The best Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas experience (in 2010)

After completing GTA IV and the Liberty City stories, there didn’t seem many options left for getting a GTA fix. But there was one interesting possibility: due to my lost decade of gaming I’d never played GTA: San Andreas, and word on the street is that it’s great – quite possibly better than its successor. But I don’t own any old consoles, so playing the game wasn’t going to be straightforward…

Xbox version

The obvious choice was to get a copy of San Andreas for the original xbox and play it on my 360. It would be hassle-free to get running and I could use the excellent 360 controller. A copy arrived in the post from an eBay seller and I fired it up expecting great things. What appeared on the screen turned out to be a massive disappointment. I was surprised at how poor the visuals are, even for an old game. It runs in a non-widescreen mode and the 3d rendering is very basic, but the biggest issue is how blurred and washed out everything looks. It reminded me of the old composite video outputs from 1980’s computers. To be fair, my use of a 720p Optoma projector throwing an image roughly 8ft across is not an ideal display for pre-HD gaming, but even so the results were very poor. My hunch is it must look better running natively on the original xbox.

Left wanting from the xbox version of the game, I was interested to see how other platforms fared. A video on Youtube shows a comparison between the xbox and PS2 versions, but I find it inconclusive. Lighting looks better on the PS2 version but other elements looked worse. It didn’t really matter anyway because I don’t have a PS2 (or a PS3 to use in backwards compatible mode).

Over to the PC

The only remaining option is the PC version. I have an Atom/Ion powered HTPC, optimised for quiet/cool running but it should be powerful enough to run a 2005 game. So another eBay purchase got me the PC version of San Andreas. Although the game is old, it will run on Windows 7 – the OS detects the game and applies some compatibility settings, turning off Aero to avoid issues. When I got the game running it was obvious from the start that is was streets ahead of the xbox version. Significantly, widescreen resolutions are available and 1280×720 suits my 720p projector perfectly. As you would expect, the graphics on the PC version are still basic by today’s standards, but even so they are a massive step up from the Xbox. The game’s display options page offers a number of settings, so I upped the visual quality to very high and added some anti-aliasing. Although not a powerful machine, my HTPC copes nicely even when the draw distance is  increased to prevent pop-in.

Configuration woes

So all would be well, except for the Achilles heel of the PC platform – control methods. The game works fine on the keyboard but that doesn’t suit me – my keyboard is a really cheap wireless model with no keypad. Besides, the GTA IV control system using the xbox 360 controller is superb and this is the experience I wanted with San Andreas too.

I bought an xbox 360 controller for Windows and tried to get it working with GTA:SA. Using the games built-in configuration options was hopeless – the biggest issue being no support for using the second analogue stick to move the camera around.After trawling through a bunch of GTA forums I discovered a utility called SAAC which allows a much fuller set of configuration options for San Andreas. This is an excellent piece of work and a credit to its author. Unfortunately it took some serious faffing about to get working. I had to grab a patch that installed some older DirectX DLL’s just to get it running. When it did run, GTA refused to load, crashing on startup. Eventually I realised that this was because my version of the game is 1.01 which doesn’t allow any hacks or plugins. To fix this I had to find a 1.0 version of the game EXE file and use it to downgrade my copy. Once this was done, GTA would finally run. Except for one annoying issue – the widescreen resolutions had disappeared. Apparently these were only added into 1.01, so I had to find another patch to re-enable them on 1.0. Grrrr!

I used an existing SAAC profile for the 360 controller off the internet, but tweaked a few settings to bring it more in line with the GTA IV control system. One minor issue is that I couldn’t replicate the left/right trigger set up for targeting and shooting because the triggers are on the same axis and conflict with each other. Strangely, they work fine in vehicle mode to handle braking and acceleration.

Success at last

Once the controller was working well, I finally started to settle into the game. It’s still great fun six years later. The dialog between the characters is entertaining and frequently very funny. The opening sequence of the game where your character and his gang are on BMX bikes is hilarious to play. As I spent time with the game only a few more tweaks were necessary – I had to increase the dead-zone on the analogue stick in SAAC (the D slider) to stop the character walking around on his own. I played about with the graphics a bit more and got a nice compromise between frame rate and detail – but this wouldn’t be necessary on more powerful PC’s.

So it is possible to get a good game of San Andreas in 2010, and if you can’t you’re just a buster man – a buster!

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