The rumour that Rockstar is remastering the PlayStation 2’s trilogy of Grand Theft Auto games for PlayStation 5 and PS4 last week had a profound impact on me: I simply had to return to the fictional state of San Andreas. My history with the 2004 open world is both fortuitous and a little bit embarrassing actually: despite requesting a copy for my birthday and Christmas, my Mum refused to buy the game she’d read so much about in the tabloids. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that, in a bizarre twist of fate, I stumbled upon a discarded DVD by the side of the road. It was, by God’s grace, a copy of San Andreas – scratched and scathed, but just about playable.
While I don’t recall the campaign quite as vividly as discovering the disc, it certainly appealed to my “life sim” sensibilities. As a big fan of franchises like Shenmue, I’ve always appreciated that “slice of life” style gameplay, and while GTA: San Andreas is unsurprisingly raucous and depicts a lifestyle I couldn’t be further from, I enjoyed the role-playing elements like going to the gym and eating at fast food restaurants. While I’m hesitant to call it unprecedented – games like The Sims were also popular at the time – the idea of a sandbox where you could go anywhere and do anything was still relatively nascent in those times, and GTA: San Andreas still impresses to this very day.
I downloaded the PS2 Classics version to my PS5 last week just to feed my hype for the impending remasters. Aside from adding Trophies – and, in the case of GTA, removing some songs – these are effectively running on a PS2 emulator, so I was anticipating 480p graphics stretched to fit my widescreen television. There’s a distinctive look that all PS2 games possess these days: it’s grubby, hazy, and a little bit dull – but San Andreas somehow still impresses with its chunky animation cycles and attention to detail.
I was actually more worried about the gameplay than the graphics, but after playing a lot of GTA 5 recently, it’s amazing how well it holds up. Don’t get me wrong, the movement is twitchy and the camera has a tendency to go completely AWOL, but in terms of control scheme it’s virtually identical to its contemporary – in fact, the only major difference is the mapping of vehicle acceleration and braking to the face buttons, as obviously this defaults to the triggers on more modern incarnations of the DualShock controller.
The writing is fantastic overall: characters are, admittedly, caricatures – but they all have personality and there are plenty of laugh out loud gags. There are some scenes that I don’t think would work in a modern context – early on, there’s a mission where you chase down a flamboyant homosexual that I think shows the game’s age – but CJ is a protagonist you really feel like you can champion, and San Andreas feels like a living place where stories are overlapping and you’re just witnessing the highlights. This has always been one of the strengths of Rockstar: they build open worlds that not only look alive, but you always feel like you’re merely interrupting characters who are going about their business.
The gunplay is simplistic and cumbersome, but it’s not massively dissimilar to GTA 5 with its lock-on functionality – the only major difference is that free-aim is much more restricted, so you can’t go for headshots as easily. There’s also no traditional cover system in the game – that was introduced with GTA 4 – although you can crouch for an aim accuracy boost and to hide between walls. Missions are surprisingly bombastic, including one where you’re shooting out a gang atop a train.
It’s the variety that really astounds. In addition to all of the side-activities, like the aforementioned gym, you can also partake in burglaries and lowrider contests – it’s obscene how much is packed onto a single PS2 DVD. The checkpointing system is practically non-existent – you can skip journeys when retrying failed objectives, but you basically need to play them from scratch if you make a tiny error – and this is something I think Rockstar need to improve for the rumoured remasters. But while it doesn’t really respect your time, the plot beats are interesting enough to force you to push through.
I’m surprised by how well GTA: San Andreas holds up after all this time. It doesn’t look or play as good as GTA 5, of course, but many of the same systems exist here. Obviously the likes of GTA 3 and GTA: Vice City are in need of a bigger upgrade – they don’t even use the second analogue stick, after all – but visuals and some mission design quirks aside, GTA: San Andreas stacks up against modern open world games. It’s not without its quirks, of course, but part of that is what makes it such a landmark title – it’s over 15 years old and it still feels like it’s ahead of the curve in many regards.
What are your memories of GTA: San Andreas? Are you considering replaying this classic should the remasters turn out to be real? Follow the damn train in the comments section below.