Isn’t it amazing how far the Grand Theft Auto series has come? From the humble beginnings as an isometric top-down action game to the billion-dollar franchise that it is today, it’s a series that everyone knows about, regardless of age or genre preference. Whether you enjoy story-heavy RPGs or fast-paced platformers, you’ve probably played an entry or two. And judging by those sales numbers, you’ve more than likely played Grand Theft Auto 5, haven’t you?
I’ve been lucky enough to play every mainline entry in the series and sink hundreds of hours into most. And while the franchise has had its ups and downs, there’s always something magical about booting up a new GTA game. Each entry abandons poor ideas, learns from them and continually develops upon the good ones. In this list, we take a close look at each mainline Grand Theft Auto entry, find out what makes it good and rank them in order, from the worst to the best.
Grand Theft Auto
Initially penned as Race ‘N’ Chase, Grand Theft Auto later released to great commercial success in 1997. Today, there’s in equal measure a little and a lot to say about the original game. On the one side of the spectrum, it’s hard to ignore the impact it had on the industry as a whole. A novel idea of playing as the bad guy and completing assignments for various criminal entities; evading the law and causing carnage on bustling city streets was always on the agenda.
On the other, well… you wouldn’t want to play it today for reasons other than research or masochism. Grand Theft Auto was panned by critics for poor visuals and controls even back then, for valid reasons. Its city environment felt bland, every car handled almost the same and the isometric camera perspective needed work. It doesn’t look or play well by today’s standards either, and every game that followed improved upon the original in every way. But it’s not all bad.
Grand Theft Auto did many things right, giving you complete freedom without imposing any rules on how to complete any given mission or in what order. Heck, you didn’t have to complete missions in the first place. Players were likely drawn to it en masse because of this freedom and because it didn’t play by the rules of its time. And it’s this simple concept which eventually led Grand Theft Auto to become the multi-million-selling blockbuster franchise it is today.
Grand Theft Auto 2
Do you remember the hectic live-action intro for Grand Theft Auto 2? That same one which sees the protagonist working for various criminal factions and getting into trouble? Perhaps the catchy theme song by E-Z Rollers is still ringing in your head? Whatever the case, Grand Theft Auto 2 is among the earliest representatives of pure mindless fun. And while it has aged only slightly better than its predecessor, it significantly improved upon many of the original mechanics.
Grand Theft Auto 2 is all about stealing cars and causing as much mayhem as possible by killing people and destroying private property. Frenzy missions were all about this carnage, though unfortunately later entries pretty much ditched them. In these missions, you were fire and water. Literally, as you could grab a flamethrower and burn pedestrians to a crisp or jump into a fire truck and massacre them with the water gun… hose… thing… whatever that thing’s called.
Of course, you could progress the main story and complete regular missions. Grand Theft Auto 2 introduced a novel karma system in which siding with one gang, among which were the Zaibatsu Corporation, Yakuza and even Krishnas, inevitably angered another. Completing missions or performing deeds which discriminated the interests of one faction was one way to make your life difficult. Grand Theft Auto 2 was still far from perfect, but it had a more structured approach to progression and the dynamic karma system made each consecutive playthrough slightly different.
Grand Theft Auto III
What’s there left to say about GTA 3 that hasn’t already been said? It maintained core aspects of its predecessors, such as stealing cars and escaping law enforcement, brought the series into the 3D space and turned it into a household name. In many ways, ideas conceived in Grand Theft Auto 3 serve as a core pillar for modern games. Open-world sandbox games like Just Cause, Sleeping Dogs and even the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 are all based on its concept.
Everything you loved about the 2D counterparts was now depicted in a realistic 3D space. Days changed into nights and the weather dynamically changed from sunny to overcast. By all accounts, it was a living and breathing city, with traffic rules and pedestrian chatter. There was an actual, coherent story this time around and, to an extent, Grand Theft Auto 3 inherited a more scripted version of the karma system. For example, once you killed their boss, Mafia Sentinel was forever an enemy and, no matter what, you could never befriend the Colombian Cartel.
Cars no longer resembled rectangular blocks sliding across equally geometric streets – they were actual cars. And thanks to the addition of safehouses, you could now park them in a personal garage for safekeeping. Sometimes they vanished for no obvious reason. It also introduced planes… well, a plane. A pain to fly, but an aircraft nonetheless.
Grand Theft Auto 3 was certainly a phenomenon in 2001 and remains a cornerstone in revolutionizing the sandbox genre.
Grand Theft Auto IV
This game didn’t sit well with me when I first played it in 2008. Grand Theft Auto 4 was a dark tale about a man coming to the states to live the American dream, while also coping with post-war trauma. Truth be told, I was probably too young to understand and sympathize with Niko’s troubling story as an immigrant. But over time, this bleak version of Liberty City has grown on me. In fact, Grand Theft Auto 4 might be the best in the series when it comes to narrative.
It was not the story which led to my eventual disappointment with the game. Grand Theft Auto 4 felt underwhelming when it came to post-story content. Sure, it had a decent amount of activities, like bowling and darts, but a shortage of silly, optional content to discover. It lacked the unpredictability of San Andreas. However, the attention to details kept me coming back: the way enemies staggered when shot and the weight of the car when entering a sharp corner were sublime.
To mitigate the shortcomings, Grand Theft Auto 4 received two expansions: The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. Both, especially the latter, contributed greatly toward enhancing the main game. They gave more insight from the perspective of other characters while adding a lot of new optional activities. The Ballad of Gay Tony, in particular, felt like a modernized version of Vice City. But on its own, I would compare Grand Theft Auto 4 to the original Mafia – two games with excellent stories dragged down by lacklustre post-story content.
Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto 5 sold over 11 million copies in its first day on the market. To put things into perspective, most games don’t reach that number during their lifetime. Since the release in 2013, it has gone on to sell an astounding 130 million copies worldwide. It’s officially Rockstar Games’ best-selling game of all time and rightfully so. For the first time, you could experience Grand Theft Auto from three different perspectives, playing as three distinct characters.
Los Santos was bigger and more densely populated with content than ever before. More missions, more Easter eggs and more activities to get lost in: from the usual street racing to diving and parachuting. Grand Theft Auto 5 effectively fixed the shortcomings of the previous game. But the biggest addition was the heists – an elaboration to everyone’s favourite mission in Grand Theft Auto 4: Three Leaf Clover. Heists ranged from a relatively simple jewel store robbery to a daring operation involving the central bank. And each of these missions was a movie-worthy cinematic masterpiece.
Sometimes, I forget that GTA 4 had an online component, perhaps because Grand Theft Auto Online overshadows it immensely. And once heists were added, pulling off the Pacific Standard job with a group of friends or online strangers was immensely rewarding. Even if the cash reward was rather stingy.
Never mind the main campaign, the amount of optional content and the online interactivity, Grand Theft Auto 5 is simply an extremely well-polished title.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
While Grand Theft Auto 3 revolutionized the genre, San Andreas revolutionized the series. It was probably the biggest leap in the series’ history. San Andreas introduced a number of features and mechanics nearly incomprehensible at the time, as well as a huge map to explore. In addition to the usual urban environments, you could explore the countryside, a vast desert and the surrounding waters. Oh, and there was a ginormous mountain to bike down from.
Yes, bikes. For the first time, you could travel the whole city on a BMX or participate in a cross-city triathlon. CJ could become a fat slob or a ripped testosterone machine at your sole discretion and passers-by reacted accordingly. They also reacted to fancy clothes or haircuts, all customisable via the various parlours scattered across the city. As CJ, you could bring certain girls on dates and impress them all the same, on the dance floor or in the bedroom (wink wink).
Or, you could visit one of the casinos and blow your savings, get fat, throw up, go to the gym, lose weight, become buff, beat someone up, run from the cops, hide in the woods, look for the yeti, realize that he doesn’t exist… oh, look, an abandoned ghost car. San Andreas had such an astounding amount of activities that I still struggle to believe it’s a game from 2004. And if I made a list of my most played games of all time, San Andreas would be right up there.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City released before San Andreas and doesn’t even compare in the number of activities to its successor. It doesn’t have the best visuals in the world or an online mode to get yourself lost in. But what it lacks in size and scope, it more than makes up for with atmosphere and character. Neon-lit city streets at night, sunny beaches during the day, 80’s music, beautiful cars and tons of new features. Driving across the sunlit Miami-inspired city streets in a flashy convertible while listening to Foreigner or Mr. Mister feels like a treat even today.
Add to it an action-packed crime story inspired by cinema classics like Miami Vice, Carlito’s Way and Scarface and you’ve got the ultimate Grand Theft Auto experience. For the first time, you could become the boss of your very own crime organization. Vice City introduced new vehicles, helicopters and a plane that was much easier to pilot. And with the money earned from missions, you could purchase your own mansion or profit-generating properties. It finally felt like your money was going somewhere other than guns and simple bragging rights.
Vice City is the epitome of the atmosphere in video games, one that Rockstar hasn’t managed to replicate since. It’s the go-to game for anyone who loves the ’80s and the aforementioned shows and movies. We’ve recently had Liberty City and Los Santos featured on multiple occasions. I’d say it’s about time we got another ticket to the sunny Vice City.
In the words of Radio Mirror Park host DJ George: “These are my choices, people”. But what’s your favourite GTA? With the rising rumours of Grand Theft Auto VI being announced, a return to Vice City is getting increasingly likely. And once the news lands, you can be sure that we will be among the first to express our thoughts on it.
In the meantime, if you’re a fireman, feel free to tell us the correct name of that water gun thing.