It’s a testament to the rapid rise of mobile gaming that last decade’s console blockbusters can now run entirely on your smartphone or tablet computer. In 2004, there was no bigger game than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, an open-world crime saga that propelled a young gangster around a satirical replica of California. While the mobile platform has its unique limitations, San Andreas is still a masterpiece of modern gaming.
GTA: SA tells the story of Carl “CJ” Johnson, a member of the Grove Street gang who returns to San Andreas after the murder of his mother. He quickly falls into the local gang wars, pulling drive-bys on rival gangs and reclaiming turf for Grove Street. You can customize CJ’s look by shopping for clothes, then either make him fat by frequenting fast food restaurants, or lean and mean by working out at the gym.
Other characters are introduced through cutscenes that precede each driving or shooting mission. While some of these characters are fun in their over-the-top, stereotypical behavior, a few of them are incredibly annoying. The corrupt Officer Tenpenny, voiced by Samuel L Jackson, is a blast to interact with, while the irritating OG Loc is just painful to watch in every scene.
These one-sided characters are often bad imitations of those from movies like Menace II Society or Boyz N the Hood, but that’s not the only reason the cutscenes are cringe-worthy. The visuals are jarring as well, with surprisingly flat and ugly faces wrapped around low-polygon character models. Compared to recent mobile games like The Wolf Among Us or Oceanhorn, San Andreas is a stark reminder of how much in-game graphics have advanced since 2004.
Once you’re out of the cutscenes, though, the beauty of San Andreas starts to shine through. San Andreas is a big, busy world for you to cause mischief in, and the sun-drenched scenery and detailed car models are far more attractive than the game’s human characters. Besides a virtual version of Los Angeles, San Andreas also contains knock-offs of San Francisco and Las Vegas, with plenty of countryside and desert in-between. It’ll take you dozens of hours to explore every mission and side activity, all while listening to multiple radio stations filled with classic playlists of licensed music.
While the scope of the game is staggering, it’s often frustrating to play it on a buttonless touchscreen. Onscreen prompts appear when you have to perform certain actions, like carjacking, but it’s tough to transfer all of the buttons and joysticks of a console controller to a four-inch piece of glass and not get in the way of the action. What makes things extra difficult is that San Andreas has numerous missions that require incredible precision, especially while driving. You may lose more than a few missions just because you accidentally swiped the camera too far, or your thumb slipped off the invisible movement controls.
For this reason, San Andreas is best enjoyed using one of the new iOS 7-compatible accessories, like the Moga Ace Power or Logitech PowerShell. We played San Andreas using both, and by far, it’s better with the Moga Ace Power due to the device’s dual joysticks and full compliment of buttons. The PowerShell works fairly well, but it’s missing the extra joysticks, so you’ll still have to swipe on the screen to change the camera. San Andreas is clearly the best reason to purchase a Moga Ace Power, but at $100, the accessory is prohibitively expensive. Neither GTA 3 nor Vice City will work with the new controllers, which is a disappointment that we hope Rockstar can fix right away.
If you’ve played GTA 3 or Vice City on iOS, you know that these games are still incredibly satisfying despite the cramped controls and time-warp graphics. The lengthy storyline in San Andreas, though often cheesy and overwrought, is just one of many significant values you’ll get for the $7 download price. The mission variety and outstanding soundtrack hold up much better overall, and playing San Andreas is an experience that any serious gamer should have at least once.
Whether you’re playing it again out of nostalgia, or if this is your first visit, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a massively enjoyable crime spree in a compact package. Maybe less than a decade from now, we’ll be playing Grand Theft Auto V as a visual overlay on our wearable computers, committing realistic-looking virtual crimes while we shop at the grocery store.