With the major announcement of GTA 6 still fresh on everyone’s mind, we’re taking a look back at the history of arguably the biggest franchise in gaming: the Grand Theft Auto series. Developed by Rockstar Games, the series kicked off in the late 90s and has since evolved with each new entry to become the biggest AAA juggernaut in the industry today. Without further ado, here are all the Grand Theft Auto games ranked from worst to best.
Before we begin, we’ll be ranking all nine GTA games released in the series but won’t include expansions like GTA London or bundles/re-releases like Double Pack or Advance. However, the PSP releases of the Stories games are included as they’re standalone titles. This ranking was assembled based on research from forum polls, reviews, message boards and a bit of our own personal opinion thrown into the mix.
All Grand Theft Auto Games Ranked From Worst to Best
9. Grand Theft Auto 2
We have nothing against the first two games in the franchise. They’re obviously very dated and don’t necessarily play well today (especially with the advancements made with GTA III). However, the second game ranks at the bottom because of a few factors. Critics at the time noted that the gameplay didn’t present a massive leap forward from the original title. In fact, not much actually changed. The graphics, which were making 3D breakthroughs at the time in the industry, was also heavily criticised, even being dated back then.
It’s a very hard game to revisit today and most fans tend to ignore the first two entries because of their outdated and clunky nature. In doing research for this article, I went back to play GTA 2 for a few hours and, the timing of its release aside, it’s a rough experience. The writing isn’t as sharp as the first game and there are clearly some copy-pasted efforts to replicate the success of the original, though not as effectively as Rockstar might’ve hoped.
8. Grand Theft Auto (1997)
The one that started it all. 1997’s Grand Theft Auto was an eye-opening release for the industry and players. While it didn’t boast the best graphics at the time, the sandbox world, which presented a truly unparalleled level of freedom and agency, made it stand out. The top-down view isn’t as fondly remembered today as it made controls a nightmare, especially for driving.
However, most players seem to gloss over the fact that the original Grand Theft Auto is a brutally difficult game at times. You’re not only constantly fighting the controls but have to contend with some really janky gameplay. The story, told through pay phones with text pop-ups, isn’t very engaging either. That said, the writing is top-notch. Rockstar Games experimented with its social satire and commentary here to hilarious results. The central crime story also took itself very seriously which actually works in its favour.
7. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
Set up as a prequel to 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Vice City Stories put players in the shoes of Lance Vance’s brother, Vic Vance, before his inevitable demise. Impressively, Rockstar managed to bring the bustling location of Vice City to PSP, albeit with cutbacks to visual fidelity and some technical tweaks. The result is a less favourable return to the Miami-inspired neon city but one that still dazzled players at the time.
The storytelling is almost as strong as Vice City too, though Vic Vance isn’t as compelling of a protagonist as Tommy Vercetti (then again, few are). Playing this game on PSP back in the day blew my mind and I couldn’t believe that Rockstar worked some black magic to cram all that content into the handheld. The climactic moments of the game don’t exactly give players the satisfying closure they wanted but when taken as a whole, it’s a very memorable game.
6. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
Yet another prequel, this time to 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, Liberty City Stories follows the rise of criminal boss Toni Cipriani and how the mafia established a foothold in the city. Liberty City Stories immediately stands out with how it effortlessly tells the origins story of not only Toni but several other characters that we’ll either meet later in San Andreas or previously met in older games.
It’s a kind of love letter to the franchise as a whole, giving players Liberty City to explore again but this time with a far more interesting protagonist (sorry, Claude) who actually has clear-cut goals and motivations for his morally grey actions. Dare I say, Toni might be one of the best-written main characters in the series and always slips under the radar when fans discuss the best protagonists. Altogether, Liberty City Stories is an inconsequential detour in the franchise but one well worth taking.
5. Grand Theft Auto III
Gaming just wouldn’t be the same today without Grand Theft Auto III and I say that with total confidence. Rockstar Games completely reinvented the open-world formula with this release, presenting the biggest leap forward for the series in its history – a blueprint that all future games followed and elaborated on. GTA III, clearly inspired by the works of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, tells a much more cinematic crime story that pays homage to the great movies it’s influenced by like Goodfellas, The Godfather and Heat.
It’s not a perfect game by any means, though. Claude is a blank slate and while this was done for players to project themselves onto the character, he simply lacks the charismatic nature of future protagonists that elevate their respective stories. Once again, this is also a pretty difficult game once you clear the first island. Cops are absolutely relentless and brutal while certain missions require meticulous pre-planning. Despite its shortcomings, GTA III is a landmark release in the franchise’s history and a fantastic game.
4. Grand Theft Auto V
You might be surprised to see GTA V ranked only fourth on this list since it’s the best-selling AAA game of all time (though a lot of that could be owed to GTA Online, to be honest). GTA V did a few things better than past games, namely the visuals and scale of the world. It presents the largest map ever seen in a GTA game to date – a sprawling, diverse slice of San Andreas that expands the city of Los Santos to include the Los Angeles-inspired main city and its mountainous, forested outskirts.
We now have three playable protagonists to follow: Michael, Franklin and Trevor. Some might argue that having multiple main characters takes away from the story a bit but I’d argue that this only adds to the experience. Where it falters is in the storytelling, though. Rockstar’s razor-sharp, witty writing and social satire are still at the forefront but the central plot is a bit of a mixed bag as it lacks the emotional punches of previous games. However, GTA V is a sales monster for a good reason: it’s brilliant in its own way.
3. Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto IV is arguably the most experimental entry in the series – and a lot of it hits the mark. Apart from some gameplay and UI changes, it also took a big leap forward with graphics, completely overhauling Liberty City into a far more dense, grimy setting that better reflects its New York-inspired location.
Let’s not mince words here: Niko Bellic is awesome and close in the running for the franchise’s best protagonist. He’s a multi-layered, interesting character with plenty of personality that shines in his interactions with his cousin (let’s go bowling!) and the game’s massive roster of supporting characters – which might be its only negative. GTA IV won fans over and while it may not be as instantly recognisable as other entries on this list, it’s still deserving of the top 3.
2. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
I remember reading in a magazine back in the day that GTA: San Andreas would have three massive cities as opposed to just one. “No way that’s happening!” I thought. I was so happy to be wrong. San Andreas‘ jaw-droppingly massive scale aside, this was the first time that a story captivated me this much in a video game. Rockstar made an immersive sim disguised as an action-adventure game here because even today, it’s utterly insane how much is going on in the game and I don’t just mean the world.
For the first time, players could really make the protagonist, CJ, his own unique person. While his character and motivations remained single-note, you could go the extra mile and literally mould CJ’s appearance and traits from his body and fashion to his driving skills and sex appeal. That’s not to mention the minigames like darts, pool, slot machines, dancing, home burglaries, flight school, low rider battles, hitting the gym, street races, heists and more – I’ve barely scratched the surface.
By today’s standards, San Andreas doesn’t have the biggest open world but Rockstar Games proved, far better than any other developer, that it could make a world feel truly massive and alive with all these significant little details. It’s honestly mindblowing how few open-world games today have managed to replicate and capture the density, character, agency and phenomenal storytelling of San Andreas – and this game came out nearly 20 years ago!
1. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
I could probably make a very strong argument for why GTA: Vice City deserves the number one spot based on its soundtrack alone but there’s a lot more that makes this the perfect package and one of the best video games ever made. Firstly, protagonist Tommy Vercetti is given so much incredible depth and personality thanks to the excellent performance by the late Ray Liotta. The story starts off on a strong note and keeps that momentum up throughout, with betrayals, double-crossing and more storytelling high points than I can count on fifteen hands.
Clearly inspired by Miami, the setting of Vice City in the 80s becomes a character on its own: a lively, neon-drenched city with sandy beaches, glowing pink clubs, rollerskates, drug cartels, sunlit streets and cassette players running “Out of Touch” by Hall & Oates on repeat. The atmosphere created in this game is akin to actually travelling back in time with a time machine and it’s glorious.
Sure, it doesn’t have as many gameplay details as San Andreas but it makes up for it with arguably the best story in the series, the best characters, the best setting, the best music, the best missions, the best twists, the best main character, the best voice acting, the best writing and the best music (yes, I repeated that). In short, GTA: Vice City has aged like fine wine and there’s a reason so many people are eagerly anticipating the return to Vice City for GTA 6.