Friday October 31, 2014 2:13 pm
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is fun, but Xbox 360 HD remaster is rough
Somehow, 10 years have already passed since the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas--arguably the most innovative game in the series. To coincide with the recent anniversary, Rockstar re-released the game on Xbox 360, replacing the Games on Demand version with a slightly improved version. And while the game itself remains an enjoyable experience, this may not be the best way of revisiting it.
I find myself occasionally in the mood to play one of the classic GTA III-era games (GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas), which are among my all-time favorite games. I typically ignore this compulsion or simply spend a few minutes with the iPhone version of GTA III; I get my small dose of nostalgia but invariably stop playing because, despite Rockstar's best efforts, these are not games that work well on a touchscreen.
An improved re-release of San Andreas was exciting news for me--while a release on Xbox One or PS4 would have been ideal, a cheap Xbox 360 version with improved graphics, better draw distance, and achievements sounds like a great way to revisit the game.
Indeed, the hours I've spent with the game this week have been very enjoyable. No doubt part of that enjoyment is nostalgia-driven, but San Andreas was and is a pretty remarkable game. It's home to an absolutely enormous world (larger than any other GTA gamewith the possible exception of last year's GTA V) that is littered with things to distract you. In addition to the usual GTA side activities of collecting things and driving taxis, you can go to flight school, gamble in a casino, play a (very rough) game of basketball, or work out at the gym, among a raft of other things.
Working out at the gym--mundane as it sounds--is actually one of the most interesting parts of San Andreas. Doing so allows you to improve your character, allowing him to sprint for longer or do more damage in melee combat. Also tied into these systems was an energy level that required you to eat on a routine basis. Eating could result in gaining weight, which you could then in turn lose by spending time at the gym (which amounts to mashing the X button to lift weights, run on the treadmill, etc.).
These systems stealthily converted perhaps the most mainstream game on the market into an RPG. That isn't to say it was a good RPG--these systems were more often than not an obnoxious form of micromanagement. Sometimes you just want to explore and wreak havoc, or reel off a series of missions with no interruptions. The necessity to eat (and work out, if you don't want to lose the muscle you've amassed) can get in the way of this, and it's no surprise that these things didn't make the cut for subsequent GTA games. This week, they frequently got in my way of re-experiencing the bits of San Andreas that I most wanted to see, but there is a novelty to all of this that makes me glad it's still there. I only wish there were an option added to reduce how frequently you need to eat and train.
Such changes can't be found in this re-release; there are are few significant alterations to the way you play. This is largely a port of the Remastered iOS/Android release of San Andreas, which does mean there are new, mobile-friendly checkpoints during missions. These don't save as much progress as I'd like, but they are appreciated nonetheless.
Outside of that, San Andreas plays as you remember it, for better or worse. That means obnoxious escort missions are still here, and the AI is not at all improved--don't be surprised to see an enemy run right by you to shoot at your companion, or for that companion to move out into the open as if they have a death wish. There are also far more rhythm-based minigames embedded in story missions than I remember, and I often find myself wishing that these were more forgiving or turned into optional side activities.
As I've played, I've amassed a pretty sizable list of areas where San Andreas could have been improved dramatically if Rockstar had bothered to do a proper high-definition remastered edition, similar to what we've seen other developers do in recent years. For instance, San Andreas' combat was rough back in 2004, and that's even truer now. Turning on the lock-on aiming option can help, but the game oftens picks targets with little regard for who is closest to you or poses the most significant threat. Even outside of combat, the controls can be janky at best, as evidenced by the hassle of starting an activity at the gym.
And while it seems like a real missed opportunity to not have given San Andreas the proper HD remastered edition treatment it deserves, Rockstar's real offense with this re-release is that it simply isn't all that good. Not long after it launched, players began complaining about myriad issues, including bugs like being unable to move after saving and sound dropping out during cutscenes--something that's happened to me several times. There's little effort to modernize the controls, and being a port of a mobile game, Rockstar didn't see fit to restore analog acceleration when driving. In other words, pressing the trigger to go is the equivalent of holding down the accelerator all the way; there's no holding down the trigger gently to go slowly.
Worse than than those bugs are the issues with San Andreas' framerate. That this game was ever released on PlayStation 2 was a real technical achievement. On the Xbox 360's hardware, there's no excuse for things to not run smoothly. Yes, the game looks somewhat nicer and the draw distance is improved, but that's no excuse for the way that the framerate takes a nosedive when driving around the city. Not only is it annoying, but it can prove to be a real impediment during missions where you need to get somewhere quickly or you're attempting to escape from enemies. A Digital Foundry report on the game confirms much of what I thought, which is that the framerate can be cut in half, from the mark of 30 frames per second to as few as 15. Suffice it to say, this is unacceptable.
It's a real shame that this couldn't be the definitive version of the game. It looks okay for what it is, but more importantly, there is a massive game here waiting to be played. The current sale price of $3.74 should be an absolute steal for this game, and it may still be worth picking up if you're only looking to spend an hour or two reminiscing. However, if you're looking to really play through the game--something that, despite its faults, is still worth doing--you're best off waiting for a patch or playing on a different platform.
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