I’m Lovin’ It
In addition to the diverse cityscapes and mission objectives, the roleplaying aspect of San Andreas has been bumped up over Vice City. CJ comes with stats like Stamina, Strength, Respect, and Sex Appeal, and ratings in skills like driving cars, planes, boats, and the newest addition to the GTA vehicular universe, bicycles.. You even have to keep fit by stopping off for regular meals at fast food joints like Cluckin’ Bell and Burger Spot. Stats are boosted by completing missions—almost all of your assignments come with a reward of both cash and a boost in the Respect category—and specific activities like working out. Gyms provide the opportunity to pump iron, run on the treadmill, and get into the ring with a trainer who teaches special moves if you knock his lights out. Most of the workout stations are used by pumping two gamepad buttons in a rat-a-tat-tat style with your index and middle fingers. Do enough reps and you’ll soon get pretty buff, a fact that gets noticed by your buddies, who say stuff like “You’ve been spending too much time in the gym,” and the ladies, as with nice pecs comes added Sex Appeal handy when dating babes later in the game. Cool haircuts like afros and jericurls also help in the latter category, as do tattoos and designer duds.
Okay, all of the above sounds like a real pain in the ass, or at the very least, too gimmicky to be of much value. But it’s not, because Rockstar has taken pains to make these chores not so onerous as to take away from the carjacking and killing sprees. Getting pumped up in the gym, for instance, just requires regular visits over the course of a few days (there’s a limit on how long you can work out each day), and the effects of your exercising immediately show up in how long you can run and how hard you can hit people. Eating is necessary only on relatively rare occasions. And the haircuts and tats are pretty much optional after initial visits.
What’s more, this stuff is fun. Lifting weights is a neat button-pressing challenge similar to classic sports titles like Summer Games. Chowing down is a kick because there are loads of options in each joint—everything from salads to buckets of chicken is available—and because the register jockeys have so much hilarious dialogue. My fave is the “How may I degrade myself for you today, sir?” line, spoken in a total deadpan by one of the guys in a chicken suit at Cluckin’ Bell.
Beat the Cop
But best of all, these additions give San Andreas a real roleplaying feel. While I had fun playing dress-up with Tommy Vercetti, the clothing changes were the only way to personalize Vice City. Here, I could pork out on burgers and get fat (although it’s actually difficult to get that rotund because you’re always running). I could work out till I dropped, gaining six-pack abs that could be showed off by leaving my shirt at CJ’s crib. I could have my barber style me a huge ’fro or I could cover my hair with a do-rag. Most of the options remain pretty cosmetic, in that there really is just one way to progress (there aren’t any pluses to becoming a fat slob, for instance, and dressing poorly will get you turned down by the ladies), so this isn’t exactly roleplaying. Still, I tried out at least a dozen different looks over the course of the game and felt like I was really building an individual. Also, there’s something satisfying about spending a few days in the gym and then being able to flatten a crooked cop with a single punch. Hearing compliments from pals and on the street was also a plus.
Older, more familiar aspects of the game have undergone refinements as well. Jacking a vehicle now requires two button pushes, one to open the car door and another to convince the driver to relinquish the ride. This was annoying at first, as I’d gotten used to the one-button auto thefts of the past, although I came to prefer the new system because it let me deal out added punishment. Carjacking became a riskier prospect with cops on my tail now, too. Before, I could throw a driver into the street and peel out with no worries, this time I had to know just how close the fuzz were, as the added step made it easier for them to bust me before I could step on the gas. Getting away from the law was easier, though, as CJ could clamber over fences that would have stymied Tommy in the last game, and add extra spice to sprinting by button mashing. And water no longer led me to an instant demise, because CJ could swim.