Level 10: “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”

I feel like the most consistently underrated element of video game design is level design. Whether you call them levels, segments, missions, or whatever, the parts of our favorite video games that make up our favorite video games deserve the proper recognition, and it’s the purpose of this column to make sure they get that.

And since the recently released “GTA V” screens have got me reminiscing about the last time the “GTA” series paid a visit to the west coast, I’ve decided to start with my favorite entry in the “Grand Theft Auto” series for this column, by looking back at the best missions from “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”

10. Drive-By

One of the great thrills of the GTA series is how it allows you to live out all of those great crime fantasies that film and possibly literature has instilled in you. In “GTA: III” is was planting a bomb on a car mob style. In “GTA: Vice City” it was intercepting a coke deal with a speed boat like Crocket and Tubbs on “Miami Vice.”

Since “San Andreas” was inspired by the west coast gangta films, like “Boys in the Hood,” one of the great thrills is living out inner-ghetto turf wars, and any good inner-ghetto turf war needs a drive-by. Drive-by’s are so common in “GTA” that there is a feature on the control for it, but here is the only place where you get to roll up on enemy gangs with your friends and rain ammunition on them while listening to N.W.A. just like most of us modern suburbanites figured happened all the time in the early 90’s. It’s as simple as a mission in “GTA gets,” but it’s so satisfying.

9. Fender Ketchup

So you’re working for the Triads and the Italian mafia has been messing with their operations in the “San Andreas” equivalent of Las Vegas, Las Venturas. One of the thugs have been caught, and to make him talk your friends decide to strap him onto a car which you are to drive at top speed until he gets scared enough to figuratively spill his guts ( or not and literally do so).

Driving around in a convertible at night on the Venturas strip is always a fun experience, but doing so in the most reckless way at your disposal so that a mob thug will rat his gang out makes it all the sweeter. Much like Drive-By this is one of those missions that takes a simple gangland pleasure and lets you run wild with it.

8. Amphibious Assault

When most non-stealth games try to have stealth sections, they tend to suck almost without exception. Of course, this being “GTA,” it’s not like other games and therefore enjoys the distinct advantage of defying normal conventions.

Of course to be fair, this isn’t a strict stealth mission as you are tasked with infiltrating a boat, planting a bug, and making your way off, but are free to kill at will as long as you do it quietly. However, the atmosphere the mission sets is just perfect, and the approach to the boat itself is very dramatic. The “GTA” series has always had an incredible sense of scale, and the ship makes for this perfectly ominous opposing figure in the distance, that makes this mission feel like a true accomplishment for having finished.

7. Deconstruction

This mission is the perfect example of why “GTA: San Andreas” stands above the rest of the series in terms of mission quality. The idea is simple, as your sister has been getting hit on by some nearby construction workers, and you’ve got to teach them a lesson. But rather than beat some up, or do a good old fashion drive by, for reasons unknown you instead must destroy portable toilets spread throughout the constructions site. While you’re doing this, the workers are pouring out and attempting to stop you with construction equipment and shovels.

The highlight comes when it’s time to take out the foreman, who has retreated into a porta-potty of his own. You grab a bulldozer, knock him into a pit, and pour some concrete over him. sealing his fate. The whole mission takes under five minutes, but the pure insanity of it stays with you long after.

6. Body Harvest

So your Willie Nelson influenced friend The Truth needs a combine harvester for his weed crop, and it turns out the only one available is in use by a group of survivalist in the middle of nowhere. So naturally, he asks you to go out to their camp and commandeer it.

Now, I don’t hate hippies. Hell, I admire their ability to not work and still be able to procure recreational drugs. But stealing a full size combine harvester and running over a gang of them who charge your spinning blades with nothing more than pitchforks is just too entertaining to try to feel guilty about. If “GTA V” wants to be sell 2 billion copies, instead the usual 1 billion, then they simply have to recreate this mission in HD glory. In fact, Rockstar, make sure that you never release another “GTA” without a drivable harvester again.

5. Freefall

As is usual in the “GTA” world, there comes a point in the game where you owe the mafia some favors. In this case, a crew out of Liberty City is coming in to kill the local boss, and he needs you to deal with it. How you may ask? Well first you may think that you can wait for them to arrive and take them out. But no, that won’t do at all. Maybe then you can grab a rocket launcher and simply blow them out of the sky? No, no, no, that’s not good enough.

Instead you are to grab a plane of your own and intercept their flight, only to board their plane while in air, take out the entire crew while on board,  and land the jet safely. Try not to feel like a stone cold bad ass afterwards.

4. A Home in the Hills

So main character Carl Johnson has finally made a little niche for himself, and it’s time to start paying back the people that got him there. One of those is rapper Mad Dogg who needs to take his mansion in the hills back from the people who’ve seized it from him.

The best part of this mission is the beginning, which has you on a cargo plane loaded with Triad hit men who are there to help you claim your friend’s old property. You actually then get to fly above the home, parachute out, and land on the roof of the crib where you must clear the landing pad for your buddies, and sweep through the mansion eliminating the gang that occupies it.

What I love about this level is that so often in the “GTA” series, it’s you against the masses. Here, it’s you and the masses against some poor schmucks who don’t have a prayer. The turning of the tables gives this mission a uniquely enjoyable feel that’s not present in many others, the parachute assault opening helps cement that legacy even further.

3. Black Project

As much as I loved “GTA:IV,” I hate how it abandoned the lunatic nature of the series up until that point in favor of something more grittier and real. That wackiness is never on greater display then in Black Project, where your old friend The Truth needs you to steal a government invention for him known only as the “Black Project.”

So here you are, forced to attack a highly guarded military base all by your lonesome to steal their most valued prize. Along the way you’ll encounter hilarious references that cover everything from the alien cover up to “Half-Life” , all while mowing down the highest trained and best equipped fighting personnel in the game. At the end of the day you find out the Black Project is in fact a code word for a jetpack, which you get to fly out of the base and into the desert sunset to meet your stoned friend atop a cliff, and escape in his van.

I don’t want the “GTA” series to continue to get more realistic, and this mission is exactly why.

2. End of the Line

The “GTA” series has never really saved the best for last in terms of missions, but in “San Andreas,” they came pretty damn close. The set up is beautiful, as the entire city is in the midst of a riot that causes even random pedestrians to attack on site. The one upside of the riot is you’ll need a SWAT assault vehicle for this mission, and there’s plenty around. As soon as you snag one, you’ve just got to break down the gates to your former best friend’s crack palace and fight off legions of gang members, Russian mobsters, and unskilled laborers armed to the teeth. Manage to survive, and kill your well protected ex homie, and you still get betrayed yet again by disgraced cop officer Frank Tenpenny.

What’s worse is he takes out the generator forcing you to don night vision goggles and hunt him down. After putting out a fire blocking your path, you are free to pursue Tenpenny who’s snagged a fire truck as a getaway vehicle. Now, your brother gets the great idea to grab hold of the fire ladder, so you’ve got to catch him in your car before he slips. Of course before you can finally claim your vengeance, you’ve got to fight off gang members on motorcycles, and good old fashioned police officers. Then, and only then, can you finally take down the officer that’s been making your life hell since the beginning of the game and get your revenge .

Yeah, it’s a little intense.

1. Breaking the Bank at Caligula’s + The Setup

So technically this is a few separate missions, but they all combine for the most brilliant mission in the game, and possibly the series. Your job is to rob a casino, but rather than just snatch and grab, you need to complete several  tasks first to set the job up. These range from getting comfy with an S&M obsessed casino employee to gain their access card, rigging a dam to kill the power the night of the robbery, stealing the blueprints to the casino itself, and procuring police motorcycles to use during the robbery.

It then all culminates in the mother of casino jobs which has you operating a fork lift, entering disguised as an employee, shooting your way to the roof, and best of all making a daring base jump escape from the top of the casino, so that you can steal a police helicopter and make your ultimate getaway.

The bank job mission in “GTA: IV” gets all of the love, but it’s got nothing on this gem. The anticipation of the various little tasks needed to get to the job itself is overwhelming, and the heist is beautifully designed. You don’t get enough heist levels in video games in general, and you get even fewer that  benefit from the effort put into this one. The best missions in “Grand Theft Auto” have multiple, interesting parts to them, and this is the greatest example of that formula. It’ a clear number one.


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