With both Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar was explicitly aiming to make compelling narratives. For whatever reason, their idea of ‘compelling’ involves a lot of unnecessary realism and bleak presentation. Despite its sometimes silly nature, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas managed to say just as much if not more.
After the success of Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar used the same basic engine to build two compelling period pieces. Vice City was an 80s throwback, letting the audience play out their Scarface fantasies in an obvious Miami expy. San Andreas jumps ahead a few years to 1992, setting itself in a fictionalized Los Angeles on the verge of riots over police brutality.
While III had a silent protagonist and Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti is a violent sociopath, San Andreas’s Carl Johnson is surprisingly sympathetic. He gets just as involved in a bunch of horrid schemes as the others, but the game manages to create a more justified sense of desperation. Tackling both its heavy subject matter and featuring a black protagonist in an otherwise exaggerated atmosphere seems like a recipe for disaster, but Rockstar treats those specific elements with enough care to avoid creating a stereotypical gangsta narrative.
Though III gets a lot of the credit for bringing the series into mainstream culture, its sequels brought enough quality of life changes to make that game almost obsolete. III doesn’t even have an in-game map, which seems almost unthinkable for an open world game. Even the camera in Vice City feels off when compared to San Andreas. Rockstar kept outdoing themselves during the PS2 era, resulting in more fluid controls, a customizable character, a simply gigantic world to explore, and a bunch of nonsense to keep things interesting. The budget and production time keeps ballooning with each sequel, but I still believe San Andreas stands as the height of the series – IV takes itself too seriously while V goes so hard in the opposite direction that it comes off as a particularly bad season of South Park. The basics work just as well in San Andreas without having to put up with these detrimental qualities.
Part of Grand Theft Auto’s success is that it’s fun to simply mess around without making any progress. The series brings modern cities to life in a way few others have managed, and it’s fun to play as an agent of chaos. Through the variety of vehicles and weaponry, there’s always something more to try out.
San Andreas also has killer radio stations for scoring the mayhem. Whether you tune into Playback FM for some Public Enemy and Eric B. & Rakim or turn the dial to Radio X to get some early alternative jams from Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden, there’s always something great reinforcing the game’s era. The most striking inclusion is K Rose, a classic country station which makes sense as soon as the game world really opens up.
What I find striking is how San Andreas manages to incorporate its many distractions into the narrative. CJ’s story starts small, simply helping those in his neighborhood. Somehow, he gets dragged into bigger schemes in all these new locations – but there’s a certain point where he’s hit with a wakeup call. That opening tension has never gone away. CJ simply left his neighborhood. Grand Theft Auto has always had an absurd upward progression, but San Andreas pulling us down to earth helps set the stage for a phenomenal finale.
Grand Theft Auto always tries to have a little bit of everything. Though the series since III has been largely consistent, only San Andreas lands all of its punches.