GTA: San Andreas

Finally I found time to blog a bit about GTA: San Andreas. Let me begin with a brief summary: San Andreas is a great game in the tradition of the GTA series. The level and mission design is certainly better than that of GTA: Vice City, and there have been lots of other improvements.

Cruising through the state of San Andreas

What is so great about the GTA series of games? Well, I think it is mainly the freedom you have in the game. You can do whatever you want at any time you want. You can go whereever you want to go in the game. Contrast this with my criticism of Brothers in Arms, where you have very static levels that force you into exactly one possible approach to each situation. Also, the games are very anarchistic. Here you can do whatever you want to do, and you don’t have to live with the consequences, especially when driving around in cars. The radio stations with their subversive moderators and highly satirical commercials and chats also help to make this game a lot of fun.

But let’s start with some of the negative criticism. The graphics sucks, of course. It is rather primitive compared to other current games, although there have been a few visual improvements and added effects compared to Vice City. Also, the viewing distance has increased, which is important in the vast level of San Andreas. The poor graphics are of course a legacy of the console heritage of this game. This also explains the rather crude controller options. You can notice how they just mapped the keypad keys to certain keyboard keys, so that you have rather different functions on the same key. On the other hand, shooting with weapons is very easy on the PC, since mouse aiming is so much easier than aiming with a keypad. But there is one crucial advantage over the steering of Vice City: You can now look around inside vehicles using the mouse. This is so much easier than looking around with keypad keys. In Vice City you easily bumped into other cars when driving backwards or turning corners, since the camera view needed a few seconds to adjust to the new direction. This won’t happen in San Andreas!

Flying around Los Santos

One of the most visible changes is of course the size of the level. GTA: San Andreas is supposed to simulate a whole US state. It includes three cities: Los Santos (resembling Los Angeles), San Fierro (resembling San Francisco, complete with steep streets and trolley cars), and Las Venturas (resembling Las Vegas). It also includes a lot of smaller villages and an airplane graveyard in the desert. The level is quite diverse. Also, for the first time, there is a whole system of highways between and inside the cities.

The size of the levels offers many opportunities to discover so-called sub-mission. These are missions that are not necessary to complete the main story arc, but are nevertheless challenging. These sub-missions are very different. For example there are the classic taxi missions, where you have to drop off passengers as quickly as possible, race missions with cars or planes, girlfriend missions where you have to please your girlfriends with restaurant visits etc., pimping missions, quarry missions, various driving schools etc. pp.

Denise likes to do drive-bys

But of course there is also a main storyline. This storyline is again quite expansive, similar to the Vice City storyline. Also, we get to meet old friends, like Rosenberg and Kent Paul from Vice City and even you character from GTA III and his treacherous girlfriend Catalina! Oh yes, and you take a short trip back to Liberty City.

As I mentioned before one of the strong points of the game is the satire and humor in the game. Unfortunately I personally think that the satiric part was more advanced in Vice City, with the radio moderators being a caricature of modern society or the film studio where they seemingly filmed the moon landing. San Andreas concentrates more on a “sex theme”, which might be shocking or provoking to a more prude audience, but which I personally find rather childish. (Although I have to admit that I laughed out loud when I first saw the new Cherry Popper ice cream wagon.)

Nevertheless the game is a whole load of fun and perfect stress relieve. It brought me many fun hours and I am sure it will bring me more.

Brothers in Arms

I’ve recently played through Brothers in Arms and I was disappointed. Brothers in Arms is a tactical shooter in a WWII settings with a storyline that’s based on true events. The gameplay is centered around flanking the enemy. You normally have two squads at your command, where on squad is used to pin the enemy down and the other is supposed to flank him.

The game has lots of good ideas and is technially very good. You have the feeling that the developers really made an effort to make a realistic game. It has up-to-date graphics, a good unit AI, an immersive storyline, realistic weapons and tactics, and lots of small and good ideas. I especially liked the extras system: After completing each chapter at one of the four difficulty settings, an extra is unlocked. This extra is normally either historical photos, in-development material, or background material. This really makes you want to play through each difficulty level. Part of the immersive storyline is your familarity with your own squad. You not only get to know your men during the cut scenes, but during the game you can approach people and they will look at you and smile at you. They also call the names of people that are wounded and your character shouts the name of the team leader if you give commands.

But all this good stuff is of no use, because there is one area were the game really sucks. Unfortunately it’s probably the most important aspect: level design. All levels are extremely linear. You often have only exactly one approach to move on. The game plays more like a puzzle game than a military simulation: You have to find out where to best position your men to defeat the enemies with the fewest losses on your side. The tactical aspect of this game is basically limited to finding the tactic the level designers intended you to find and then to follow it. Compare this to games like Operation Flashpoint or Far Cry: In this games you usually have an objective and how to reach this objective is up to you. You can approach your objective from all sides, but finding the best approach is part of the game.

Also, earlier I talked about the immersive storyline: You start off the game with a black screen with only the name of the chapter displayed and a voice over from your character. When the game begins, you awake from a shell shock and are inmidst a fire fight, having no clue what to do. A really frightening scene. Unfortunately this immersion in the game is also destroyed because of the level design. If every road is blocked by a barricade, if every street is lines by unpassable bushes, and if every other way is unpassable due to a (low) fence, it’s really frustrating. The first time you try to jump over a fence to approach an enemy from behind and can’t and are forced to take the open main road, you get frustrated. You really don’t feel in command of the game, you know that the game is forcing you to take the road you are supposed to. Again, compare that to Far Cry, where levels often are, in fact, linear. Only, you don’t feel like that, since the borders feel natural. Also, the areas in which you can walk are vast enough to give you the impression of freedom. They also allow you to approach an objective from different sides.

In summary I was disappointed. Partly because I expected another Operation Flashpoint (i.e. a military simulation) and got a puzzle game with FPS elements. It’s sad to see that games like that are obviously what most gamers demand. Why make the effort to make a realistic game, if it doesn’t feel realistic or authentic, because the level design really sucks?