Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Hands-On Impressions - PC First Look

We get our hands dirty with the upcoming PC version of the extremely popular game about a life of crime.


By now, you've probably heard of Grand Theft Auto in some form or another. You may have played the original 2D top-down games that first appeared on the PC, but you're probably most familiar with the series after it became a breakout success on the PlayStation 2 console with the fully 3D, free-roaming Grand Theft Auto III, which was followed by Vice City. So you'll know that the Grand Theft Auto series covers the subject of living a life of dramatized violent crime, complete with carjacking, gang wars, and shoot-outs.

The sprawling, action-packed San Andreas is coming to a PC near you very soon, complete with hip-hop soundtrack.
The sprawling, action-packed San Andreas is coming to a PC near you very soon, complete with hip-hop soundtrack.

And if you're familiar with the original PlayStation 2 version of San Andreas, you'll know that it took the huge step of going from modeling a clockwork city full of pedestrians, cops, thugs, and other inner-city lowlifes to modeling an entire state. The state of San Andreas was loosely modeled after California of the early 1990s, when inner-city gang violence had just started to become a popular topic in motion pictures such as Colors, Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. San Andreas consisted of three major cities--Los Santos (loosely based on Los Angeles), San Fierro (loosely based on San Francisco), and Las Venturas (loosely based on Las Vegas)--as well as the badlands between them and the small townships you could actually traverse and explore.

You did so as Carl Johnson, also known as CJ, a former gang member who returns to his hometown of Los Santos on news of his mother's death. CJ isn't exactly treated to a warm welcome when he gets in, because the crooked Los Santos police department robs him blind and drops him off in rival gang territory before he can finally make it to his old turf. When CJ finally does, his brother, Sweet, and his confidant, Big Smoke, break the even-worse news that their gang has lost control of the streets. Like in the PS2 version, in the PC version, you'll undertake a huge variety of missions that involve anything from using spray paint to graffiti your gang's "tags" on the city to being the wheelman on a rescue mission to save your buddies from a vicious gunfight. But unlike the previous entries in the series, San Andreas also has a huge number of extra features and side games--like changing your appearance, learning to pilot a boat or helicopter, playing basketball, and even dancing--all of which will appear intact in the PC version.

The PC version's control scheme is similar to the PC versions of previous Grand Theft Auto entries. The default control setup uses the W, A, S, and D keys to move and the mouse to shoot; you can use the mousewheel to scroll through your equipped weapons, and you press and hold the right mouse button to enter aiming mode. Like the previous games in the series, this mode affords a lot more control over your aim (as you might expect from a keyboard-and-mouse setup rather than from a controller), though the PS2 version's lock-on targeting (which lets you either focus on individual targets or swap to the next ones) will also be in the PC iteration. The controls seem as responsive as ever on the PC, so running through the streets of Los Santos and pulling out a gun to pop a few caps seems like a breeze. And even though the recent Grand Theft Autos have always featured different handling for different vehicles, they've never had demandingly realistic, punishing physics involved with driving. So, hopping into a nearby vehicle (or "borrowing" one from a local citizen by pressing the "F" key to open the door so you can then drag the driver out into the street) and tearing down the street remains as easy as it was in the previous games.

The PC version won't pack in any new content, but that might be just as well, considering the massive size of San Andreas and its townships, not to mention the hundreds of different missions, vehicles to drive, and side missions and minigames on offer. And, fortunately, the PC version of San Andreas will be better optimized than previous PC ports, and it will feature only a fraction of the loading times from the previous games. You'll only hit a load screen when entering buildings, like the local fast-food chain, Cluckin' Bell (complete with humiliating costumes for employees), anyway. If you want, you can simply drive across the entire length of the state of San Andreas, which is roughly five times the size of Vice City, without hitting a single loading screen.

The PC version will offer a few intriguing nuances, like a twelfth vehicle radio station. Like previous entries in the series, San Andreas will let you tune in to the radio while driving so you can catch up on popular music from the period. In this case, you'll hear R&B and gangsta rap from the 1990s, plus a few extra types of music, including a hilarious country-and-western station. Like with the other games, the music will be cut with humorous mock commercials and appropriately over-the-top disc jockeys. However, the PC version will have an extra station that you can use to play your very own MP3s, whether they're your favorite tunes or your favorite books-on-tape. You'll even be able to arrange your MP3 tracks to play in random order, or you can have them play sequentially--and cut with the in-game radio jingles--which will simulate your own "more music, less talk" station, though without a DJ squawking over your favorite tunes. The PC version will also feature an all-new replay mode for fans of insane car stunts or for those who just plain enjoy pulling off weird stuff with one of the most open-ended games around. The replay mode will let you record brief sequences of gameplay so you can then share the recorded sequences with your friends by posting them online or e-mailing them along.

San Andreas for the PS2 looked good. San Andreas for the PC will look much, much better.
San Andreas for the PS2 looked good. San Andreas for the PC will look much, much better.

And, of course, it probably goes without saying that the PC version of San Andreas will be the best from a technical and graphical standpoint. You can expect to see soft shadows on the character models that lengthen and shorten with the time of day, in addition to a much improved draw distance. For a game as huge as San Andreas, the PS2 version did a decent job of showing what was on the horizon, but the PC version will have a massively improved draw distance that will show much more of the cityscape as you speed through it. Though we were able to only explore Los Santos, even the run-down slums of the city modeled after South Central Los Angeles looked a lot more impressive, thanks to a much more vast skyline with rows of buildings, billboards, and highway signs towering off in the distance.

And as it turns out, developer Rockstar North traditionally creates all its in-game assets using high-resolution textures and character models that end up getting scaled down to fit on consoles, like the PS2. The original high-resolution art will appear in full force in the PC version of San Andreas in the form of much clearer light reflections on much-more-detailed cars, as well as much-more-detailed characters and environments. Subtle nuances, like graffiti art in the slums and tattoos on your character's skin (and logos on your character's clothing), will be much more clearly visible. It's safe to say that as good as San Andreas looked on the PS2, the PC version will look much better in just about every respect. And with any luck, the devoted Grand Theft Auto PC fan community will give the game even more life with modifications. Apparently, existing modifications, like the online Multi Theft Auto, will require some programming adjustments to adapt to San Andreas, but they won't require complete overhauls. Though the game won't ship with mod tools, Rockstar expects that with community support, San Andreas for the PC will keep players busy for a long, long, long time. From what we've seen, we don't have much reason to disagree. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for the PC looks like a better version of an already-great game. It offers more options and better graphics, and the huge world of San Andreas remains intact. The game is scheduled for release in June.

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