Review: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
And so, one month after iOS and Android, Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas arrives on Windows Phone. It's a stupidly big title, and Rockstar's vision in getting this on a mobile device should be commended. They've made all the code work, but does it still feel like a Grand Theft Auto (GTA) title?
Version Reviewed: 188.8.131.52
Right then, a crash course in Grand Theft Auto. What you have here is an open-ended world game. This means you can go anywhere in the mapped area (the titular San Andreas) and interact as you see fit. That could be simply walking around, on a push-bike, in a van, a high-powered sports car, or whatever else you can find. The chances are you'll be able to steal it, and if you have stolen it, you might as well drive it like it is stolen.
It's also incredibly violent.
That means taking a moving car is just a matter of pulling the driver out of the car and out of your way. Anyone gets in the way, take them out, through either your fists, or more likely some heavy-duty weaponry you find lying around the three cities in San Andreas (or you could use your ill-gotten gains to walk into a gun store and buy your way to power).
Now you could just spend the game wandering out and creating your own goals, driving cars, collecting money, and be happy with your life. But there's no excitement in that, so the GTA designers will start to steer you into their story. You play CJ, who has returned home and is promptly fitted up for a homicide by the local police. Like any overblown production from Hollywood (or in this case Rockstar Games), the story will spin out from there rather rapidly.
You'll play through various scenes, which you can consider as the levels of the game. Some of these will be relatively easy 'drive from A to B' types, others will need more accurate driving, shooting, and reactions from yourself. Half the fun of playing a GTA game is discovering what you are asked to do. The other half is in the animated cut-scenes, which take you through the story in a cinematic style. All of these can be found in the Windows Phone version of the gaming franchise.
You might also think that the title is quite small for a GTA game, with a small 19MB download from the Windows Phone Store. Think again, this is little more than a daemon that will download the game's data files after the purchase - all 2.5GB of data. You are going to need to clear out a lot of space on your phone to play this. You'll also need at least 1GB of RAM. While Rockstar suggest a limited number of handsets that have compatibility, that doesn't in fact stop the title running on any of the 1GB RAM handsets (Lumia 920, 1020, etc.)
It's a strangely limited compatibility list, but I suspect it's down to a testing regime, and that these are the handsets in the profiles used by the testers. It's very notable that GTA is being published in the Windows Phone Store by Rockstar directly and not as an Xbox Live title. That, right there, tells me that Xbox Live is pretty much dead in the water when it comes to third-party support. Rockstar are known to Microsoft, and if they won't join in the Xbox Live party on Windows Phone, why should anyone else?
The main question of GTA on a mobile phone is if the control system that takes up every single button on a game console controller would make the jump to mobile. It just about works - the principle of two virtual sticks is established in other genres on Windows Phone, so it's not a surprise. The 'auto aim' functionality is thankfully very generous in this regards, so point your gun roughly in the direction of your target and let rip - the code will take care of the finer art of aiming. While it would make the game on a console far too easy, it's the right choice to go for on a mobile device.
As for driving around, you have three options on how to steer - remain with the dual stick analogy, a digital driving left/right combo, or swiping on the touchscreen. It all works, but it's not as crisp as you would get on a physical controller. That's to be expected, and while I applaud Rockstar for bringing this title over to Windows Phone, I do wonder if they should have found a way to address the complex controls rather than just replicating a dual-shock PlayStation controller.
And that's a shame, because if nothing else, GTA looks fabulous on the small screen, and really shows what the platform can do in terms of smooth graphics when looking around, and fast graphics when driving along. When you consider the roots of this game in the home console market, to have it replicated almost perfectly in your pocket is a wonderful technical achievement.
Yes, there are some issues around the control system, but there's enough on offer here that tempts you to get used to the control layout with no physical buttons. The story is as addictive as ever, and has enough strands that you can be stuck in one scene but still working through the other scenes on offer. The graphics are clear as day (or night) and you have all the landmarks and streets of San Andreas to become familiar with.
But after all of that, I'm going to surprise myself here. Although the score for GTA on Windows Phone is higher than the arbitrary 50% mark, I'm personally going to avoid this game now I've finished the review period, and that ultimately boils down to a simple missing feature.
While the ability to have the application store your position in the game is available as part of the iOS and Android versions, there is no cloud save for your Windows Phone device. iOS and Android have a backup data facility - Windows Phone does not. If my phone resets, if it is replaced or (as a reviewer does) I have to switch handsets around, I will lose my ill-earned status in San Andreas.
That is, for me, a deal-breaker. If I'm going to invest a significant amount of time in a title, I want some reassurance that it's not going to be stolen from me. That's kind of ironic given what you get up to in the GTA(!), but hey, there's the gaming world and the real world.
And in the real world my data is fragile. There's a world of difference between the high score in Temple Run and days (if not weeks) of progress in GTA. If the developers don't care about that, then I'm moving on.
What you do is up to you, but whatever you do choose to do, be aware of the issues around Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Reviewed by Ewan Spence at