Monty and Morgion 120: Gronk Theft Auto

25Feb05 (Monthenor): The new Grand Theft Auto game makes me...not sad, exactly.

GTA: San Andreas: We have an interesting conundrum here. On the one hand, I love the 3D incarnations of GTA for the joy of driving around a complete virtual city in awesome cars. The added thrill of optional vehicular homicide is what gets played up on the news media, but just driving around and doing taxi missions is enough for me. On that score, this game is the greatest of its brethren, offering three truly massive areas to conquer.

This is also probably its greatest failing. The game world is so incredibly large that there was no hope of me exploring it all in a rental period (or two, or three). This is a game that anybody could learn to play in five minutes (at which point they master the art of driving on sidewalks), but San Andreas demands many dozens of hours to complete the main storyline. Heaven forfend you attempt all the side pizza/taxi/pimping/burglary/racing/export/firefighting/vigilante missions. This game also adds bicycles to its vehicle model, gang territories that must be defended, and personal health/muscle/sex appeal ratings that can be improved through workouts and bling. It's a game that, even to a series veteran like myself, seems to distend and collapse under the weight of its free-form gameplay. The "training wheel" missions last at least three times as long as the previous games and do almost nothing to help you internalize the city's geography.

In short, I got lost. Not just inside the city, but for the first time in GTA I was presented with so many options that I froze up and couldn't decide among them. It was a scary feeling.

I opted to start with self-improvement. My character pumped weights and ran treadmills until I could live vicariously he was an accurate representation of my chiseled physique. When my mighty Gronk began doing missions in earnest, none could match his physical strength or hope to outrun him on foot.

My next task was completely accidental, one of the strengths of the GTA series. I stole a random car parked along the street and was informed that my fly ride could attempt "pimping missions". How could I resist? So I began shuttling two hos from location to location around the first city. I got them to their Johns on time. I beat some ass when guys refused to pay. I didn't let nobody treat my girls bad. And I got my cut. After ten missions of pimping, I maxed out my "pimp" status bar and received my prize: from now on, when using a hooker's services to restore my health (a staple of GTA), the hooker would pay me!

Gronk like.

I managed to escape the first city just before I had to send the game back. It gave me a glimpse into what may turn out to be San Andreas' second-biggest problem: dead air. I was run out of town, see, and had to hide in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere in a trailer park. It was an accurate representation of poor rural America. By which I mean there were vast expanses of nothing bordered by two-lane highways. Not to mention that all the vehicles were area-authentic: tractors and pickups and dirtbikes. Not my first, nay third choice. This section of the game promised to stretch out forever, not because of the number of plot missions but due to the sheer size of the area. It literally took me fifteen minutes to find my way home after one mission, using the speediest dirtbikes and dune buggies I could lay hands on. It is a vast rolling empty expanse, accurately rendered in all of its non-fun-ness.

But even as I type this, I want to play again.

A parting note about the subject of the comic. This is not the first GTA game to feature a girlfriend character or two. It is the first GTA game to make most of these girlfriends optional...which makes their cell phone intrusions even less useful than before. Bitch, if I wanted to shuttle your sorry ass around my city you'd know it!

Jak 3: I just realized I never did review this game. Jak 1 was a shining paragon of platforming excellence, even despite the cliche "backpack" character I've grown to loathe. The world flowed seamlessly from one level to another and your skills were always just enough to conquer the challenges before you. Jak 2 took most of that platforming and threw it out, rudely inserting a GTA-style city with a paltry number of vehicles to steal, a pathetically small selection of guns, and loading doors that broke the flow considerably. Jak 3 extends that concept one step further: the platforming is now even easier and completely overshadowed by things that have no business in a Jak game. The gun has a few more firing modes, some of which are even useful. The vehicle selection is a little better, but the world you inhabit has grown by an order of magnitude. The bosses are rare indeed, and oscillate between obtuse and freakishly simple.

The whole effort just seems unfocussed. A good metaphor would be Jak 1's gaming goodness and the sharp precise world it inhabited, stretched and deformed to fill the large world of Jak 2, then scraped even thinner to accomodate the yet larger world of Jak 3. There's more surface area in each sequel, yet there seems to be just as much game. Does that makes sense?

I guess what I'm getting at is that you should play Ratchet and Clank 3 instead. They've stayed true to the roots of RnC the whole way, while expanding in ways that make sense to the evolution of their game.