Gamers spent more than $800 million in one day on copies of “Grand Theft Auto V” when the game went on sale this week, according to the game’s publisher. The newest installment in the highly popular series foucses on the adventures of three men living a life of crime in a fictional Southern California city:

For the most part, it’s illegal business as usual in the latest edition of “Grand Theft Auto.” 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.

Besides the usual felonious shenanigans, there are leisurely diversions spread across Los Santos, including customizing rides, investing in the stock market, racing jet skis, watching TV, surfing spoof sites online, playing tennis and patronizing strip clubs.

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.”

Associated Press

With the new version, the game’s makers evidently made no effort to avoid the long-running contoversy over the series’ violence:

This time around, there’s some discussion of whether a scene depicting torture is too much, particularly at one point where players are directed to wrench a tooth out of someone’s mouth, by using their joystick.

Eurogamer, which called the scene the “most disturbing” of the game, questioned whether the violence was justified. Author Tom Bramwell said that while he enjoyed the rest of the game, he found it difficult to play through the torture part. He added that he hopes it doesn’t become a distraction from the general game.

“I think Rockstar has the right to put it in there, but I also think it’s a flawed sequence that may draw attention away from a lot of things GTA5 does that are worth talking about for the right reasons,” he said.

Hayley Tsukayama

“Grand Theft Auto V” is available for $59.99 from Rockstar Games on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.