If gaming history had rings like trees do, there'd be a ring for Grand Theft Auto 3.
Grand Theft Auto 3 was a watershed moment in 3D gaming. There is a distinct line that can be seen in game series - like Sly Cooper and Jak & Daxter - that existed around the time GTA3 was launched.
Games designed prior to GTA3's 2001 release follow the Super Mario 64 formula - a hub world, with spoke levels that yield items you need to collect some percentage of in order to move on to the next hub. Games after opted for an open-world sandbox with a variety of various activities to take part in at any given time.
(A moment of silence for the end of the Super Mario 64 era - with a few notable exceptions, Nintendo hasn't had as much influence on game design since GTA3 dethroned SMB64...)
As if to prove that Rockstar wasn't just a flash-in-the-pan, destined to crank out derivative sequels until they faded into obscurity, they followed up with GTA: Vice City. Vice City certainly raised the bar, and the 80's nostalgia trip by way of Miami Vice was well executed.
However, 2004's GTA: San Andreas showed us that Rockstar was capable of so much more.
This was a game that pushed the boundaries of what we expected from console gaming. Rockstar created a world that was massive in scope. It was easily triple the size of any previous GTA game, and GTA games were already some of the largest game worlds available for any modern console.
San Andreas was more than just a big world, though. It was a world full of stuff to do, diversions to undertake, things to collect, and battles to win. It's no surprise that on GameRanking's all-time highest-rated PS2 games chart, it sits at #4.
San Andreas is not without its faults, though. For instance, there's a large section of the map that is just kind of... empty. There's a lot of driving with very little to do. The combat in particular is not well implemented by any standards.
GTA games are well known for their violent elements, although mostly the media overhypes certain minor aspects while ignoring other, arguably more important and prominent criticisms.
For instance, the media made a big deal about "beating up hookers" in GTA although this is mainly just a side effect of the game being a sandbox and allowing player choice. No game objective is "beat up hookers for money" - it's not a particularly good way to get ahead in the game, the game just doesn't flat-out prevent you from doing it. Any NPC is fair game.
To put it another way, many other games feature places you can go where there are women - even prostitutes, and you're allowed to slaughter them and take their things if you choose. Think Fallout 3 for example. We don't hear similar criticism about these other games.
In fact, San Andreas has some strong female characters and positive race relations in some parts of the game. CJ allies with his sister's Latino boyfriend, despite him being part of a rival gang. She defends him and asserts her independence, despite the fact that her family disapproves.
If it sounds like I'm going to defend San Andreas' portrayal of human interaction, though, I'm not. I don't think I'll live long enough to see the day Rockstar makes a socially conscious game that doesn't offend somebody. Rockstar has consistently shown that they're aiming at an audience that accepts misguided and sometimes offensive racial and cultural stereotypes. Homophobia is chief among these; there is almost always a character who is clearly gay and clearly ashamed and denying it to others, and they're mocked for it.
Even though Rockstar consistently fails at this, we shouldn't take that to mean that it's not possible to have a game in this vein that isn't offensive. Somehow, the Saints Row series manages to be inclusive, violent, and overtly sexual without all the negative elements Rockstar can't seem to break away from.
Since the time of San Andreas, the series has tried to move in a more gritty and realistic direction, rather than embracing its own video game roots. The early GTA games were very arcade-y and had many moments of unbridled fun. GTA4 in particular felt like a massive step backwards from San Andreas.
But why talk about San Andreas now? It's been over a decade since its release, and the spotlight has been thoroughly stolen by the PC and XB1/PS4 versions of GTA5. San Andreas is notable now because recently, Rockstar released an updated version of the game with 720p HD visuals for the Xbox 360.
I'm not one to replay games. I'm usually so backlogged that the thought of going back to something I've already completed for a second go-round seems... wrong. Why re-experience something old when something new is almost always waiting? With all the recycled ideas the games industry has, nostalgia is rarely a deciding factor. Still, for $3.75 I pulled the trigger and stepped back into protagonist CJ's shoes.
The HD remake is actually a port of the tablet version of the game, and it shows in a few areas, notably the UI. Despite the updated textures (and in some cases, updated models), this is still not a particularly pretty game by modern standards. CJ's sister Kendl in particular is textured such that it looks like she spent too much time with her head stuck in a tanning bed.
There are also occasional audio cutouts - in one mission, I lost all dialog and music until a cutscene was over. I had subtitles turned on, so I could follow what was happening, but it did make me scramble for my volume controls with a puzzled look on my face.
Still, though, this is still a solid game from an era of GTA gaming where the emphasis was on fun and variety rather than realism, pointless minigames, and gimmicks. If you've got a few bucks and have never played part of the "GTA3 trilogy" you could do a lot worse than pick up the HD remake of GTA: San Andreas.
(Cult of the Fiver is my monthly series on great games that can be had for cheap. We also have a Steam Curation Page! In Pre-Cult articles, I collect my thoughts about a game I plan to feature in this month's entry.)