TLDR: SA has terrible gameplay, a bad story and is so frustratingly designed compared to the newer gta's that it doesn't deserve the title "the best gta" in my opinion. Please take some time of your day to read my post before you downvote me, it took me a long time to write and I love discussions.
Super Mario 64 is the only game I can think of that is put on a higher pedestal than San Andreas. The best GTA. The best Rockstar game. The best game period.
I grew up in a poor neighborhood, so I never played any console game as a kid. So hearing all this praise for a 16 year old game really annoys me, because I did play it now and I did put 60 hours into it and did finish it including all side missions. But I also did the same with every other GTA too so I can say without a doubt that everything about this game was made better in the newer games. Here's a "review" of San Andreas in 2020 without nostalgia glasses. For every bad thing i say about SA, you can fill the blanks on how it compares to the newer games.
I hear many people praise San Andreas's story, but I wonder how many of these actually finished it. I won't spoil it, but 70% has no focus and is just mindless fetch quests. You hear nothing from the characters that are involved in the plot for a very long time and the actual main antagonist of the game disappears for 76 missions straight (the game has a total of 100 missions), with him not being mentioned once during this time. I think there's a reason all references to the game nowadays are based on the first 4 missions only. Because most people today just replay the game for nostalgia reasons and stop after an hour. And those things are what are remembered now. I didn't like the plot of gta 5 necessarily, but the characters and dialogue were good and the actual events of the plot were mentioned all the time. The main bad guys stick with the main good guys throughout the game. This is only a very basic reason why I like the story more, there are much more detailed reasons for it, but I'm not a literate but just a ranting fool on reddit. Also I don't have to mention how great gta 4's story is. It's the only thing left that people still appreciate about this masterpiece.
Another issue is the gameplay. I don't understand how many people just ignore flawed controls, bad physics, terrible gunplay and just overall frustrating design choices. For example it takes around 10 minutes to be able to restart a mission from scratch if you die or fail once, and while you're at it, every time you die you also lose a lot of money and all your guns, and every mission requires guns and you require money to get guns and you must finish missions to get money. You need 10 minutes to get to a gun store and then to the mission marker, if you're lucky enough to not be stranded in a literal desert and have no civilization around you. Add terribly unbalanced difficult missions (15th mission is the second hardest in the game) and awful aiming-mechanics and you got yourself one mission done from San Andreas. Only 99 left to go. I found myself not playing the game for several days, just remembering the pain and frustration, but i guess in 16 years I myself will just remember the good times of it and also call it the best game of all time "back when games were still good".
I don't understand how many people disregard criticism about graphics by just saying "so what? It's an old game" but that's the entire point. It's an older game. It is worse in many aspects to newer games. Half Life came out just 2 weeks after San Andreas and if you compare both you can immediately see that even for its time San Andreas was ugly. It's even uglier than Gta Vice City and 3 because it has worse draw distance than both. Seriously, I have never seen a game with worse draw distance than SA and I don't need to show a certain video to prove it, just look up any unmodified gameplay on the original version that everyone played, the ps2 and you know what I'm talking about. (Around 70% of all SA players and pretty much everyone who praises it now played this on a PS2, because it didn't came over to other platforms for a long time and was very glitchy on them as well. Even on different versions is the difference very slim) It's the only reason why this game feels so huge for so many people. Just look at how miniscule it looks with a draw distance mod.
What I hate the most about this game though are the controls. You shoot with Circle, aim with R1, switch between enemies that you aim at with L2 and R2 (these buttons also switch the weapon you currently use) and you cannot decide where to shoot the enemy, it always shoots at the torso. Don't move the right stick if you're in a shootout ever because it activates free aim which is absolutely laughable. It's extremely sensitive and unprecise, it's impossible to hit someone with this free aim with a controller. You can't change sensitivity or the button layout btw. The game is extremely bare bones when it comes to settings. Outside of vibrations and music volume, nothing can be changed. Have I also mentioned that there is no cover system? You're forced to face every enemy running at them, there is no effective way to dodging bullets and you will loose a bit of your hp on almost every single enemy you encounter. And you're almost guaranteed dead when fighting several people when they don't stand right next to each other. Without cheats it's very frustrating and almost impossible to get further through the missions. And cheats make it impossible to loose so there is now 0 challenge in this game and makes it effectively boring. You cannot master the aiming. Its designed in a way that you can never really improve your skill on it. Only thing you can do is grind for hours on a gun store to get the artificial "weapon skill" a bit higher which makes your guns a bit more precise while auto aiming, but this absolutely doesn't do anything on the actual messy aiming itself so you're still screwed. The worst mission for me is one where you fight people sprayed all around a small warehouse between a lot of cannisters that you must destroy. Many of which are on a cabinet, so right above you but you can't see these enemies and they're not put on the minimap either and everyone can easily shoot you while your auto-aim also goes to said cannisters you have to shoot, so you're completely fucked and even after you're done, outside are 5 snipers waiting, ready to oneshot you. I genuinely want to see anyone who finished this mission on a ps2 (or at least a controller) without any cheats. It's one of the worst gaming experiences i ever had and I played Life is Strange 2. it's called "You've had your chips".
I see many people (rightfully) bitching about gta 5 having much less details, dumb ai and bad physics compared to gta 4. yet the exact same can be said about san andreas being worse in these regards compared to gta 4. it's just so many little things that make the HD games better. Like driving a car with the shoulder buttons not with the X button. Having a gps on the minimap, having a draw distance high enough to actually be able to appreciate the map, being able to shoot out of your car freely not just left and right and only with a uzi, being able to go inside interios without a loading screen, having a multiplayer, having MUCH better controls and gameplay, having actual background while in a shootout, having car physics that don't make you loose control of your car for 10 seconds because of the slightest crash (races are one of the worst things about sa) having a phone, having checkpoints and on and on and on.
"What about so many side activities?" 90% of side activities are either vigilante missions (driving taxi or a firetruck around the city) or races. Vigilante are fun for 2 minutes, racing isn't fun at all. And even then, both next gta games have in terms of quantity more to do outside of missions. Like hunting, drug wars, being a security guard on a disco or just watching tv.
"It's unfair to compare such an old game to newer ones" and it's also unfair to call it a better game compared to said newer ones.
"For its time it was revolutionary" not really. Truly revolutionary was gta 3. San Andreas just improved it, and they improved it well, don't get me wrong it's much better than gta 3, but just like San Andreas and vice improved gta 3, so did 4 and 5 improve san andreas. It was also not the best game or most influential game for its time, that prize really should go to half life 2, considering a mod for said half life 2 is still right now the most played online in the world. Talking about influential, no game influenced the fps genre more than half life. Same can be said about san andreas, but the open world genre was minuscule compared to the fps genre and open world games only really became large in the last 10 years, during the HD-GTA era. The only open world games from the SA era that are still remembered are Mafia and Saints Row. Also, revolutionary doesn't equal good to begin with, otherwise the first game of all time should count as the best game of all time.
I can't think of anymore hypothetical questions someone can ask me, so please tell me that in the comments. I'm just really fed up with how such old games are praised, and how newer games are shunned when I know most of it is based around nostalgia bias. If gta sa came out today and gta 5 came out in 2004, people today would praise gta 5 and hate on gta san andreas.
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