Forget Red Dead Redemption 2, L.A. Noire, or Grand Theft Auto 5—Rockstar’s boldest creation is still the massive multi-city state of San Andreas.
After the success of GTA: Vice City, people wondered which caricature of an American metropolis Rockstar would take Grand Theft Auto players to next. In 2001 we visited Liberty City, a contemporary spoof of New York City. A year later it was Vice City, a garish '80s analogue of Miami. But no one could have predicted that the next game in the series would feature not one, but three cities, with acres of desert and countryside in between. Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas are satirical send-ups of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas respectively, encompassing the fictional state of San Andreas in the 1990s—and to this day it's the boldest, most ambitious thing the studio has ever done.
There's a lot in San Andreas that took the open-world genre to new heights in 2004. You have a ridiculously fine level of control over your character's fitness and appearance, with repeated trips to the gym or Burger Shot having the expected effect. You can take control of a vast array of land, air, and sea vehicles. You can buy property and run businesses. Bet on horses. Play arcade games. Gamble in Las Venturas. The sheer volume of ways to interact with the game was, and still is, remarkable. But above all, it's the world that really sets it apart. Just a few years earlier, Liberty City felt like the biggest, most detailed virtual city that could ever exist—and now there were three of them in one game.
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San Andreas is tiny by modern standards. You could fit the entire landmass into Grand Theft Auto 5's map several times over, and driving from one end to the other takes just 8 minutes. But the variety of terrain between the cities—including redwood forests, small country towns, and a sprawling desert—makes it feel much bigger than it actually is. When you're out in the middle of nowhere, you really do feel disconnected from civilization—more so than even GTA 5, whose deserts and forests never feel truly isolated. The short draw distance, a technical compromise to allow a game of this size to run on PS2-era hardware, also adds to the sense of scale, obscuring the distance and making things feel further away.
The game confines you to Los Santos in the first act. Travel beyond the city limits and you'll immediately earn a 6-star wanted level and be hunted mercilessly by waves of cops, FBI agents, and soldiers. You might reach San Fierro or Las Venturas, but being constantly harassed by law enforcement and the military means it's not worth it. By the time CJ finally leaves Los Santos you feel like you've been there for the length of an entire GTA game, which makes those first steps into the countryside incredibly impactful. In a dramatic change of scenery and atmosphere, the crowded urban setting you've grown used to is replaced by the isolated rural county of Whetstone—and suddenly the world feels massive.
The game limits you here again, keeping you in the countryside as you work for, among others, stoner conspiracy theorist The Truth and foul-mouthed bank robber Catalina. As you explore this new landscape you catch tantalising glimpses of San Fierro across the bay, namely the towering Gant Bridge—the game's version of the Golden Gate. You still can't travel there without the police and army hounding you, but it's an exciting taste of things to come. The maps in modern open-world games can typically be explored in full from the outset, but San Andreas uses its wanted system to carefully gate your progress, preventing you from immediately driving or flying across the whole world and pointlessly spoiling it for yourself.
The seamlessness was impressive too. Grand Theft Auto 3 and Vice City throw up a distracting loading screen when you move from one island to another. But in San Andreas you can hop in a plane in Los Santos and fly directly to Las Venturas, across fields and forests, without interruption. This is a given in games today, but it can't be overstated how incredible this felt—and what a technical feat it was for a console game—back in the early 2000s. It was amazing that San Andreas was running on the same hardware as Grand Theft Auto 3. The games were a galaxy apart in terms of scale and interactivity; proof of just how rapidly graphics, physics, and streaming tech were advancing in this period of game dev.
San Andreas was so big that it even generated its own folklore. People gathered on forums and told each other campfire stories about things they'd allegedly encountered while out in the wilderness at night. There were creepy tales of yetis, UFOs, ghosts, and serial killers, and communities of players would band together to try and capture these mysteries on camera. I even have a story of my own. Playing the game back in 2004, I was crossing a bridge somewhere in the country, when a brilliant white ball of light appeared and hovered over the road. It hung there for a few seconds, then moved upwards and vanished. It could have been a lighting bug, but it was deeply weird and has stuck with me ever since.
It's unlikely Rockstar will attempt something on the scale of San Andreas again. Not because it's pioneering spirit has waned, but because building a world containing multiple cities, at the level of detail expected of a modern game, seems an impossible task. Red Dead Redemption 2's epic slice of the American West is vast, beautiful, and rich—but it's still a landscape largely made up of plains, mountains, and deserts. Still, who knows what Rockstar has in store for whichever city (or cities) Grand Theft Auto 6 will be set in. The studio has always used its flagship series to push boundaries, and it'll be interesting to see where it takes us next—and if it'll be more ambitious than San Andreas. The bar is very high.
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Andy Kelly is a Features Editor at TheGamer. He loves detective games, anything with a good story, weird indie stuff, and Alien: Isolation.

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