Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is played from a third-person perspective in an open world environment, allowing the player to interact with the game world at their leisure. The game is set within the fictional U.S. state of San Andreas, which is heavily based on California and Nevada. The state of San Andreas consists of three metropolitan cities: Los Santos, based on Los Angeles; San Fierro, based on San Francisco; and Las Venturas, based on Las Vegas. The single-player story follows Carl "CJ" Johnson, who returns home to Los Santos from Liberty City after his mother's murder. Carl finds his old friends and family in disarray, and over the course of the game he attempts to re-establish his old gang, clashes with corrupt cops, and gradually unravels the truth behind his mother's murder. The plot is based on multiple real-life events in Los Angeles, including the rivalry between the Bloods, Crips, and Hispanic street gangs, the 1980s crack epidemic, the LAPD Rampart scandal, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Considered one of the sixth generation of video gaming's most significant titles, and by many reviewers to be one of the greatest video games ever made, San Andreas received rave reviews by many critics who praised the music, story and gameplay. It became the best-selling video game of 2004, and has sold over 27.5 million copies worldwide as of 2011; it remains the best-selling PlayStation 2 game of all time. The game, like its predecessors, is cited as a landmark in video games for its far-reaching influence within the industry. However, the violence and sexual content of San Andreas has been the source of much public concern and controversy. In particular, a player-made software patch, dubbed the "Hot Coffee mod", unlocked a previously hidden sexual scene. The next main entry in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV, was released in April 2008. San Andreas has been ported to various other platforms and services, such as OS X, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and mobile devices (iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Fire OS).
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is an action-adventure game with role-playing and stealth elements. Structured similarly to the previous two games in the series, the core gameplay consists of elements in a third-person shooter and a driving game, affording the player a large, open world environment in which to move around. On foot, the player's character is capable of walking, running, sprinting, swimming, climbing and jumping as well as using weapons and various forms of hand-to-hand combat. The player can drive a variety of vehicles, including automobiles, buses, semis, boats, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, trains, tanks, motorcycles and bikes. The player may also import vehicles in addition to stealing them.
The open, non-linear environment allows the player to explore and choose how they wish to play the game. Although storyline missions are necessary to progress through the game and unlock certain cities and content, they are not required as the player can complete them at their own leisure. When not taking on a storyline mission, the player can freely-roam and look around the cities of San Andreas, eat in restaurants, or cause havoc by attacking people and causing destruction. Creating havoc can attract unwanted and potentially fatal attention from the authorities. The more chaos caused, the stronger the response: police will handle "minor" infractions (attacking pedestrians, pointing guns at people, stealing vehicles, manslaughter, etc.), whereas SWAT teams, the FBI, and the military respond to higher wanted levels.
The player can partake in a variety of optional side missions that can boost their character's attributes or provide another source of income. The traditional side missions of the past games are included, such as dropping off taxi cab passengers, putting out fires, driving injured people to the hospital and fighting crime as a vigilante. New additions include burglary missions, pimping missions, truck and train driving missions requiring the player to make deliveries on time, and driving/flying/boating/biking schools, which help the player learn skills and techniques to use in their corresponding vehicles.