Home > Gaming, Opinions (Gaming) > Gaming: Project Pile of Shame – Day Five

Gaming: Project Pile of Shame – Day Five

The project: To spend two hours playing every console game from this generation that I own but have never touched (the ‘pile of shame’), to see if any of them are worth spending more time with.

As with Deus Ex, today’s entry isn’t on the original list because it’s a PC game, and if I tried to include all the PC games I own but haven’t played the list would be considerably larger (it would be the same if I went back multiple console generations, which is why I limited myself to just this generation). On the fifth day I played:

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

San Andreas

Wikipedia quote: "The game is set in the fictional state of San Andreas, comprising three metropolitan cities, Los Santos, based on Los Angeles, San Fierro, based on San Francisco and Las Venturas, based on Las Vegas, with deserts, rivers, forests and even a mountain separating the cities."

System: PC (also on PS2 and Xbox)

Reason I’ve never played it: I didn’t own it. I wasn’t overly taken with Grand Theft Auto 3 and skipped the series until Grand Theft Auto 4 a generation later (and now will probably skip the series altogether going forward).

Thoughts: I don’t think I like Grand Theft Auto series. I like the idea of the games – the vast open world filled with character, the characters themselves being interesting and going through good arcs and voiced by actors who are at least competent and sometimes pretty good, a ‘sandbox’ playground environment filled with things to do in a game that lasts considerably longer than most other games – but I think I’ll never be in sync with Rockstar’s approach, even though they were the ones who pioneered the entire genre.

San Andreas is the game that is often brought up when I mention how I enjoyed Saints Row 2 a lot more than Grand Theft Auto 4*, told repeatedly than it is by far and away the biggest influence for Volition’s series and that I can’t honestly say I enjoy it more over GTA without seeing just how much Volition have borrowed from Rockstar. With San Andreas appearing in the recent Steam sale for just a few pounds it seemed like the perfect opportunity to fill that particular gap in my gaming knowledge.

*As far as this generation of consoles is concerned I would put most open world games I’ve played (Saints Row 2, Crackdown, Infamous, Assassin’s Creed 2, Bully: Scholarship Edition, Red Faction Guerilla) ahead of Grand Theft Auto 4, with only a few others (Assassin’s Creed, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, Just Cause) being on a comparable level or worse. Of all those games listed, Grand Theft Auto 4 is the only one I’ve not reached the end of.

Within the first two hours it is easy to see some of the main similarities. Both games have you returning home (one from another city, the other from a coma) and finding that your previously powerful gang is now a shadow of its former self, and it’s up to you to put them back on top through killing rival gang members, sabotaging their operations, recruiting former members as well as new ones, spray-painting your colours on the walls in rival territories, and generally doing it in a relatively short amount of time.

San Andreas

Wikipedia quote: "The most notable controversy was over the explicit "Hot Coffee" sex minigame found on the Microsoft Windows game, which was disabled but left within the game's code. Its discovery led San Andreas to be re-rated in the United States briefly as an adults only game and pulled from retailers' shelves in the US."

Even within that time though there are also major differences. San Andreas begins with the main character, CJ, returning home and (in a cutscene) being immediately picked up by police, robbed of his money and dumped in rival turf with nothing but a bicycle to get home with. Saints Row 2 has your character, the unnamed and fully customisable Boss, awaken from his coma and bust out of the prison hospital in a dramatic and ridiculously over-the-top shoot-out. Like in every GTA game, CJ is essentially a dogsbody, always saddled with fetch quests and forced to drive the others around and do what they tell him (though this is something that could easily change over the course of the game), while in Saints Row 2 you’re the boss, the one who makes the decisions. Functionally there’s no more choice in SR2 than in GTA, but having it be your character who makes the choices does feel different. San Andreas has a mission where you pick up a gang member being released from prison, drive him where he tells you to and then end up taking part in a motorcycle chase where the enemy taunts you every step of the way, while Saints Row 2 has you rescue a gang member from his trial and kill a ridiculous number of police and security in the process.

Essentially, at most times San Andreas is better written and more ‘cinematic’, while Saints Row 2 is more occupied with actually making things fun. I’m not going to get hung up on the comparisons though because we are talking about a 2004 game, and it’s not really fair to criticise that for what an unrelated game does better four years later (though I’d say there are similar problems with Grand Theft Auto 4 as well, which only came out months before Saints Row 2).

My main issue with San Andreas (and GTA games in general) comes from Rockstar’s approach to the storyline missions themselves. I’m not keen on an over dependence on cutscenes generally and Rockstar have always loved cutscenes, seemingly because they allow them to do away with all pretence of freedom and present the player with a fixed series of events and dialogue with no interaction, all carefully staged to be suitably cinematic for the story they want to tell. These often have the problems of not fully syncing the attitudes of the cutscene version of the player character with the actual character you control (who generally is always played as a fun-loving psychopath, who at one time or another will wilfully engage in mass police murder for fun). That’s always going to be a problem though unless you write your main character as a fun-loving psychopath (which, incidentally, is exactly what Saints Row 2 does, though Volition also use cutscenes as heavily as Rockstar).

San Andreas
Wikipedia quote: “it was praised as one of the PlayStation 2’s best games, with an average review score of 95%, according to Metacritic, tying for the fifth highest ranked game in PlayStation 2 history. IGN rated the game a 9.9 out of 10 (the highest score it has ever awarded to a PlayStation 2 game)”.

Cutscenes aside, the structure of the missions in San Andreas was a big issue for me, as they are in GTA games generally. One very early mission has you drive a fellow gang member to a mission at a pizza place, and on the way CJ decides to get a haircut. The mission won’t proceed until you’ve had one, after which you buy food at the pizza place and the mission starts. If you fail the later part of the mission (which can happen because  there’s a guy with a shotgun at a time when you haven’t been given a weapon) then you have to drive back to the start point (either from the pizza place if your ally died or from hospital if you did) and go through it again. The problem here is that Rockstar doesn’t reset the money you’ve spent or take completed objectives into account, meaning you have to pay for a new haircut every time you fail. You can’t just interact with the barber but keep your current style, because the mission still points you into the barber to get a different haircut. Essentially multiple failures cost you money, which is silly.

Dying in a mission is even worse. You respawn at the nearest hospital, are charged for medical fees and have all your weapons confiscated. Rockstar aren’t content to just punish you with having to slog through the whole mission again regardless of how close you were to the end (although there is an option to skip the pointless travel that starts every mission if you’ve already completed the journey once), or even just with making you drive all the way back to the start point, they actually charge you in-game money for it and then take all your stuff. It punishes experimentation because failure is so costly and Rockstar aren’t above putting in cheap tricks like sudden turns in chase missions or scripted events that block off routes or parts of the road and take you completely by surprise, which just makes it seem like they actively dislike the player. It’s not something I can ever get behind.

While we’re on the subject of chase missions: I strongly dislike them and it’s something else that Rockstar seem really fond of. GTA4 had many in the time I played (as far as unlocking the final island), car chasing car, car chasing train, car chasing helicopter, helicopter chasing helicopter and, the worst of all, motorbike chasing motorbike. The final mission of my two initial two hours with San Andreas was… a chase mission of motorbike against motorbike and it was terrible. The target, relatively fresh out of prison, was an expert motorcyclist with an incredible knowledge of the city’s layout, able to take every narrow alley and shortcut off the road without hitting an obstacle or dead end, swerving at the last moment to take turns he looked to be avoiding, and generally was as horrible as any other bike chase in a GTA game (even allowing for the somewhat awkward layout of the PC controls). I died, losing my pistol, baseball bat and hoarded shotgun because they were confiscated by the hospital (because obviously dying even once in a mission you’ve never tried before is deserving of major punishment), and tried the mission a couple more times before my time was up but never succeeded.

That final, frustrating mission is enough to leave me tempted to never go back to the game, especially as previous experience of GTA games tells me that it won’t be the only chase mission (and comes early enough in the game that it’s likely one of the easier ones). However, two hours really isn’t enough to give me a proper feel for a game as lengthy and varied as the GTA games generally are, and even if the main storyline missions look set to be as frustrating and poorly structured as ever a big part of these games is the side missions and other distractions (San Andreas includes an RPG-lite system of stat building to improve your skills that looks worth exploring), so I can’t truly dismiss the game without sinking more time into it.

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  1. January 3, 2011 at 19:02

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