Anthony's Film Review

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
(Video Game, 2004)

As controversial as it can be, this video game about a street criminal provides a very exciting thrill ride...

For years, Grand Theft Auto was a series of games that I believed I would never enjoy, let alone play. When I first heard that the 2001 game Grand Theft Auto III allows the player to engage in shootouts with police and kill prostitutes, among other things, I refused to look into the game further. Any game that glorified crime in highly sensational ways didn't sit well with me. While I am a mature person who has no problem playing violent video games, I go for action games where I play a heroic character, regardless of how bloody the action can get. Grand Theft Auto clearly doesn't fill that criterion.

Yet, many years later, I visited a used bookstore, came across a used copy of the 2004 game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and decided to buy it. I figured that I would play just one GTA game to understand what the hype is all about. Plus, I could better judge the game after experiencing it firsthand. I can now say that the game confirmed my earlier suspicions. GTA: San Andreas allows you to get away with multiple counts of murder, assault, vehicular manslaughter, armed robbery, illegal street racing, destruction of property, and (of course) grand theft auto. Basically, if you were to do in real life all the crimes that are necessary to complete the game and then finally get arrested, consider yourself an inmate for life. Because of the realistic portrayal of street crime, I strongly advise extra discretion for any Grand Theft Auto game, in addition to the discretion typically advised for violent video games. I will even go as far as to recommend GTA only to responsible adult gamers, essentially treating any 18+ age recommendation as a strict age minimum with no exceptions.

Putting aside these cautionary statements and my own sense of morality, while still maintaining the right perspective on reality, I am happy to announce, with pleasant surprise, that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the most exciting and imaginative video games I have played in years. Rockstar Games, the developer of the GTA series, may always stir up controversy with each GTA game, but it is also daring and creative in doing so. More precisely, being daring is what makes Rockstar so creative. By bravely stepping into territory that others would shy away from or not think about in the first place, the company can produce a game that is a fresh standout among the competition. I now understand that Grand Theft Auto III is a landmark game that pushed the limits of realistic bloody violence, just as Doom is a landmark computer game that introduced realistic bloody violence. But enough of my comments on GTA's content. Let me talk about GTA: San Andreas.

Whereas GTA III centers on a bank robber in Liberty City (a fictionalized New York) and GTA: Vice City focuses on an Italian in Vice City (a fictionalized Miami), GTA: San Andreas involves an African-American street thug from Los Santos (a fictionalized Los Angeles in the fictional state of San Andreas). The game clearly draws inspiration from real-life black street gangs in America, particularly the Bloods and Crips in Compton and South Central Los Angeles, as well as gangsta rap and movies such as Boyz N the Hood that depict the same subject matter. It's interesting for me because I have a bit of knowledge about that particular lifestyle, not from first-hand experience but through other people I knew who had much more in-depth knowledge of it. Plus, I avoided those types of gangs growing up and instead chose to play video games to pass the time. Never did I imagine that the worlds of African-American street gangs and video games would eventually merge, in the form of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Anyway, the game's main character is Carl "CJ" Johnson, who grew up in the streets of Los Santos, escaped the ghetto to start a new life in Liberty City, and now comes back home upon learning that his mother has just been murdered. It's a big shock for CJ, as well as his brother Sean "Sweet" Johnson and his sister Kendl. Furthermore, CJ's old gang, the Grove Street Families, is losing control of the streets while the rival Ballas gang is gaining power. CJ decides to stay and help Grove Street be on top once again, together with Sweet and two other old friends from the gang named Ryder and Big Smoke. If that isn't challenging enough, CJ has to put up with two corrupt Los Santos police officers named Frank Tenpenny and Eddie Pulaski, who want CJ to do some dirty work for them, or else they'll frame him for murdering a cop whom Tenpenny himself already killed.

Like any GTA game, this one involves the player completing a series of crime missions that advance the story. The first several missions of GTA: San Andreas reflect the everyday events of a gangster in a ghetto, like a drive-by shooting of the Ballas gang, graffiti tagging, and saving Sweet from a rival offshoot of the Grove Street gang. Others are more intense, like carrying out Officer Tenpenny's order to burn a gang's apartment complex and Ryder's scheme to steal ammo from a U.S. National Guard depot. The thrill of these missions is the variety of actions you get to perform, such as running, using blunt weapons, shooting guns, and driving cars. It's definitely helpful that the game provides instructions on anything you do for the first time in the game, not just in the beginning of the game but also in the middle and late parts of the game. Yeah, you get to do a lot in this game.

Eventually, there is a chilling twist in the plot that results in the gang war in Los Santos turning really sour and CJ ending up outside the city for his own safety. From there, his criminal adventures take him to the cities of San Fierro (a fictional San Francisco) and Las Venturas (a fictional Las Vegas) as well as the forests, deserts, and small towns in the rest of San Andreas. He will spend time with an assortment of interesting new characters, including a blind Chinese triad leader, a middle-aged hippie known as The Truth, the crazy robber Catalina (from Grand Theft Auto III, which takes place years after GTA: San Andreas), a timid but criminal tech geek, a member of a Latino gang in Los Santos who becomes a trusted ally, and a shady government agent named Mike Toreno. Through it all, CJ will get to joyride in a car stolen from a car dealership, destroy a drug cartel, kill a preacher who kidnaps prostitutes to "save" them (because he's a threat to a big-time pimp), murder more people whom Tenpenny wants dead, burn a weed farm before authorities arrive, heist a casino, fight a Vietnamese gang, steal police motorcycles, and even engage in military and espionage missions. Basically, CJ is not a purely stereotypical black gangster who spends all his time in a ghetto, and that's what makes him very interesting.

Besides the crime missions, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, like any other three-dimensional GTA game, gives you the freedom to explore your world when you are not actually doing a mission. For instance, you can spend as much time as you want wandering through city streets, certain buildings, country roads, and whatever else is around. You can choose to attack or kill innocent people to take their money as well as gangsters to take their money and weapons. You can spend money on all sorts of stuff at the Ammu-Nation gun store chain as well as fast food to avoid starvation and to accumulate body fat for energy storage. One of the coolest features of the game is for you to customize CJ's appearance by doing weight-lifting exercises at a gym to make him more muscular, eating fatty food to make him fatter, visiting barbershops to change his head and facial hair, going to tattoo parlors to add designs anywhere above the waist, and buying clothes to make him stylish in any way (with typical hip-hop attire or anything else less stereotypical for CJ). Really, CJ's persona mainly depends on what you want as the player.

Another cool feature: the radio stations. Most vehicles you commandeer in the game allow you to listen to 12 radio stations, which is not required in the game but makes the experience of travel much more fun. You can choose to hear licensed music on 11 music stations, covering genres such as rap, R&B, alternative rock, classic rock, reggae, and country, or fictional programs on a talk radio station. The DJs on the music stations are interesting and sometimes funny, and the fake commercials and talk radio segments are hysterical with over-the-top irreverent humor. Besides laughing while driving, you can immerse yourself in scenic drives or driving action sequences with the right songs playing. For example, you can relax during a nighttime drive in a rural landscape while listening to the classic rock song "A Horse With No Name" by America. If you've just completed a mission involving striking a train, enjoy Black Uhuru's reggae tune "Great Train Robbery." Or if you've passed a mission with no complications, bob your head to Ice Cube's gangsta rap hit "It Was a Good Day." My favorite music-enhanced driving experience involves driving to gun down an enemy in another moving vehicle, all while listening to "F*** with Dre Day" by Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg.

Finally, I want to talk about the voice cast of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Rockstar Games has hired an incredible cast of voice actors, including celebrities such as Samuel L. Jackson as Officer Frank Tenpenny, Faizon Love as Sweet, rapper Ice-T as rapper Madd Dogg, James Woods as Mike Toreno, and Peter Fonda as The Truth. But let's not forget Chris Bellard, a.k.a. Young Maylay, who is very good as CJ. In fact, even the miscellaneous voice actors for the radio DJs, radio commercials, talk radio segments, and the numerous pedestrians and drivers who are innocent bystanders contribute greatly to this game. Altogether, the total cast of 861 voice actors, the biggest voice cast for a video game to date, is nothing short of stellar.

With excellent gameplay, imaginative and detailed game world design, an outstanding voice cast, and a memorable soundtrack, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a game that is definitely worth giving a try. Just about anyone who loves action games can enjoy this one. It's really just a matter of whether you are comfortable enough, and sufficiently mature, to play the game without being negatively influenced. Once you take care of that issue, then you are set for this engrossing game. Never before has it been so fun (I can't believe I'm saying this) to be a daring street thug rising to the top of the criminal underworld.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, visit the Internet Movie Database and Moby Games.


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