You can fit San Andreas into Grand Theft Auto 5 several times over, yet the former still feels bigger. That’s the most surprising takeaway from my time revisiting Rockstar’s ’90s crime epic, which has sold a staggering 21 million copies in its lifetime. Released on PC in 2005, a year after the PlayStation 2 version, it’s a massive step up from the previous game, Vice City, in pretty much every respect.
In the early-to-mid 2000s you couldn’t move for GTA clones: True Crime, The Getaway, Scarface: The World is Yours, Saints Row. But while these games were largely, or entirely, set in a single city, Rockstar used its unmatched financial might (and, some might say, hubris) to take things to the next level, presenting an entire state to cause mayhem in. California analogue San Andreas contains acres of country, a desert, and three cities: Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas.
The first 15 hours of San Andreas take place in Los Santos, Rockstar’s satirical recreation of 1990s Los Angeles. This is not LA as it really was, but an exaggerated version of the city viewed through the lens of movies such as Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society, and through the music of Snoop Dogg and NWA. It’s all lowriders, orange sunsets, police helicopters scanning the streets with searchlights, and gangbangers swigging forties on the corner.
Protagonist Carl 'CJ' Johnson, an ex-gangster, returns home to Los Santos from Liberty City to bury his mother, but soon finds himself tangled up in the life of petty gang violence he tried to leave behind.
To prevent you from immediately just leaving Los Santos and heading out to explore the rest of the state, corrupt cop Frank Tenpenny (played brilliantly by Samuel L Jackson) warns CJ that if he tries to skip town, the full weight of the law will come crashing down on him.
Of course, you’re still going to try. The first time I played San Andreas I made a beeline straight for San Fierro, the game’s version of San Francisco. But the moment you leave the boundaries of Los Santos you get a maximum wanted level, surviving which is pretty much impossible. Today, open worlds rarely keep you contained in one part of the map—and certainly not for as long as San Andreas does. But for a game this size I think it’s a good idea.
When you finally finish the first act, you almost feel like you’ve been in Los Santos for the length of an entire GTA game. Which makes the moment when CJ is dumped in the countryside by Tenpenny even more exciting. Gone are the traffic-clogged streets and the endless sea of buildings. You’re surrounded by trees, mountains, and rivers. Even the cars and pedestrians change to reflect your new surroundings, with the lowriders and gangsters replaced by hillbillies and trucks.
Rockstar pulls the same trick here, containing you in the countryside as you complete a series of missions for crazed bank robber Catalina and paranoid hippy The Truth. What I love about this section of the game is how, occasionally, you catch tantalising glimpses of San Fierro in the distance—most notably the Gant Bridge (Rockstar’s take on the Golden Gate Bridge) and the Big Pointy Building, a parody of the Transamerica Pyramid. The game seems impossibly big at times.
Playing San Andreas today, there’s a sense Rockstar bit off more than it could chew. The game’s draw distance is incredibly short, with a huge amount of pop-in, which was presumably the only way they could get the thing running on the hardware of the time.
There’s also a noticeable drop in fidelity once you leave Los Santos, with San Fierro, and especially Las Venturas, feeling a little sparse and lifeless compared to the smaller cities from the previous 3D-era games.
But it feels massive, which I think is a combination of that draw distance obscuring the view ahead, and also the sheer amount of relatively empty space on the map. The countryside and desert in San Andreas seem genuinely barren and remote, while the rural areas in Grand Theft Auto 5 never feel totally isolated from the busier parts of the map. When you’re riding through the desert west of Las Venturas, or the rugged rural expanse of Red County, you feel totally disconnected from civilisation, which adds to its sense of scale.
San Andreas is a highly moddable game, and it’s possible to massively expand the draw distance in the PC version. But this removes that illusion of size, especially when you can see all three cities from one high vantage point. If you want to explore the map with a little more visual fidelity, a mod that transplants the entirety of San Andreas into GTA IV is available, although the clash of modern lighting and old school geometry is a little jarring to look at.
When CJ eventually reaches San Fierro, the look, feel, and tone of the game changes dramatically. The warm haze of Los Santos is replaced by a cold, blue-tinged colour palette, rain, and fog, and CJ gets involved with the Triads, street racing, and buying property. This variety is one of San Andreas’ strong points, although the story does lose some steam here. Rockstar is generally very good at telling long, compelling stories that take place across vast maps, but in San Andreas there are several points where the narrative sags and interest wanes.
But by the time CJ hits the Las Venturas strip, things gear up to the point where San Andreas feels more like a James Bond game. From that first bicycle ride through downtown Los Santos to jumping out of planes and robbing casinos, the classic GTA rags-to-riches story is at its most heightened and absurd here. When GTA 4 opted for a more subdued, grounded story, fans often cried out for a return to the over-the-top action of San Andreas—a request fulfilled by its excellent Ballad of Gay Tony DLC, which restored some of that frivolity.
The story comes full circle as CJ returns to Los Santos to settle the score with his treacherous former allies, now packing a massive arsenal of weapons and huge amounts of cash. It’s fun to see CJ grow from the broke, skinny kid in a tank-top to the tattooed, muscular, jewellery-laden crime boss he ultimately becomes.
Of course, his appearance is completely up to you. I know someone who finished San Andreas and never changed his clothes, hair, or body at all, apart from when a mission required it. While I must have spent at least ten hours of my total playtime getting my CJ looking as cool as possible.
San Andreas is difficult to play nowadays. The world is still fun to explore, but the missions themselves haven’t aged well at all. The shooting is clunky, the driving feels twitchy and weightless, and it’s punishingly difficult—especially in the final act. And the less said about those tedious RC missions given by San Fierro nerd Zero (voiced by David ‘Tobias Fünke’ Cross) the better. Honestly, if you feel the need to return to the state of San Andreas, just download a completed save file and enjoy exploring the world without any hassle.
I don’t think even Rockstar could make anything with this level of scope today. With the fidelity expected of a modern game, an open world with three distinct cities would be a tall order. Its most recent, Red Dead Redemption 2, is its biggest yet, but benefits from being set in a time when much of the United States was countryside. This makes San Andreas something of a one off. A snapshot of Rockstar at its most brash, bold, and ambitious, showing the pretenders that they were still the king of the open-world crime epic.
Vice City is arguably a better, tighter game, but this was a fine final chapter for GTA’s all-conquering PlayStation era. It was also one of the first worlds that was so big it generated its own mythology, inside and outside of the game. Whether it was bigfoot, UFOs, ghost cars, or chainsaw killers, an entire community emerged dedicated to documenting and discovering the weird stuff Rockstar hid in its world. I myself saw a UFO in San Andreas. It was hovering over a bridge in the countryside. Then it zipped off when I approached. It could’ve been a glitch, but I want to believe.