Many new features have been included in the game. New vehicles include bicycles (which feature a new control scheme), trucks with detachable trailers, police motorcycles, operable tow trucks, combine harvesters, quad bikes, aircrafts, military jet fighters and trains.
New to the players character is the ability to swim and climb up and over short walls and fences. For greater firepower, players can also wield dual firearms or perform a drive-by shooting with several gang members. The camera, fighting, and targeting controls were reworked with concepts from another Rockstar game, Manhunt, including improved target cross-hairs that change colors from green to red to black, depending on the target's health.
Rockstar has emphasized the personalization of the main character. Clothing and accessories (which players can buy at some of the game's many clothing stores), haircuts and tattoos are now available for purchase by CJ, and have more effect on NPCs' reactions than the clothing in Vice City. Players must also ensure CJ eats to stay healthy, obtaining food from fast food restaurants such as Cluckin' Bell, street vendors, diners, bars, and nightclubs. The balance of food and exercise has an effect on his muscularity and appearance. If CJ eats too much in a short period, he will get sick and throw up; if he overeats periodically, he'll get fat and move more slowly while on foot; if he fails to eat, he will become less muscular and, eventually, will lose health. San Andreas also features skills, in areas such as driving, firearms handling, stamina, and lung capacity, which improve through use in the game. CJ may also learn three different styles of unarmed combat at the gyms in each of the game's three cities.
. Under cover of night, CJ is able to sneak into a residence, and cart off valuables or shake down the occupants.
Numerous minigames are also available for play in San Andreas, including basketball, pool, rhythm-based challenges involving dancing and hydraulic vehicles, and video game machines that pay homage to classic arcade games such as Gyruss, Defender and Gradius, in addition to the aforementioned methods of gambling.
Another improvement to the game is the AI. No longer can the player beat a pedestrian to death on a busy street in broad daylight and have bystanders not do anything: while most pedestrians will flee or duck for cover, some armed civilians and enemy gang members will attack CJ, and friendly gang members will shoot at and pursue his opponents. This would make the previously mentioned home invasions more difficult than one would expect because the occupants will resist, and in some cases, draw weapons. There is also road rage, if the player hits a driver's car (commonly a taxi) they will come out and attack you, or they may try to total the player's vehicle.
The player can also voluntarily enable CJ to conduct dialog with a number of pedestrians in the game, including drug dealers, prospective girlfriends, and fellow gang members. CJ's level of respect among his fellow Grove Street gang members varies according to his actions, as do his relationships with his girlfriends. Rockstar claims that CJ has a total of about 4200 lines of spoken dialog.
A two-player cooperative mode has also been added for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Two-player icons are found in several key locations in the San Andreas world. Setting foot on one of these icons and pressing any button on a second controller starts up a series of special objectives similar to a "Rampage" in previous Grand Theft Auto games. Two human players will be able to go in a car or on foot. Both the players are required to remain on the same screen and within a reasonable proximity of one another.