Published January 21, 2014
Looking for something to do on your smartphone besides reading books, watching “Breaking Bad” reruns, playing endless games of Candy Crush Saga, checking email, surfing the Web, texting and actually making the occasional telephone call?
How about shooting gangsters and running over pedestrians with cars?
If that’s your idea of a good time, you’ll be delighted to discover that the 2004 classic “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” from Rockstar Games, previously released for Xbox and PlayStation 2, is now available on mobile devices, including the iPhone, Android and Kindle (but only the fancy HDX model).
San Andreas is a superb title, and it holds up well a decade after its release. The game focuses on the exploits of Carl “CJ” Johnson, a gang banger from the rough suburbs of Grove Street, San Andreas. CJ returns to Grove Street after his mother has been killed. His brother Brian was killed five years earlier, and CJ is keen to avoid the gang warfare that plagues his family.
Yet in trying to break free, CJ ends up entrenched further in criminality.
At the same time that it was vilified for its violence, the game was praised for its deep characterization and handling of complex racial issues. Characters broke free of tiresome stereotypes, and critics praised it for making a black character the lead.
But what really made San Andreas popular was the gameplay. It offered a vast open world with varied landscapes that took the player from the rough suburbs to the open hills and backwater towns. In addition to the missions, players could explore for hours on their own, getting into adventures and building up their character.
For a game of this depth to arrive on mobile is extraordinary, and it shows the strength and seriousness of the mobile platform for gaming.
Mobile’s biggest weakness has always been the touch screen, which does not lend itself to action gameplay. Rockstar’s programmers have bent over backward to hurdle this obstacle; the game comes with multiple control options, as well as the ability to move the buttons around to any part of the screen that suits the player.
It is a massive leap from previous Grand Theft Auto mobile games, as well as other action games, but it still struggles. I became an expert at the game when I had it for the Xbox, but I found myself veering around uncomfortably on the mobile version. Eventually -- after a lot of customization -- I got the hang of it. But it took a while, and I was never as comfortable as when I have a controller.
You can purchase a snap-on module to add a real game controller to certain phones, but they’re still in the $100 range, which means most gamers will be shuffling along with the touch controls.
What also keeps the game modern is the installation of better checkpointing. Once upon a time, mission failure meant having to drive back to where the mission began, then driving to the necessary area, then trying again. Each mission attempt could take 20 minutes at times. Thankfully, this has been changed, and some of the more frustrating missions are less so now.
The checkpointing also compensates for the reality of mobile gaming, where sessions are shorter and fit into bus rides and post-office lines. It still can lead to moments of repetition, because the checkpointing isn’t as consistent as it could be, and a quick save system may have been more efficient in that regard. But it is still an enormous leap forward.
Revisiting old classics is risky. Many gamers have had the experience of going back to an old game they loved and finding it has aged badly. With the massive advances in checkpointing and graphics in the years since San Andreas’ release, the original game has aged significantly. While not a perfect port, the mobile version of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” manages to update the game to make it playable and enjoyable -- and keeps the price at a reasonable $7.
Although it’s a 10-year-old game and the touchscreen controls are jittery, Rockstar’s port brings an old classic back from the dead and makes it shine once again.