Grand Theft Auto V (read our review here) is so huge that you can lose dozens of hours by ignoring the story and finding new activities and side missions to take part in. The open-world crime game does a good job of easing you in, but it doesn’t tell you everything.

So with some advice from developer Rockstar Games, a bit of wisdom gained from my experience playing GTA V, and the discoveries from a few hard-working sleuths trying to crack the cheat codes, we’ve put together this basic tips and tricks guide that’ll help you make the most of your stay in Los Santos and Blaine County.

Gameplay tips

The world is open to explore from the beginning
Though the map in the pause menu won’t fill up until you visit each area, nothing is preventing you from seeing all 49 square-miles in the beginning. You can grab a car — or if you’re ballsy, try to steal a plane or helicopter — and just explore until you get bored. Missions won’t start popping up north of the map until you gain control of all three main characters, but if you’re itching to play virtual tourist, the opportunity is there.

Don’t forget to call people
I didn’t discover this until I was almost done with the story. Whenever you finish a mission, try going through the contact list in your cellphone and ring up any folks you saw or talked to during that mission. They might have something funny or insightful to add; if not, you’ll hear a voice message or get a busy signal. It sounds like a lot of work, but I think it’s worth the trouble (and the handful of seconds it takes) to dial them regularly.

Your in-game smartphone is a shortcut for useful services
Emergency services are already on your phone, and you can call in the fire department, police, or an ambulance. The most useful contact for me was Downtown Cab Co., a taxi service that can zip you from one end of Los Santos to another in less than a minute. But given your tight budget early on, I wouldn’t rely on it too much until you have at least a couple thousand dollars.

You can also browse the Internet through your phone. The fictional websites are a fun distraction, but you’ll want to concentrate on the luxury services – sites that sell new cars, boats, helicopters, and planes — once you get enough money to buy these vehicles.

Grand Theft Auto V

Above: You’ll see nice sports cars on a regular basis, but if you want to buy one, you need to save up a lot of dough.

Image Credit: Rockstar Games

Wondering where the Epsilon Program is?
Rockstar’s parody of the Church of Scientology is alive and well in Los Santos, but it doesn’t play a role in the main story. You’ll have to explore the Epsilon Program’s website to unlock a special set of side missions.

Don’t be afraid to play as your favorite character
The new swap mechanic lets you switch between the three main characters — Michael, Franklin, and Trevor — at any time, but you don’t have to play them all equally. For instance, just because you’re busy sorting out Michael’s family affairs for a few hours doesn’t mean you’re missing anything in Franklin’s or Trevor’s lives. It does seem that way at first. Whenever you swap out of one guy and into another, a short cutscene shows what that character is up to, like talking to his wife and friends or getting kicked out of a bar for being too drunk.

As far as I could tell, these events were as random as the outfits you found the characters in, and some scenes even repeat themselves. So play your favorite character as long you like. The other two guys will still be around.

A man’s best friend

Franklin’s dog, Chop, is surprisingly helpful, but only if you take him out of the house. He can sniff out spaceship parts and pieces of a 50-page murder confession — two of the hardest collectibles to find — and if anyone is bothering you, just aim at them as you would with a gun, and Chop will sprint to your target and kill them. People will run away at the sight of the vicious dog, but the cops don’t seem to care.

If you download Rockstar’s free iFruit app for your phone (it’s only available on iOS devices right now), you can also make Chop behave better. In iFruit, you can feed him, play with him, and teach him tricks. This increases his happiness meter in GTA V and makes him more responsive to your commands.

Grand Theft Auto V

Above: You can feed Chop using the iFruit app on your real phone.

Image Credit: iTunes

Franklin’s special ability is more than just for vehicles
When you turn Franklin’s power on by clicking the analog sticks, his superhuman driving skill kicks in, so he can make last-minute turns or narrowly avoid crashing into another car. Since this ability slows down time, it also affects the way he shoots while driving, giving him the edge in cases where you have to stop someone’s vehicle or kill them as they try to drive away.

You can max out your characters’ stats early
Upgrading your characters’ abilities — such as their strength and flying skills — is fairly straightforward. You just have to repeat certain movements, like running to increase stamina, until that stat increases. But if you wanted to, you can max them out in the beginning by running, swimming, shooting, or punching people in their faces as much as you can. It will take a while, but it’s possible.

Sports (tennis or golf), races (both on land and sea), successfully landing stunt jumps (for driving), and other physical activities (going to a shooting range) will upgrade your stats a lot faster, but you have to unlock those by playing through the story.

Find something to hide behind when running from the police
The cops track you with their line of sight, which you see on your minimap as blue cones. If you break that line, you should stop your car and find a place to hide (like in a small alleyway or behind a wall) until they give up the search. You could just keep driving, but that increases the chance of running into other cops in the area and starting the chase all over again.