There's really never been a video game franchise quite like Grand Theft Auto. Both passionately loved and deeply reviled, it's sold more copies than any console series of this generation, all while causing more public outcry than any game in memory.
However, it’s important to remember that GTA is significant for much more than simply moving units or ruffling the feathers of "family values" watch-dogs. For millions of people around the world, Grand Theft Auto quite simply changed the definition of what a video game could be. After playing GTA iii for the first time, you realize that games aren't just about action; they aren't just about exploration; they aren't just about story; they aren't just about racing - they can now encompass all of these things at once. Nearly every company in video games has learned the lessons taught by the success of Rockstar Games' flagship franchise, and each passing month sees developers attempting new ways of cross-breeding genres that were once thought mutually exclusive.
But a simple mixing of styles isn't the sole reason the series has struck such a chord with its audience. Unlike most game franchises, which take familiar characters and place them in new settings and situations, GTA takes its wide-open gameplay, darkly satirical aesthetic, and violent leanings into whatever time period and geographical setting its creators see fit. Like the Final Fantasy series, each new Grand Theft Auto is a fresh start for the franchise: new worlds to conquer, new stories, and new experiences. Because of this, much of the speculation regarding the next iteration of GTA has been regarding its setting. Where could Rockstar North take the saga next? Early speculation had it that the game would be subtitled "Sin City" and set in an ersatz Las Vegas. Then, after it was officially confirmed that the next chapter would be named Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, rumor soon spread that the title would take place in a fictionalized Los Angeles.
So, who's right? Well, as is often the case in the world of Rockstar, the truth is considerably more complex than we could have dreamed. Because, as it turns out, everybody was right - and that's only half the story. If this is all a bit confusing, we suggest you read on, because we can guarantee one thing: You have no idea what Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has in store.
The Golden State
Perhaps sensing our anticipation, Rockstar’s Dan Houser, the game’s vice president of creative and one of the people most centrally involved in crafting the GTA universe, cuts through months of innuendo and gossip regarding the direction of San Andreas with a simple statement.
"San Andreas is not a city - it's a state," declares Houser. "Probably the most interesting thing you [need to] think about for a second is that we're not setting the game in a version of Los Angeles or San Francisco or Las Vegas, but in all three - and with the countryside in between."
Let that sink in for a minute, and you'll begin to understand just how large an undertaking this game has become for Rockstar North. Despite all their success, Houser makes it clear that the team is taking nothing for granted. "We take this GTA stuff really seriously and we work like f— on it, and we don't just do it to try to chum out a game. We think we've got some clever ideas and some clever angles on things," he comments.
While Vice City demonstrated remarkable progress in several key areas, the level of improvement being implemented in San Andreas might be best described as exponential. As Houser stated, the state of San Andreas incorporates three distinct urban areas: Los Santos (Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Francisco), and Las Venturra (Las Vegas). Each of these cities is relatively the same size as Vice City, and will be fully open to the player at different points in the story arc - all in all, Houser estimates the entire game area is approximately four to six times as large as the entirety of either of the previous entries in the series. Add to this the fact that you'll actually travel between cities over roadways that stretch through a vast countryside, which are home to their own unique characters and gameplay sequences. In essence, Rockstar finally seems to be closing in on its goal of crafting GTA as a living, breathing world.
The three cities also allow the designers to create a much more diverse set of experiences for the player, and each city is tailored to emphasize different aspects of the amazingly varied gameplay package.
"San Francisco has been done to death in games, but San Francisco has hills and GTA III had hills," Houser illustrates. "For good driving, one of the things that we missed [in Vice City] was hills. It just adds that third dimension; it's not as fun without it. So, in San Fierro, things are a lot more driving-focused and that’s when the game becomes a lot more about cars and driving and the environment reflects that. But the story also reflects it. Then, the specialty vehicles unlock, and you can do some wild s— you've never done before."
The rolling countryside will also expand the dimensions of the GTA experience, adding a dramatic scale that couldn't be accomplished in the urban confines of previous titles. “One of the things that the country-side gives you is a mountain; you’ve never had a mountain in a GTA game before,” opines Houser. The idea of being able to drive from LA through the countryside, up a mountain into San Francisco and on to Vegas is just freakish, and it feels amazing! It's a real big change of experience - you feel like you're in this world, and the world feels completely 3D. It's got depth."
The game's scope has expanded not only in size, but in detail as well. Thanks to new streaming and rendering technology designed by Rockstar North's programming staff, the game will boast environments that are both more intricate and more interactive than those in previous titles.
"I think looking back to Vice City, we had a much bigger map, but not everything was as dense and interesting as it could have been " observes Houser. "This time, every bit of the map looks much crisper and has a lot more stuff going on. Obviously, the desert is deserted but there's still some weird s— to see and the map still feels very vibrant and alive."
This sense of immediacy will be heightened by a number of nuts-and-bolts technical improvements to the game's graphics engine, which has been overhauled to incorporate real-time reflections on cars, windows, and mirrors, as well as new techniques like radial lighting, which allows for more realistic shadowing, and soft-shadow lighting for interior levels. Also, everything in the game now has independent models for day and nighttime, in order to make sure that objects look as detailed and vivid during the evening hours as they do during daylight.
Speaking of interior environments, this is yet another area in which Rockstar North is pushing the boundaries. While Vice City introduced interior gameplay into the equation, a vast majority of the buildings were little more than glorified save points. This time, tons of interiors have been fully rendered out, and tailored to facilitate new types of gameplay, most notably robbing houses...but more on that later.
Of course, what's the use of all this new real estate if you can't make it a part of your budding criminal operation? To this end, the purchasing of buildings - which was also present, but not fully developed in Vice City - has been given a much higher importance in San Andreas.
"It was something that we touched on in Vice City, when you acquired property and got this sense of starting to build an empire," said Houser. "That whole thing has been taken a lot further...In Las Venturra, you'll be able to run a casino there, which you will have bought and built."
Home Of The Body Bag
The architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, "They turned the country up on its side, and everything loose fell into California." This quote goes a long way towards describing the state that is probably one of the most culturally diverse regions on Earth. From hustlers of the Sunset Strip to the intellectual elite of Berkeley, California embodies the entirety of the American experience. All the crass commercialism and hippie idealism, the ghetto misery and Hollywood glitz, all the money and glamour, and suffering and dashed hopes that the country has ever given birth to somehow fought its way out west to lie down by the ocean.
If Rockstar was looking for rich source material for the cultural satire that's become the trademark of Grand Theft Auto, it couldn't do better than California, the state of Ronald Reagan and Ice Cube, hippie icon Jerry Garcia and high-class hooker Heidi Fleiss, the Beach Boys and Charles Manson. As any number of stand-up comedians have pointed out over the years, California is as strange and silly a place a; you could imagine. Houser more succinctly summed up the Golden State vibe with a simple phrase: "Call wierd-ness."
The team also couldn't have picked a more interesting time period for the setting of San Andreas; the early 1990s. One of the most troubled and divisive times in California history, the early '90s are most remembered for its intense gang warfare, when there were an estimated 15,000 active members of the Blood and Crip street gangs killing each other at a torrid rate. Things became even worse when years of abusive police actions finally resulted in parts of Los Angeles being burned to the ground after the beating of motorist Rodney King by four LA police officers, who were later acquitted.
This is the world that San Andreas' main character, Carl Johnson, finds himself coming back to after spending five years in Liberty City. Johnson left his neighborhood in the ghetto of Los Santos after the death of his brother Brian, who died in a tragic incident. Carl's older brother Sweet Johnson blamed him for Brian's death, leading to a period of estrangement that is broken by the sudden passing of his mother.
On returning home for the funeral. Carl finds his biological family and his former gang, the Orange Grove Families, in disarray. Sweet and his sister Kendall are at each other's throats. His former crew - Sweet, longtime family friend Smoke, and Ryder - have fallen from power on the streets, and are now besieged by both rival gang factions and internal quarrels.
Although Carl is reluctant to get dragged back into the street life, fete intervenes when his crew comes under the thumbs of Frank Tenpenr and Eddie Polaski, who Houser characterizes as a "heavy-duty pair of lunatic corrupt policemen on your case." As always, events soon spiral out of control, and Johnson finds himself on a frantic adventure that will take him across the state of San I Andreas as he fights to preserve his famity, his gang, and his life.
Obviously, this subject matter has the potential to draw some heavy criticism from a number of quarters, so Rockstar North has undertaken in unprecedented research effort to make sure that San Andreas can capture the true essence of California, viewed through TA's "distorted prism,” as Houser puts it.
“We have a full-time set of researchers, which I don't think many other game companies have," Houser points out. "We also took the whole team and all the artists around California and Vegas with "hundreds of digital cameras - deep into nasty neighborhoods and the nicest casinos and all points in between. We watched hundreds of movies to get the California vibe into the game. Also, we've got people who are in those communities and in that environment who we speak to about stuff to try to make it as faithful to that as makes sense.
In addition to their internal research, the team partnered with Estavan Oriol, a LA-based photographer, clothing designer, and video director who once worked for the Latino rap group Cypress Hill. His shots (some of which you can see in this article), helped Rockstar North get a better feel for California street culture from the perspective of someone who has lived It. They've also struck up a collaboration with west coast hip-hop veteran DJ Pooh, a producer/film director famous for his work with Ice Cube, which include production credits on Cube's albums Death Certificate and The Predator, as well as writing and acting roles in the classic hood comedy Friday. "
Just one thing that makes me slightly nervous is the notion that it's a game about gang-banging, which it is not really," comments Houser. "It could seem that way if you play about three percent of it [but] it' s very much lots of other things... On the one hand, the game is slightly more serious than previous games, on the other hand, it is still very much a satire."
In the tradition of GTA, you can expect that every part of society will be skewered with darkly comic precision, from the Hollywood Hills to the residents of the backwater towns that dot the rural regions of San Andreas. "Our take on the countryside from a sociological perspective is, if you're from the city, you fear the countryside -[all] the lunatics and maniacs," chuckles Houser.
One thing that Rockstar declined to comment on was the game's soundtrack or cast of voice actors -two areas in which Vice City, with its all-star talent and massive soundtrack of '80s hits (which was released commercially as a five disc box set), set new standards in the industry. For now, all we know is that the radio stations are back, and they will have a huge selection of era-specific music to play, as well as some older west coast classics.
When we questioned him on the musical portion of San Andreas, Houser didn't offer specifics, but did make this statement: "The plan with everything in the game is to push it further and harder than we ever have before," he offered. "A good thing to make clear is about the music, yes, there will probably be some rap music in there, but GTA music has always been about variety and we're not gonna deviate from that at all...California is one of the centers of music."
Questions about the game's voice cast drew out a little more fire from Houser, as he took some shots at what he termed video games' "horrible pandering to celebrity culture."
"We've done some really interesting stuff but I'll be honest with you, I don't want to talk about it because, it's actually annoying," Houser commented. "We started doing that stuff, and now other people are selling games on the back of the fact that they've got Heidi Klum or someone in the game, which I find ridiculous. We're not going to put a famous voice in just because it's a famous voice. We're going to get someone who sounds wicked for the character, and if they're not famous it doesn't bother us at all. Because I don't even think that is the talent. I think the talent is the people who make the games. The guys at Rockstar North are the stars of this thing. We've never sold a game on the back of the fact that this or that person is in it."
However, when we asked if this meant that Rockstar was using more unknown actors to fill the roles in San Andreas, Houser quickly laughed and said, "Now, I didn't say that at all!” Expect that, whatever the cast, San Andreas will have some very cool and appropriate acting talent signed on.
GTA fans can also expect that, much in the same way Vice City's storyline had loose ties to the events of GTA III, San Andreas will also tap into the series tradition in terms of both plot points and familiar faces. "For the hardcore obsessives that really follow the stories of both and can remember them in their heads," reveals Houser, "there will be lots of stuff that they can pick up on, some really fun stuff. Weird characters turning up again, other people mentioned; there will be lots of interesting stuff like that."
Game Recognize Game
More than any other series in history, Grand Theft Auto is about giving players the freedom to blast their way through amazingly detailed environments, doing anything and everything that their sick minds can dream of. Well, as you might expect given the epic scale of San Andreas, "anything and everything" just got a whole lot more interesting.
One of the more significant changes in gameplay experience is the work that has gone into the game's Al system. Each and every character you see on screen now has a "brain," and will react to your actions and other events in a much more intelligent fashion. Rest assured, the sometime dimwitted reactions of pedestrians in past editions of GTA is a thing of the past NPC intelligence behavior has now become 50 varied that voiceover recording sessions for an average pedestrian character's dialogue have gone from a mere ten minutes to an hour in length. The Al is not limited to the behavior of NPCs, either, as San Andreas will implement dynamic difficulty based on your performance, sometimes easing the challenge to allow players to advance past troublesome objectives - a move Rockstar hopes will allow more fans to play San Andreas through to completion.
Even better, the new AI now allows you to recruit a gang to accompany you on missions. One deadly new application of this teamwork includes the four-person drivebys. Trust us,, the first time you slowly roll down the street with a three-deep crew hanging out the windows with guns cocked and ready for action, you’ll never want to back to being a lone gunman again.
[Two paragraphs removed because they were illegible on the scan - Check back soon.]
appearance. It’s not just a step up in terms of complexity from the simple cab missions of the past (although Houser promises even more of these types of minigame modes will be included as well), it’s also part of an effort to make your every action tie in to the overall progression of your character.
"In GTA III, it could feel like, to some extent, there were two states: I'm on a mission and I'm not on a mission, and they weren't connected enough," comments Houser. “In Vice City, we made headway into closing that sense of separation - the story didn't feel like it existed just in the missions. But this time the whole game is happening all the time. Obviously, you still have missions you have to do, but when you're not on a mission, not only are there a thousand things to do, but what you can do relates to where you are in the story. The whole thing feeds back into how the story unfolds. The [side-missions] have relevance; you'll learn skills that you'll need on a mission."
Obviously, with the increased importance of acquiring properties and building a criminal empire, money is now much more than just a way of keeping score. So, between major objectives, you can rob the scores of fully modeled dwellings for cash. House break-ins play a large part in San Andreas, but Houser warns that these jobs wilt require real skill and planning. In other words, don't expect a burglary to be as easy as a simple carjacking.
"[Robbery] is definitely a skill. If you don't do very well, someone's going to shoot your head off, and if you do it well, you'll get away with plenty of loot"
As the story progresses, new types of gameplay will open up, each specifically tied to the setting and story arc. In Las Venturra, you'll be able to gamble your hard-earned money away, just like in real life. No matter where you are in your long journey through San Andreas, Houser promises that you'll experience new and challenging types of gameplay. "There's a lot more complexity. The way it unlocks has been thought through a lot You still start from pretty basic stuff; the tutorial is built into the game," Houser explains. "There're hundreds of skills to learn in this game so you can't have hundreds of tutorials. So each mission you learn a new skill. In every mission you'll be doing something new."
Just as the game is constantly evolving, so will your character. In fact, you'll see the results of your character's lifestyle right before your eyes. We've mentioned the fact that there are now numerous restaurants throughout San Andreas - and they are not a mere novelty. Adding a new dimension of realism, Carl will now have to eat in order to maintain his physical state - which is also reflected in a Stamina meter, something Rockstar North experimented with in Manhunt. And, as the saying goes, you are what you eat. Consuming fast food and avoiding exercise will actually make Carl gain weight, which affects everything from your speed to the character's physics-to humorous effect.
"Playing a mission when you're a fat bastard and everyone calling you a 'fat bastard' in the game world is an amazing experience," said Houser. Unfortunately, becoming overweight will frequently make missions either more difficult or outright impossible, forcing you to seek another very real-world solution to your problem.
"So, you eat your donuts, you get fat, you gain weight, you reduce your stamina and speed - how do you sort that out?" questions Houser. "You go to the gym, you work out, you gain muscle, and you gain a lot more strength, a lot more speed. The [character] model actually changes and he looks amazing."
Although it may seem like a gimmick, Houser sees the weight dynamic as yet another way of bringing the player closer to the main character and the story, a paramount concern of the development team. "We're trying to build up the sense of ownership over the world and over your character, from his weight to a hundred other things you can do to him in that world.”
This effort to create a bond between the player and their onscreen alter ego is furthered by changes that are being made to the control scheme, it's no secret that gun targeting has been the area in most need of improvement in GTA, and although Vice City made significant strides in this area, Rockstar North has continued its effort to overhaul the targeting and camera systems.
“The hardest thing in any open-world, third-person shooter is making targeting fun," claims Houser. "It’s something that people criticize in GTA, but I don't think there're many games that do it very well. It's a fundamental problem with a third-person shooter. We've done a lot of work to make that really fun this time."
While Rockstar won't divulge details regarding the targeting until they are fully 'locked and loaded," when we pressed him on the issue, Houser responded simply: "Play Manhunt -the shooting levels in Manhunt It's a development on that I think you'd find those a lot more explosive and in-your-face than previously."
We certainly take this as a good sign, given the fact Manhunt has an alternate control scheme that allows players to use the right analog stick for look/target, as well as the ability for players to take cover behind outcroppings and auto-target from around corners - two features that would be amazing additions to the GTA universe. Whatever their plans, if San Andreas shows the same level of improvement in targeting that Vice City demonstrated over its predecessor, fans of the series should be quite pleased.
In general, a tremendous effort has gone into crafting more responsive character control, an effort that is paying dividends in many aspects of the gameplay package. "One of the areas we're working up is the hand-to-hand combat," comments Hourser. "We're going to get a lot more variety in stances, attacks, and control over that. It’s going to be new styles of carjacking. [There are] new things you can do such as swimming - a lot more detail and variety in the animation."
On the weapons front, although there will be new and unique armaments in San Andreas, the bounds of reality (and the early '90s tints period) have somewhat limited the team options in terms of the new arsenal.
"One of the issues is that we've already put in a s—load of weapons and it’s thinking of new ones that make sense within the game that are [from the] real world without descending into laser guns and stuff - which we are definitely not doing," said Houser. °So, it’s been finding a more interesting take on the weapons and a wider variety between the weapons. The changes haven't been [putting in] 4,000 guns because there certainly aren't, it’s more that there is a much different feel to each weapon having been overhauled."
No matter which gun is in hand, you can expect that it will be a good deal more rewarding as Rockstar North is finally implementing what it calls an "impact animation” system - another term for rag-doll physics - which means enemies should fall to the pavement in a painfully realistic fashion. In addition, your character will now be able to dual-wield pistols, doubling your murderous prowess while adding a stylish Hong Kong-influenced flair to your homicidal rampages.
Further technological upgrades are being performed to the vehicle physics engine in the hopes of both tightening the core elements like car handling, in addition to opening up the possibility for completely new modes of transportation.
"It's still not meant to be a racing game," said Houser. "It's meant to be a cruising and chasing game and it is still going to feel like that, but we're just reworking and overhauling everything. In Vice City the vehicles ranged from a moped to a plane, and the range is much bigger at both ends this time."
One completely new type of vehicle Houser described is not of the motorized sort. Just as Vice City introduced motorcycles to the mix, San Andreas adds another type of two-wheeled transportation. "We've added an absolute ton of new vehicles. You're actually able to ride a bicycle this time, as well - which is really fun. You have to press the buttons to make it go faster and it just feels like a bicycle, but in the GTA world.”
Welcome To The Next Level
Leaving our meeting with Dan Houser, we couldn't help but feel a little overwhelmed. A new Grand Theft Auto title is a huge event in video games, and our expectations going in had been running high. However, nothing could have prepared us for just how large Rockstar North's ambitions for this project had become. We'd hoped for a larger city - what we got was a state with three cities, together comprising perhaps what is the most massive virtual world ever created on a console title.
San Andreas also promises to be the most dramatic and emotionally engrossing entry in the series to date. Starting in GTA III, we were thrown on to the treacherous streets of Liberty City as a nameless, mute thug - a grim cipher whose presonality failed to extend past the barrel of his gun. In Vice City, we became rapt in the saga of Tommy Vercetti (masterfully voiced by Goodfellas actor Ray Liotta), a hardluck ex-con lost among the dangerously glamorous characters that populated the cocaine-addled Miami of the 1980s. This fall, we'll step into the dense drama of the Johnson family, one that aspires to encapsulate the tension and tumult of California in the early 1990s.
Just as some began to question whether GTA could withstand the pressure coming from franchises like True Crime: Streets of LA, Sony's upcoming The Getaway 2, or Atari's eternally delayed Driver 3, Rockstar stepped up to the table and, like one of the cold-blooded poker players that roam the casinos of Las Venturra, raised the stakes impossibly high. After the few hours we spent talking about the GTA team's commitment to making Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas its greatest development project to date, it became clear that Rockstar has no plan to step down from its position as one of the most daring and successful companies in video games.