This is part 27 of a month-long look at the games of 2004. To see the other parts, click here.
The argument of which Grand Theft Auto game is the best, is one that I’m constantly thrilled to find myself engaged in, simply because there is a strong argument to be made that any of them deserve the title.
Maybe you prefer the overhead, arcade style simplicity of the original installments. Perhaps the revolutionary third title holds an inescapable nostalgic appeal for you. If Vice City‘s 80’s throwback era charmed the pants off of you, who could blame you? Then again, GTA: IV‘s dark tones or GTA: V‘s air tight mechanics and technical majesty, may just be your cup of tea.
There’s a case to be made for any in the GTA series to be the greatest, as each possess their own unique quality which separates them from the pack, and ultimately boils that discussion down to the tried and true qualifier of personal preference.
Now, that being said, if you ever try to argue with me that there is any GTA game bigger than San Andreas, then prepare for a verbal thrashing my good fellow.
Oh sure, I’ve seen the map size comparisons, and I’ve heard the numbers that say each installment since San Andreas has presented a larger world, but I’m telling you right now that I don’t believe them. After all, what are statistics when weighed against what your heart tells you is true while experiencing the thing itself?
And what my heart tells me while playing San Andreas is that it is the biggest a Grand Theft Auto game has ever been, and will likely ever be. A big reason behind this stubborn logic is the game’s map, which featured three distinct and sizable cities, as well as swathes of ocean area, and both forest and desert regions that serve as buffers between the urban sprawls.
In terms of aesthetic conception, it’s by some measure the most ambitious layout of any game in the series. At the time, the popular description of its size was that San Andreas felt like three entire Grand Theft Auto games rolled into one, and I’ll be damned if that doesn’t hold true to this day.
However, my San Andreas‘ size claims have much more to do with the sheer amount of content contained within that world. It’s a mind boggling checklist of things to do, that led to many 5+ page reviews of the game that ultimately had to conclude with “But hey, this just scratches the surface.” Oh sure, certain elements like the ability for your character to gain weight or learn different fighting styles may not have been universally beloved, or as fleshed out as they should be, but just the fact that nearly section of the game contained something for the player to do (and often multiple things) remains astounding.
Even in terms of traditional GTA elements, San Andreas seemed on a warpath to dwarf both what came before, and intimidate what was yet to be released. I find this is especially true of the story, which takes advantage of the diverse locales this world offers to convey a plot that feels epic, both from a geographical and character standpoint. It doesn’t hurt that this story happens to be filled with more characters than your typical GTA game (again, due to the sheer size of the thing) who are by and large voiced by the biggest collection Triple-A acting talent that a game has seen to date.
Better yet, the missions that make up this story just happen to arguably be the best in the franchise. As much as I love the GTA games, I find it hard to say much nice about their missions, for the most part, as even the better games reach a point where the creativity just seems to waver. That isn’t the case here, and I feel a big reason behind that is the developer’s commitment to that wacky GTA style which doesn’t seem quite beholden to the world we live in.
This philosophy results in assignments like stealing a jetpack from Area 51 to help you plan a multi-tier casino heist, or swiping a combine harvester from a group of cultists, only to burn down the weed farm it was going to be used for with a flamethrower, before the cops show up. And once again, there were just so many missions that their overall quality was seemingly a statistical inevitability.
And that is what San Andreas was all about really. It was Rockstar’s attempt to see just how much they could put into a video game, without literally blowing their fan’s minds Raiders of the Lost Ark style, when they realize the scope of this endeavor. It was a giant middle finger to the rest of the video game industry, whose own offerings suddenly felt less spectacular than they may have not long ago.
It’s why I don’t even get angry when someone tells me they don’t like San Andreas, because I can perfectly understand how the sheer absurdity of the thing itself would deter even regular fans. Hell, I am a super fan of this installment, and I eventually had to realize that there was no point in trying to get into details regarding just how packed this title is, because it remains a futile effort. To this day, the only way to really take it all in is to dive into the 100+ hours this game asks of you if you want to see everything it offers.
If you’re asking me, Rockstar has made not only better Grand Theft Auto games than San Andreas, but better games in general as well. However, for a company with a legacy that is based in some part around making bigger and badder worlds than any other, this may just be their masterpiece.
So yes, come all ye faithful and let us debate the merits of every installment of this franchise until are faces turn blue. But once the conversation turns to sheer volume of content, just know that you face a losing battle if you happen to deny San Andreas its rightful place as king of them all.
10 years later, and I still can’t comprehend just how big Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas truly is.