Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a 2004 action-adventure game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. It is the fifth main entry in the Grand Theft Auto series, following 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and the seventh installment overall. It was released in October 2004 for the PlayStation 2, in June 2005 for Microsoft Windows and Xbox, and in November 2010 for Mac OS X. The game is set within an open world environment that players can explore and interact with at their leisure. The story follows former gangster Carl “CJ” Johnson, who returns home following his mother’s murder and is drawn back into his former gang and a life of crime while clashing with corrupt authorities and powerful criminals. Carl’s journey takes him across the fictional U.S. state of San Andreas, which is heavily based on California and Nevada and encompasses three major cities: Los Santos (inspired by Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas).[b]
The game features references to many real-life elements of the world, such as its cities, regions, and landmarks, with its plot heavily based on several real-life events in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, including the rivalry between real-life street gangs, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s, the LAPD Rampart scandal, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Unlike its predecessor, San Andreas introduced gameplay elements that were incorporated in later games, including RPG-style mechanics, customisation options with both clothing and vehicle appearances, a vast array of activities and mini-games, and the inclusion of gambling games.
Considered by many reviewers to be one of the greatest video games ever made, San Andreas received critical acclaim upon release, with praise directed at its music, story and gameplay, and criticism for its graphics and some aspects of its controls. It was the best-selling video game of 2004, and with over 27.5 million copies sold worldwide as of 2011, it is the best-selling PlayStation 2 game and one of best-selling video games of all time. Like its predecessors, San Andreas is cited as a landmark in video games for its far-reaching influence within the industry. The game’s violence and sexual content was the source of much public concern and controversy. In particular, a player-made software patch, dubbed the “Hot Coffee mod”, unlocked a previously hidden sexual scene. A remastered version of the game was released for Android and iOS in 2013, for Windows Phone, Fire OS and Xbox 360 in 2014, and for PlayStation 3 in 2015. In June 2018, the game was made available for the Xbox One via backward compatibility. An enhanced version with the subtitle The Definitive Edition was released in 2021, and a virtual reality version for Oculus Quest 2 is in development. The next main entry in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV, was released in April 2008.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is an action-adventure game with role-playing and stealth elements. Structured similarly to the previous two games in the series, the core gameplay consists of elements of third-person shooter and driving games, affording the player a large, open-world environment in which to move around. On foot, the player’s character is capable of walking, running, sprinting, swimming, climbing, and jumping as well as using weapons and various forms of hand-to-hand combat. The player can operate a variety of vehicles, including automobiles, buses, semis, boats, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, trains, tanks, motorcycles, and bicycles. The player may also import vehicles in addition to stealing them.
The open, non-linear environment allows the player to explore and choose how they wish to play the game. Although storyline missions are necessary to progress through the game and unlock certain cities and content, the player can complete them at their leisure. When not taking on a storyline mission, the player can freely roam the cities and rural areas of San Andreas, eat in restaurants, or cause havoc by attacking people and causing destruction. Creating havoc can attract unwanted and potentially fatal attention from the authorities. The more chaos caused, the stronger the response: police will handle “minor” infractions (attacking pedestrians, pointing guns at people, stealing vehicles, manslaughter, etc.), whereas SWAT teams, the FBI, and the military respond to higher wanted levels.
The player can partake in a variety of optional side missions that can boost their character’s attributes or provide other sources of income. The traditional side missions of past Grand Theft Auto games are included, such as dropping off taxi cab passengers, putting out fires, driving injured people to the hospital, and fighting crime as a vigilante. New additions include burglary missions, pimping missions, truck and train driving missions requiring the player to make deliveries on time, and driving/flying/boating/biking schools, which help the player learn skills and techniques to use in their corresponding vehicles.
Not all locations are open to the player at the start of the game. Some locales, such as mod garages, restaurants, gyms, and shops, become available only after completing specific missions. Likewise, for the first portion of the game, only Los Santos and its immediate suburbs are available for exploration; unlocking the other cities and rural areas again requires the completion of specific missions. If the player travels to locked locations early in the game, they will attract the attention of SWAT teams, police, and police-controlled Hydras if in an aircraft.
Unlike Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City, which needed loading screens when the player moved between different districts of the city, San Andreas has no load times when the player is in transit. The only loading screens in the game are for cut-scenes and interiors. Other differences between San Andreas and its predecessors include the switch from single-player to multiplayer Rampage missions (albeit not in the PC version), and the replacement of the “hidden packages” with spray paint tags, hidden camera shots, horseshoes, and oysters to discover.
The camera, fighting, and targeting controls were reworked to incorporate concepts from another Rockstar game, Manhunt, including various stealth elements, as well as improved target crosshairs and a target health indicator which changes from green to red to black as the target’s health decreases. The PC version of the game implements mouse chording: the player has to hold the right mouse button to activate the crosshairs and then click or hold the left mouse button to shoot or use an item, such as a camera.
The player has a gunfight with members of an enemy gang.
For the first time in the series, players can swim and climb walls. The ability to swim and dive underwater has a great effect on the player as well since water is no longer an impassable barrier that kills the player outright (although it is possible to drown). For greater firepower, the player can also dual-wield firearms or perform a drive-by shooting with multiple gang members who can be recruited to follow the player. Due to the size of San Andreas, a waypoint reticule on the HUD map can be set, aiding the player in reaching a destination.
Role-playing game features in character development
Rockstar emphasised the personalisation of the main protagonist by adding role-playing video game elements. Clothing, accessories, haircuts, jewellery, and tattoos are available for purchase by the player, and have more of an effect on non-player characters’ reactions than the clothing in Vice City. CJ’s level of respect among his fellow recruits and street friends varies according to his appearance and actions, as do his relationships with his girlfriends. The player must ensure that CJ eats to stay healthy and exercises adequately. The balance of food and physical activity affects his appearance and physical attributes.
San Andreas tracks acquired skills in areas such as driving, firearms handling, stamina, and lung capacity, which improve through use in the game. CJ may learn three different styles of hand-to-hand combat (boxing, kickboxing, and kung fu) at the gyms in each of the game’s three cities if he is fit enough. CJ can speak with most pedestrians in the game, responding either negatively or positively. According to Rockstar, there are about 4,200 lines of spoken dialogue for CJ when the cutscenes are excluded.
In total, there are 212 different vehicles in the game compared to approximately 60 in Grand Theft Auto III. New additions include bicycles, a combine harvester, a street sweeper, a jetpack, and trailers, amongst others. Car physics and features are similar to the Midnight Club series of street racing games, allowing for much more mid-air vehicle control as well as nitrous upgrades and aesthetic modifications.
There are several different classes of vehicles that serve different purposes. Off-road vehicles perform better in rough environments while racing cars perform better on tracks or the street. Jets are fast, but usually need a runway to land. Helicopters can land almost anywhere and are much easier to control in the air, but are slower. While previous Grand Theft Auto games had only a few aircraft that were difficult to access and fly, San Andreas has eleven different types of fixed-wing aircraft and nine helicopters and makes them more integral in the game’s missions. There is also the ability to skydive from aircraft or from the tops of certain skyscrapers using a parachute. Several types of boats were also added to the game, while some were highly modified.
Other additions and changes
Other new features and changes from previous Grand Theft Auto games include:
Gang wars: Battles with enemy gangs are prompted whenever the player ventures into enemy territory and kills at least three gang members. If the player then survives three waves of enemies, the territory will be won, and fellow gang members will begin wandering the streets of these areas. The more territory owned by the player, the more money that will be generated. Occasionally, the player’s territory will come under attack from enemy gangs and defeating them will be necessary to retain these areas. Once all marked territories are claimed for the protagonist’s gang from one of the two hostile gangs, the opposing gang can no longer attack. Once the player takes control of all territories from both rival gangs, none can come under attack.
Car modification: Most automobiles in the game can be modified and upgraded at various garages. All car mods are strictly visual apart from the stereo system and nitrous oxide upgrade, which increases bass and gives the car a speed boost when activated, respectively; and hydraulics, which lowers the car’s height by default and allows the player to control various aspects of the car’s suspension. Other common modifications include paint jobs, rims, body kits, side skirts, bumpers, and spoilers.
Burglary: Continuing the series’ tradition of controversy, home invasion is included as a potential money-making activity. By stealing a burglary van, CJ can sneak into a residence at night and cart off valuables or shake down the occupants.
Minigames: Numerous minigames are available for play in San Andreas, including basketball, pool, rhythm-based challenges (dancing and “bouncing” lowriders with hydraulics), poker, and video game machines that pay homage to classic arcade games. Also, there are the aforementioned casino games and methods of gambling, such as betting on virtual horse races.
Money: The money system has been expanded upon, compared to previous games. Players can spend their cash on gambling, clothes, tattoos, meals, etc. Excessive gambling loss can force the player to sink into debt, which is shown in negative red numbers. When the player leaves a safehouse, CJ gets an unexpected call, and a mysterious person tells him about his debts. Four gang members suddenly appear and shoot Carl on sight if he does not erase the debt when the mysterious person calls him a second time.
Multiplayer: Rampages have been modified to allow two players to complete them. The players are both shown simultaneously on the screen, meaning they must stay within proximity of each other. The multiplayer rampages provide such functionality.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas takes place in 1992 within the fictional US state of San Andreas – based upon sections of California and Nevada as seen in the early 1990s – which consists of three main cities: Los Santos (based on Los Angeles), San Fierro (based on San Francisco), and Las Venturas (based on Las Vegas). Various regions of forest, desert, and small rural towns are scattered in between the major cities. Liberty City, the city featured in Grand Theft Auto III which is based on New York City, also makes several minor appearances in the game, most notably during a mission which sees the player travelling there to assassinate a mob boss. The city itself is not explorable and only appears in cutscenes, with the entire mission taking place inside a bistro.
The game’s setting forms part of the Grand Theft Auto series’ “3D Universe” canon, though unlike previous entries set in this continuity, San Andreas incorporates fictionalised versions of real-life landmarks and environments from the cities and US states it is based upon. It was the largest setting in the series until it was beaten by Grand Theft Auto V’s own depiction of San Andreas.
Like the previous two Grand Theft Auto games, San Andreas features several well-known Hollywood actors, musicians, and other celebrities as voice actors, in both main and minor roles. Many of them are West coast rappers, some of which, at the time of the game’s release, were famous only in underground music communities and later turned more successful.
The player assumes the role of Carl “CJ” Johnson (voiced by Young Maylay), a veteran member of the Los Santos-based Grove Street Families street gang, who left for Liberty City five years prior in pursuit of a better life, but returns home following his mother’s death. The gang is led by CJ’s estranged older brother Sean/”Sweet” (Faizon Love), and includes his childhood friends Melvin “Big Smoke” Harris (Clifton Powell), Lance “Ryder” Wilson (MC Eiht), and aspiring rapper Jeffrey “OG Loc” Cross (Jas Anderson). Throughout the game, CJ befriends various characters that become important allies, including Cesar Vialpando (Clifton Collins Jr.), the leader of the Hispanic street gang Varrios Los Aztecas and the boyfriend of Carl’s sister Kendl (Yo-Yo); hippie weed grower “The Truth” (Peter Fonda); tech genius and RC shop owner Zero (David Cross); blind Triad crime boss Wu Zi Mu/”Woozie” (James Yaegashi); government agent Mike Toreno (James Woods); crooked lawyer Ken Rosenberg (William Fichtner); criminally connected music producer Kent Paul (Danny Dyer); washed-up singer Maccer (Shaun Ryder); and renowned rapper Madd Dogg (Ice-T).
At the same time, Carl comes into conflict with a number of enemies, including the Ballas and Vagos street gangs; the highly corrupt C.R.A.S.H. police unit, consisting of Officers Frank Tenpenny (Samuel L. Jackson), Eddie Pulaski (Chris Penn), and Jimmy Hernandez (Armando Riesco); the Loco Syndicate drug cartel, headed by Toreno, pimp Jizzy B. (Charlie Murphy) and San Fierro Rifa leader T-Bone Mendez (Kid Frost); and the Leone, Sindacco, and Forelli crime families. At various points in the storyline, CJ works with Cesar’s criminal cousin Catalina (Cynthia Farrell), and mob boss Salvatore Leone (Frank Vincent), both previously featured in Grand Theft Auto III. Claude, the silent protagonist of Grand Theft Auto III, also makes a cameo appearance in the game, while Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’s protagonist Tommy Vercetti is mentioned.
In 1992, following his mother’s murder in a drive-by shooting, CJ returns home to Los Santos to attend her funeral. Upon arrival, he is intercepted by C.R.A.S.H., who threaten to frame him for the recent murder of a police officer (actually killed by them for trying to expose their corruption) unless he co-operates with them. After leaving them, CJ reunites with Sweet, Kendl, Big Smoke, and Ryder at the funeral, and learns that the Grove Street Families have lost most of their influence and territories to their main rivals, the Ballas. CJ agrees to stay in Los Santos until the gang’s problems are resolved, and works closely with his brother and friends to restore the Families’ strength. During this time, he also befriends Cesar Vialpando after discovering he genuinely cares for Kendl, and helps to jumpstart OG Loc’s rapper career. Shortly after the Families’ resurgence, Sweet plans to ambush a large group of Ballas. Before he can join the attack, CJ is contacted by Cesar with information on the drive-by shooting, revealing that C.R.A.S.H. ordered it with the intent of killing Sweet, and have been working with the Ballas, Big Smoke, and Ryder to wipe out the Families and profit off the drug trade.
Realizing his brother is headed into a trap, CJ attempts to save him, but both end up arrested by the police. While Sweet is incarcerated, CJ is released on bail by C.R.A.S.H. and driven out of Los Santos, where he is forced to assist with several jobs to prevent C.R.A.S.H.’s corruption from going public. With the Families disbanded and the Ballas flooding Los Santos with drugs, CJ focuses on earning money to financially support himself, Kendl, and Cesar. He commits several robberies alongside Catalina and engages in illegal street racing. After winning a garage in San Fierro from Claude, CJ travels there with his associates and transforms it into a profitable business. While in San Fierro, CJ works for the local Triads after befriending Woozie, and infiltrates the Loco Syndicate, the Ballas’ main cocaine supplier, to destroy them from the inside. After earning their trust, he kills the organization’s leaders, as well as Ryder, and destroys their drug laboratory.
Later, CJ is surprised when Mike Toreno, who faked his death, contacts him for assistance, revealing himself to be a government agent. After carrying out several operations for Toreno in return for Sweet’s release from prison, CJ travels to Las Venturas to help Woozie open a casino. Facing competition from the Mafia, CJ and the Triads organize a robbery of the rival mob-run casino. To gather intel on the place, CJ befriends Ken Rosenberg, the casino’s manager, whom he eventually helps flee the city, and works for Salvatore Leone, who vows revenge after CJ robs his establishment. During this time, CJ continues to work for C.R.A.S.H., until Tenpenny betrays him and orders Pulaski to kill CJ and Hernandez, who secretly turned on his partners. After killing Hernandez, Pulaski is in turn murdered by CJ. After saving Madd Dogg (who was driven to depression when CJ inadvertently ruined his career while helping OG Loc) from a suicide attempt, he approaches CJ to ask him to become his manager and help him rebuild his career. CJ returns to Los Santos and does so with his associates’ help.
Toreno eventually honours his promise and allows CJ to be reunited with Sweet. Although delighted to have him back, Sweet berates CJ for forgetting about their gang again, and talks him into helping to rebuild the Families. Meanwhile, Tenpenny is arrested for corruption, but is acquitted in his trial, provoking violent riots across Los Santos. CJ helps Madd Dogg exact revenge on OG Loc, and assists with retaking the Families’ and the Varrios Los Aztecas’ territories from the Ballas and Vagos. After tracking down Big Smoke at his fortress, CJ confronts and kills him over his betrayal. Tenpenny then arrives to claim his share of Smoke’s money and kill CJ, but the latter survives and pursues Tenpenny with Sweet’s help. The brothers’ pursuit eventually causes Tenpenny to crash his getaway car outside CJ’s family home, whereupon he dies from his injuries. With the riots eventually over and the Families restored, CJ and his allies celebrate their success in his home. In the midst of the celebrations, CJ leaves to check things out around the neighbourhood.
Main article: Music of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
As with the previous two entries in the Grand Theft Auto series, San Andreas has music taken from the time in which the game is based.
San Andreas is serviced by eleven radio stations; WCTR (talk radio), Master Sounds 98.3 (rare groove, playing many of the old funk and soul tracks sampled by 1980s and ’90s hip-hop artists), K-Jah West (dub and reggae; modelled after K-Jah from Grand Theft Auto III), CSR (new jack swing, modern soul), Radio X (alternative rock, metal and grunge), Radio Los Santos (gangsta rap), SF-UR (house music), Bounce FM (funk), K-DST (classic rock), K-Rose (country) and Playback FM (classic hip hop).
The music system in San Andreas is enhanced from previous games. In earlier games in the series, each radio station was mainly a single looped sound file, playing the same songs, announcements and advertisements in the same order each time. In San Andreas, each section is held separately, and “mixed” randomly, allowing songs to be played in different orders, announcements to songs to be different each time, and plot events to be mentioned on the stations. This system would be used in Grand Theft Auto IV. WCTR, rather than featuring licensed music and DJs, features spoken word performances by actors such as Andy Dick performing as talk show hosts and listener callers in a parody of talk radio programming.
Lazlow again plays as himself on the show “Entertaining America” on WCTR in the same persona as in III and Vice City. He takes over after the former presenter, Billy Dexter, is shot on air by in-game film star Jack Howitzer. Lazlow interviews guests such as O.G. Loc, who is one of the four characters Carl encounters during the game that is on the radio, along with Big Smoke, Madd Dogg, and The Truth.
The Xbox, iOS, and Windows versions of the game include an additional radio station that supports custom soundtracks by playing user imported MP3s, allowing players to listen to their music while playing the game. This feature is not available on the PlayStation 2 version of the game or when played on the Xbox 360.
Upon its release, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was met with critical acclaim. It received an average review score of 95/100, according to review aggregator Metacritic, tying for the fifth-highest ranked game in PlayStation 2 history. IGN rated the game a 9.9/10 (the highest score it has ever awarded to a PlayStation 2 game), calling it “the defining piece of software” for the PlayStation 2. GameSpot rated the game 9.6/10, giving it an Editor’s Choice award. Jeff Gerstmann said “San Andreas definitely lives up to the Grand Theft Auto name. In fact, it’s arguably the best game in the series. San Andreas also received an A rating from the 1UP.com network and a 10/10 score from Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine. Common praises were made about the game’s open-endedness, the size of the state of San Andreas, and the engaging storyline and voice acting. Most criticisms of the game stemmed from graphical mishaps, poor character models, and low-resolution textures, as well as various control issues, particularly with auto-aiming at enemies. Some critics commented that while much new content had been added to San Andreas, little of it had been refined or implemented well.
Nevertheless, since its release, San Andreas has been regarded as one of the greatest games of all time, placing at number 27 in Edge’s Top 100 Games to Play Today. Edge declared that the game remains “the ultimate expression of freedom, before next-gen reined it all back in”. In 2015, the game placed 8th on USgamer’s The 15 Best Games Since 2000 list.
Sales and commercial success
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sold 2.06 million units within six days of release in the United States. In the United Kingdom, it sold an estimated 677,000 copies and grossed about £24 million within two days, and sold over 1 million copies in nine days. It was the top-selling game of 2004, with 5.1 million copies sold in the United States, and over 1.75 million in the United Kingdom.
By March 2005, the game had sold over 12 million units for the PlayStation 2 alone, making it the highest-selling game for PlayStation 2. The game received a “Diamond” sales award from the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), indicating sales of at least 1 million copies in the United Kingdom. As of 26 March 2008, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had sold 21.5 million units, according to Take-Two Interactive. The Guinness World Records 2009 Gamer’s Edition lists it as the most successful PlayStation 2 game, with 17.33 million copies sold for that console alone from the total of 21.5 million in all formats. In 2011, Kotaku reported that, according to Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had sold 27.5 million copies worldwide.