As South Africa enters its 21-day lockdown in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus, it has left many civilians in the isolation of their homes. Many see this as a great opportunity to spend quality time with some family and loved ones, while others cherish diving into forms of entertainment to occupy their time and pass the weeks (when not working remotely, in that case). To cushion some of the tedium, Nexus has decided to create a daily feature in which we recommend games of varying lengths and content that could pass the time. Our ninth recommendation in Lockdown Gaming takes us back to Grove Street, home, with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
In the spirit of Grand Theft Auto's numerous controversies, I'd like to issue a warning that a lot of the opinions in this article will be quite unpopular - especially pointed at the differences between the new GTA experiences, and the old. That's not to say that I dislike the new, but I'll do my best to explain why I think the GTA series' golden years were far behind the release date of Grand Theft Auto V. And it all started with a little game called Grand Theft Auto III.
In the early 2000s, a small developer named Rockstar Games had exploded onto the scene with the release of Grand Theft Auto III, which many consider to be a groundbreaking video game in open world design - a title well earned. Before then, few games (like Shenmue) had really embraced the idea of 3D open world environments, but Grand Theft Auto III managed to achieve success beyond Sega's own innovative series at the time - well, that and Shenmue's initial launch on the less-successful Dreamcast compared to Grand Theft Auto III's launch on the popular PlayStation 2 meant that Rockstar's open world had a greater slingshot to fame.
In the early to mid-2000s, Rockstar Games were suddenly thrust into the forefront of being some of the most innovative and daring developers of the time. It didn't just stop at Grand Theft Auto either. Whether it came to extreme violence of Manhunt, the satirical script of Bully, or the open world shenanigans of the highly enjoyable Midnight Club racing series, Rockstar were pushing boundaries that got them a lot of praise and into a lot of trouble as well. It wasn't until the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas did Rockstar strike gold with what many consider to be their magnum opus, but also the most notorious release in their history.
When Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas released, to say it was a big deal would be a massive understatement. Essentially, the game did to gaming back then what Red Dead Redemption 2 managed to do right now - earn unprecedented critical and commercial success very quickly, and even broke its own records. San Andreas was also the first game in the series to not just take place in one city, but an entire state. Like Liberty City's New York inspiration or Vice City's Miami neon-lit streets, San Andreas combined three major cities: Los Santos (Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Francisco), and Las Venturas (Las Vegas). Each major city was divided by stretches of countryside, desert, or forests.
As far as open world games went at the time, San Andreas took massive leaps ahead of the competition to secure itself as one of the largest, and most innovative, worlds in all of gaming. Sure, it has since been triumphed now by bigger worlds like Skyrim, The Witcher 3, or any Just Cause game, but it's safe to assume that even those games simply wouldn't exist had it not been for San Andreas' touch of ingenuity in world design. San Andreas, as a state, brought diversity between each environment that was quite authentic. Each part of the massive map felt unique, with its own atmosphere and distinct look and feel. That was almost unheard of back on the PS2, and in some cases with open world games today, is still unheard of.
That brings me to my biggest problem with the newest Grand Theft Auto games, and the problems stretch beyond just open world design. San Andreas was a milestone not just for its world, but story and characters too. You'd have to walk a thousand miles to find someone who has not at least heard of CJ, Sweet, Big Smoke, Ryder, or Officer Tenpenny. The camaraderie of the Grove Street gang certainly paved the way for other games to have groups of interesting characters, each with their own identities and ideals, converse as a close-knit family. A typical example of this now would be Final Fantasy XV and Noctis' travelling merry band. Or perhaps Borderlands' groups of bumbling characters.
When all of these factors combined, they created a masterpiece of game design and writing in San Andreas - something that I personally felt Grand Theft Auto V sorely lacked. It did have its great aspects, but for the most part, GTA V's characters felt shallow and almost one-note in comparison to San Andreas' more fleshed out, relatable, and troubled characters. The quality of writing between then and now is clear as day, though I would've loved if they had just fleshed out GTA V's own central group just a little more. Instead, with three playable characters, the story lost a bit of focus and didn't quite stick the landing as memorably as CJ (or any singular GTA protagonist of old, like Tommy Vercetti).
The other aspect that I felt San Andreas absolutely nailed is power escalation. Where GTA V presented elaborate heists that may similarly be closer in tone to the film Heat, San Andreas presented a crime epic that could easily draw film similarities to the likes of Goodfellas or The Godfather. CJ starts off as a small-time thief in Los Santos before being taken on a whirlwind of an odyssey spanning the entire state, from run-ins with the rich and famous in San Fierro to essentially running the criminal underworld of Las Venturas. CJ was a character that clearly had solid character and status progression, a power fantasy that boosted San Andreas into classic territory. To add to it, it also honed in on being a touching drama, and a tale of betrayal and revenge that was absolutely mind-blowing for video game writing at the time.
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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