Relive Your Misspent Youth Gangsta-Style With GTA: San Andreas [Review]

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Rockstar Games has been re-releasing its GTA catalog on iOS platforms for the past few years. GTA 3 appeared as a 10th-anniversary port back in late 2011, and revered follow-up Vice City turned up a year later. San Andreas’ arrival isn’t a surprise, then, but it’s certainly a pleasant treat — a bit like when that Christmas gift you’d been requesting all year finally turns up under the tree.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas by Rockstar Games
Category: iOS Games
Works With: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch
Price: $6.99

For those unfamiliar with this particular entry, it follows the rise and rise of former gangbanger Carl Johnson — aka CJ — as he returns to Los Santos to find his mom dead, his family in ruins and his former gang marginalized. From there it’s a climb back to the top, as CJ takes on local gangstas and corrupt cops en route to re-establishing control of the streets.

San Andreas borrows liberally from movies like Menace II Society.

San Andreas borrows liberally from movies like Menace II Society.

“Epic” is a word often used to talk about the Grand Theft Auto series, and San Andreas does nothing to buck the trend (in fact, it did a whole lot to help establish it). Vice City might get a lot of the glory when fans look back on the series as a whole, but San Andreas was arguably the real triumph of the PlayStation 2 era. The immensely detailed map — a location revisited in the recent GTA V — is around four times larger than that seen in Vice City, and takes players from thinly-veiled caricatures of Los Angeles (Los Santos) through San Francisco (San Fierro) and Los Angeles (Las Venturas). The map is stocked with a massive 240-odd vehicles (compared to the 60 seen in GTA 3) and a then record-breaking cast, including 174 voice actors and 687 additional performers.

San Andreas marked a considerable ramping-up of the RPG elements of GTA. Money, eating, exercise, car customization and various other upgradeable stats all serve to expand the universe and make the game feel more immersive. Not all of it works, and some of it was dropped from later games, but it’s difficult to fault Rockstar’s ambition.

The immensely detailed map is around four times larger than that seen in Vice City.

Equally epic is the game’s scope of storytelling — drawing from movies like Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society in much the same way Vice City borrowed from the Al Pacino version of Scarface. GTA’s nihilistic sense of humor works well against the backdrop of gangsta rap (in some ways the jokes wouldn’t have sounded out of place as “skits” on a mid-90s Dr. Dre album) and the real world weight of the Los Angeles riots and crack epidemic — both of which are referenced — helps ground the game in some kind of reality.

Of course, gazillions of options and a few real-life references would be nothing if the game itself was rubbish — or if the port was disappointing. Fortunately neither of these are true. In-game missions like “End of the Line” represent a high point in the GTA series, and overall the port faithfully recreates what you likely enjoyed about playing the game on a console or PC back in the day. Rockstar hasn’t changed the missions, although they have added the significant improvement of more frequent checkpoints, which pays off handsomely when the going gets tough in the game’s later stages.

Missions like “End of the Line” represent a high point in the GTA series.

Controls will be familiar to those that have played the other iOS GTA ports. Rockstar has done a commendable job of compressing around fifteen d-pad’s buttons onto one touch screen, with the standard touchscreen controls include a virtual joystick on the left side of the screen with a cluster of buttons on the right side for actions like running, attacking and hijacking cars. (Controls are also customizable, and there’s the opportunity to use iOS controllers.)

While the standard controls generally work well, occasionally there are faults — and these mainly occur on the iPhone where the limited screen real estate means that problems sometimes arise when the action gets particularly close and frantic (situations such as a fistfight, or a shootout surrounded by multiple enemies).

Players using newer iOS devices get the benefit of added environmental effects.

Players using newer iOS devices get the benefit of added environmental effects.

San Andreas generally looks beautiful. Since they’re dealing a game that’s almost a decade old, Rockstar has brought the graphics up to date somewhat — and claimed in advance literature that this is “the best-looking version of San Andreas yet”. Graphics have been remastered in higher resolution, and new dynamic lighting and shadow effect added, alongside an enriched color palette, longer draw distances, and improved character models (CJ now has fingers!).

While the standard controls generally work well, problems arise when the action gets particularly close and frantic.

I played the game on an iPhone 4s, iPhone 5s and iPad Air. While the game is technically iPhone 4s compatible, those playing on iPhone 5 variants and fourth generation iPads get extra environmental effects, and far better framerate when the on-screen action picks up.

Here’s a crazy closing thought for anyone who remembers San Andreas from the first go-around: the early Nineties period during which it is set — which seemed a lifetime away in 2004 — is roughly the same amount of time which has elapsed between now and the game’s original launch. Ultimately, the idea of playing a sprawling 100+ hour on your smartphone or tablet depends a lot on the gamer. But if the idea appeals to you, then San Andreas is the perfect trip back through time.

actual_1385081357Game Name: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
The Good: An absolute classic, now available on iOS
The Bad: Controls can occasionally be problematic, framerate suffers on iPhone 4s
The Verdict: If you’re a GTA fan, who can go wrong with a solid $6.99 port of one of the series’ best games?
Buy from: App Store

Cult of Mac rating: 4/5

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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