Between 2001 and 2004, Rockstar gave us three fantastic Grand Theft Auto games. We’ve already looked at the highlights of GTA III and the immortal Vice City, but now it’s time to cast our collective eye over the top reasons to still love San Andreas more than a decade since it first hit consoles.
This third 3D GTA game was a major evolution from the two previous instalments, which helped to make it feel like a breath of fresh air. In the same way that Vice City introduced a cool entrepreneurial streak, flight mechanics, and a wide wardrobe, San Andreas graced us with plenty of exciting new features.
At the time, the biggest shift was cultural. While GTA III and Vice City cast us as traditional white Mafioso-types, San Andreas was the first to star an African-American character living in an underprivileged environment. The deeper, more ‘grounded’ roots of the characters’ criminal behaviour, police-corruption, and insight into America’s multicultural society all helped bring a compelling new dimension to the Grand Theft Auto series.
What else did it do so right? Let’s take a look …
The Awesome Mini-games
The Grand Theft Auto experience has always been about freedom and finding ways to amuse yourself in a big, deep sandbox. GTA III took this to another level with the move to a more powerful console, and Vice City added plenty of ways to keep yourself busy, from buying your own cab company (and driving them yourself) to selling drugs from an ice-cream van.
San Andreas, though, raised the bar even higher with its genius mini-games.
One of the simplest and most addictive to play? Pool, of course! Heading down to the local bar and betting some coins on Carl’s skills is a blast, and strong enough to keep you amused for hours on end (though you’ll probably feel the need to stretch your legs and blow people away for a break at some point).
Rhythm-based mini-games are also critical to the San Andreas experience, packing in all the fun and quick-time challenge you would expect of a standalone dance video game. One of these is played from the seat of your lowrider, bouncing to the beat (as awesome as it sounds), while the other takes place in clubs filled with spectators. Sometimes, you’ll have to dance well enough to entertain, and woo, a girlfriend during a date – showing the right moves on the dancefloor can help you get a bigger kiss goodnight.
As the world opens up and you get the chance to enter casinos, you can also play traditional games to win big money.
The beauty of these mini-games is how easily you can lose sight of San Andreas’s core gameplay and story, spending time trying to master these instead of completing the next mission.
Of course, there’s THAT mini-game, too. You know the one we mean. You might not have found a way to play Hot Coffee, but you’re still bound to know what it is.
A Bigger, Deeper, Living World
When Vice City was first released, it felt absolutely gargantuan compared to other GTA games – but San Andreas made it look tiny.
Rockstar gave us a world nearly four times the size of their previous creation (and five times bigger than GTA III’s Liberty City), with a whole new look and feel. While Carl’s story starts in the run-down suburbs, he can go on to explore a massive variety of environments, including the countryside.
For the first time, players could access rural areas and enjoy a little more greenery than we were used to. Playing San Andreas today, this feels a little less innovative in a world of GTA V, Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim, and the rest, but it was mind-blowing at the time. Again, this helped to create a much deeper, more immersive experience few video games could rival.
Carl was also the first GTA character to swim, allowing you to interact with the world in greater depth, while the character-customization options were equally revolutionizary. Tommy Vercetti had a range of outfits to unlock and model, but Carl can visit stores and browse a huge variety of accessories. This introduced a more RPG-style system way beyond Vice City’s, allowing Carl to sport plenty of different hairstyles, tattoos, pieces of jewellery, tops, jeans, hats, and more.
On top of this, you can also improve your skills in various areas, and even gain weight: too much pizza and other junk foods will see Carl pile on the pounds. Luckily, you can work out and shed weight through multiple kinds of exercise down at the gym (this also has an effect on your ‘sex appeal’ rating, too).
For the first time in a GTA video game, San Andreas made you feel like you were really in control of your character, inside and out. This customisation aspect is still a joy today, even on mobile devices.
While gangs played a big role in GTA III and Vice City, Rockstar transformed this in San Andreas.
For a start, there are more gangs of different sizes, but the way in which they act added a bold new mechanic: gang warfare. Carl and his crew can take over new territories from other gangs, following long street-battles consisting of multiple waves. From time to time, though, other gangs will try to take the area by force, meaning Carl and his troops have to defend it – by any means necessary.
You can recruit new members to your crew over time, winning as many as seven followers when your respect level’s maxed-out. Cruising around in a lowrider, with your boys at your side, really makes you feel like you’re someone special.
More Assets to Get You Rich
Like Vice City before it, GTA: San Andreas gives you the chance to make your own way in the world through various ‘legitimate’ businesses. However, Carl has a wider range of investment opportunities at his disposal than Tommy V. ever did.
Carl can buy into Zero RC, the brilliantly-named Wang Cars, Verdant Meadows Airstrip, Vank Hoff Hotel, Roboi’s Food Mart, and the Hippy Shopper, as well as others. Each of these involves different missions and brings their own profits, giving you money on-tap to play with. The more cash you have, the more clothes, accessories, and weapons you can buy, exploring the game to its fullest.
The airstrip is one of the most exciting assets, providing access to a number of aircraft perfect for fast travel across the game’s massive map. Even better, you can parachute from your plane whilst soaring high overhead, and steer Carl down to the middle of a street, guns blazing. No matter how many times you do this, it never fails to be a blast!
Modding your Cars
Before San Andreas, the Grand Theft Auto series allowed you to change your car’s paintwork and have damage repaired, but nothing in the way of upgrades or mods. This is pretty surprising, considering how crucial vehicular-shenanigans are to the series (just look at the title, after all).
Still, Rockstar made upgrading your cars an awesome pastime in San Andreas, with various garages across the map providing new paint jobs, lights, wheels, hydraulics, stereos, spoilers, vents, and more. Making your vehicle not just look different, but perform differently too, was the perfect complement to the overhauled character-customisation system. Being able to create a distinctive, upgraded car helps to make your own playthrough of San Andreas feel unique.
Well, these are our reasons for still loving San Andreas after 12 years – and we didn’t even get around to mentioning the jetpack!
What are your favourite things about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas? Let us know!