Few video game series are as legendary as Grand Theft Auto, which made a name for itself thanks to developer Rockstar Games. It’s been around since 1997, spanning across numerous console generations, and taking place from versions of the 1960s to the 2020s. It’s a controversial series that has been featured in the news for its violence and adult themes, but this has led to even more sales, increasing the allure and popularity.
Beyond its controversies, the Grand Theft Auto series is comprised of fantastic games — some of which have completely revolutionized the medium as a whole. Many modern hits owe a lot to the Grand Theft Auto series, proving just how important these games are, even 20 years later. To celebrate the series, Rockstar is releasing an enhanced trilogy collection for modern platforms in November, preserving the legacy of many of the best games in the franchise.
In the meantime, you might want to revisit the Grand Theft Auto games — or maybe you simply want something to hold you over until GTA 6. Either way, below is our definitive ranking of the mainline entries in the series, from the original game to the behemoth GTA V.
When it comes to the older GTA games — the ones that are presented from a top-down perspective — it’s hard to compare them to the massive 3D open-world entries. Nonetheless, the original Grand Theft Auto was ahead of its time in some ways, paving the way for what would become one of the most successful series of all time. In the original, many of the mechanics from modern installments were featured, such as the open-world, the wanted level system, and the ability to complete missions. It also featured three of the most famous locales in the series, including Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City. At the time, Grand Theft Auto felt more like an arcade game than anything, with an emphasis on points and a “lives” system in place. Still, this game is important and although it doesn’t hold up as well today, it led to some of the best games of all time.
In many ways, Grand Theft Auto 2 is an enhanced version of its predecessor, offering more of the same. Because of this, it doesn’t stand out amongst the best in the series, but it’s still a fun experience, albeit an outdated one. It still featured the arcade-like approach, wherein players had to earn points to reach the next mission. However, the highlight of GTA 2 was its near-future setting, which was comprised of multiple districts. It also had more a more immersive world with pedestrians that would behave differently depending on the situation. Aside from a few improvements here and there, GTA 2 is a relic of the past that is hard to go back to 20 years later.
The Stories games are a bit underappreciated, each serving as prequels that expand the backstory and gameplay of other entries in the series. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories is a prequel to Grand Theft Auto III, featuring many familiar characters and locales. In fact, Liberty City is mostly the same in this game as it is in GTA III, though it does feature a few differences, such as the implementation of Little Italy, which would later become a construction site in 2001. Liberty City Stories is definitely a game you’ll appreciate more if you’ve played GTA III but is still enjoyable on its own. This was the first game in the series to launch for the PSP in 2005 before coming to the PS2 the following year.
The cool thing about Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories is that it takes place two years before the events of Vice City but actually borrows several ideas from San Andreas. In it, you can build your empire by employing gang members and expanding it as you play. This, along with a brand new hand-to-hand grappling system gave it more depth, despite being a prequel. Again, Vice City Stories has references to Vice City, with various familiar characters, locations, and missions. At the time, this game was mechanically one of the best in the series, and if you were fond of Vice City, then you’d probably love Vice City Stories.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars is unique in that it reverts back to the top-down formula, launching after the series had established itself in the 3D open-world category. That bold move allowed Rockstar to implement some of the ideas of recent entries into this game while keeping things fresh and nostalgic. Chinatown Wars sends players back to Liberty City, this time focusing on the Triad gang, which you might remember from GTA III. Most unique to this game are its touchscreen controls, allowing the player to navigate menus and weapon wheels without pressing a button — at least on the Nintendo DS and mobile versions. It’s a highly underrated gem that gets overshadowed by its 3D counterparts, but that doesn’t make it any less desirable. Chinatown Wars still has the humor, action, and polish of the best GTA games, only on a smaller screen.
Arguably the most important game in the series, Grand Theft Auto III revolutionized the 3D open-world formula, giving players a gigantic, living, breathing sandbox to play around in. It certainly wasn’t the first to ever feature an open world, but in 2001, GTA III popularized this style of game. Even to this day, there are so many things that make GTA III a legendary experience, from its wonderfully-written characters and its satisfying missions to the sheer number of things to do in Liberty City. Granted, a lot of this game feels outdated by today’s standards, such as its lack of right-stick camera controls and its visuals. But still, we owe a lot to GTA III, not just for its influence on the series, but for how it impacted video games as a whole.
Just one year after the launch of GTA III, Rockstar published Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a game set in a fictional version of 1980s Miami. Although it isn’t a numbered installment, this game was tremendous when it launched, doubling down on many of the features from its predecessor. It had a bigger, more colorful world, a larger selection of weapons, and a better protagonist who actually talks (sorry Claude). That’s right, the lead role of Tommy Vercetti was met with praise at the time, had much more personality, and was frankly easier to relate to. The music in Vice City was phenomenal, as were the characters, mission variety, and sheer spectacle of the world itself.
Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the more interesting entries in the long-running series. Launching for the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2008, this game had an immense amount of hype surrounding its release, and it mostly lived up to the expectations. This game had it all: Improved combat, which included a cover-based system similar to Gears of War; incredible visuals (for the time); a city that absolutely felt lived-in; and modern touches such as the implementation of a cell phone that could be used to set up sessions with in-game friends. Speaking of which, the friend system was novel, allowing you to partake in activities with the characters from the story.
The main character, Niko Bellic, is arguably one of the most interesting of the entire series, with a deep backstory that made him feel more fleshed out. Beyond the base game is the robust online mode that allows players to explore the city freely and partake in competitive battles such as races, deathmatches, and other modes. At the time, this was absolutely groundbreaking, as it was the most impressive online mode in the series. Despite this, GTA IV is often forgotten about, and in some cases, it feels like the black sheep of the series. This is despite its phenomenal review scores. Nonetheless, GTA IV is one of the best in the series and is still worth playing in 2021.
The final game of the PS2 trilogy is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, an entry that is still beloved to this day. In fact, it’s among the best in the series, due in part to its fantastic RPG mechanics, gang warfare, writing, music, and depictions of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Most famously, San Andreas has many references to the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, as the two share characters and story elements. Ultimately, this game is the culmination of the fantastic elements introduced in the previous two entries. In it, you could control how fit your character is by working out or eating, you could get whatever kind of haircut you’d like, and with an impressive variety of clothing options, customization was always at the forefront. The deep mechanics and cinematic approach to gameplay make this one of the best games in the series, even 16 years later.
Without a doubt, Grand Theft Auto V is the most robust and successful game in the series. As many Grand Theft Auto games broke new ground, the fifth numbered installment is iconic, eventually becoming one of the bestselling games of all time (at around 150 million units sold). There’s a lot that makes this game so special, such as its absolutely massive open world, its refined gameplay, and its characters. Speaking of characters, this was the first game that featured three playable protagonists, Franklin, Michael, and Trevor — each with their own personalities and motivations. This gave the series a fresh take while implementing smart story segments that tied to the gameplay as well. The standout portion of the main campaign is the heist system, which allows you to team up with your allies to rob a bank.
However, the lasting effect of GTA V has to do with its multiplayer mode, Grand Theft Auto Online. Most of the game’s continued success can be attributed to the online mode, giving players nearly an infinite number of things to do with (or against friends). It truly gives players a massive sandbox full of events, money to earn, and an evolving city that motivates you to keep checking in. GTA Online lets you live your best life, with the ability to buy properties, cars, jets, vehicles, and pretty much anything else. The heists are also available in this mode, expanding upon the basic foundation from the main campaign but allowing multiple players to enjoy them at once. The online mode will likely shape the way the series is handled going forward, shifting away from the single-player approach, with a greater emphasis on multiplayer.