The game is set in the semi-fictional state of San Andreas (based on California and Nevada), which contains three metropolitan cities: Los Santos, based on Los Angeles, San Fierro, based on San Francisco, and Las Venturas, based on Las Vegas. Set in 1992,San Andreas revolves around the gang member Carl "CJ" Johnson returning home from Liberty City to Los Santos, San Andreas, after learning of his mother's murder. CJ finds his old friends and family in disarray. Over the course of the game, CJ gradually unravels the plot behind his mother's murder.
The high-level plot of the game is based on multiple real-life events in Los Angeles including the rivalry between street gangs the Bloods and Crips (which the player's gang and rival gang are spoofed off of), the Crack epidemic (which is shown as a major point of conflict in the game), the LAPD Rampart scandal (forming the basis of several main antagonists in the game), and the game even culminates in a spoof of the 1992 Los Angeles riots
The open, non-linear environment allows players 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 players can complete them at their own leisure. When not taking on a storyline mission, players can free-roam and look around the cities, eat from the restaurant, 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 players to make deliveries on time, and driving/flying/boating/biking schools, which help players learn skills and techniques to use in their corresponding vehicles.
Not all locations are open to the player at the start of the game. Some locales, such as pay 'n spray, gyms, and shops, become available only after completing certain missions. Likewise, for the first portion of the game, only Los Santos and its immediate suburbs are available for exploration; unlocking the other cities and rural areas again requires the completion of certain missions. If the player were to try travel in locked locations they would end up getting a full (6-star) wanted level.
Unlike GTA III and Vice City, which needed loading screens when traveling between different districts of the city, San Andreas has no load times when the player is in transit. The only loading screens in the game are for cut-scenes and interiors. Other differences between San Andreas and its predecessors include the switch from single-player to multiplayer Rampage missions (albeit not in the PC version), and the replacement of the 'hidden packages' with spray paint tags, hidden camera shots, horseshoes, and oysters to discover.
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