Sometimes the last thing you want to do is have a sneak preview of a game - mostly you're just spoiling things for yourself, ruining the surprise, but, when you're talking about gaming royalty, things are a little different. When the name of that game is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, suddenly your busy schedule opens up like Moses parting the Red Sea. 5 O' Clock Thursday you say? Right, we're there. Running late you say? Not a problem.
An hour behind schedule we sat down with Rockstar PR manager Hamish Brown and Dean Evans, who, despite having demoed the game all day are relaxed and chirpy - as befitting of men more than happy to talk about what will undoubtedly be one of the biggest single grossing entertainment properties this Christmas.
But where do you start when talking about something this huge? Where do you stop for that matter? So much to say, so little time, Brown started from the basics and worked down from there, briefing us on the back story: "Carl Johnson, CJ is the game's main character. He's been living in Liberty City for the past five years or so, supposedly to escape Los Santos where he grew up," he notes. "But the real reason was to avoid dealing with the death of his ten year old brother Brian, and he's managing to get by until yesterday when his older brother calls him up to tell him that his mother has been killed. So he immediately hops back on a plane to go home to Los Santos to be with his family. Very early on in the game, a couple of crooked cops pick him up and just dump him off in rival gang territory- which is where you come in."
Let's go to California... now!
But, what, we ask, is Los Santos? Sounds Californian to us. "Los Santos is where you start the game as Carl Johnson, CJ," explains Brown, "and it's Rockstar's take on Los Angeles. The rest of the game is based on bits of California and some of Nevada." Showing us the in-game map, it looks like a small chunk of the whole thing how much of the finished game does this demo represent? "Eight square blocks of Los Santos. And the whole of Los Santos itself is only about 20 to 25 per cent of the play area of the whole game." Jeepers. How on earth can they physically cram all of that onto a single DVD? "We're using Dual Layer DVD 9," Brown says. "The hardest thing is cramming it all onto that!" With all this extra content, however long is San Andreas going to take to finish? "Difficult to say," admits Dean Evans, joypad joyously in hand. "You're talking hundreds of hours - it's absolutely huge. There's so much to explore." But have they played it a lot and know their way around yet, we enquire. "Yep," nods Evans, like a man who enjoys his work.
But presumably Rockstar North had to make some sacrifices in the detail to make such a big game? "Not at all," insists Brown. "In terms of the design and effort that's gone into the whole areas, every single spot has so much detail put into it. It's so competitive up at Rockstar North people have their certain areas that they work on people just want to outdo each other. People want the best interiors, the best looking house, "my tree's going to kick the shit out of your tree" and all of that kind of stuff. There is so much detail in every single square inch, it's incredible," he boasts, without fear of contradiction. "Check out the reflections in pizza joint floor. Everywhere there's lots of interior attention to detail, people eating, getting on with their business. The amount of research that's gone into this is incredible from the architecture right down the gang tattoos." Indeed, it's hard not to admire Rockstar's handiwork. Clearly the money made from the previous two GTA games hasn't been frittered away.
Technically, then, it seems the team has more than stretched the PS2's capabilities. It's a serious improvement on the previous two GTAs, as Brown attests: "We've upped the draw distance by four times in the country side, and doubled it in the cities, and are using 30-50 per cent more polygons than before, all rendering at a solid 30 frames per second," Brown sings sweet music to our ears, and although the game is far from finished it's looking rock solid even now. "The animation has also been dramatically improved," he notes. "We've actually built the largest motion capture studio on the east coast of the United States to accommodate this project. A lot gets done in New York and LA; it's been a massive project." No kidding.
A kick in the gesticulations
Certainly, it's much more noticeable how much more gesticulation between characters and in cut scenes there is this time around. "Yes, all the characters you see in the game are a lot more animated; the motion capture is pretty damn awesome," and as if to prove the point CJ and his posse deliver more hand jives to one another than the average So Solid Crew rehearsal. "Even the Joe Bloggs hanging around the street are a lot more animated - they interact with each other a lot more, we have couples holding hands, gang members giving each other signs, passing each other blunts, stopping, giving each other handshakes, having a chat and then walking on." Blunts? What would the Daily Mail think of all that?
Looking at the game engine, it's easy to see the changes. Not just better looking and more animated characters, but in general; it's definitely noticeable that the lighting seems much more convincing this time around. "Yeah, Rockstar North has created this awesome lighting engine," Brown grins. "Everything has two different models whether it's night or day. If you can imagine someone in a white T-Shirt, at night, rather than it just getting dark and just going grey, if you've got moonlight it will have a slightly bluish tinge to it. You'll see people's windows and houses will be on and will have that really realistic illumination of the lights coming through the windows and curtains and stuff like that."
But as much as we loved Vice City it felt a very flat game. Can we expect more of a return to the design layout of GTA 3 this time? "As we have a take on San Francisco, so yes. You've seen our influences. You can mountain bike around the hills! Yes - that was one of the sandbox-style experiences we look forward to - will there be as much of that sort of 'messing around' non-mission specific gameplay this time: "Yes. It is just multiplied so much because of what you've got to explore. Just imagine, getting in a combine harvester, bringing it back to Los Santos and driving downtown -it's where it's at man!" Now that we want to see.
Grand Theft Railway
Aside from that, another thing we missed from Vice City was a railway transport system? And the news is good: "The Brown Street railway is one of the areas you'll see, and it's quite a big part in the whole system," nods Brown. "On the way to another mission one time we pulled up to a level crossing, the lights are red. So, of course we pulled up to the track, waited for the train and it slams into you, and just propels the car, it was very amusing."
But while technical improvements and more random nonsense to keep you amused are a given, one area that remains something of a mystery is the whole need to keep CJ fed: "Whenever CJ gets hungry you have to feed him," Brown points out. "If you don't play close attention to his health he's going to get bigger and bigger - you will be notified when CJ is getting hungry. This, evidently has an impact on player health: "If you don't feed him he's going to get thin, weak and lethargic, and that affects his performance in the game, so for example you won't be able to run very fast."
Apparently it won't affect your general ability to aim, but "certainly in hand to hand combat you'll come off pretty badly," Brown warns. "It also affects how you're perceived by others, so if you're really fat and waddling down the road, people will jibe you and stuff, so it affects you kudos and street credibility as well." And if you eat too much? "Well...you'll get obese. If you really binge eat, you will actually puke!" Mmmm. Grand Theft Puko.
Pump up the volume
And what would a GTA be but random craziness played out to a hilariously retro soundtrack - we ask how many radio stations to expect this time: "We don't know," Brown says. "That hasn't been confirmed at this point, but it'll be a full suite of early 1990s California radio, a really cool variety of genres and so forth." And presumably there will be a CD set like before? "I'm not sure; there's been no word about that yet." But, with Rockstar's PR drive entering full swing, we can expect more. So much more.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is due for release on October 22nd. Check out the official trailer later this week, with more first-hand impressions and chats with Rockstar in the coming weeks.