Late To The Party: Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, And Why GTA Online Took Over

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I’m coming up towards the end of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas now but I’m going to go ahead and write this LTTP blog about it because I don’t know if I’m going to finish the game.

I have made blog posts in the past about my struggles with GTA games, but I wanted to take one last crack at San Andreas before actually starting the copy of Grand Theft Auto V I bought years ago. I ran into some of the same problems as before and overall I don’t think San Andreas stands the test of time, but from it I also learned some important things about sandbox games which may point to why GTA is so beloved, why Grand Theft Auto Online has taken over its destiny, and what’s wrong with other sandbox games.

I’ll start with my one remaining problem with San Andreas however: I just don’t like the controls. I don’t like how much I have to rely on lock-on during gunfights because the manual aiming system sucks so much, and I’ve gotten killed way too many times when the lock-on doesn’t do what I want it to do. The weird crouching system also makes taking cover nearly impossible in a game that seems to expect it.

In my opinion, in an action game the controls are the foundation upon which everything else is built — the action has to feel good to play in order for everything else in the game to be fun to engage in. That’s just not the case with San Andreas, at least not in 2017. Most of this I chalk up to it being a third person shooter made before Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War established the modern control language for that genre. San Andreas is absolutely dense with systems and gameplay modes and that’s part of why it’s so highly regarded, but because I don’t enjoy the controls, I don’t enjoy any of those systems and modes.

I’ll qualify this by saying I played the PlayStation 2 copy I bought back in 2006 (even back then I thought the controls were extremely wonky). I tried to get the PC version running in the hopes that a mouse and keyboard would alleviate my problems, but after going through the whole modding process you apparently need to go through to get the PC version back to the standards of the PS2 version, It just wouldn’t boot. I might try again, because if I could actually get some good controls going, San Andreas just might be a favorite game of mine.

I at least agree with all the fans in that I think San Andreas has a very well-realized world filled with entertaining characters. The dialogue is well-written, and all the early 90’s licensed music lends itself perfectly to the atmosphere and time period.

I’m especially impressed by how well-constructed the open world is. By 2017 standards San Andreas is a tiny world, but even today it manages to feel massive, with multiple highly distinct regions. Part of that is undoubtedly the fog and very low draw distance, but I think it’s more than that. I think Rockstar perfectly calculated the geography of this game so that each individual location, each city, each small town, each desert, each mountain, feels just isolated enough from everywhere else in the game to feel like its own self-contained world. Traveling from one region to another still imparts the feeling of a long road trip without actually taking that much time. Part of it may also be how the roads are planned out to obscure distance and travel time. Warhorse Studios — currently developing Kindom Come: Deliverance actually pointed out how well Rockstar accomplished this in Red Dead Redemption in a blog post about balancing playability with scale in open-world gamesSan Andreas remains a case study in this area.

What I learned the most from in this attempt at San Andreas though concerns the structure of the game. Before, a huge point of frustration for me was the save system in GTA games. Being terrible at gunfights, I hated having to constantly re-buy weapons and body armor every time I died, and then drive all the way back to retry a mission. Having to constantly dodge cops just added more delays to the situation. Often I would simply reload a save.

This time around I kind of learned to work within the systems and accept GTA as the organic experience it wants you to play. When you think about it, GTA is sort of a roguelike, but it also doesn’t really have a fail state. Upon death you’re meant to build yourself back up. I chose to do so by getting into fights with gangsters to get money and replace my weapons. I learned to use repaint garages to get away from cops, I learned to grab something to eat (or a prostitute) whenever I needed health. Playing within that system reveals where the actual fun of GTA is: it’s in the building of assets and resources through crime. Gradually taking over gang territory and buying up property in an environment built on emergent gameplay elicits a legit sense of accomplishment.

This is the same loop of fun that makes up games like EliteNo Man’s Sky, and Minecraft, which come from the same sandbox game heritage as GTA. In my experience most modern sandbox games don’t really understand this. The only recent one I’ve played that does is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I explained in another blog post that Black Flag’s system of accruing resources through high seas piracy resembled the aforementioned sandbox games and how that is to its benefit. I also think this is why Grand Theft Auto Online grabbed everyone’s attention away from the singleplayer GTA V. I haven’t really played GTAO yet, but from what I understand that whole game is just about gathering more and more stuff through GTA‘s action systems. It gets at the core of why people play this series in the first place.

It also reveals a major weakness in the mainline GTA games, or at least San Andreas: The main story missions might be the weakest part of the game.

The story missions in San Andreas are pretty much all linear affairs. In them you go through a pre-scripted sequence of events that doesn’t utilize the real strengths of the game. Sure they’re used to introduce a lot of interesting tools and systems, but they don’t really use those things as well as the ideas players can come up with. The jetpack missions have you launch out of a silo and later drop onto a train, but none of that was as cool as when, instead of shooting my way through a military installation from ground level to the helicopter pad on the roof, I simply jetpacked my way straight to the roof. Not enough of the missions in San Andreas give you that level of freedom.

This problem has been most acute in Ubisoft’s older open-world games — putting players in sandbox worlds only to later confine them to corridor missions. GTA V‘s bifurcation sounds like a good idea to me, creating two games that can each focus on their strengths. Elite and Minecraft are already examples of the “pure” sandbox game without main story missions at all.

Back to San Andreas, maybe I just have to have been there to fully enjoy the game, but right now I feel the basic control interface at its core is badly outdated, and that this is exacerbated by the impressive number of game mechanics built atop it. Maybe it’s sort of the Arma 3 of its time. Arma 3 is my favorite game right now, but I admit its control interface could be put together FAR better than it currently is. Despite that, I keep playing the game because of how ambitious it is with its level of scale and range of gameplay possibilities compared to everything else out there. Did San Andreas feel similarly ambitious in 2004?

I might make another attempt at the PC version, and I’m probably gonna make an attempt at GTA IV on PC. I just feel like the only barrier between myself and enjoying GTA is actually being able to play the game.

BULLETS:

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3 thoughts on “Late To The Party: Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, And Why GTA Online Took Over

  1. SomeGuyOnTheInternet says:

    You should really try out the PC version, i liked the singleplayer a lot (or maybe that’s because i played it very early in my gaming career hmm)

    Multi Theft Auto seems to have gone over your head entirely? It’s basically GTA:SA with a modified client that allows online multiplayer in the world of San Andreas, player count can be in the order of hundreds on a single server all at once. Everything except single player style NPCs works and it’s fairly popular even today. There are racing/roleplay/shooter/whatever servers and thousands of players ingame.

    It has it’s flaws but it’s basically what GTA5:Online should have been. I’m still pissed they didn’t pick this concept up, guess it’s not as easy to host and not as profitable.

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