The 3 Merits of San Andreas
The GTA series, and San Andreas especially, are miracles of game design. Well, OK, that's open to debate, but rarely, if ever, had a world been so fully-realized until GTA III landed on the PS2. A few games like Jak and Daxter had gone for the whole “seamless world” thing before, and although you could see into the distance, the entire world taken as a whole was small and certain elements of the environment strategically obscured others. Early MMO's like Everquest could also be considered, but their worlds were far more segmented than San Andreas' one, contiguous state. It just seems that nothing has quite matched the marriage of scope, population, and interactivity that this series has, in such a satisfying manner. This is all, of course, working on the hopelessly generic Renderware engine.
The good game design, though, brings up another point: the effort clearly put into constructing the game separates it from other games, like the aforementioned BMX XXX, that feature lazy designs in order to get a quick cash-in on the “mature” market out the door. Almost universally, games that cater to this hit the market in remarkably bad shape. But not San Andreas! It is clearly the developer's baby and the wealth of content and design decisions which go into shaping that content must be overwhelming. In other words, there's no fooling around with this series and, yet, it remains one of the best-selling franchises in gaming history despite gunning for a similar demographic as lesser games.
The design itself promotes a lot of exploration and interaction, which is no doubt a feather in its cap. There's no direct line from Point A to Point B and the game regularly calls for creative solutions to different situations. Anytime when you're in a car chasing someone down or being chased yourself, you've got to be quick on your feet considering car choice, possible routes, and what to do in case your first plan fails. On top of that, you'll need good knowledge of your surroundings and where certain roads will take you at any given time. For instance, if you're being chased by the police, you could go for the more stable highways for speed, but an off-road route might afford you a more direct route to your destination. It also comes with the increased risks of rolling your car or plunging into a ravine. These constant decisions are mostly left up to the player, so the game design promotes a high level of thinking and strategy while playing. There are so many nooks and crannies and hidden items throughout the world of San Andreas that exploration is key.
Likewise, the player is given “good” choices to offset the “bad.” The main missions may often require CJ to do something criminal, but there are plenty that simply require him to win a race, help a friend accomplish something, carry injured people to the hospital, put out fires with a fire truck, chase down convicts in a police car, or even park cars at a valet stand. Suffice to say, not everything in the game requires you to engage in criminal acts and, if the player should choose, they can just zip around the environment taking in the sights, going to the gym, buying new clothes, or performing stunts with their vehicles. None of which involves making drug deals or brawling with cops.
1/30/2006 Cavin Smith