Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise is one of the most popular and most profitable video game series in the year, and for good reason. They’re fun, they’re a real power fantasy, and they’re also the embodiment of the sandbox game that lets you do anything. Here’s our ranking of all 12 GTA games, from worst to best.
12. Grand Theft Auto
Let’s make one thing clear, none of the games on this list are bad. They not only helped to crate a whole new way of playing, but they have been influential in everything from design to tone. The game that started it off may be ‘last’ on this list, but that’s only because each of the games that followed it up were so incredible.
The top down view may have been a bit difficult to get used to at first but once you got a hold of the freedom offered it became clear that this was a truly special game. Of course, it would be just a glimpse of the insanity that players would experience in the series’ future. The cities present in GTA (Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City) would become well known in the future as gaming evolved into something much bigger.
11. Grand Theft Auto 2
GTA 2 followed the mantra of “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” The game played almost identically to the first release, with its focus on thievery and more violent felonies in order to rack up points and progress in the game. Instead of taking place in a recreated city of the real world though, it instead takes place in Anywhere, USA, a somewhat futuristic city where apparently crime is still high.
One new aspect added to this GTA was the gang system. Doing missions for one gang could potentially upset another causing serious problems for you and your constituents. It added a fun dynamic that took the game from just straight chaos, to having to actually think about what you did next.
10. Grand Theft Auto: London 1969
GTA: London 1969 is technically an expansion to the original game (and also the first expansion to ever appear on the PS1). But, like with every successive entry, London 1969 manages to throw something into the mix that shows off the dev’s desire to keep improving.
The 30 vehicles and 39 missions were more than enough, but changing all the language to match the setting of the new location, adding some cameos, and having the disk double as an audio CD made this game amazing. It showed that the team was more interested in creating something new than just rehashing the same old thing.
9. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
Liberty City Stories attempted to do the same thing that its predecessor Liberty City Stories did by creating a unique story set in the world of the critically acclaimed Vice City. The story is amazing, there’s no denying that. Vic Vance is out for blood after tying to live an upstanding life and being backed into a corner by a shady superior. It hits all the right narrative notes, but when it came to the delivery of the game, there were issues.
The game had some trouble running on the PSP. It was great that Rockstar was more ambitious this time around, but performance is very important. The PS2 port fixed some of these issues, but was yet another almost completely direct port. Though a few activities were added, the upgrade to PS2 could have done so much more aside from just fixing some loading issues. Instead it brought you the very same game a few months later and proved to be a missed opportunity.
8. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
Liberty City Stories was Rockstar’s first direct stab at making an original GTA for a handheld device. This one took players back to good old Liberty City and gave you control of a new protagonist, Toni Cipriani. It did much more than just gave you a new face though.
Liberty City Stories also brought in a lot of the advancements from games that followed GTA III such as motorcycles, more interiors, and the ability to change clothing. It was a game that built upon the new base and was a solid entry on the PSP. Unfortunately, the PS2 version didn’t change anything and instead just ported the game over making it seem lazy in comparison. Liberty City Stories was solid on the PSP but didn’t do anything special on console and that pretty much held the game back from pushing past some of its fellow GTA entries.
7. Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto IV was the first ‘next gen’ entry into the series after an extremely large run on both the PS2 and PSP. It brought players back to Liberty City once again, the city that ushered the series into the third dimension on consoles, and it introduced a lot of new mechanics…maybe too many.
The new graphics, lovable protagonist (Niko Bellic), and rich open world helped reestablish just why this series is so loved. Everyone other than Niko, though? They for some reason felt the need to constantly hound you at every single turn to go bowling, or some other trivial act. The social aspect added to characters was great, but very overdone. The game also took a step back in terms of customization and really moving up in the world, most likely to refocus.
All in all, GTA IV set up a solid foundation that would be capitalized on a bit later, but its initial outing was impressive to say the least.
6. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Nintendo wanted in on the GTA action, and who could blame them? The series was hot, and its take no prisoners style while delivering the best in action gameplay was applauded with each release. But who could’ve expected that it would be so damn good?
Chinatown Wars was a surprising return to the top down days of the past, only this time you could rotate the camera to get a better angle of the action. A deeper story set in GTA IV’s version of Liberty City, a new protagonist, and a comic book look made this entry pretty unique, which isn’t easy in this day and age. Plus the DS was used magnificently. The touch screen handled your bombs, radio, PDA, and map, while you took care of business on the top screen. The PSP version of course had to switch things around due to lack of a touch screen, but still managed to make it work and stay enjoyable.
Instead of dumbing things down for the smaller systems, the game was allowed to evolve by leveraging the different tech. It was not only a great GTA for handheld but a truly great GTA, period.
5. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
San Andreas is often overlooked when discussing the best GTA games out there, and its largely due to the solid presence that another entry in the series had on the same platform. There’s also all of the attention it got for the whole ‘Hot Coffee’ situation, and that seemed to represent the game more than the actual game itself. San Andreas brought players into a world where low-riders and Chuck Taylors were badges of status, hip-hop controlled the streets, and you could go from a nobody to a mansion on the hills with just a bit of hard work…and a lot of bullets.
San Andreas introduced a lot of RPG elements such as skill upgrades, character customization that affects how NPCs interact with you, the ability to learn different styles of combat, acquiring property, and even maintaining your health. It was a lot too chew on, and for some the game was a bit too ambitious but it gave the game a strong sense of its own identity.
Gang wars, car mods, new types of crime, and even the ability to go into debt made the world seem more alive. It may have been a bit too ambitious for the PS2 platform, but it was the first view at what Rockstar was working on for the future.
4. Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City
GTA IV set up a solid foundation, but it was admittedly lacking in some departments. Although Niko was likable and easy to relate to (right down to the annoying family), the game itself felt like it really limited players in their personal progression unlike previous entries. The Ballad of Gay Tony and Lost and Damned took the world and injected new personality, action, activities, and standalone stories that were tough to put down,
Lost and Gay Tony’s respective protagonists, Johnny and Luis, were two very unique individuals caught up in their own troubles as the events of the main game are taking place. Luis in particular is lead to a new life after being present during Niko’s bank robbery with Patrick, setting off a chain of events full of expensive cars, a fabulous nightlife, and lots of death.
Each of the expansions also brought back a lot of elements that were in past games but didn’t make the cut for Niko’s adventure such as gang wars, fight clubs, multiple different employment opportunities, and a wider range of weapons and vehicles. Episodes From Liberty City turned GTA IV into the over the top adventure everyone expected when the game first released, and showed us that characters rule by letting each protagonist feel brand new even though everything took place in the same world.
3. Grand Theft Auto III
If you’re a fan of the series, there is no way you can hear the name of this title and not have your heart swell as the nostalgia washes over you. While the top down games introduced the franchise to the masses, it was GTA III that defined the series going forward. From the moment you first set eyes on the 3D Claude (so that’s his name) you know that this is going to be something you’ve never experienced.
It’s the game that brought mayhem and helped to define an open world to 3D gaming and be copied to no end for many years to come (it’s still happening). It put the series on the map and turned it into a mainstream series with fans clamoring for sequels. The mission structure, the way characters came into your life, the sense of one big mission instead of several levels, and the freedom to do as you please became mainstays in the franchise. GTA III took the top-down action packed formula and turned it on its head by placing you in a city you could believe. It changed game development forever, and remains one of the best games ever made.
2. Grand Theft Auto V
With everything that has gone on within the series, there was no telling what GTA V would do when it was released. Each game since III built on the sandbox that it made so famous and tried its best to add in something by which it would be remembered. Whether it was a new mini-game, a specific kind of music, certain weapons, or its setting. What this entry did was take everything that maybe didn’t work to well before and perfected it while also introducing us all to the future of the series.
San Andreas’ RPG elements were combined with GTA IV’s social connections, a revamped online component, jaw dropping visuals in a truly open world, and three characters for you to live as all in a world that continues to live even when you’re away. This was all combined to make a game that starts to show Rockstar’s overarching vision for their grand franchise as players are thrust into a world perfectly in sync with the modern age. Where its celebrities are our own, and it effortlessly points out our flaws as it forces us to ridicule them.
If IV was the series setting itself up for a new age, GTA V was it finally taking full advantage of everything it had learned and finally nailing ever single aspect.
1. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Vice City was incredible for a number of reasons. It maintained the same gameplay many had already fallen in love with in GTA III, along with improving upon it with additions like motorcycles, helicopters, smarter law enforcement, and better weapons (minigun, anyone?). That alone would have been enough for fans, but Rockstar didn’t stop there.
Stunning music pulled straight from the ’80s? Check. Slick fashion to match? Check. Scarface’s mansion, a thrilling tale about betrayal and vengeance, tons of money and prestige, as well as lots of crime and action? Check to all of that. Vice City added life to GTA in a way that three failed to do, and it did so using color and music. The pastels donned by you and your pals were one thing, but once the night hit and the city was lit up with Neon as you made your way to your next mission, it all just clicked.
Vice City combined the action with a dream, one that we saw in those movies we weren’t allowed to watch as children. While the entries to the series that followed Vice City added new mechanics and features, none could match the first time you got a sports car and bumped Africa by Toto as loud as you possibly could while pulling off a drive-by on your competition. Damn, Vice City was good.
All GTA Games in Chronological Order
Of course, if you ever wanted to embark on the journey of playing all the Grand Theft Auto games in chronological order, here’s the list:
- Grand Theft Auto (1997)
- Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)
- Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 (1999)
- Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001)
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
- Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (2005)
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (2006)
- Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
- Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009)
- Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City (2009)
- Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
What’s your favorite GTA game? Let us know in the comments below.
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