I Played GTA San Andreas Nearly 20 Years Later. It Didn’t Go Well.

A couple months ago I wrote a piece outlining my experience with the Grand Theft Auto series and what notes Rockstar needed to take from their past installments in order to have GTA VI be that generation defining game the series’ past titles are known for. I would go on to describe how even though I could acknowledge how this franchise had continually pushed the boundaries of what we thought possible in open-world immersion, they never connected with me on an emotional level. GTA had always served as games in which I would take a couple hours to wreak havoc and mayhem with cheat-codes galore, never even considering to pay a visit to the many letters scattered across the map that would take me to a story mission. Because messing around in the open world, trying to escape a five-star wanted level, and jumping off the tallest building and watching my character flail to their doom, was simply too much fun.

The first time I’d actually completed a full GTA story would be as the trio of protagonists in the franchise’s fifth and “latest” entry back in 2013. Yet, even after seeing it through to its credits, I couldn’t help but shrug in indifference at the story that’d just transpired. It’s a feeling that I remember well, and one I would remind myself of every time I considered going back to give one of the franchise’s earlier titles a go; thinking that these bombastic, satirical stories with exaggerated caricatures simply may not be for me. But the hype from that GTA VI trailer from a couple months ago continued to linger, making me curious to see what made some of the franchise’s earlier titles so innovative for their time, but experiencing them from a modern-day lens. Even if their stories didn’t particularly resonate, I wanted to see the gameplay aspects that were so revolutionary for the time, and possibly getting insight as to what Rockstar could do with their much anticipated sixth installment. And so, I decided to go for the game that I had the least amount of experience with—Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. Unfortunately, my time with the game didn’t go too well.

You’re Playing It On What?!

Firstly, getting the game in the first place proved to be a bit of an annoying task. The original PS2 version isn’t readily available on any platform, with even the iOS version having been recently replaced with the contentious “Definitive Edition,” which is known to be a butchering of the original trilogy with botched “upgraded” visuals that stripped away any and all sense of art-direction, bugs, and a slew of other issues. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like I had any way of escaping this version of the game, that is unless I sailed the seas of the pirates. Just as I was readying my cavalier boots, I came across a different version of this “Definitive Edition,” that being the one on Netflix. Developed by Video Games Deluxe instead of Grove Street games, the developers of the mobile Netflix ports were reported to have fixed many of the glaring issues found in the original remasters, as well as adding in a lighting option that was reminiscent of the original PS2 games. With all of that in mind, and with the fact that I wouldn’t be spending a dollar outside of my existing Netflix subscription, I took the plunge into downloading the game on my iPad.

GTA San Andreas
Boy, that lighting definitely sets the mood for Grove Street.

Upon startup, the fact that I was even able to play this game on my iPad while laying in bed was amusing in and of itself. It wasn’t long before I was running around Grove Street as CJ, getting back to my nostalgic antics of messing with civilians and hijacking cars. The game looked and ran great, with the newly added lighting going far to give that sense of nostalgia for when I’d seen this game being played by friends back in the mid-2000s. The touch controls were also surprisingly intuitive, even if a tad sensitive, but more on that later. I had to quickly remind myself that I didn’t start this journey to once again get lost in the chaos of this game’s world, but to actually play it through. So off I went, doing missions for Big Smoke and Sweet, but it didn’t take many of them for my frustrations to begin to rise.

“Ah, sh*t, here we go…for the first time”

Rockstar, since Vice City, have had a blueprint for their missions and how they want players to go about completing them. I use “want” purposefully because after GTA III, a game that allowed you to tackle an objective in nearly any way you saw fit, Rockstar shifted to a more linear approach that took away player agency in lieu of crafting a particular playing experience. Unfortunately, when the actual “playing” part is frustrating, it makes for going along their set path an exercise of patience. GTA San Andreas is a PS2-era video game made by Rockstar Games, and boy does it feel like it. From the running mechanics, to the janky gunplay and vehicle controls, to cars feeling like they’re made of papier-mâché, it all feels annoyingly nostalgic. It wasn’t long before I decided to sit my iPad down on my desk and pair an Xbox controller via Bluetooth to be able to play the game “properly.” Surprisingly, that did little to make the experience better. Sure, now things felt more tactile and precise, but it didn’t fix the “jank.” Nevertheless, I pushed myself to look past the archaic mechanics and focus instead on the missions and story being presented.

GTA San Andreas
Them boys in green. (Image: Rockstar)

CJ and his motley crew from the Grove Street Families are a fun bunch with your classic over-the-top GTA personas. I enjoyed the efficiently told backstory of CJ, which he himself narrates in the game’s opening. Giving the emotional weight of a lost parent is a great narrative driver, though one that I felt wasn’t explored enough on a character level in the game’s first few moments with him and his crew. The characters aren’t the most fleshed out, either, with all of them serving as a particular archetype. Conversations quickly become, much like most GTA’s, machismo screaming contests that do little to deepen their characterization. But I knew this was going to be the case going in, so ensured my focus remained on the actual game, rather than the story. On that front, we’re tossed into having to do gang-related missions from the jump as CJ, slowly revitalizing the Grove Street Family. The first few missions are essentially tutorials for the basic mechanics, but it isn’t long until you’re tasked with more high-risk objectives. However, it’s within these more grandiose missions where the classic Rockstar ways begin to rear their ugly head.   

Kill Freddy! (But Only When We Want You To)

As mentioned, Rockstar missions since Vice City have effectively remained unchanged. Drive somewhere to steal/pickup something or kill someone, something happens that follies the plan, and you end up either in a lengthy car chase or a shooting gallery. There’s some variation, of course, particularly with the Red Dead series, but this has been the structure for many of the missions since Vice City. And though that can be fine, it’s the way in which Rockstar restricts the player that can be endlessly frustrating, especially when the game itself has mechanics that aren’t as polished. A few hours in, I started a mission that tasked me to pickup a character named OG Loc and take him to the house of someone named Freddy, whom he had a relationship with in prison. Once confronted, Freddy says that their relationship was just a “prison thing” and escapes. It’s here where you and OG Loc have to give chase to Freddy on a motorcycle and kill him. The game makes this very clear and allows you to shoot while driving, with OG Loc also helping spray some bullets whenever you get close to Freddy. However, no matter how close you get to Freddy, how long you keep pace next to him on the motorbike, or however many bullets fly his way from either you or Loc, Freddy continues driving unfazed and without a single shot hitting him.

This proved endlessly infuriating as driving while shooting was an unintuitive mess. Couple that with my motorcycle lacking any kind of weight, chucking both myself and Loc off its seats with any slight hit to its frame, and the whole experience was rage-inducing as I encountered numerous “Freddy got a away!” fail screens. It came to the point where I said, “[expletive] this” and walked past the motorcycle at the start of the mission and went towards where Freddy sat, awaiting for us to come with our bike so that the mission could trigger and he’d go zooming off. Though just before that trigger happened, I took out my gun and aimed it at his head, hoping to end this misery right then and there without having to endure the chase. The outcome? Nothing. Freddy continued to sit comfortably on his motorcycle, spewing away slurs my way, with none of my bullets—much like during the chase itself—penetrating his skin.

GTA San Andreas
The beginning of a truly miserably mission.

It took me well over an hour to realize what was going on. That Rockstar never intended for you the player to kill Freddy while still on the motorbike, let alone beforehand. They wanted you to continue giving chase until a certain point that saw Freddy stop and join a bunch of his compatriots, whom you and Loc would have to kill alongside Freddy himself. There was no other way around it. You couldn’t crash into Freddy, lead him to a different location, destroy his bike, or have the police do your dirty work. No, irrespective of the fact that the game’s objective reads—with bold red font—to “kill Freddy,” you aren’t allowed to do it in any other way aside from how Rockstar planned it. This would be fine if the mission and mechanics of the game itself were fun, then maybe I could simply immerse myself in the cinematics of it all much like a God of War QTE sequence, but that wasn’t the case. The actual “playing” of the game was frustrating, it’s why I thought of getting rid of Freddy even before the mission officially started.

Missions like this continued the further I got. There’s the infamous “follow the train CJ!” mission that sees you and Big Smoke having to off a bunch of goons who stood atop a moving train, chasing them on, you guessed it, a motorcycle. The objective is to stay as close to the front of the train as possible so that Big Smoke can get his shots off, though the task is far from easy and gives very little leeway and margin for error. Is there a way to kill the goons another way? Maybe find a different route? Or possibly obstruct the tracks some way to hinder the train’s speed? No, no, and of course not. Again, this would be fine if the vehicles in the game didn’t control like featherweight tanks, or if there was something else about the chase that felt more engaging, but when it’s presented the way in which it is, plays atrociously and without any option for agency, I can’t help but feel frustrated.

I endured a few more hours after that train mission, but eventually came to the realization that I simply wasn’t having fun. I’d all but given up on the story, which though had fun characters who were voice-acted well, did little to grab me. But it was the core game, rather than the narrative, that drew me away. I can (and have) look past PS2-era jank, but combine that jank with archaic mission design that insists you play every sequence in the way the developers want you to, results in a restrictive and clunky experience. Which is a shame because everything about the world of San Andreas is anything but restrictive. This city feels open and alive, filled with character that’s brought to life in so many ways, not the least of which being incredibly realized radio stations that switch between 90s bangers and hilariously written original content. Many of the things that now are considered bloated and unnecessary, like working out and eating to change your physical appearance, were aspects I actually enjoyed. I wish I could have stuck with it, if only to see more of its world, do more of its side activities, and listen to another absurd radio ad. Maybe I could still do that. Play the game the way in which I’ve played most of the other GTA’s. As a sandbox to do whatever I want, instead of the way Rockstar wants me to.

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