Oh, let’s be honest, one of these games was always going to get in here. To be honest, I’ve not played Vice City so it was always going to be between the “original” Grand Theft Auto 3 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I went for the latter, so you’re probably either cheering me or calling me a fool.
It’s really a bit pointless going over the details of this hugely-popular, highly-regarded and rather controversial series but I’ll give some brief information for anyone who’s been resident on the Moon for the past 15 years: basically, in the GTA games the player controls what used to be known as a “hoodlum” who is given free-reign of a large gaming environment in which you can do pretty-much what you like. There is a series of missions which need to be played to progress and, eventually, beat the game but when these are carried-out is up to the player. The first two GTA games (released 1997 and 1999, respectively) were top-down but since GTA 3 the series has been in 3D. GTA: San Andreas was based around the GTA 3 game-engine (as was the earlier GTA: Vice City) but adds a whole host of features to its predecessor.
Now, some people prefer GTA 3 for its more straightforward gameplay and lack of gimmicks, and some prefer Vice City because of its atmosphere; I’ve only played GTA 3 and San Andreas of these and SA wins hands-down for me.
The main reason is the sheer size of the game. GTA 3 took place in a single city, San Andreas takes place over a fictional US state consisting of three cities, various towns and a lot of countryside and desert. Whilst GTA 3 felt slightly confined, San Andreas feel liberating – when you get bored of a city you can just drive off into the countryside and start being a public nuisance in small town American, or even just run off into the wilderness; or climb a mountain, it’s really up to you. The GTA games have always been about freedom and SA gives the most freedom the series has seen yet. The fact that it was the first game in the series in which the player was able to swim, making previously off-limits areas into new places to explore expanded that even further; as did the fact you can now fly aeroplanes.
GTA San Andreas is all about the environment, all about the “game” as a plaything where the player can explore and experiment with a virtual environment, creating their own challenges as they wish. The actual mission-based gameplay is, in the main, rather samey and the learning-curve is all over the place with rock-hard missions often being followed-up by ridiculously easy ones. But playing GTA is about controlling your own gangster in a cartoonish virtual reality and having fun in ways that you never could in the real world. GTA San Andreas feels like it really understands this – not only because it gives the player such a massive environment to mess around in (and, in contrast to the usual criticisms of this series, many of the most-entertaining features of the game are non-violent), but also because it fills the game with hidden places, special tasks, hidden games and easter eggs to discover. The sheer scope of what’s gone into the game is incredible – it’s possible to still be stumbling across brand-new features after playing for over a year.
If I were asked to name negatives, I’d say that the storyline is perhaps too involved compared to the leaner, more game-suited narrative of GTA 3, and that the protagonist is perhaps too humanised compared to the nameless, mute thug of the original game who never seemed so out-of-character when he was bouncing pedestrians off his bonnet. But those are minor criticisms. GTA San Andreas, whether you approve of the violence or not (and, it must be remembered, it’s all very cartoonish) is, and always shall be, a terrific game.