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Edge Magazine #153 September 2005

Secrets and lies

Edge #153, September 2005

We all have secrets. Perhaps you once murdered a man, and ate his corpse. Maybe you're biological mutant, and have a concealed extra nipple which secretes mud instead of milk, or you own the entire series of Stargate SG-1 on DVD. Whatever the case, we all have things that simply cannot be shared in polite company.

I have a particular secret, which I have - until now - kept concealed from my games-playing friends. And that secret is this: I think Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is bollocks. Not 'the bollocks' - just 'bollocks'. As in 'a load of scrotums'. So awful is this secret that I've even lied to people, and pretended I think it's great, rather than endure the inevitable astonished queries.

I know admitting this is a bit like standing up in church, and saying you think Jesus would've looked better without the beard. But I can no longer hold it in. I have concluded that if just one of us speaks up, and admits what none dare to say, more will follow.

It's not like I haven't tried to enjoy it. I mean, I stuck with the PS2 version for almost a month of howling rage before I finally gave up in frustration. Even then I remained convinced that I'd somehow got it wrong - that I couldn't see whatever it was that everyone else could. Why did I not like this game, which received perfect scores and was being bought by everyone in the world? Was I, in some way, mentally ill?

I got so caught up in the hype that I even bought the recent PC version, and tried again with that. I noted that it was marginally easier to shoot people, but once again, I came away cursing its very name. Even then I had to burn my hand with a cigarette to stop myself going and buying the Xbox version.

Historically, I kind of almost liked GTA III, and Vice City. More than San Andreas, anyway. I've always found the controls to be sluggish and top-heavy, and the combat controls close to unusable, and I never could be quite bothered to finish them. But at least they let you play in the sandbox without having to worry you were too fat, or too unhealthy, or too unfashionable. I have enough of that when I'm away from a console - I don't need to be reminded of it when I'm looking for some escapist entertainment.

I don't want to be worrying about the negative consequences of my actions. If I eat for energy, I don't want to have to find a gym, and spend ten minutes pumping buttons to keep the pork belly at bay. That isn't a game. It's needless busy work, like a burned-out teacher getting his pupils to colour in a picture of 'Iron Mad' Wilkinson while he gets drunk and remorseful in the stationery cupboard.

If the series continues to progress in this direction, how much longer before you're having to forego missions in order to earn enough money to pay the mortgage, or fending off telesales calls, or having to visit a pharmacy to buy powder for your athlete's foot?

Even when you're not worrying about going to the dentist, or driving for 20 minutes to visit your mother because it's her birthday, or going to the horse races to win enough money to pay for her hysterectomy, it's still a grind. The controls do not make for a slick playing experience. I seem to be constantly fighting against them, and the camera. Why is nobody mentioning this? Why do people enjoy it? How can anyone play a game that's such a chore?

I want to play the game everybody else claims they're playing. I want to play it so badly it literally makes my feet bleed, but I've recently come to the conclusion that maybe the game doesn't exist after all.

I don't necessarily blame reviewers. I can empathise with their plight; on paper, San Andreas really is the best game ever. A huge, living state to explore, larger than anything ever seen in a game? Total flexibility to customise your character? Billions upon trillions of secret bits? It should be amazing, and any flaws should pale next to such impressive statistics, but it's simply too unfocused.

There are too many ideas jostling for attention, and I'm intimidated by it. I feel like I should be burgling houses, but it's such a pain to do so that I can rarely be bothered. I know I need to go to the gym, but it's a 20-minute walk to get there. I could drive, but my car just blew up, and it's the middle of the night, and there aren't any other cars around to steal, and - oh, sod it - what's on telly?

It frustrates me that I don't enjoy GTA: San Andreas, but maybe I'm in the right, and you're all wrong. What if it's a case of the Emperor's New Game? What if you're all buying into a common conceit that the GTA games are brilliant, when in actual fact they're deeply flawed? That's what I'm going to tell myself from now on. That's how I'm going to learn to sleep at night.

Until Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories comes out on the PSP, anyway. Bollocks indeed.

Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television

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