Each protagonist has his own unique special ability which is based on his own "specialty"; Michael has the ability to slow down time during shoot-outs, Franklin can slow down time while driving, and Trevor can enter a "rage" mode where he is able to deal double damage to enemies while making himself nearly invulnerable to damage. Each protagonist has a small yellow meter below the radar which indicates how much time the player has left before the special ability deactivates. While playing as any protagonist, the player can activate the special ability by pressing + on PS3/PS4, LS+RS on Xbox 360/Xbox One, or Caps Lock on PC. Each protagonist has his own way of refilling the meter.
Franklin's ability, Driving Focus, allows him to slow down time while driving any land vehicle. This allows him to easily take corners at full speed and make precise maneuvers quickly. By enhancing this skill, its maximum storage capacity is increased, which directly affects its duration. Franklin's special ability begins at one third of maximum capacity, which lasts for 30 seconds of duration. As soon as the ability gets activated, the screen darkens and takes on a slight hue of green, during which the gameworld becomes very slow, and all of the lights on the screen become blurry and leave trails. Controls of the vehicle become smoother and allow Franklin to pass through narrow gaps between other cars to do dangerous turns and slides without losing control or speed of the vehicle and overall improve performance. This is reminiscent of the "Zone" ability in the Midnight Club series of video games, which were also made by Rockstar Games, which allows the player to slow down time to weave through traffic.
This ability only can be applied to ground motored vehicles like cars, motorcycles, and even to the Rhino tank. This is particularly useful if Franklin is attacking someone with the cannon. The special ability also applies to drive-by shootings.
Just driving around with Franklin can increase his special skill although minutely. The more extreme the circumstance the better chance of increased skill. The following events give an increase to Franklin's special skill in varying amounts:
- Drifting around corners adds a continuous bonus.
- Near vehicle misses at high speed: small bonus
- Driving on the wrong side of the street in traffic adds a continuous bonus.
- Driving at or above 90% of vehicle's top speed: continuous bonus
Lamar Davis is the only in-game character who acknowledges the existence of Special Ability, asking him to "use that special driving thing that he does" during Chop. According to him, Franklin looks funny while using it, "Like watching Chop try to read while you do that shit."
Michael De Santa
Michael's Special ability is Bullet Time. While active, Michael enters a bullet-time-like effect, allowing him to slow time and gain the advantage in shootouts. By enhancing this skill, its maximum storage capacity is increased, which directly affects its duration. Michael's Special skill lasts for 30 seconds when the Stat Bar for Special skill has been maxed out. Similar to other Rockstar titles such as John/Jack Marston's Dead Eye (rank one) ability in Red Dead Redemption and the Bullet Time effect in the Max Payne series, this allows Michael to focus and plan his movements and aiming while shooting. As the ability is activated, the screen acquires a blue tint and the action is slowed down, including Michael's movements and the weapon used.
This ability can be activated only when Michael is on foot, cannot be activated when he's in a vehicle (unless when switching to him and he's in his car giving money to Tracey De Santa or Jimmy De Santa, the ability can be activated, but once the ability is stopped or depleted, it can't be activated again).
Special combat maneuvers increase Michael's Special. The following events increase Michael's Area Kill Special skill in varying amounts:
- Headshot: 7.5% bonus
- Stealth kill or knock out: 10% bonus
- Health drop below 25%: 20% bonus
- Maintaining high speeds in vehicles: small bonus
Tracey De Santa indirectly mentions his special ability in Daddy's Little Girl, saying "My daddy never misses!", although this could simply be her overplaying Michael's aim.
Trevor's special skill is Red Mist, which allows him to take less damage and inflict more damage on others, practically making him invincible. As the ability is activated, Trevor bursts into rage, and damage taken is reduced to half and damage given is increased on enemies. Trevor is unable to die while the ability is active, allowing him to survive lethal events such as explosions, heavy collisions, or being hit by trains or other locomotives. The screen acquires an orange shade with a ripple visual effect and a buzzing sound effect, time slows down slightly, but never as slow as Michael's or Franklin's ability. By enhancing this skill, its maximum storage capacity is increased, which directly affects its duration. Trevor's Special skill lasts for 30 seconds when the Stat Bar for Special skill has been maxed out. This special move is reminiscent to Tony Montana's rage in the game Scarface: The World is Yours, where he becomes invincible in a berserk rage. The similar ability is also happens in another Rockstar Games movie-based game, The Warriors. This game also has a similar rage mode where the playable characters becomes invincible and their attacks doubled. And the screen is also becomes orange-shaded when activated.
He is able to resist serious to lethal damage like fire, explosions, cougar attacks and Rhino cannons. He also performs a special melee attack with up close enemies. Unfortunately, while he doesn't take as much damage, he's still susceptible to the reactions of these attacks (body flying during an explosion, cars can run over him, cougars taking him down etc.), sometimes rendering him defenseless if attacked constantly by grenades, rockets, animals, or vehicles. A modified version of Trevor's ability is featured in Rampages, but his special ability can still be activated, allowing even more advantage against the targets.
He only can perform his special ability while on foot.
When activated, Trevor will furiously shout random unique taunts.
Things that make Trevor angry increase his special capacity. The following events increase his capacity in varying amounts:
- Failing a mission: small bonus
- Fall over: small bonus
- Take damage: small bonus
- Rammed by vehicle: small bonus
- Bumping into pedestrian: small bonus
- Headshot: 7.5% bonus
- Kill at least one pedestrian in explosion: 15% bonus
- Maintaining high speeds in vehicles: small bonus
- If Franklin has maxed out his Special Ability level before participating in any race where he can utilize his Special Ability (Shift Work, Stock Car Racing), Franklin will lose almost two bars on his Special Ability level after a race is completed. This is just a minor inconvenience since it is easy to max out Franklin's Special Ability level through driving, and can even be replenished with a few races. However, once maxed out Franklin will again lose almost two bars on his Special Ability level after his next race and the quick level replenishing process will have to be repeated. This does not pertain to races where Franklin cannot use his Special Ability like Sea Races or Triathlon. (Tested on Xbox One)
- Michael has a similar occasion to this bug, but the exact cause is unknown. It appears to occur when the player constantly and regularly uses his special ability. This more commonly occurs in older copies of the game, such as on PS3 consoles.
Some people on the internet have made theories about what the sound effects on their abilities mean. Here are some of the most accepted theories.
- Michael’s Bullet Time has a ticking clock effect, as well as what most people guess it’s either a car or bike speeding up. The most accepted theory is that the clock means Michael knowing his time is running out, and that he needs (or likes) to do things quickly and efficiently. The car or bike speeding up could mean a flashback about North Yankton, where they had to run away from the police and tried to speed up only for the train to hit them. The constant speed up could mean he is getting more adrenaline as time passes because he knows he has a family and he can’t leave them alone.
- Franklin’s Driving Focus has a sound effect most people assume it’s something speeding up progressively, a jet taking off or a scream. The bass here is actually irrelevant. The most accepted theory is that it simbolizes his need for things to pace up, and eventually, they did. From a gang underdog to a successful bank heister. He needed to take off and start his life away from all the gangs. The scream, some people think, is his mother being scared in the afterlife for her son.
- Trevor’s Red Mist has a sound effect that resembles yelling, other that resembles gunshots, and at the end, a train. The theory that’s most accepted is that it’s a flashback to North Yankton. How they kept yelling at each other, shooting at cops and finally getting hit by the train.
- Michael's Bullet Time ability does not affect the images on Television.
- If the player repeatedly activates and deactivates Franklin's ability, the speed of the vehicle he's driving will dramatically increase. This is useful for slow vehicles, like trucks.
- All three protagonists' special abilities involve slow motion, however for Michael and Franklin, their special abilities slow down time drastically, whereas for Trevor, his special ability slows down time slightly.
- In the Collector's and Special editions of Grand Theft Auto V, the abilities' regeneration periods are boosted by 25%.