Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is one of the best series of games released in video gaming history. What started as a simple 2D top-down point collecting game in 1997 turned itself into a cultural phenomenon today. Most games in this series are based on and scattered throughout three cities: Los Santos (Los Angeles), Vice City (a fictional version of Miami), and Liberty City (a fictional version of New York City). Earlier installments included San Andreas, a city based on the real-life San Francisco. However, recent installments set San Andreas as an American state based on parts of California, Nevada, and Arizona.
How we ranked them
Ranking Grand Theft Auto games from the best to the worst is a cumbersome process. After all, all the games are masterpieces in their right. GTA has single-handedly been Rockstar’s most successful game series ever, followed by Red Dead Redemption. None of the games in this series has failed to amaze gamers from spanning generations. Ever since Rockstar acquired this series, it has made five major installments on home video-game consoles and PC. Besides that, we have gotten several releases on handheld consoles.
The five major releases in the Grand Theft Auto series include the genre-defining Grand Theft Auto III (2001), the colorful and buzzing Grand Theft Auto Vice City (2002), and the timeless classic, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004). What followed is a tale of remorse and seriousness, Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), and its two expansions called Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony (2009) and Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned (2009). Four years later came the release of the most successful game of all time, Grand Theft Auto V (2013).
Grand Theft Auto Online is the online component of GTA V and was launched alongside the single-player game on various platforms. GTA Online gets yearly updates and new content regularly. The game still boasts a player base of over a million, eight years after its original release.
This list will only cover the five mainstream games released in the series. It will not include the original top-down games and the handheld released. Although they were great in their respective fields, they serve completely different experiences from the games below.
5. Grand Theft Auto III
Grand Theft Auto III from 2001 is the genre-defining game that started it all. It was the first GTA game that Rockstar developed in its entirety. GTA III is based in Liberty City — Rockstar’s version of New York City. Best of all, it brought the open-world game development industry up to speed. Historically, GTA III wasn’t the first open-world game release. However, it set a certain standard for this extremely popular genre that developers follow to this date.
The most important aspect of this new approach was that games could last way longer than what a rather linear story-driven game could have. The GTA franchise was based on the formula of attaining and doing things that no normal person would do in the real world.
You could go out blazing guns and moping down hundreds of cops, or pick up an ambulance and carry wounded patients to the hospitals in a time trial. If you are well-mannered, pick up your car and drive around the open world, following every single traffic rule possible. The game was developed and curated in a way that felt way more enjoyable and addicting than ever.
With the new Grand Theft Auto: Trilogy — The Definitive Edition, Rockstar added the ability to play this masterpiece on ultrawide monitors, uncapped frame rates, and higher resolutions such as 1440p and 2160p. The visuals received a significant boost, and it added more life to the aging models and textures of the 20-year-old game. It’s also important to note that GTA III is no longer available in a standalone form. The only option left is purchasing the game as a part of a bundle that includes GTA San Andreas and GTA Vice City.
The game was far from perfect. Shooting and movement were a bit clunky and the entire game was a bit confusing. Add the fact GTA also faced controversies that brought backlash to Rockstar Games, too. However, none of these hurt the series. Rockstar Games was just getting started with what would earn them hundreds of millions of dollars within a decade.
Deciding the fourth contender in this list was a very hard decision because of how great the remaining titles are. However, as Rockstar’s first entry into the HD universe, Grand Theft Auto IV was a massive project. It brought one of the most sprawling and detailed worlds ever seen in video games when it launched back in 2008. However, the game was thoroughly criticized for being too serious. Rockstar took this seriousness to the next level and did color grading by putting a sepia LUT (Lookup Table) over the game. This was to put focus on the grim happenings in the life of the protagonist, Niko Bellic.
The mood of the game shifts abruptly. Sometimes it is saddening, while the next moment can be ridiculous. Luckily, Niko’s journey from being an immigrant residing in his cousin’s “expensive” apartment to an impulsive gunman in Liberty City was loved by the community.
Despite the serious and touching story, the game allows you to do everything you could do in any other open-world game. It packs exotic cars, dozens of weapons to shoot enemies down with, loads of apartments to buy, and tons of side quests that players can complete at will. The game came with combat and physics way ahead of 2008. It was so perfect that gamers and game developers respect the game even to date, nearly a decade and a half later.
GTA IV also came with the longest expansions ever seen in a GTA game. They were called Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony, and GTA: The Lost and Damned. Both of these expansions are full-fledged games with their own stories and characters. While both of these expansions are based in Liberty City, players take the role of different protagonists.
These include Luis Fernando Lopez in GTA: The Ballad of Gay Tony, and Johnny Klebitz in GTA: The Lost and Damned. GTA IV sold over 25 million copies and is ranked among one of the best-selling video games in history. Several references to this game are found across Grand Theft Auto V and GTA Online.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a timeless classic. It has had the largest number of ports ever in gaming history and is available across fifteen platforms. These include PlayStation 2 (2004), the original Xbox (2005), Microsoft Windows (2005), Mac OS X (2010), iOS (2013), Android (2013), Windows Phone (2014), Fire OS (2014), and Xbox 360 (2014). It can also be played on PlayStation 3 (2015), PlayStation 4 (2021), Xbox One (2021), PlayStation 5 (2021), Xbox Series (2021), and an Oculus Quest 2, although the release date for the VR headset hasn’t been announced.
This renewed interest in Rockstar Games and a 17-year-old title is because GTA: San Andreas is still one of the most played games in 2021. The Definitive Edition of this game brought in more players who either came back to enjoy this classic, or to play it up from the ground as they are too young for it.
GTA San Andreas came with the largest game world Rockstar ever made back in the day. It sprawled over 33 square kilometers and included an entire state of the same name. San Andreas had three big settlements. These included Rockstar’s version of Los Angeles (called Los Santos in the game), their version of San Francisco (called San Fierro), and their take on Las Vegas (called Las Venturas). The game follows the story of Carl Johnson, “CJ”, who goes from stealing jetpacks to robbing banks and stealing combine harvesters.
Besides all the absurd things a normal Grand Theft Auto game would let you do, San Andreas was unique in a few aspects. Those included but weren’t limited to bodybuilding, keeping your character fed, maintaining a decent hairstyle, and maintaining a firm posture. Eat too much, your character becomes fat; eat too little, he will starve to death. Several of the small details that Rockstar achieved back in 2004 are unheard of in most modern open-world and RPG games.
Several gamers will list San Andreas as the best GTA of all time, and we have no objection to that. All the games in this series are eligible to beat each other, depending on the perspective. The new Definitive Edition of the older classics also removes the visual fidelity complaint many could have had. The title undoubtedly is a masterpiece, and we fear we would never get a game as great as GTA: San Andreas.
Vice City is Rockstar’s iteration of 1980s Miami. The game nails the vibe of a colorful and radiant Miami and includes everything from that period, from music to neon lights to a strong narrative. This makes Vice City a runner-up on our list of GTA games, but also one of the top titles ever released in video gaming history. Vice City was the second game that Rockstar developed in its entirety, and it is a huge step up from its predecessor, Grand Theft Auto: III.
The game follows the story of Tommy Vercetti, who goes from working under a money-hungry drug lord, Sonny Forelli to ruling the criminal underworld of Vice City. Vice City had a great pulse. You could go from causing mayhem to cruising in a limo to mowing down hundreds of cop cars and helicopters. The game followed a progression similar to that of GTA: III.
However, what made Vice City better than GTA III was that there were whole shopping malls to explore, factories, clubs, and hotels to buy, and more deadly weapons that made the game way more interesting and enjoyable. Overall, the world felt like GTA III, but a bit “high”. Cars slammed against each other at junctions, people trampled each other on pavements, and the cops chased a petty thief who had just stolen money from a pedestrian.
Rockstar breathed more life into this colorful and sprawling game with the Definite Edition that launched in November 2021. Better visuals, reflections, and shadows make the game even more enjoyable, although not without issues on releases. Nonetheless, many players returned to the criminal world of a fictional Miami.
Grand Theft Auto V was the largest project ever undertaken by Rockstar, as they poured US$137 million into developing the game. It is the second most selling video game ever (155 million units shipped), only behind Minecraft (238 million units). The game made Rockstar an astronomical US$911 million in profit, and reports suggest Rockstar is still making $2.5 million from it every day. A large part of this success comes from GTA: Online and the everlasting interest in this one-of-a-kind online multiplayer game.
The game was originally released in 2013 on the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360. Since then, the game has made its way to PlayStation 4 (2014), Xbox One (2014), Microsoft Windows (2015), PlayStation 5 (2022), and Xbox Series X and Series S (2022). Grand Theft Auto 5 packs the traditional GTA formula but takes it a step further. It is a technical marvel, and the game has received several awards for being the epitome of game engineering.
Within seconds, you can go from shooting down cops to flying a jet amidst hills. The next moment you could be robbing banks, racing cars, doing missions, or causing mayhem on the streets. The game sports a massive map consisting of the city of Los Santos and a sprawling countryside filled with small settlements, deserts, forests, and mountains. Rockstar defines the time you spend in this world as a virtual lifestyle. The game simply enables you to do far more than any of its predecessors ever permitted.
GTA 5 has three characters you can switch between. These include a street kid named Franklin Clinton, a retired bank robber named Michael de Santa, and a former US military pilot named Trevor Philips. As they jump between protagonists back and forth, players can catch a glimpse of their daily lives. Unlike its predecessor, the game does not focus on a strong narrative. It is more of a casual and do-what-you-like kind of game.
GTA Online is a rich experience with a more life simulation approach. This title lets you make your character, customize nearly everything about it, and rule the world as you like. GTA Online keeps GTA V an active title, even eight years from release. Although the gaming community is eagerly waiting for a sequel at this point, GTA VI is not coming any time soon. Rockstar Games seems content keeping us waiting.