Grand Theft Auto V is an action-adventure game played from either a first-person or third-person perspective. Players complete missions—linear scenarios with set objectives—to progress through the story. Outside the missions, players may freely roam the open world. Composed of the San Andreas open countryside area and the fictional city of Los Santos, the world is much larger in area than earlier entries in the series. It may be fully explored after the game's beginning without restriction, although story progress unlocks more gameplay content.
Players use melee attacks, firearms and explosives to fight enemies, and may run, jump, swim or use vehicles to navigate the world. To accommodate the map's size, the game introduces vehicle types absent in its predecessor Grand Theft Auto IV, such as fixed-wing aircraft. In combat, auto-aim and a cover system may be used as assistance against enemies. Should players take damage, their health meter will gradually regenerate to its halfway point. Players respawn at hospitals when their health depletes. If players commit crimes, law enforcement agencies may respond as indicated by a "wanted" meter in the head-up display (HUD). Stars displayed on the meter indicate the current wanted level (for example, at the maximum five-star level, police helicopters and SWAT teams swarm to lethally dispatch players). Law enforcement officers will search for players who leave the wanted vicinity. The meter enters a cooldown mode and eventually recedes when players are hidden from the officers' line of sight that displays on the mini-map.
The single-player mode lets players control three characters: Michael De Santa, Trevor Philips and Franklin Clinton—criminals whose stories interconnect as they complete missions. Some missions are completed with only one character and others feature two or three. Outside the missions, players may switch between characters at will by means of a directional compass on the HUD. The game may switch characters automatically during missions to complete certain objectives. A character's compass avatar will flash red if he is in danger and needs help, and flash white if he has a strategic advantage. Though players complete missions as any of the three protagonists, the more difficult heist missions require aid from AI-controlled accomplices with unique skill sets like computer hacking and driving. If an accomplice survives a successful heist, they take a cut from the cash reward and may be available for later missions with improvements to their unique skills. There are multiple options for completing heists; in a holdup mission, players may either stealthily subdue civilians with an incapacitating agent or conspicuously storm the venue with guns drawn.
Each character has a set of eight skills that represent their ability in certain areas such as shooting and driving. Though skills improve through play, each character has a skill with expertise by default (i.e. Trevor's flying skill). The eighth "special" skill determines the effectiveness in performing an ability that is unique to each respective character. Michael enters bullet time in combat, Franklin slows down time while driving, and Trevor deals twice as much damage to enemies while taking half as much in combat. A meter on each character's HUD depletes when an ability is being used and regenerates when players perform skilful actions (for example, drifting in vehicles as Franklin or performing headshots as Michael).
While free roaming the game world, players may engage in context-specific activities such as scuba diving underwater or BASE jumping via parachute. Each character has a smartphone for contacting friends, starting activities and accessing an in-game Internet. The Internet lets players trade in stocks via a stock market. Players may purchase properties such as garages and businesses, upgrade the weapons and vehicles in each character's arsenal, and customise their appearance by purchasing outfits, haircuts and tattoos.