If there is one word that comes to mind when playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it’s “ambitious.”
There are so many moving parts and organic systems in play when it comes to Rockstar’s swansong for the PS2 trilogy. I was in awe by how little the developers chose to compromise when it came to create a world this large on 2004 hardware.
I’m even more impressed by how tidy the entire package is. San Andreas is funny, provocative, enriching, immersive, and still a joy to play.
Carl “CJ” Johnson returns to the fictional West Coast state of San Andreas after his mother is murdered. Once there, he re-enters the Grove Street Families gang and gets caught up in the brewing gang wars of urban Los Santos.
Working with corrupt police officers and old gang members, CJ’s life becomes entwined with the dangerous streets that he was so keen to leave behind.
Like any Grand Theft Auto story, San Andreas delivers its tale with an enjoyable mix of pathos and silliness. The intro promises a touching redemption story for the main protagonist, but it’s not long before CJ is back to robbing burger joints and spray painting the walls of Los Santos.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any emotional depth to these characters. Some plot twists genuinely saddened me because of how likable the core cast is. You can expect betrayals and murders alongside the goofy scenarios in San Andreas. And I stayed invested right through to the thrilling climax.
Story missions are a bit more of a mixed bag. In classic GTA style, they usually involve driving somewhere to meet up and cause mischief with one of the side characters.
There are memorable moments to be found here. I grinned at the surreality of lobbing explosive crates off a moving train into a fellow Grove Street member’s tailing car. And I always anticipated missions that involved characters with big personalities like OG Loc or The Truth.
But, there is a mundanity that sets in with the story missions. This is especially true once you start to grow tired of one location.
Fortunately, the story missions are only a skin-deep representation of what San Andreas has to offer. In fact, in many ways, the main dish of the game is its side content.
Where to even start? In San Andreas you can: build up your own gang, complete robberies around the city, search out a variety of collectables, run errands for people, put out fires, work out at the gym, shoot for a high score at the arcade, play basketball, etc.
This is a world that Rockstar wants you to live in. The game is so content-rich, yet so well-organized. Furthermore, the level of chaos in San Andreas is determined by how much anarchy you want there to be.
The game also introduces character stats. I found these to be a great way to connect me with CJ on a deeper mechanical level.
Playing San Andreas in 2019 does expose some outdated design choices in how it controls. Jumping with square feels jarring and the lock-on aiming is serviceable at best, frustrating at worst.
The vehicles are also all over the place. Cars, boats, and planes are a bit too slippery for my liking, but can be mastered with some patience. Motorbikes, on the other hand, are like trying to steer an ostrich through the Amazon. Any mission that relied on a bike had me ripping my hair out and conducting a Google search for training wheels.
Of course, in Grand Theft Auto cheats play a big part in the experience. Being able to summon a tank in the first five minutes of playing filled me an indescribable feeling of power. But, for most of my time playing, I tried to follow the path of fairness.
I still found a lot of beauty in San Andreas’ visuals 15 years on. The lighting is fantastic, with celestial sunsets and moody rain doing wonders to the feeling of immersion. Texture pop-ins and dated character models are signs of the game’s age. But I kept losing myself in the game’s world anyway, because the cities, streets, towns, and wilderness all fit together so thoughtfully.
The licensed soundtrack also adds plenty to the experience. There is clear effort in how each radio station has been structured, and the song selection remains impressive in quantity and quality. I would often sit in my car waiting for a song to end before engaging with a mission simply because it was so catchy.
There is a reason Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has sold tens of millions of copies in its lifetime. It’s such a diverse game that executes on all of its ideas, from a memorable story to a brimming, organic world.
Fifteen years has exposed a few cracks in the game’s controls and visuals. But when so much has aged this well, it’s hard not to join the millions who already sing its praises.