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Ranking the Grand Theft Auto Games

From rags to riches.



Ranking the GTA Games

Before GTA 6, Let’s Rank Every Grand Theft Auto Game

There’s nothing quite like Grand Theft Auto. It is one of the most iconic, universally recognizable, and successful video game franchises ever. One that is constantly iterating on its own formula, one which has survived numerous controversies and always comes out on top.

There are seven mainline GTA titles released on PC and consoles, as well as four released on handheld devices. Not to mention the numerous ports, DLCs, expansions, and remasters that were released alongside them. Today we will be looking at all eleven full-release entries, the games that launched a worldwide phenomenon and made GTA what it is today.

So, with GTA’s 25th anniversary right around the corner and the recent GTA VI leaks giving us a glimpse toward the future of the franchise, why don’t we take some time to look back at its past. Here are the GTA games ranked:

Image: Rockstar - GTA Advance
Image: Rockstar – GTA Advance

11. Grand Theft Auto Advance (2004)

Perhaps the least known and least discussed entry in the GTA franchise, Advance was a Game Boy Advance exclusive. While it had grand ambitions, taking the carnage and mayhem of the series on the go for the first time, hardware limitations meant it lagged behind its PS2 and Xbox contemporaries.

Gameplay is a callback to the earliest games, with a top-down perspective and a more simplistic mission structure. However, this also brought back the frustrating and unresponsive controls and slippery car handling. For players used to the improved freedom and responsiveness of the newer 3D entries, Advance was a hard sell. The Game Boy Advance’s limited capacity also meant that animated cutscenes and voiced characters (two major improvements introduced in GTA III) had to be left on the cutting room floor.

The story is a prequel of sorts to GTA III, set one year before the events of that game. Set in Liberty City, it follows a new character named Mike and his run-ins with the Mafia and the Yakuza. While definitely not as popular as its console cousins, Advance’s relative failure to find an audience did not stop Rockstar from attempting to break into the handheld market again later down the line.

Image: Rockstar - Grand Theft Auto
Image: Rockstar – Grand Theft Auto

10. Grand Theft Auto (1997)

Back where it all began. This is the game that started Rockstar on its journey from a lesser-known development studio to the industry giant it is today.

Originally a cops and robbers racing game titled Race ‘n’ Chase, this title underwent massive changes when a bug that caused police cars to try to aggressively ram players off the road proved too much fun to change. This bug became the new game’s defining feature, playing as a cop was ditched for the life of a criminal, and GTA as we know it was born.

This original title also included the setting of future games as playable maps, with San Andreas, Vice City, and Liberty City all making their debuts. It is also where the sources of many of the series’ controversies first reared their heads, with players given the opportunity to steal cars and rob banks, kill cops and run over pedestrians.

That being said, it is a very primitive game by today’s standards. With its top-down perspective and clunky controls that make driving around its low-detail cities a nightmare, it no longer has the shock power it possessed when it was first released. But that’s not to say it hasn’t got its charms. Speeding and swerving around corners, fighting against the controls as you desperately try to steer your car across the freeway with the cops close on your tail, is still an exhilarating experience all these years later.

Image: Rockstar - Grand Theft Auto 2
Image: Rockstar – Grand Theft Auto 2

9. Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)

This direct sequel to the first game improved a lot, with Rockstar listening carefully to its fans and critics.

Gameplay-wise, GTA 2 is very similar to the first game, with players completing missions by stealing cars and robbing banks to achieve a target score, all the while trying to outrun or kill off the police chasing after them. There is only one city (the rather uninspiringly named “Anywhere City”) to drive around this time round, split into three distinct districts – residential, downtown, and industrial. But it is far more open and detailed than any of the cities in the previous game. Its more open layout encouraged players to explore.

Rockstar also vastly improved the game’s AI and controls, making cars faster and easier to handle, and making the police even more relentless. The camera was also improved, actually keeping up with the player’s car as they sent it careening across the city streets. Other improvements include giving the player weapons, a health meter, and collectables to find, as well as making the world feel more alive by adding muggers and rival gang members to hinder the player’s progress. The seeds of things that would be built on in future titles to create some truly immersive playgrounds.

Image: Rockstar - GTA: Liberty City Stories
Image: Rockstar – GTA: Liberty City Stories

8. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (2005)

This was Rockstar’s second attempt at a handheld title and one that massively improved on their previous attempt’s flaws.

Once more set in Liberty City, this PSP exclusive ditched the top-down perspective in favour of the 3D sandboxes fans had come to expect and adore. The city itself is almost identical to the Liberty City seen in GTA III. Gameplay is also largely the same, with Liberty City Stories fully committing to the premise of providing the full GTA experience on the go. However, it also improves upon the GTA III formula by adding more interiors to explore, new vehicles to drive/steal, and the ability to change clothes.

That being said, the PSP’s lack of a second analogue stick made navigating this 3D world far fiddlier than it needed to be. And its relatively limited processing power meant fewer pedestrians and cars on the roads, along with shorter draw distances.

The story follows Toni Cipriani, a side character from GTA III, as he rises through the ranks of a notorious crime family. Missions are structured similarly to those fans had come to expect, with hijackings, shootouts, minigames, and all the other bells and whistles, only on a slightly smaller scale.

Image: Rockstar - GTA: Vice City Stories
Image: Rockstar – GTA: Vice City Stories

7. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (2006)

This is Rockstar’s third handheld title and the fan favourite of the two PSP exclusives. GTA: Vice City Stories once more returned the ’80s and the neon-drenched streets of Vice City. Taking all the lessons they learned from Liberty City Stories, Rockstar greatly improved upon the handheld formula with this outing.

Vice City Stories is one of the better-looking and better-playing games on the PSP, with the developers using both the hardware and their own vibrant art direction to their advantage. Gameplay is of course heavily inspired by GTA: Vice City (which came out four years earlier), but also includes new additions like the ‘Beach Patrol’ mini-game, as well as a brand-new ‘empire building’ system, in which players take over properties from rival gangs and turn them into profitable businesses.

Similarly, it improved on Liberty City Stories’ gameplay by allowing the player to swim without instantly dying (something very few Rockstar protagonists can seem to do), as well as improving the aiming system to automatically target threats instead of civilians, along with a complete overhaul to the hand-to-hand combat system.

The story centers around Victor ‘Vic’ Vance, an ex-soldier hoping to build his own criminal empire alongside his brother Lance. Improved writing and cutscenes elevate its story above its predecessor’s.

While not as polished or expansive as its bigger console cousins, Vice City Stories was more than just a throwaway distraction for an hour or two.  

Image: Rockstar - GTA: Chinatown Wars
Image: Rockstar – GTA: Chinatown Wars

6. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009)

This is the fourth and final handheld entry into the series and was also one of Rockstar’s most creative games. Taking the decision to return to a top-down perspective, Chinatown Wars introduced new players to GTA’s roots.

Chinatown Wars was released on PSP and Nintendo DS, but unlike the previous two handheld titles, it never received a remaster on consoles. It was, however, later released on iOS and other mobile devices.

The gameplay is similar to GTA 1 and 2, only vastly improved with the benefit of time and processing power. Cars handle smoothly and missions offer more variety. A rotatable camera allows players to explore every inch of its fully-open world and take in the comic-book-esque cel-shaded visuals. The ‘Wanted’ system, safe houses, and the Ammu-Nation weapon store from GTA IV make an appearance here, too.

Chinatown also added many game-specific minigames that haven’t yet seen a return, such as having to hot-wire cars before they can be stolen, and a drug smuggling minigame that drew the ire of many a reporter and disapproving parent at the time.

Once again set in Liberty City, the story this time is about Triad member Huang Lee’s mission to reclaim a ceremonial sword gifted to him by his late father after it was stolen by a rival Triad leader.  

While Chinatown Wars looks and plays vastly differently from its 3D contemporaries, it was well received as a fun change of pace.

Image: Rockstar - Grand Theft Auto III
Image: Rockstar – Grand Theft Auto III

5. Grand Theft Auto III (2001)

Rockstar’s first foray into the realm of 3D games and one that made the rules for all future open-world action games to follow.

Despite its new dimension, GTA III follows a very similar formula gameplay-wise to its prequels, with players predominantly stealing cars, making money, and outrunning the cops to progress. It was even set in Liberty City, a reimagining of one of the maps from the first game. Of course, the improved hardware of the PS2 and Xbox gave the game a fantastic graphical boost and granted Rockstar tremendous freedom to really fill this 3D world with (what was at the time) great detail, textures, and character models.

Another massive change was the introduction of a named character. Claude gave the game a face and a role for players to inhabit. He also gave the devs at Rockstar the opportunity to craft a proper story – a revenge tale to really get the players invested.

The gameplay improved massively with this leap into the third dimension. Liberty City is a massive map fully open to exploration between missions and filled with new side missions. Players can now move about the city more naturally with a new-and-improved third-person camera that follows Claude both on foot and behind the wheel of any of the myriad new vehicles this game introduced. Gunplay and violence have been ramped up, too, with players now able to build up a “Wanted” meter as they go around committing crimes.

Of course, this new level of realism led to many new controversies, with the media at the time calling the game reprehensible for allowing players to kill civilians and flagrantly break the law. Naturally, this only made the game more enticing, and was something Rockstar was more than happy to lean into again with its future titles.

Image: Rockstar - GTA: Vice City
Image: Rockstar – GTA: Vice City

4. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)

After setting the bar for what a 3D open-world action game should be, what else could Rockstar do next but refine it? And in the process, they created an ambitious title still adored by fans today.

Set in (as its name would suggest) Vice City, this game took all the best elements of GTA III and made them even better. Gunplay is tighter, vehicles handle more smoothly, and there are even more side activities to indulge in. But the most influential of these improvements has to be the game’s main character.

Vice City stars Tommy Vercetti and spins the tale of his rise up through the ranks of a criminal empire after his release from prison. As with Claude in GTA III, Tommy gives the game a face, but more importantly this time around, he gives it a personality. Tommy is the first fully-voiced GTA protagonist, and Ray Liotta’s brilliant performance makes him one of the series’ most memorable. This was something Rockstar doubled down on going forward: hiring famous voices and serious actors to voice their protagonists and side characters added nuance to the story and star power no other games had.

Image: Rockstar - Grand Theft Auto IV
Image: Rockstar – Grand Theft Auto IV

3. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)

The first GTA to release on PS3 and Xbox 360, GTA IV was something of a change of pace for Rockstar. While previous titles were satirical and over-the-top, GTA IV aimed for something a little more grounded, serious, and nuanced, yet retained a lot of the series’ signature humour.

Once more set in Liberty City, the power of the then-latest generation of consoles gave the devs at Rockstar the tools they needed to make the most realistic and truly ‘lived-in’ city yet. Improved AI and rendering mean many more vehicles on screen at once, all following basic traffic laws as they go about their business in the city. They mean NPCs who interact realistically with the player, jumping out of the way of speeding cars, or starting fistfights or calling the police when harassed. The magic of the Euphoria physics engine means that every crash, every explosion, every leap out of a helicopter results in a brilliantly exaggerated ragdoll, with limbs flailing wildly.

The protagonist this time around is Nico Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who travels to Liberty City, at the behest of his cousin, in search of a new and better life. But he soon realizes his cousin wasn’t quite telling the truth about the so-called “American Dream” and finds himself falling in with the very criminals he was trying to get away from. While this set up a much darker and grittier story than seen in previous games, Rockstar didn’t lose sight of what fans had come to expect from GTA.

The open world is even more expansive, and the gameplay and controls are more refined. Guns are easier to aim and have more of a kick to them (especially when paired with Euphoria’s ragdoll physics). A new cover system and melee overhaul add a tactical edge to combat. And there are even more side activities to get stuck into, from bowling with cousin Roman to going on dates.

GTA IV set a new benchmark for open-world games but was missing a little of that fun factor that its predecessors had in spades.

Image: Rockstar - GTA: San Andreas
Image: Rockstar – GTA: San Andreas

2. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)

A favourite that still sits at the top of many fans’ personal lists, GTA San Andreas turned the craziness up to eleven while still telling a compelling, character-driven story.

Set in the expansive city of San Andreas (one of the largest maps in any GTA game), players take control of CJ on a true rags-to-riches tale. San Andreas improves and innovates in all the right ways. For the first time in the franchise, light RPG mechanics were implemented, allowing players to change their hair, buy clothing and property, customize cars, and fully roleplay as CJ by improving his skills or taking him to restaurants and gyms. The latter actually alters CJ’s character model, putting on weight if he eats too many burgers or toning his muscles if he lifts enough weights.

Brand new swimming and climbing mechanics allow for new ways to explore the detailed map, as do a variety of new vehicles introduced to the series for the first time in this game. Combat and shooting mechanics were once again overhauled, allowing for more precise aiming and more engaging fights. To add to the feeling that the player really was living in San Andreas as CJ, minigames like pool, basketball, and poker added some levity and downtime between the violence. And players who wanted a little more money could try their hand at ‘home invasions’. All little touches that really made the game’s world feel alive.

The missions are a big step up from previous titles, too, with many being highly memorable (but not always for the right reasons).

The story here is at its satirical best, weaving a hilarious tale that wouldn’t be bested for another nine years. It shows the duality between gangs of the suburbs and the millionaires of the hills, highlighting the criminality at play in both, in perfect Rockstar fashion. The characters are hilarious, the writing is witty and well delivered, and it creates an overall outstanding package that fans still can’t get enough of to this day.

Image: Rockstar - Grand Theft Auto V
Image: Rockstar – Grand Theft Auto V

1. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

Which other game would you expect to see at the number one spot? GTA V took over the world and dominated mainstream media the minute it was first released and is still clinging on to much of that power today.

GTA V is a masterpiece. Returning to San Andreas, Rockstar built a city that truly feels alive. NPCs go about as though they have real lives and places to be, cats and dogs roam the streets, and random events take place everywhere the player turns. Eccentric side characters and stranger missions reward players for exploring. Fantastically realized minigames like golf, tennis, and even yoga (which are so detailed they could have been games in and of themselves), break up the car chases and shoot-outs and really give the player the chance to lose themselves in this vibrant city.  

Combat has once again been overhauled, providing players with more weapons and explosives than ever before, and pits them against more intelligent enemies that can use cover and attempt to outflank them.

In a first for the series, players take control of three main characters: Michael, Franklin, and Trevor. Each character embodies a different playstyle and travels their own path, and each has their own skills and special abilities to utilize and improve. But it is in the missions where all three come together towards a common goal that the game really shines. Swapping between Michael, Franklin, and Trevor on the fly as each one plays their separate part in a heist, or sniping an enemy like Franklin before swapping over to Trevor and swooping in with a helicopter is an exhilarating experience. GTA V wants players to feel like they are playing through an action movie, and it nails it.

The storytelling hits its peak here, too. GTA IV’s serious tone was left behind for a riotous return to the side-splitting satire and certifiably crazy side characters that made GTA: San Andreas what it was, only with a further nine years of writing experience to elevate it even higher. Characters are nuanced, morally grey, and ambiguous, with even top government officials shown to be as criminal and corrupt as the lowliest gang member. And the bank heists – the big set pieces of the game – are of a scale and spectacle unlike anything that came before (save perhaps Four-Leaf Clover in GTA IV)

GTA V is also responsible for unleashing the juggernaut that is GTA Online – the first Grand Theft Auto multiplayer experience to really connect with players, and which fundamentally changed Rockstar’s approach to making games, and making money. No game in the franchise’s long and storied history is quite as detailed, polished, innovative, and complete as GTA V, and that is why it deserves its spot at number one. It’s so well made, in fact, that even GTA VI will have a hard time knocking it off its perch.

The fact that the majority of this list lined up with the chronological release of these games was no accident. Rockstar has proved time and time again that they know how to make games unlike anything else on the market and only get better at it with each subsequent release.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jesse

    October 1, 2022 at 8:27 am

    Max Longhurst has never played SA

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