Games of the Decade: Part IV

Continuing a theme we’ve stuck to fairly consistently, EDR gives you an exercise in excess with our next Game of the Decade… And this time its nutty Dubai compared to Half Life 2’s Berlin of understated opulence, its krrrrazy Lady Gaga compared to The Sims’ restrained Katherine Jenkins. It is….

Not an image from the Hot Coffee mod.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas!

The smart money was probably on Vice City, but while that’s a pretty good shout, you’d be wrong.

San Andreas is in this list because it was the peak of Rockstar’s achievements during the last decade – and a Games of the Decade list is nothing without Rockstar. From relatively humble beginnings with the original top down masterpiece, Rockstar oversaw the development of Grand Theft Auto from a compellingly violent but basic arcade blaster into the massive, bloated sociopath of San Andreas. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not. And while San Andreas might be huge, technically weak, bug ridden and at times far too difficult, its also so much fun I might just wee.

Released first on the PlayStation 2 in 2004 with such aplomb it sounded like it might be awful, it wasn’t until the game appeared on the PC the following summer that gamers could really experience the expansiveness of the game. Building on the success of Vice City, which saw Rockstar get to grips with music and characterisation, if not level design and control, San Andreas was bewilderingly huge. With five distinct areas, including three massive cities, a desert and countryside, the story sprawled from swamp to skyscraper. But making the map bigger wasn’t difficult, it was injecting more life into it that was, and Rockstar seemed to excel at this. While a bit fussy at times, you were compelled to visit the gym (a mini-game in itself), eat, complete driving challenges and break into houses for money in a bid to collect XP – just like in real life. It was a tad superficial, but it worked and it added a considerable amount of depth to a world that was otherwise there simply to be shot at.

Likewise the characterisation, mission variety and plotting improved. The narrative, while utterly mad, was witty and delivered well thanks to some fine voice acting and it was all rounded off by some brilliant set pieces. Rockstar also overcame the difficult issue of having a black character as the leading figure, CJ Johnson was sympathetic, funny and motivated. He was also what you made of him thanks to the impact of the RPG XP system.

It was, however, also easy to criticise the game. As a latter-generation PS2 game, the technology was pretty old hat by this point, and the engine – the same that powered GTA III and Vice City – was looking very creaky. Similarly, the often diabolically bonkers learning curve was too punishing for even the most dedicated of gamers and was another hang-over from VC and GTA III. One or two missions in particular had me foaming at the mouth. But where the game really excelled was in its ability to provide the player with a sandbox experience. Years after I completed it, I still find myself drawn back to the game to see how many cars I can destroy, how many helicopters I can shoot down with the F16, how pissed off I can make the cops, how fast I can go in a ‘pimped’ truck. I love it, for all its flaws.

Oh, and the music is bloody good too.

Welcome to EDR’s Games of the Decade, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

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