This column originally ran on February 1, 2010.
Since the exploits are much harder to pull off in real life, the Grand Theft Auto series has always held a special place in our hearts. After all, it’s pretty difficult to kill drug dealers, hijack cars and bunny hop 100 feet on a bike without some severe consequences (of varying scale). Checkpoint takes a look back at their favorite GTA game in the series, and talks about why CJ was the best protagonist in town.
Pedaling the Peddlers
Lee: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas started you off with CJ, the reluctant main character coming home for his mother’s funeral. Once out of the airport terminal, he is thrown into the wonderful world of stealing cars and killing drug dealers. And by God, he killed those drug dealers dead.
Chris: For those who played the game incorrectly, “drug dealers” meant “everyone.” Everyone was peddling that stuff, and had to be stopped. The prostitutes were committing two crimes at once, so they were the first targets.
Lee: I’m not sure prostitutes even sold themselves. They probably brought the customer to the hotel room only to deny him or her sex and try to sell them smack.
Shaun: You have a nobody who works his way up the ranks through crime. If only they didn’t do that for every single GTA game. At least this is the only part of the story that retreads previous staples. The plot actually does a good job of separating itself from the other entries in the series.
Chris: I didn’t really buy in to what was happening in the beginning until we got control of CJ. When the game starts and you find out the main character’s mom died in about three seconds, it’s tough to be attached.
Shaun: For my money, it’s the best GTA plot, and it came at a time when I wasn’t tired as hell of the series’ repetitive formula.
Lee: CJ was forced into several ridiculous situations, and he always came out on top. And drug dealer blood on your tires didn’t hurt your chances for success, either.
Chris: If nothing else, the plot works in the framework of what you’re doing, especially because we hadn’t seen most of it yet. You’re working on your own agenda while doing dirty work for Samuel L. Jackson, and build your way up from the very bottom.
Shaun: For once, I actually felt compelled to stop going on killing sprees and get through the plotline. It wasn’t exactly deep, but it was always interesting, and kept my attention.
Lee: I wasn’t fond of the first city’s missions. Gang violence doesn’t really float my boat. Once out of the city, the missions really blossomed into the fun they could be.
Chris: Right. And besides, you could just do the gang takeovers later on, which were much more fun. A few city blocks of carnage just to turn it over to your side.
Shaun: I did enjoy later missions much more, but the early missions helped build credibility for the story, and allowed me to become invested in the characters. CJ could run over hookers and grandma’s carrying groceries for their children, and yet I sympathized with the guy.
Lee: I was a fan of how the story escalated. You start out with nothing, move on to own your a garage, a casino, work for the government, and fly a hover jet. CJ’s world really expanded.
Chris: GTA has always thrived (and/or suffered) because of its simplistic design when it comes to the story stuff. It usually involves revenge, and you can fill half the time by going on “kill this person”-type missions that don’t have any huge outcome other than pleasing whomever you’re using to get something at the time.
A Whole New World
Lee: I enjoyed the three-island structure of the game. Two areas of the map are blocked off. If you want to be adventurous, you get four stars (the equivalent of getting the S.W.A.T. team called in). They kept you on each island long enough to learn where everything is. I still know how to get around those cities. In GTA IV, you actually need that GPS. In San Andreas, the map marker was a guide, not a trail.
Shaun: I just loved being able to ride through the countryside, especially on the motorcycles. I spent hours just finding high cliffs to ramp my vehicle off.
Chris: Yeah, there’s something to be said for the city being big enough to explore thoroughly and not feel repetitive, but not so big (and with so many dead-end routes) that you can’t just drive around where you want. GTA IV’s New Yorkish city certainly has its advantages, but I’m not a fan overall. I liked San Andreas’ better.
Shaun: Being able to actually swim was a nice feature. Why it took so long to implement, I don’t know.
Chris: I never understood why no one else could swim, but it was always hilarious. When cops were chasing you, you could just lure them off a cliff and they would kill themselves.
Shaun: Too fat.
Chris: Yeah, but they didn’t sink. So apparently they were fat and buoyant.
Shaun: The worst recipe for swimming. Truly.
Lee: Fat is buoyant, but the way it sits on your body, you end up floating face down with no ability to roll over.
Chris: Now it all makes sense. GTA was preaching real life in a fake L.A., and we just didn’t know it.
Shaun: My favorite aspect of San Andreas was the ability to level up skills. Making CJ fat was lame, but improving my driving so I didn’t slide all over the road was great.
Lee: You should go to the gym at the earliest opportunity. Leveling up your muscle may take long, but the results last the rest of the game.
Chris: Plus, if you don’t like the way your workout is going, you can just kill everyone in the gym.
Lee: I hit the gym, covered CJs face with an outlaw’s bandanna, and did the burglary missions first. All you had to do was cap the resident of the house and you would be that much closer to unlimited sprinting.
Shaun: The ability to improve the character was another layer of addictive, and it was a shame to see they got rid of it in the newest GTA. They axed it for realism, I understand, but I still don’t support it. At this rate, in GTA V, one bullet kills, you will spend three months real time in a hospital for injuries, and if you die, it’s game over. Restart!
Chris: Personally, I liked being able to get better on the bike, but when you first started it was like you were a 2-year-old. No coordination, and if you went more than 3 mph you crashed like a bitch. Kind of like Speed, but in reverse and without Keanu Reeves.
Shaun: The bike was fun, but it’s limitations were disappointing. When I got run over by the police when trying to escape from a robbery with a bike, I pretty much called it quits.
Lee: Bunny hopping two inches wasn’t impressive, but doing it 10 feet in the air over cars was wonderful. The game was more cartoony than real, and I think that aspect made the game better than GTA IV. I don’t want too much realism when I am killing drug dealers.
Chris: I’d agree with that. There’s a few ways where the realism of IV is an improvement, but overall San Andreas was much more enjoyable because of that blur between reality. Let’s face it: It kinda makes more sense that way. At least you can explain how one person can take on an entire city that way. Niko…we just assume he had military training or something, and apparently that’s enough.
Shaun: Apparently “military training” doesn’t cover walking into traps 500 times. “So, the last 20 drug deals went south, sure, but I have a good feeling about this one.” Cue ambush.
Lee: CJ wasn’t supposed to be prepared for anything he had to face. No military training, no possessions; just the gun in his hand and a pocketful of dreams. Assuming you gave him pants to wear, and actually had a gun.
Chris: I think San Andreas best matches up with what the GTA series stands for — a lampoonish look at crime that puts the player in almost complete control of a sandbox world. When that sandbox is underdeveloped because of the technology of the time (GTA 3 and before) or too restricted because of all the new refinements (IV), it doesn’t match up with the open-world experience that seems to have been the goal. Besides, San Andreas fits best with the way I like to play GTA games, which is “the hell with the missions” and “screw around in the town.”
Shaun: And that open world is what’s so impressive about San Andreas. It was miles and miles of interactive territory. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that the developers could fit in this much distance. Between the variety of missions and sheer size of the cities, San Andreas was the pinnacle of the series.
Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.