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The 15 Best Games Since 2000, Number 8: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Our first trip into Los Santos remains one of the best games in the GTA series.

Retrospective by Bob Mackey, .

We're currently in the middle of our daily countdown of the 15 Best Games Since 2000. Want to read more? Check out the rest of the entries here.

Despite its many achievements, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will likely go down in history as the game that introduced "Hot Coffee" to the world. You know, that whole pseudo-scandal which promised to corrupt our children via the awkward humping of crude, polygonal humanoids? Forget the fact that this content could only be accessed by third-party hacking devices, along with the M for Mature rating right there on the box. Hell in a handbasket!

Living the gang life.

It's a shame, then, because San Andreas stands as the one entry in the series where the full Grand Theft Auto experience truly came together. Of course, Grand Theft Auto 3 and Vice City certainly deserved to set the world on fire, but giving San Andreas an additional year to stew in development made one a hell of a difference. Now that our eyes have absorbed current open-world wonders like The Witcher and Assassin's Creed, the Renderware-powered San Andreas may seem slipshod and clumsy, but its technical competence stands far above the previous two games, making the many options of its sandboxy gameplay far easier to wrangle. (Which is probably why it's the only game of the GTA3 trilogy I've ever been able finish.)

Though San Andreas dials back a bit on the amount of player freedom—I'm sure you all remember those missions where you couldn't kill a target until the game removed its invincibility flag—it remains Rockstar's last take on the "old" Grand Theft Auto: a mostly silly mayhem simulator more interested in movie references than statements on the human condition. And the amount of flexibility found in San Andreas' world extends to the protagonist as well. CJ has his own goals and motivations, and makes for a much more sympathetic hero than the previous two games' sociopaths, but still, his "character sheet" (to use Dungeons & Dragons lingo) contains more stats than a Dark Souls character. Rockstar might have gone a little overboard—both diet and exercise play an important part of CJ's development—but as you get through more of the story, CJ's talents naturally improve, making those dozens of hours poured into San Andreas just a little more rewarding.

More than ten years later, the whole "map littered with hundreds of icons" has become de rigeur for open-world games, but in 2004, the idea of endless activities in a digital world still made for a compelling premise. And Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas holds no shortage of things to do. CJ can take over territory by clearing it of opposing gang members, giving the world a feeling of persistence that past GTA games didn't have. All of the standard vehicle missions are there, of course, along with new additions like driving trucks, trains, and (somewhat regrettably) escorting sex workers to visit their Johns.

San Andreas also contains a few goofier side-missions, like Dance Dance Revolution-style dance contests (with humans and cars), standard sports like pool and basketball, casino games, and even a few fictional old-school arcade games. But before this article devolves into a list of San Andreas' many, many features, the most welcome addition to San Andreas came in the form of flight. Though its handful of aircraft wasn't exactly easy to maneuver (or land, for that matter), making San Andreas' skies a whole new playground made the possibilities for chaos seem endless. And really, has there ever been a better means of travel in a Grand Theft Auto game than that frickin' jetpack?

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas should also be lauded for filling its cast with primarily black characters—a rarity for any game, let alone an entry in one of the most popular series of all time. Though the gangsta genre movie pastiches and extreme violence of San Andreas don't exactly make it an accurate reflection of the Black Experience, I'm sure plenty of people of color were psyched to play a game full of people who looked like them—or, at the very least, they appreciated a merciful break from the series' fixation with the Italian mafia. I know I did.

14 years after Grand Theft Auto 3 officially made the series a Very Big Deal, and Grand Theft Auto's popularity hasn't waned; the fifth entry, released just a few years ago, sold 52 million copies to date. It's definitely refreshing that Rockstar now tells their own stories rather than borrowing from everyone else's, but the grittier, uglier tone and scripted missions of recent sequels make them feel like completely new beasts when compared to Grand Theft Auto PS2 trilogy. But even if the shift in tone and design has disappointed former fans of the series, at least one fact remains: We'll always have jetpacks.

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Comments 23

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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #1 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    I agree that it was probably the best of the GTA games so far, even though I love the setting of Vice City more. But I'm surprised that you all consider it to be a better game than Red Dead Redemption, which I consider to be quite superior.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #2 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @SigurdVolsung I was probably the vote that put it above, as I've never played RDR and enjoy the modern eras over the Old West.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #3 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    Wouldn't be anywhere near my favourite games, but it's definitely the best of the GTA series. I'm not sure I ever did anything much with the plot, but it was an interesting world to be in. Also the last GTA focused on fun. Serious games are fine of course, but this has never felt like a series that fits a serious tone.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #4 pdubb 3 years ago
    Wasn't expecting San Andreas to be the GTA game that made the list. I thought the nod would have went to Vice City.

    With that said, I think you guys got this one right. This was the last GTA game that was gameplay instead of spectacle.

    I also would have accepted Crackdown in this spot, but then it wouldn't have been a GTA game on the list.
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #5 Nuclear-Vomit 3 years ago
    There are some memorable missions in this game. There's a multi part mission casino heist that has you recruit odd ball characters, steal building layout plans and perform the heist. And then there's one mission where you ride a motorcycle in an attempt to board a cargo jet while the cargo hold is open, dodging barrels being thrown at you. When you make it on you eliminate everyone on board using melee only (no firearms as the plane will has explosives or something) and then you set the your C-4 and jump out while the plane explodes. Damn Epic. Even more Epic if you decide to kiss the Earth and point your head down don't open your parachute.

    Vice city did not have anything that cool, nor did GTA 4. I never tried GTA 5 and I'm not going to as I don't know if GTA 5 is as insane as San Andreas. Someone, please let me know if it is. I don't want to be disappointed.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #6 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    Yeah Bob, I'm sure black people were excited to play through yet another story that depicted them as gangsters and drug dealers. :P

    Snarky jokes aside, I've never really played San Andreas. I only watched my brother play through it. The most I did was cause havoc and try to stay alive as long as possible because that's the element I most enjoy out of these games. I haven't played GTA the proper way since GTA3. After putting about 200 hours into that game, I burned myself out on the whole experience. I couldn't get into any of the subsequent games since they felt far too similar to what GTA3 had to offer in the sense of mission structure and general controls. I know there's a lot more to the later games, but I still think its too close to what GTA3 was for it to feel truly fresh for me.

    I'm fine with just chilling in these games. Cruising around in the desert listening to 90's hip-hop was the highlight of San Andreas for me; that and the Rodney King-esque riots at the end of the game that gave some immediacy to the story. That was really cool.

    P.S. Putting this above Red Dead is funny. Reading the Red Dead article makes you think that nothing has ever topped that game and here you have an earlier Rockstar game put above it.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #7 bobservo 3 years ago
    @Kuni-Nino "Yeah Bob, I'm sure black people were excited to play through yet another story that depicted them as gangsters and drug dealers. :P"

    Oh, come on. I addressed this problem directly!
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  • Avatar for docexe #8 docexe 3 years ago
    Glad this game also made the list as it is also my favorite of the PS2 trilogy. GTA III is probably the most historically significant game, but San Andreas surpasses it in terms of scope and playability. I’m tempted to call it the peak of the series as well, but I haven’t played enough yet of GTA V to decide that.

    It’s interesting really: Both Red Dead Redemption and the PS2 GTA games are pastiches of sorts of different film genres: Westerns in the case of Read Dead, crime and gangster films in the case of GTA (with a touch of 90’s urban drama films in the case of San Andreas). I think RDR is superior in terms of mechanics, immersion and what it sets out to do as a pastiche, but San Andreas has more variety in terms of activities.
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  • Avatar for bertford36 #9 bertford36 3 years ago
    Wow. This list just keeps getting worse and worse.

    I think most everyone agrees that Rockstar games all have big problems. The gameplay is always a big problem, it's usually not very well thought out and not very well executed, and that is the case for San Andreas as well. The clunky gameplay gets repetitive long before you've finished it. I do agree that this is the best GTA, but not nearly good enough to be considered one of the 15 best since 2000!
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  • Avatar for bobservo #10 bobservo 3 years ago
    @bertford36 It's the best entry in one of the most important/influential/popular series of all time. I'd say it deserves a spot in the top 15!
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  • Avatar for bertford36 #11 bertford36 3 years ago
    @bobservo I'd say one Rockstar game deserved to be on the list, at most! You choose Red Read Redemption, which IS a better game than any GTA game. And that would have been fine, but putting a GTA game above just doesn't make any sense! Rockstar games are popular, and fun, but they're not really that great as games, and we all know it! Having 2 Rockstar games in the top 15 is just silly!
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  • Avatar for pdubb #12 pdubb 3 years ago
    @Kuni-Nino

    "Yeah Bob, I'm sure [s]black people[/s] Japanese People were excited to play through yet another story that depicted them as [s]gangsters and drug dealers[/s] overly sexed teenagers in high school. :P"

    Sometimes you just gotta enjoy the game.
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  • Avatar for BillyBumbler #13 BillyBumbler 3 years ago
    San Andreas is a great game and one of my favorites from the GTA series. It was the ideal game that had common tropes similar to movies such as Boyz in the Hood, Menace to Society, Friday, etc.

    I gotta hand it to Rockstar, they always put a lot of time and care into research for their games. RDR was a prime example of this.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #14 bobservo 3 years ago
    @bertford36 Actually, Bully is my favorite Rockstar open-world GTA-style game.
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  • Avatar for Jaz_Rignall #15 Jaz_Rignall 3 years ago
    @Kuni-Nino Don't forget that our list was arrived through a democratic process of votes from the whole team. So while this ended up getting more votes than RDR, I personally think RDR is the better game (hence my rather more enthusiastic writeup).

    That's democracy for you...
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  • Avatar for theresacatalano27 #16 theresacatalano27 3 years ago
    I agree, it feels really weird to have 2 Rockstar games on the list. I like GTA and RDR, but there are so many better games that are going to get the short end of the stick. I would not have put any GTA game in the top 10, while they are fun, they just aren't that great of games. That's just me.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #17 riderkicker 3 years ago
    I couldn't follow the train. :(

    This is a pretty fun game due to the sheer size of the environment, and I really like driving exploration games.Edited July 2015 by riderkicker
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #18 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    I'm saying it: CJ is R*'s best protagonist (note: I have not played Bully).
    @riderkicker

    ...except that part...
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #19 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    @Jaz_Rignall Yeah. I know how these things sometimes pan out. I just think it's a little funny that it comes out like that. To be honest I wasn't expecting two Rockstar games on the list.
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  • Avatar for tonystark28 #20 tonystark28 3 years ago
    No, just no. None of the Grand Theft Auto games should ever be on any top 10 list. Have you played these games at all? In case you haven't noticed, they do not play well. They've always had stiff gameplay, ridiculous stories, and are just generally plain dumb.
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  • Avatar for PlatypusPlatoon #21 PlatypusPlatoon 3 years ago
    I personally would've gone for GTA: Vice City, on the strength of its sunny 80's atmosphere and rocking soundtrack alone, but I recognize that San Andreas is almost certainly the better game. Really, I miss this era of Rockstar games - silly, irreverent, satirical, and extremely violent, to almost a comical degree. GTA IV was a critic's darling, but the solemn tone wasn't my cup of tea at all; I like my video games not to take themselves so seriously. With the video game landscape being what it is today, I don't know that we'll ever see games like those produced by early 2000's Rockstar, and that's too bad, because both Vice City and San Andreas were incredible in their day.
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  • Avatar for alvarovb39 #22 alvarovb39 2 years ago
    Nice games, i really like those ones! Descargar Clash Royale
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  • Avatar for alvarovb39 #23 alvarovb39 A year ago
    And we have to wait until 2019 or 2020 to play GTA VI... I think this type of games are so pro to wait 4 years. Super Mario Run
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