After starting with a failed bank robbery in snowy North Yankton during the prologue, the story jumps forward nine years to San Andreas. All three main characters have their own goals, but fate and a series of bad decisions cause their paths to intertwine. They not only have to fight off the attentions of several rival gang factions, but also deal with a government power struggle between the Federal Investigation Bureau and the International Affairs Agency, as they work together to pull off a string of increasingly audacious heists that will hopefully secure their freedom.
Following the prologue, the first character you take control of is Franklin Clinton. A former street hustler turned repo man for a local car dealer, Franklin is looking to earn better money but is inexperienced when it comes to committing crimes. Next up is Michael De Santa, a retired professional criminal suffering from a midlife crisis. Michael came to Los Santos to escape his past, but it's not long before it starts catching up on him. Finally we have Trevor Philips, a psychopath living in a caravan out in rural Sandy Shores. Mentally unstable and prone to fits of rage, Trevor is trying to build a drugs and guns empire out in the sticks when the return of an old acquaintance changes everything.
During the course of the story you are able to switch between available characters at will by selecting them from the Character Wheel. Swapping from one character to another will trigger a Google Earth style cutscene as the camera pulls out high above the map, before moving to the new location and zooming back in, often discovering the new character in interesting or humorous situations. Each character has a special ability which can be triggered to help out in different situations—Franklin can slow down time while driving to perform tight maneuvers, Michael can activate a similar bullet time effect in combat to line up easier headshots, and Trevor enters a state of invulnerable rage to soak up large amounts of damage while also increasing the power of his attacks.
The main missions are marked on the map with the character's initials, and you'll need to switch to the relevant protagonist to trigger them. These missions often come in sets that can be completed in any order you choose, but you'll need to finish them all before the next set unlocks. Although many of the missions are character specific, there will be times when two or all three come together, requiring you to switch between them at various points to utilise their different skills.
During the course of the story you'll carry out a number of heists, and these set pieces always begin with a mission to scope out your intended target. Once you've gathered the necessary intel you'll be taken to a planning board where you can decide on your approach, normally a choice between being stealthy and going in guns blazing, to determine which set up missions follow and how the heist will play out. You also get to pick any additional crew members needed to carry out the score, and your selection here is crucial—using rookies increases your risk of something going wrong and losing money, but hiring professionals means paying out a higher percentage cut of any ill-gotten gains.
Side Missions and Activities
In addition to the story missions and heists, each character also has a set of Strangers and Freaks missions triggered by meeting all sorts of colourful NPCs marked as ? marks on your map. You can purchase and manage properties, visit the flight school and shooting range to improve your skills, or keep an eye out for the 50-odd random events that can occur as you travel around. For the completionists there are a ton of collectible items to find, as well as various aerial challenges and the classic GTA stunt jumps.