing the game in action really does go to show that this game looks a lot better than Vice City, by comparison. There really is a lot more detail going on, and characters and animations generally look more vibrant and lifelike. Vehicle physics for the new types of rides are a joy to behold, and the improved draw distance and eliminated loading times make for differences that may seem subtle yet actually have a rather profound effect on gameplay. We also noted that all the sound effects in the game, for weapons and such, seem to be new--and very loud. If you've ever played Manhunt, then you know Rockstar North is capable of some very hard-hitting audio, and you can expect to hear more along these same lines in San Andreas. The game will also incorporate Manhunt's blocking system and more-advanced hand-to-hand combat. Additionally, you can also expect lots and lots of new jacking moves. The best one we saw was when CJ delivered a smashing backfist to an unfortunate soul who was riding a Wayfarer. Thanks for the ride, chump.
Rockstar's revealed other details to us, such as how you'll be able to find and use lots of new weapons in San Andreas. We spotted a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and we're also told that a shovel will be available, replete with the satisfying "klunk" sound you'd expect. Planes, which include the Dodo as well as the new crop duster, will feature a new type of radar, allowing you to easily gauge your altitude. Mountain biking won't just be for fun, but it'll be for competition, so expect a downhill race to be one of the game's new driving challenges. Also, fires will break out in San Andreas from time to time, and CJ will be able to extinguish them with the proper equipment. It's clear that Rockstar North just keeps layering more and more detail into this game, and it's definitely making all of this detail fit together.
Speaking of details, what about your threads? Whether you're cruising the streets of Los Santos or going for a drive in the country, you'll naturally want to look your best. Keep reading to find out how CJ will suit up with style.
Shop Till You Drop
Previous games in the Grand Theft Auto series have placed little emphasis on your characters' clothing. As Tommy Vercetti, you could don only a few alternate outfits that were scattered strategically around town, while GTA III's nameless antihero conducted all of his dirty business in the same drab, unassuming garb. No longer is this the case, because San Andreas will give you plenty of options for mixing and matching clothing and hairstyles to achieve the look that makes the ladies swoon and your enemies shrink in fear.
Speaking of your enemies, you'll have to take them into consideration when you select the style and coloring of your clothes. Gang colors will play a large part in your relations with other people in the game, because they'll help identify you to other members of your own crew who will help you out in a tight spot. But be warned, because flashing your colors will also draw the unwanted attention of the police and--even worse--members of other gangs. Thus, you'll have to walk the line between dressing out and playing it safe if you want to get by on the mean streets of Los Santos and San Andreas' other cities. Fortunately, you'll have plenty of places to shop, so scoring the perfect duds will be easy.
At the beginning of the game, CJ will start out wearing only a basic T-shirt and a pair of pants, but, naturally, you'll want to style up as soon as you gain notoriety. Binco is the first clothing store you'll visit, because it's just a few blocks from the Orange Grove Families territory that you'll use as a base, and because it's a discount store that will sell you some functional threads on the cheap. You won't find Los Santos' flashier fashions at Binco, but you will be able to get your gang colors without outlaying a massive stack of cash. What's more, folks from around the way will gain more respect for you once you've outfitted yourself in a style they're familiar with.
Binco is for the aspiring thug on a budget. SubUrban is where you go when you've made it. You'll want to take CJ over to SubUrban for some classier hip-hop fashions once you've got a bit more disposable income to work with. Of course, if you're plying your street trade properly, that kind of cash should come naturally. People will respect you more when you're clad in gear from SubUrban, which carries brands such as Base 5 and Mercury, than when they see you wearing the cheaper stuff peddled at Binco. The items at SubUrban come at a price, so you may only be able to afford one or two pieces at first. But keep earning green and you'll soon be wearing only the finest fashions.
This is the athletic-themed store that you'll go to when you've got plenty of cash, and you've trained CJ until he's fit and muscled. The stuff you'll find in ProLaps is quite pricey, and it's the place where you'll find jerseys, designer tennis shoes, shorts, hats, and other sports-related gear. The mainstream clothing for sale in ProLaps will help you downplay your gang ties--if you want it to do so--or you can just don it to show off your finely honed physique. ProLaps proves how in-depth Rockstar is getting with San Andreas' clothing system. You can literally make CJ look like a professional basketball player if you want to.
Clothes may make the man, but CJ's hair will need tending to as well if you want to complete your look. We've reported previously that you'll be able to visit places like Reece's Barbershop to touch up your fade, and now we've learned that there is an assortment of hairstyles that you'll have access to, which includes cornrows, an afro, a shaved head, and even a finely Jheri-curled coiffure. And just like your clothing, your hairstyle will play a large part in the way people--both women and men--react to your presence.
By all indications, Rockstar North is cramming an incredible amount of content into this game, so we'll just have to see how it all fits together. GTA: San Andreas superficially resembles other hip-hop-inspired games, but it will clearly have a lot more to it than most of those other games. Based on what we've seen of the countryside elements in action, we just can't wait to get our hands on the game. The new vehicles alone look like a lot of fun, and the new countryside environments present new types of terrain to traverse, which should certainly be interesting. We'll continue bringing you more about GTA: San Andreas as we lead up to the game's October release.