Monday, July 25, 2005

Guess what: got gaffled by one-time

Originally posted at

GTA: San Andreas Update

The PC version of San Andreas has made all my Being-Able-to-Play-the-Game dreams come true. The Just Business mission was a breeze, and I am now much farther (San Fiero) than I ever got in the PS2 version.

Just to get this out of the way, and so you don’t get me wrong: I love this game. I love the size and scope. I love exploring the cities and countryside. The game has even inspired some research into real Californian geography and landmarks, to see what parts of the game’s landscape have real-world counterparts (Rockstar did a remarkable job of condensing LA), and into the history of LA gangs (check out these pages on graffiti and gang territories — I suspect someone from Rockstar may have visited this site in developing the game).

All that said, this game has some serious problems, likely as a result of that size & scope I so enjoy. There are some game mechanics that seem buggy or not fully fleshed-out (no pun intended), such as the girlfriends. And then there’s the problem of that lumbering dinosaur called the Renderware engine.

When I reached San Fiero, I spent some time exploring before I started any missions, and I started a relationship with Katie, the nurse. It was my understanding that the benefit of the girlfriends in the game was that you got fringe benefits, depending on the girlfriend. In this case, if I’m wasted, instead of ending up outside a hospital short $100 and all my equipment, I end up outside of Katie’s house with all my stuff. That ain’t nothin’. And later on, if the relationship gets far enough, I get access to her car (a hearse) and a medic uniform. Oh, and if I were to download a patch, I could play a totally unsexy sex minigame gloriously rendered by the lumbering dinosaur.

What I didn’t understand was how glitchy and poorly implemented the girlfriend stuff would be. I can initiate a date with Katie whenever she’s home, which is nominally noon to midnight every day. She isn’t always there, which isn’t a problem. Sometimes she’ll call while I’m wandering around on foot, to ask me to come pick her up. Also not a problem. What is a problem is when she hasn’t been at home for several days, and hasn’t called, and the relationship progress spontaneously, arbitrarily decreases. So I’ve been stuck at ~30% progress since date 1, because every date’s progress gets deleted.

What’s more, I understood that there are several kinds of dates you can go on. Sometimes she’ll ask to go get food. Sometimes she’ll want to go dancing. And sometimes she’ll just want to go for a drive. Problem here is that on all dozen or so dates we’ve been on, she always wants to go eat. Way to make the subgame compelling, Rockstar.

So all in all, the girlfriend mechanic is a pain. I get some benefit in the hospital thing, but it means putting a lot of time in to a crappy game mechanic, and getting randomly called to do so while I’m wandering around taking photos of little spinning orbs. Actually, you know what? In writing this, I’ve realized that whoever at Rockstar was responsible for the girlfriends must believe that women in general are fickle and irrational. A certain amount of misogyny certainly wouldn’t surprise me, given how women are portrayed in the rest of the game. He just decided to inflict his own dating history on the player.

Now, as for Renderware: ugly. In San Andreas, the playable portions work well enough, since generally the camera is zoomed out enough that details don’t matter much. But in those cutscenes… bleh. The characters have weirdly long forearms that jut at odd angles, the facial animation isn’t expressive at all, and the clothes are blocky as hell. The worst is Peter Fonda’s character “The Truth” (pictured). He looks ok, until he starts moving. If I’ve seen an uglier character that’s supposed to look normal in recent videogaming history (post-Quake II, lets say), I’ve forgotten it.

Oh, wait, I thought of one: girlfiriend Katie, during a date at a diner.

But even when you are zoomed-out, parts of the background disappear and rerender, or seem to shimmer, all thanks to the 5+ year-old engine powering the game. And that’s on the PC version, which is even high-res, instead of dull and blurry like the PS2 version. Rockstar & Take-Two need to find a new engine. Apart from anything else, it’ll mean they can stop helping to line EA’s pockets. But I’m not sure I’ll want to play another 50 hour game based on this thing.

But I do enjoy the game.