GTA: San Andreas Turns 15 Today, So I Decided to Finally Play It

GTA: San Andreas Turns 15 Today, So I Decided to Finally Play It

Matt Lorrigan

Fifteen years ago today, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas launched to universal critical acclaim and commercial success. Everyone remembers the first time they stepped into the world of San Andreas, and this week the Resero office has been abuzz with tales of bigfoot and jetpacks and incredible radio stations. All the while I’ve stayed silent, sweat pouring down my brow as I laugh at references I don’t understand, because I have a shameful secret that would surely lose me my job - I’ve never played San Andreas. In fact, I’ve never really played a GTA game (I have been reliably informed that Chinatown Wars on the Nintendo DS does not count). I was ten when it came out! I wasn’t allowed to play such a violent game, and the very few memories I have of watching over a friend’s shoulder as he played it after school are hazy at best these days.

But I refuse to let this omission in my gaming history define me. So, with the fifteenth anniversary of the game looming, I leapt into action - I borrowed a copy of the game and an OG Xbox (in the absence of a PS2) to play it on, and got stuck into GTA San Andreas for the very first time to see what all the fuss was about.

And you know what - a lot of the game holds up really well. The soundtrack is absolutely cracking, and the quality of the voice acting is good enough to paper over the fact that the characters' faces look like Picasso had been hired while he was going through a phase of only painting in pinks and browns. In fact, the character animations and dialogue are so cartoonishly exaggerated, and yet grounded in the violent world of Los Santos, that you do start to grow very attached to each and every flat-faced member of the Grove Street gang.

No one is more well-realised than protagonist Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson. Everything you do in San Andreas brings you closer to understanding CJ himself. You learn about his relationships, the gangs and the landmarks of Los Santos at the same time that Carl is relearning them. He’s been gone a long time and things have changed, which means that everything that’s new to you is at least a little new to CJ himself. And no matter how you play the game, you’re roleplaying as CJ. Maybe you’ll help a friend out, then cruise around for a bit, go to the gym or get a burger. But whatever happens, once you run out of things to do, you’ll go to see your friends. I wasn’t going to pick up the next mission, I didn’t know what the story had in store for me. I just drove to a mate’s house to see what was happening, and the story escalates from there.

There are some gameplay systems that haven’t aged quite as well. While the driving is still excellent fun, the gunplay bizarrely feels like it had been designed for a console without analogue sticks. Failing a mission doesn’t allow you to immediately restart, and you have to drive all the way back to where the mission begins to try again. This was annoying the first time round and infuriating by the fifth try - and failing is not uncommon, with most missions having several very strict failure conditions (which I have been told still persists in GTA games to this day). The more realistic sim elements of the game in general seem to be running perpendicular to how much fun I was having. Dying in a firefight during a mission and then leaving hospital with all my weapons gone nearly made me stop playing a few times, and the weird Sims-style statistic bars weren’t much more than a distracting gimmick.

But maybe San Andreas wouldn’t be the game it is without the gimmicks. Rockstar threw everything they could possibly think of into this game - RPG elements, their biggest open world, mad sidequests, Samuel L. Jackson! The massive sales of GTA 3 and Vice City, and the lower cost of development compared to modern titles, meant they had the freedom to experiment with what a player could do. The answer, it turned out, was nearly everything. Hijack a train, crash a plane, steal a jetpack; San Andreas was the most fun and ridiculous Grand Theft Auto game when it came out. GTA IV and V went down the more realistic route, and it could be argued that GTA has never been quite as silly or irreverent as it was in San Andreas. For a long time, open worlds have been judged by the size and scope of what you could do, and you could argue that this ‘bigger is better’ approach began here.

Despite some of the niggles and frustrations I faced, I’ve had a great time with San Andreas. I’m slowly but surely learning the roads of Los Santos, and I can’t help but smile when I drive round a corner and realise I can see Grove Street. I’m finding new shortcuts through alleyways, I know the bridges I need to avoid if I don’t want to take the long route, and I know where my friends are when I’m bored. When I’m playing San Andreas, I’m exisiting in its world, and the fact that I’m doing this in a game that’s 15 years old is quite incredible.

So many of the staples of modern open-world games stem from Rockstar’s first three attempts in 3D. When even some modern titles don’t create a sense of place as well as San Andreas does, it’s really no wonder that these games are so highly regarded by fans. I’m looking forward to cracking on with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas this weekend and hanging out with the Grove Street gang, who I assume will definitely not betray me in any way. I might even consider starting GTA V for the first time - I hear it’s quite good!

  • [Comment deleted]
  • It's just a word, get over it.
  • It ain't no Vice City.
  • @2 No it's not, its better than Vice City.
  • @3 Actually imo if both games got a remake to the current graphical level of gta 5 models ,physics,animations etc i would so totally go with Vice City ...
  • Hot take, I couldn't really get into San Andreas. I liked Vice City much more, despite that San Andreas was more refined.
  • Shame on you for giving it a try ONLY 15 years later after its release also, this newsletter should have the title "when you have currently nothing else to play or to post about..."
  • Never played it either, and doubt I can now that games have much better controls and graphics.
  • Never got to play this because i was unemployed at the time and could not get all the games i wanted. Without even trying this, i feel nothing could top Vice City.
  • IMHO, out of the three, GTA3 had the best city layout and atmosphere, VC had the best story and missions and San Andreas had the best mechanics (gang turfs, working out, customization).
  • @8 I understand better controls. But because games have better graphics these days? Wheres the appreciation of video games.....
  • @4 I'm with you on that. San Andreas was just remarkable at the time. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Vice City and it's missions and soundtrack. I took more to San Andreas. The soundtrack for that was phenomenal and I felt more immersed in that world. I wouldn't mind if they remade both games. It would sell like crazy.
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