My PS2 memory card must have went through a similar crisis my GameCube one suffered. I loaded up San Andreas the other day and noticed all my save data had been erased. So, I had the “privilege” of starting all the way from the beginning. It quickly became apparent that San Andreas, while good fun, is definitely overrated. There are features introduced in Saints Row 1 that it’s hard to imagine they didn’t appear in either follow-up to GTA III.
Such features as the handy ability to re-start a mission after failing. In San Andreas, if a player dies/gets busted in a mission they respawn at a hospital/prison. If they don’t die, the player has the fun of driving all the way back to the mission marker to restart the damn thing. This is not a hard endeavour, but an annoying one that’s compounded by San Andreas’ gigantic game world. It can take several minutes to get from one location to another. Driving through the Badlands/Desert for missions is the definition of tedious. Yeah, the world and detail put into it is impressive but it does detract from the gameplay when all the player wants to do is progress.
Keep in mind that, unlike Saints Row, the world is not open from the start and must be unlocked via completing missions. On that note, what’s the point of having an open sandbox game world if the majority of it is going to be fenced off at the beginning? For a game that teases freedom, it places restrictions and rules so much that there actually is no freedom. This carries over to the gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, Grand Theft Auto has always been hard…not hard as “difficult” but “annoying.” The actual difficulty lies in AI incompetence and awful controls (for the planes/helicopters). AI incompetence appears when the player needs an NPC to do most of the work. An example of this is early in the game is where CJ and Smoke have to chase after a group of San Fierro gang members on a train. CJ drives and Smoke has to shoot them. The problem is CJ is in no position to help and Smoke can’t aim to save his life. If the San Fierro guys aren’t dead by a certain point, the mission fails and Smoke berates the player. “All you had to do was follow the damn train, CJ!” …Because it’s my fault he missed all those shots.
Whoever green-lighted the control scheme for planes/helicopters should have ran the game through some more playtesting. These vehicles are a real bitch to fly and worse, learning how to fly them is a requirement. That’s right, the game locks up and the story progression halts. At least Zero’s missions (contenders for being the game’s most difficult) have the luxury of being optional… However, the bad controls aren’t just limited to the planes/choppers. Being able to switch between targeting enemies is nice but sometimes, I found myself not targeting enemies… One mission involves going into a plastic poker chip facility and destroying the machines. All too often, CJ was focusing on the machines and not the guards wielding AKs. It made a rather moderate mission more annoying, not difficult, to complete.
Despite all those flaws, San Andreas garnered rave reviews. It’s universally regarded as a near-perfect game (on a 10-point review scale, San Andreas was usually a high 9). I’d knock it down to high 8-near 9 (the equivalent of a high B). A fun game that stops being fun on too many missions. It’s enormous game flaw that it’s unforgivable that Saints Row was the first to implement. Speaking of Saints Row, it captures GTA’s feel and gameplay better than GTA itself. Saints Row aims for fun, not for story or graphics. In games like this, that’s all that really matters. Who’s interested in the story of Grand Theft Auto anyway?