Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (iPhone & iPad) review
On the memories. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was the 2004 classic that kept students from lectures, parents from work and players the world over hours-deep into gun-toting and generally mad cap antics. The era of PlayStation 2 may be over - but San Andreas has resurfaced for iPhone and iPad, mobile gaming fans.
That’s right, you can thumb your way - literally - though Los Santos and relive those memories. But are such memories things that should be kept locked in a box? For the near-decade-old title shows its age - impressive though it is that what was cutting-edge previous-previous-gen console stuff in 2004 now looks even better on an iPad - and with the hands-to-touchscreen control mechanism does it translate well to the casual mobile gamer?
From the off GTA San Andreas makes us realise just how far gaming has come. This is no Grand Theft Auto V in terms of visuals, as the cruder character models and jittery directing can attest. But it’s still loveable in its mobile form and, thanks to remastered graphics and lighting enhancements, delivers high-resolution pop. Still, it looks undeniably dated. Like watching old 4:3 format TV shows and scratching your chin as to why they're not as good years later.
READ: GTA V review
If you’re totally new to San Andreas then here’s the skinny: you play Carl Johnson, a young black gang member who takes up the lead role, having returned to the city following word of his mother’s death. But it’s only a matter of seconds before the cops are the case and things start to get nasty. You’ll need to work your way up the gangland chain by any means necessary - and that’s where the fun stuff, morally wrong as it may be, comes into play.
Rob, steal, shoot - all the video game nasties stuff is here. Just because it’s a couple of generations old doesn’t make it any less potentially offensive.
And as we roamed the vast virtual world of San Andreas, complete with foggy draw-distance and various effects popping up into view as they arrive on the small screen, it certainly made us smile. There's some retro cool about it.
I want to ride my bicycle
However, playing San Andreas on a tablet or, moreover, a smartphone is a taxing thing. Among the first tasks in the game is to jump on a bicycle - and with the default controls you’ll be smashing repeatedly into walls with fingers flailing all over the iPhone screen.
There are options, however. Rockstar, the game’s publisher, has included an on-screen analogue stick style control, a more binary left and right dual button option, or a “flick” control where a swipe on the screen will adjust movement. Whichever you choose you’re more than likely going to fail.
So here’s the caveat to enjoying San Andreas on iOS: you’ll need a compatible Bluetooth or clip-on controller, something like the Moga Ace Power, in order to drill down to the core experience and push any frustrations aside. Problem with that? These controllers aren’t particularly affordable.
READ: Moga Ace Power review
The cover price for the game is a fiver, which is reasonable - but we don’t think you’ll bother delving deep if you don’t have more functional means of control.
Saying that, many controls have been well considered. End up in water and you’ll get two on-screen buttons to swim on the surface or dive; close by to a vehicle you’ll get a virtual button to tap to make getting in that much quicker; while you can adjust the position and order of controls from within the menu.
Some things improve with age. Others don’t. In San Andreas case it’s a mixture of the two: despite being one of the most accomplished GTA titles from over the years, the gaming world has moved on in the last decade and things have stepped up a gear. San Andreas on mobile is like trying to drive a manual car when you’ve only got the license for an automatic - as accomplished as the on-screen controls are, they’re also taxing and leave you feeling disconnected from the game. Ironic really, when such touchscreen antics bring you physically closer to the title.
If you’ve got a compatible gaming controller, however, then it’s a whole different story. Revisiting Los Santos in its earlier incarnation brings back the memories and there’s plenty of depth to this title.
First timer? Then there's no harm in parting with a fiver and relinquishing 2GB of your iDevice's space to have San Andreas give you a walk through the gaming history books. It might be a bit of an old dog, but Rockstar has taught it some new tricks on the mobile platform that put it up there among the best available in the iOS catalogue.
But if you want to relive those University weekends of hungover play and laughs then you’d be best to leave those memories locked in a box, as San Andreas shows its age rather than its maturity in this mobile revisit.
San Andreas is available now for iPhone 4S or later, all iPad devices (from iPad 2 or later) and iPod Touch 5th generation