For the most part, it’s illegal business as usual in the latest edition of “Grand Theft Auto V." (Rockstar Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99)
There are vehicles to swipe, schemes to plan and banks to rob. Unlike previous installments in the wildly successful — and violent — M-rated series, “GTA V” centers not just on one but three criminal protagonists: former partners Michael and Trevor, and their new protege, Franklin.
Nearly a decade after their last heist went terribly wrong, middle-aged Michael is living comfortably bored in witness protection in a ritzy Los Santos mansion, while the unhinged Trevor is dealing meth and smuggling guns on the outskirts of town in Blaine County. Meanwhile, Franklin is hustling on the streets as a repo man for an unsavory car dealership owner.
The three men and their double- and triple-crossing ventures are ingeniously interwoven in both the narrative and gameplay of “GTA V,” which allows players to almost seamlessly switch among Michael, Trevor and Franklin throughout the proceedings. With the tap of a few buttons, “GTA V” briskly sweeps across Los Santos from one anti-hero to another.
During missions involving all three dudes, the flip-flopping is key to avoid getting wasted by the Los Santo Police. For instance, one particularly high-pressured holdup of an armored car involves swapping between Michael and Franklin blasting at waves of cops on the ground, and Trevor picking them off with a sniper rifle from a rooftop.
It’s not so much a gimmick as it is a flawless innovation on the established “GTA” formula.
With an obsessive attention to detail, the city of Los Santos — last visited in 2004’s “GTA: San Andreas” — and its outlying areas feel more alive than any virtual world I’ve ever visited. Rockstar Games has masterfully crafted a stunning make-believe take on modern Southern California that rivals the dragon-infested realm from “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.”
However, this Los Santos is not a perfect clone of L.A.
The urban areas don’t feel quite dense enough when compared with Liberty City from 2008’s “GTA IV.” And the rendition of Beverly Hills is basically across the street from downtown. Also, a few tired L.A. cliché s — plastic surgery, seeking fame — are referenced so frequently the game almost veers into goofy “Saint’s Row” territory.