Best GTA Games: Counting Down The Grand Theft Auto Series From Worst To Best
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Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series is one of most well known and controversial across the gaming landscape. Known for its over-the-top violence and commentary on politics and pop culture, the series has grown and evolved over the years from a top-down 2D game to one of the biggest and most robust experiences that gaming has to offer. With Grand Theft Auto V set for release on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S in March 2022--following a recent delay out of 2021-- and rumors of Grand Theft Auto 6 after that, we're taking a look back at the series by highlighting the best GTA games. Below, we've ranked the Grand Theft Auto series from worst to best. Let's dig in.
10. Grand Theft Auto
The game that started it all. Grand Theft Auto, which was developed by DMA Design before Rockstar was formed, was released in 1998 for PC. The gameplay involved hijacking cars and zipping around the city, causing as much mayhem as possible and then attempting to escape the law. The game was presented in a top-down perspective, something the series would move away from in later entries. While not exactly fondly remembered by critics, it sold well and its core ideas--being a criminal in an open world with the ability to go anywhere and do anything--proved to be popular with fans.
See our GTA 1 review.
9. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
2005's Liberty City Stories is a prequel to GTA III that was originally released for PSP, and it's remembered for being the first 3D entry in the series for a portable console. Also set in Liberty City, Liberty City Stories was designed to take advantage of the PSP's hardware. And in our review at the time, we said the game succeeded in factoring in "what made the 'big' GTA games so memorable." The story follows a mobster named Tony Cipriani, who is trying to make a name for himself in the criminal underworld. The game continued the franchise's tradition of non-linear, open-ended gameplay--and of course the prime directive being to shoot first and ask questions later. Overall, we said in our review that Liberty City Stories was a technical marvel for being able to include so much of the GTA console experience into a handheld package.
See our GTA Liberty City Stories review.
8. Grand Theft Auto IV
The long-awaited follow-up to GTA: San Andreas, 2008's Grand Theft Auto IV is beloved by many upon its release for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It ushered in a new, more realistic presentation of Liberty City, which was modeled after New York City. The size and scale of the world was stunning, giving players even more freedom to explore on a bigger stage. The story followed the immigrant Nico Bellic and his troubles making his new life in America. Here at GameSpot, we scored GTA 4 a 10/10 and one of the best of 2008. In addition to its compelling campaign, GTA 4 laid the groundwork for GTA Online with its own multiplayer mode, letting players duke it out or work together in an online environment. This would go on to pay dividends with GTA Online enjoying runaway success years later. GTA 4 also introduced cover-based mechanics, another feature that Rockstar would employ again in Red Dead Redemption years later and GTA 5 after that. What's more, GTA 4 moved the franchise forward by introducing new systems like allowing players to make choices that affected the story.
And who could forget the constant phone calls to go bowling. GTA 4 is also remembered fondly for its expansion packs, The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost and Damned, which were much loved. They were also representative of a bygone era, as the Rockstar of today tends to put a lot of its focus in online modes like GTA Online and Red Dead Online instead of opting for traditional expansion packs, much to the chagrin of some fans of the series.
See our GTA 4 review.
7. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
2009's GTA: Chinatown Wars represented a departure of sorts for Rockstar, as the Nintendo DS and later PSP game was the first since Vice City Stories designed specifically for portable devices. And with the DS specifically, the game made use of the system's touchscreen and second screen to offer a presentation style and setup no previous game could. The game takes place once again in Liberty City, and puts you into the shoes of Huang Lee, a Triad gang member. The game also broke from tradition with its cel-shaded art style and its top-down perspective that harken back to the original days of GTA. Here at GameSpot we loved Chinatown Wars and praised it specifically for how it didn't feel like a scaled-down portable version of GTA, but instead a game that felt meaningful and worthy, pushing the franchise forward with new features.
See our GTA: Chinatown Wars review.
6. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
A prequel to Vice City, Vice City Stories debuted in 2006 for PSP before coming to PlayStation 2 the following year. Set in the year 1984 (two years before Vice City), the game follows the story of Victor "Vic" Vance and his efforts to develop a criminal empire in Vice City. Vice City Stories definitely improved upon some elements of Vice City--notably, it infused more personality, many critics said--and it offered players another fun romp with the freedom to cause mayhem. We said in our review at the time that Vice City Stories didn't exactly take the GTA series into new territory, but it translated the trademark GTA experience nicely into a portable experience.
See our GTA Vice City Stories review.
5. Grand Theft Auto II
1999's GTA II followed up the 1997 original and once again plopped players into a fictional city with the aim of causing the most havoc and mayhem possible. Presented from a top-down perspective, GTA II followed the same format as the original. Rockstar's big focus on storytelling in modern times was not the same back then, and instead players were called on to live out the relatively basic fantasy of being a budding young criminal who wants nothing more than to commit wanton acts of violence and destruction. The visuals were improved in GTA II, making cars and other elements look better. The camera system was improved, too, and GTA II added a multiplayer mode that allowed up to six people to compete on maps designed specifically for multiplayer. GTA II would mark the end of an era of sorts for the franchise, with the series moving into a 3D open world with its subsequent releases.
See our GTA 2 review.
4. Grand Theft Auto III
2001's Grand Theft Auto III represented a major shift for the series, which was still under development at DMA Design at the time. GTA III moved the series into a 3D world for the first time, following the 2D top-down perspectives of the earlier games. Set in a fictional version of New York City called Liberty City, GTA III was praised for pushing the series into an exciting new direction with its more ambitious open-world with non-linear gameplay. The game was massively influential and helped propel the gaming industry at large toward embracing non-linear open-ended sandbox games that have since become ubiquitous. In GTA 3, there was an astounding (for the time) variety and volume of activities to partake in, it had an excellent soundtrack including an original comedy channel called Chatterbox, and it marked the franchise's first foray into using Hollywood talent for voice roles (Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Madsen are two of the stars that appeared in the game in voice parts).
Rockstar delayed the game by a few weeks due to the September 11 terrorist attacks and made some slight changes like changing the flight path of a plane so it didn't look like it could crash into a building. One mission that referenced terrorism was also removed. We said in our original review that "GTA III reinvents the series, updates it for a new generation of consoles, and manages to keep every single positive aspect from the two previous games."
See our GTA 3 review.
3. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Released just a year after GTA III, 2002's Vice City took players back in time to 1986. Set in Vice City, which was modeled after Miami, the story focused on the misadventures of Tommy Verceitti, with its narrative making obvious nods to Scarface and the TV series Miami Vice. Rockstar Games improved upon the open-world, non-linear structure of GTA III in Vice City, expanding on features and systems in the earlier releases and introducing new abilities, items, and mechanics. We said at the time that Vice City was one of "most stylish and most enjoyable games ever released." It remains one of only a few GTA games to set its story in the past, and many are wondering when Rockstar may return to a period setting for a new GTA game.
See our GTA: Vice City review.
2. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
2004's GTA: San Andreas ranks highly on our list because it was a groundbreaking open-world experience when it was released on PS2 and Xbox. Set in a massive open-world based on Los Angeles and other areas, the game puts you into the role of Carl "CJ" Johnson. GTA San Andreas improved upon earlier entries by doing away with loading screens between locations, introducing swimming to the mix, an RPG system of sorts where you put on weight when you eat and need to exercise to stay trim and for offering what was, at the time, a gorgeous world to explore filled with all manner of activities. In our review at the time, we said when a game tries to do many different things, it can become stretched thin, but San Andreas moves from strength to strength to create an especially powerful package overall. The characters and dialogue are smart and well-delivered, and the sound design was praised, too. Not everyone loved GTA San Andreas, though, as many may recall the discovery of the Hot Coffee mod that caused a stir with politicians like Hillary Clinton who pushed for an inquiry. San Andreas' legacy would live on, with Rockstar electing to use the same setting for its most popular game in the series so far, GTA V.
See our GTA: San Andreas review
1. Grand Theft Auto V (GTA Online)
Grand Theft Auto V makes the top of the list because it is the pinnacle of the series from a design, storytelling, and technical perspective. Released in 2013, the game has stood the test of time and remains immensely popular to this day, thanks in part to its GTA Online mode. The game's narrative took a unique approach for the series by featuring three playable protagonists. Michael, Trevor, and Franklin each came from distinct backgrounds and offered their own unique perspectives and gameplay opportunities, which kept the experience fresh. And the stories tied together in what felt like a satisfying way in the end. Set in a fictional version of Los Angeles called Los Santos and the surrounding area known as Blaine County, GTA V dropped players into an expansive world teeming with life and things to do, places to explore, and people to meet.
The GTA Online mode is a treasure unto itself, offering a virtual playground with all manner of quests and activities to take part in such as heists, races, PvP, and countless other challenges. The phenomenon that is GTA V is set to continue in March 2022 on the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S, where players can expect better visuals and an improved experience overall. When it's released on those new platforms, it will be the third generation of consoles that the game has been released on, which is highly unusual but not surprising given the game remains a top-seller every month and has sold an astonishing 150 million copies to date.
See our GTA V review.