When you talk about video games to anyone who doesn't play them, they'll likely think of Grand Theft Auto. It's not hard to see why: the franchise has dominated the video game industry for nearly twenty years since the first GTA game launched.
From its humble beginnings, GTA has gone on to become a household name. With the launch of each game, it becomes an event that transcends the video game industry and is talked about in mainstream media. The points of discussion are mixed. Some love the series' pastiches of the cities it is inspired by, and American culture as a whole, while others feel it is degrading the moral fiber of today's youth and are nothing more than murder simulators.
Either way, there is no denying that GTA games are always of the highest quality. They are realized to a standard that other video game developers could only aspire to produce.
But like any other video game franchise, not all games are created equally. Each entry is compared to its predecessors and, after time, the entries that succeed it. So, the task is tough, but my body is ready: Here is every GTA game ranked in order, from to the worst to best.
15 GTA: London 1961
The second of the GTA London expansion packs falls into the last place, simply for doing little to add to what GTA: London 1969 had already brought to the table.
The game engine, map, and sprites are identical to its predecessor. It is apparent that the release was created to tide over gamers waiting for a true sequel to the first GTA game. It is clear why it was a freeware title, as it would have been insulting to pay for a near carbon copy of GTA: London 1969.
As much as we love the game's satire, GTA London: 1961 was a stale entry to the GTA franchise, and even Rockstar Games seem to acknowledge this, given that they barely ever reference the game at all.
14 GTA: London 1969
A GTA game in London has been clamoured after ever since the GTA series went blockbuster in the early noughties. Much like with GTA London: 1961, many gamers don’t realize that Rockstar have visited this location on more than one occasion, with their first trip taking place in 1969. They get extra points here for its namesake year because, well, you know what I’m getting at, right?
It was run to ride about in the Austin Powers car and big red buses, but what let this entry down was that it did little to geographically represent the real-life London, which is odd, given that this is the only entry to take place in an actual city.
Maybe Rockstar will revisit this location at some point in the future, and given how far they’ve come in creating game worlds that feel lived in, I’m sure they will nail it on the third try.
13 GTA: Liberty City Stories
Liberty City Stories started life as a PSP title and was eventually ported over to the PS2. The game expanded upon the backstory of the Leone family and explored Tony Cipriani’s character in more detail. He is an interesting character too. All we know of him from GTA III is that he is fiercely loyal to Don Leone and his own momma, but GTA: Liberty City Stories lets you play through his ascension from a lowly foot soldier all the way to the top of Liberty City’s main crime family.
Rockstar Games even made an effort to give Liberty City a sense of continuity. Based in 1998, three years before the events of GTA III, it includes locations and buildings that no longer existed in the timeline of GTA III, and even allowed players to ride about on motorcycles. This was not possible in GTA III, where an in-game explanation was given that motorcycles were banned shortly after the beginning of the new millennium.
Tony is a great character and as always, one pertinent questions remains on our lips: Tony... how's your momma?
12 GTA: Vice City Stories
Much in the same vein as GTA: Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories brings life to a character we knew little about from GTA: Vice City and revamps the world in which the game is set.
In the opening cut scene to GTA: Vice City, we are introduced to a new protagonist, Vic Lance. Vic is one bad dude. A former Corporal in the U.S Army, the game sees his rise from an upstanding member of the Armed Forces to a drug trafficker and a major player in the Vice City crime scene. GTA: Vice City Stories also adds new features to the empire building of GTA: Vice City, with properties you own prone to attacks to rival gangs, it makes them seem more like actual fronts for your shady enterprise, as opposed to places you collect cash and the odd mission from.
Much like GTA: Liberty City Stories, it is interesting to have run-ins with major characters from GTA: Vice City, and see how life was for them before Tommy Vercetti came along and, much like Vic, ended up dominating the criminal landscape of Vice City.
11 GTA: Advance
This Game Boy Advance game was announced with a lot of promised. Initially, it was to be a port of GTA III, but due to technical limitations, GTA: Advance ended up being a top-down prequel to GTA III, and not a great one at that.
Given the low-specs of the Game Boy Advance, Rockstar Games did well to make the aesthetics GTA: Advance as true to the original GTA games as possible. Though in the end, it just did not have the same level of polish as other games in the series.
Where the selection of radio tracks helped make the previous games, GTA: Advance featured a lackluster selection of music, and its driving felt poor when compared to the first two GTA games. Ultimately, GTA: Advance is a game that started with so much promised and disappointed so many.
GTA is a great game. Really - it is. I remember playing it when it first came out and just causing carnage in its three cities. Though like any series with numerous iterations, the first will always be the less advanced than its successors. While the first GTA game finds itself in the middle of this list for how innovative it was, it is also there because it has not stood the test of time.
It is odd to think of how different this game could have been. When being developed by DMA Design, the original title was Race ‘n’ Chase. When first conceptualized, Race ‘n’ Chase allowed the player to choose to be a cop or robber, and they would, well, chase and race. After several developments, the choice to be a cop was dropped, and the focus shifted more towards creating as much carnage as you can. The developers finally decided on what would become the iconic name, Grand Theft Auto. Let’s face it, could you imagine getting excited for Race ‘n’ Chase 6?
9 GTA 2
The 1999 sequel to GTA was a significant improvement over its predecessor. Probably its best implementation was its system for managing your status with rival gangs, and the only other game in the series to have this system was GTA: San Andreas. However, given GTA 2 was released in 1999, this was ground-breaking stuff.
Outside of this system, the game didn’t do much else – but it didn’t need to, given that the formula for GTA was already great. Its setting was also pretty spectacular, set in an anonymous, dystopian city named Anywhere, USA, it was a stark departure from the comparatively bland cities of GTA.
Also, the trailer featured Scott Malson, who if you’re in the UK, may know him as Jack from EastEnders. Does that mean that we’re playing as Jack from EastEnders? As a Brit, I’m not sure how that makes me feel.
8 GTA: The Lost And Damned
GTA: The Lost and Damned is the first —and only— GTA game to take on motorcycle gang culture and, my god, what a ride (sorry, I love a pun).
The Lost and Damned was the first GTA title to really nail the motorcycle riding mechanics, which never felt entirely smooth in the last games and especially poor in GTA 4. Additionally, most developers don’t put nearly as much effort into their expansion packs as Rockstar games did with The Lost and Damned, which is a solid effort.
With quality voice acting, writing, and gameplay across the board, The Lost and Damned is exceptional as a standalone title.
7 GTA: Ballard Of Gay Tony
This entry earns a higher spot on the list for its main character just being more likable. Mechanically, however, it didn’t do much to differentiate itself from GTA 4, for the exception that you can visit nightclubs and dance with the ladies.
I never get to go to nightclubs and dance with the ladies, so if anything, this was more different to my actual life than any video game I've played.
Anyway, this game is as thematically close to GTA Vice City than any other entry in the series has gotten since. Unlike The Lost and Damned, which is built around the politics of a motorcycle gang (and feels gritty as a result), Ballard of Gay Tony takes a glitzier and more light-hearted look at GTA 4’s Liberty City. It is a refreshing change of pace to the hard-hitting stories of GTA 4 and The Lost and Damned.
Plus, it’s the only nightclub that will let me in nowadays. Not since the incident, anyway.
6 GTA: China Town Wars
Ah, yes, a handheld GTA game that sets out to do exactly what it said. GTA: China Town Wars is a marked improvement over GTA: Advance, not least for how much technology had advanced, but for the systems it implemented that differentiated it from other games in the series.
GTA: China Town Wars features a drug-running mini-game that offered a real sense of risk and reward. You can peddle drugs to users in different areas of the city by understanding the market demands of that specific area. The excitement comes from carrying $20,000 of drugs and trying to evade capture by the police. Getting caught, obviously, means you will lose it all, forcing you to weigh up your odds and options.
It also took a different approach to evading the police, whereby you destroy pursuing police cars rather than out-run or get a paint-job. It added a greater level of excitement to the chase, rather than just racing around, looking for a garage to paint your car a new colour. Who even thought that was a realistic concept anyway? They saw you go in. Just because you come out in a different colour car, doesn’t mean you didn’t do the things you did. If real life were like that, the streets would be chaos, I tell you.
5 GTA IV
GTA IV is the black sheep of the family. It has a style which is divisive, with some loving its dour tone and some hating it, feeling it was too far a departure from the GTA games of the PS2 days.
Despite this, there is a lot to love here. Given the shift to the Xbox 360, PS3, and the advanced technology of gaming pcs, Rockstar Games could push the level of detail in GTA IV to places that the other games could not go. This reimagining of Liberty City felt more like a true-to-life representation of New York, as opposed to GTA III, which was a miss-mash of New York, Chicago, and Portland. Irrespective of how you feel about the tone of GTA IV, it is impossible to argue that Niko is a well written and nuanced character, whose actions are morally grey, but make sense after his backstory is revealed.
The game also expanded on the dating mini-game introduced in GTA: San Andreas, but went one step further by revealing that one of your suitors is an integral part of the narrative. GTA IV is a game that handles its themes in a much more mature manner that the games that came before and after, and is a great entry to the series for it.
4 GTA III
I remember when I first saw GTA III being played. I was at my friend’s house, and he turned on his dusty PS2. We watched the stylized character designs fade in and out of the loading screen, then, he was in the game. Within minutes, he was stealing cars, gunning down gang members in the open world of Liberty City and I was in awe. At the time, I felt this was the best thing ever in video games. GTA III offered more possibilities than other games would dare to dream; it was head and shoulders about its contemporaries.
Looking back on it, and given how far GTA games have come, it feels primitive. However, just like the first GTA, this was one of the most innovative games ever and gave birth to the so-called, ‘GTA clones,’ like the forgettable The Getaway, and the successful Saints Row series. While GTA games now feature fully-voiced protagonists, GTA III’s main character was entirely silent, receiving orders and acknowledging comments with a simple nod. He was the ultimate blank canvas for you to project and vicariously live out your most depraved desires.
3 GTA V
The most recent and commercially successful addition to the series, GTA V is the video game equivalent to a fifty-hour blockbuster movie. Fitting, considering the game is set in Los Santos, a fictional version of Los Angeles. In the game, you’ll do all sorts of bombastic and over-the-top antics, like break into top-secret government test centers, storm through the streets of a rural American town in bullet-proof gear as walking tank fighting against literal tanks, and in its penultimate moments, break into the national depository.
GTA V took a new direction for the series, offering three different protagonists, that you can shift between on the fly, each with their own story, motivations, and desires. While the first two, Franklin and Michael, are perfectly likable and well drawn-out, Trevor is the real star of the show. Intended as an imagining of how GTA players approach the game, Trevor has done some sinister and outright immoral things. So, when you next play GTA V and see some of Trevor’s antics, just take a moment to realize this is how detractors of video games see you. If you’re unfamiliar with Trevor and his escapades, look at 15 Most WFT Things That Trevor Has Ever Done.
2 GTA: Vice City
After what Rockstar Games did with GTA III, it was hard to see how much they could do to improve the series. Especially considering that GTA: Vice City was released just one year after GTA 3. This is also a rarity for the series, which saw four years between GTA IV and GTA V.
Despite this, GTA: Vice City takes everything GTA III did and pushes the envelope. It was the first of the series to provide you with empire building, which gave you a tangible sense that this was not just a virtual playground for speeding around in cars and shooting guns, but it was a real city. It also introduced the first fully-voiced GTA protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, who has gone on to be a fan-favourite of the series, known for his class, style, and wit. GTA: Vice City also has a strong sense-of-place, being inspired by Scarface and Miami-Vice, it also features one of the greatest soundtracks in a GTA game, full of iconic classics from the 80s.
1 GTA: San Andreas
Between GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas, fans of the GTA can never decide which of the two was the pinnacle of the series. However, I feel that GTA: San Andreas wins by a long shot. Seriously, it’s not even debatable, so don’t even try.
It is just one of the biggest adventures Rockstar Games have ever produced for a GTA game. You start off as a gang-banger, looking to piece the gang and life you left behind back together. Fifteen hours in, you end up owning a casino and stealing a jetpack from a top-secret military installation. It takes you further than you could ever imagine a GTA game could go. The scope of both its world design and narrative is outstanding, given that this was a 2004 PS2 game, and no other title on that platform came close to matching it.
The protagonist, Carl Johnson, is just so likable too. That despite all his successes and triumphs, he never gets arrogant or cocky, unlike those who he grew up with, who betrayed him for a slice of the big money pie. In the end, GTA San Andreas takes you on a crazy adventure across its diverse and bizarre state, and one that has yet to be topped.