I've finally been playing Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas so here's some impressions

First off this is much better than GTA:Vice City. I couldn't get into Vice City. For one the world was boring. It was based on Florida and Florida is like the flattest state in the union so the city itself was not as interesting as GTA3. Then, the music really made GTA3 for me and although I love 80s music in Vice City there just wasn't enough variety. I really liked putting on Techno in a sports car in GTA3 for instance, it made me feel like going fast and there really was no equivalent in Vice City.

Well, I'm happy to stay much of that is fixed in GTA:SA. It's based on Los Angeles, San Fransisco and Las Vegas, the first part of the game taking place in the LA like area and LA actually has hills so it's much more interesting.

On top of that, they nailed LA. While it's not actually LA they did a great job of reproducing its feel. Without reading the map just driving around I know exactly where I am.  Hey, I'm driving down the Sunset Strip or, hey, I'm in Santa Monica now.  They've got the port, Redondo Beach, Venice, Santa Monica, Downtown, Hollywood, Hollywood Hills, East LA, West LA, and a bunch of other places.  It's funny because "True Crimes : Streets of LA" actually used an LA map but True Crimes utterly failed to make it feel like LA. GTA:SA completely succeeds in that respect. Some of the effects are overboard like the red sunsets and the blinding sun in general but those are actual LA experiences so they do work.

The game is HUGE. I'm guessing the map is 9 times as big as GTA3. The first island alone seems as big as all of GTA3's 3 islands combined. Half the island is city, another half is country (behind the Hollywood hills) with small country towns, truckers and tractors etc. On top of which they've added a zillion little side games and toys. You can buy different clothing and accessories. You can get various haircuts and tattoos. You can get a car and then customize every part of the both for performance (engine, tires, etc) and for looks (paint job, bumpers, etc.). There is at least one working video game. You see the game in various stores, bars etc and you can walk up and play. There is target practice at the gun range. You can go in many more buildings than before to stealth steel stuff.  You can even play 2 players here and there. 

There are also stats. The more you drive the higher your driving skill goes. I believe the cars get easier to handle the higher your driving skill becomes. The more you run or workout (there is a workout mini game) the more stamina you have (you can run further without getting tired). The more you use your guns the easier they get to aim. If you can also eat and get fat and you can workout and lose weight. You can even get girlfriends and go on dates and kiss.

It all sounds great. Unfortunately it's just not working for me because it doesn't add up to freedom, based on the design it actually adds up to tedium 😞. For example, based on how slow my driving skill is going up I'd guess I'd have to play for 200 hours before I'd get close to having a top driving skill. Same with all the other skills. Feeling like I have to visit the girlfriends every few mission otherwise the relationship meter for them starts falling. Don't eat and health goes down, eat too much and you get fat. It's interesting but it's not actually fun to have to deal with so much stuff.

The missions are more varied than before which is good, there are stealth MGS type levels for example, but they are also too hard which is bad or maybe hard is not the word, the are long and the odds of surviving low and if you die you have to start over 2−3 minutes back. In one level you have to first go to a house, pick up your homies, then drive to the jail to pick up a friend, then drive him to some guys house who rapped him in prison, then chase the guy for 2 minutes on motorcycle (if you can't keep up the level ends), when he finally stops he's in front of 3 or 4 fellow gang members who gun you and the guy you just picked up from jail down. If he dies level over, if you die level over. Then, after you've kill him you have to drive the guy you picked up from jail all the way across the city to his new job and then you have to drive all the way back to your house to save! At any point something could happen that will ruin it for you.

It gets worse. They added an interesting feature where the map shows which parts of the city you control and which parts rival gangs control. You have to go to each part of the city and start a gang war (shoot 3 rival gang members on foot). Once the "gang war" starts you have to kill about 20 rival gang members in that area and then it becomes under the control of your gang. It sounds interesting except there are probably 100 areas just on the first map alone and the areas do not stay yours. Every few minutes one of your areas will get attacked and you have to stop everything you are doing and rush over there and defend it. Very interesting and very cool idea but it's not actually fun. As just a built in mission it would probably have been fun, and there are several missions about taking and defending your territory, but as a constant distraction and a long and tedious process it's not so fun.

You also have a respect meter, as it rises you can get more of your own gang members to join you so you can rush over to an area you control, pick up a bunch of gang members and then take them to defend an area and give them commands ala Rainbow Six. Again it's cool but I just don't have the time to do so much stuff.

Oh yea, you can also own property. There are buildings for sale all over the city. In GTA3 you got money for completed missions but in GTA:SA you rarely seem to get money directly. You get money by expanding your territory and by rent on your properties.

If the game was short this might all work but looking at how much time I've spent, seeing all the missions ahead of me, seeing that I'm still on the first island, IMO they really should have made it easier. Instead of being concerned that people would get through the game too fast they should have been concerned that people would get through it at all. Even if it had instant save like most FPS games so that I never had to repeat anything I expect this game would take over 100 hours to play! Without instant save it's going to be more like 200 hours which I just don't have. I also played some Jak 3 recently and one thing they did well is they put check points in the longer missions so if you die you start back somewhere in the middle. It's much less frustrating and the game is big enough that they didn't feel the need to make the missions harder just to extend the game play.

I don't know what the correct balance is. Maybe I'm not the target audience. Kids probably don't mind 200 hour games since they have more free time but then GTA:SA is not supposed to be played by kids.

Update: 2005−08−01

I made it past the frustrating missions and into San Fierro, the San Fransisco based city. From there the game was mostly no harder than GTA3. The gang turf wars turned out not to be an issue because once you get to San Fierro that part of the game turns off. I will say maybe a little more balancing might have been in order. The level it Smoke and chasing the train was a neat idea but incredibly frustrating since you, the player, are not in control. After reading a FAQ I managed to clear it.

I gotta say the game is amazing. I played through San Fierro, there was one very frustrating stage involving a radio controlled plane but at least you could restart the mission immediately. San Fierro did as good a job at recreating the feel of San Francisco as Los Santos did of recreating L.A. which is to say th ey did an Amazing job. All the different parts of the city are represented and of course many major landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the TransAmerica building, Lombard Street and many others.

Having cleared that I made it to the Las Venturas area which is the last major area and represents Las Vegas. Actually it represents kind of the Grand Canyon, desert and Las Vegas combined. I was a little disappointed though, although they do a pretty great job, the desert areas and the suburbs of Las Vegas are especially well done, the downtown area of Las Vegas or the strip was a little disappointing. I guess the problem is power. While they did a great job of reproducing the architecture and stuff, they've got Caesars, Excalibur, Treasure Island, the Luxor, etc, etc, it just is not gawdy and flashy enough to really feel like Vegas. There needs to be about 5 times more people on the streets and every sign needs to be animated and flashing. I'm sure they'll get there next gen.

GTS:SA is by far the best of the 3 I think with GTA:Vice City being the worst. There is just SOOO MUCH stuff in GTA:SA it's amazing. A *short* list of some of the things off the top of my head:

There various fast food restaurants and chains and within those different branches have staff with different attitudes from the "thank you for coming" to the staff that makes fun of you for eating such crappy food. There are strip clubs where you can pay the public dancers or pay for a private dance. There schools to learn things in. A school is generally a series of instruction and tests in the vain of Gran Turismo. One school teaches driving, another school teaches flying including planes, helicoptors and sky diving. There's also boating and motorcycle school. There are casios where all the games inside are playable including video poker, roulette, black jack, slots and others. Then there are all the places to explore. You can go up a 10 story parking garage, bust out on to the roof of the connected building and climb up to the helicoptor pad and steal a helicoptor. You can climb the highest mountain in the game, watch the sunrise and then basejump over the side. You can fly cessnas, bi−planes, WW2 planes, DC3s, Learjets, Seaplanes, helicoptors, and supposedly jetpacks and harrier jets. There are all kinds of cars and motorvehicles to ride from bikes to dirt bikes to motorcylces including Harleys and speed bikes. Everyday cars, classic cars, high end sports cars, farm tractors, bulldozers, jeeps, dune buggys, semi−trucks, busses, wheat threshers, low−riders and tons of others. Low−riders actually have control of their hydrolic suspection so you can make them hop. Drive a semi truck and you can connect it to various trailers. Go to the airport and drive a luggage trailer and connected it to multiple luggage carts. You can drive trains and play Densha−De−Go type of game. There are also all kinds of boats from inflatables to speed boats, patrol boats, hovercraft. It's this kind of variety that makes the GTA series so fun. With so much stuff to do just existing in the world of GTA is fun. You don't have to follow the missions you can just go explore. You never know what you'll find. Visit the truck stop in the middle of the desert. Search a ghost town. Check out the rock quarry where you can actually play submissions involving cranes and bulldozers. There's even an action RTS type of game in one segment. If you earn your driving skills you can start to compete in races. Not street races but actual stadium style races. You can also race BMX bikes, sky dive, be a parking lot attendent, be a truck driver and deliever goods, drive a fire truck and put out fires. It's insane!

If there were any requests, I'd like more resolution to the stories. I haven't finished the game yet but suspect many things will be left unfinshed. In part one I was in a gang in Los Santos but as soon as I made it to San Fierro that has pretty much disappeared. In San Fierro I had a car repair shop run by my sister and her boyfriend, now that I'm in Las Venturas there is no connection to them anymore.

The other is that I'd really REALLY like them to make a Japanese version. Although the game did okay here in Japan it was not a *hit* by any means. The #1 reason is because the localization sucked. About all they did was add subtitles to the cutscenes and change the in−game instruction to Japanese. Unfortunately that doesn't translate one of the most important parts, the radio, which I believe arguably takes the game from mediorce to exceptional. The Japanese don't understand English so they need the radio, all the spoken parts, to be voiced by Japanese DJs in Japanese. I really hope that Rockstar will make either a fully localized Japanese version of GTA:SA −−or−− I hope that their next game will be set in Japan and they will release a Japanese version. I really think the Japanese market needs to be shaken up. A hit on a title as controvesial as GTA would really change things here in Japan but that's not going to happen without a fully localized product.

C++ Serialization Woes