Buckle up and get ready for some explosive action as we check out the best Grand Theft Auto games of all time!
As Grand Theft Auto V celebrates its 10th anniversary, we’ve decided to revisit the entire series, from DMA Design’s 2D crime caper to Rockstar Games sprawling and enduring Los Santos epic.
These games have been challenging boundaries and making gamers jaws drop since 1997, and now with the news of Grand Theft Auto 6 dropping, we’re expecting a whole lot more guns, screams, and general crime going down.
That’s in the game, not real life!
But which are the best Grand Theft Auto games currently out? Which titles are the ones to replay in 2023, and which one topped our list?
Find out below!
Table of Contents
Originally released in 1997, Grand Theft Auto was the original crime sandbox. The gameplay was closer to an arcade style adventure than what the series would eventually be known for, with high score targets to achieve before moving onto the next level.
Player freedom was paramount with a multitude of options for how to reach the target scores in each level.
Gameplay was varied with different mission types offered across the three playable cities although high speed car chases were often too fast for the camera to handle with multi-car pile ups a regular occurrence.
Despite some technical limitations, the original Grand Theft Auto was a commercial success, and spawned an expansion pack, 1999’s Grand Theft Auto: London 1969.
Grand Theft Auto 2 moved the 2D, top-down action to ‘Anywhere City’ and maintained the same gameplay and controls of the original while adding the innovative gang loyalty system.
This new system allowed players to accept missions from different crime factions throughout the game. The gang loyalty system was the biggest addition to Grand Theft Auto 2 over its predecessor and encouraged players to play all factions against each other.
Acting against one faction too often would lock players out of future missions and cause the snubbed gang members to open fire when travelling through their districts.
While the new gameplay systems impressed, the graphics and core mechanics failed to evolve from the original, with driving again being particularly aggravating and resulting in head on collisions with vehicles and buildings far too frequently.
Set three years before the events of GTA3, Liberty City Stories follows Toni Cipriani as he returns to Rockstar’s facsimile of New York following his desertion after killing a made-man.
Toni must regain his influence within the Leone crime family while under pressure from rival gangs, corrupt (and occasionally cannibalistic) politicians and even assassination attempts from his ever disapproving, though never seen, mother.
GTA3’s gameplay transitions to the PSP smoothly although the lack of a second thumb stick on the portable can make controlling the camera fiddly in gunfights.
As a prequel to GTA3, Liberty City Stories presented a city under development, with construction sites aplenty and flourishes that made it visually different from its predecessor, imbuing the city with life, and as a character that evolved with time.
Protagonist Huang Lee’s quest to recover his late father’s sword was at the heart of this Nintendo DS adventure. Featuring a return to Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars introduced a new camera angle with the action being viewed from above yet still behind the player, and a new art style, with cel-shaded characters and vehicles.
It wasn’t just the visuals that were changed from previous entries in the series with mechanics such as police evasions out, replaced with the ability to ram pursuers off the road to escape Johnny Lawman instead.
The touch-screen of the Nintendo DS introduced mini-games for activities such as hot-wiring cars with a screwdriver. A drug dealing mini-game caused backlash and protests from anti-drug groups, continuing the series tradition for courting controversy.
2006’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice Stories saw players return to the titular, sun-soaked city for another 1980s romp full of drugs, violence and synthwave.
Another PSP outing for the series, Vice City Stories again acts as a prequel to its ‘non-stories’ counterpart, providing an insight into the backstories of already established characters.
Gameplay additions include the ability to swim in Vice City for the first time (always an essential skill when you live on an island surrounded by water) as well as a compelling empire building system that allowed players to purchase and develop businesses throughout Rockstar’s satire of Miami.
Did we also mention there’s an entire storyline dedicated to protecting Phil Collins that culminates with an in-game performance of his 1981 ‘In the Air Tonight’?
With excellent gameplay, fun celebrity cameos and a compulsive empire building system, Vice City Stories is an essential play for fans of the series.
The jump to the HD consoles of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 saw Rockstar Games reboot and reimagine Liberty City once again. Announced with a cinematic trailer that echoed Godfrey Raggio’s documentary Koyaanisqatsi, it was clear that Grand Theft Auto IV would portray a more serious and darker tone than its predecessors.
Players take control of Niko Bellic, a former soldier and people trafficker who arrives in Liberty City with hope of capturing the American Dream.
The yarn spun by his cousin Roman is one of wealth and prosperity but Niko soon realises that Roman has greatly exaggerated his success in the US. Encounters with loan sharks, government agents and drug dealers, are set against an intricately detailed cityscape.
While preserving the freedom of choice from San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV was a showcase of how Rockstar would push the technological envelope. Physics powered by the RAGE engine (that stands for Rockstar Advanced Game Engine) gave realistic weight and movement to objects, vehicles and people and was particularly hilarious to play around with by taking Niko out for a few beers and watching him stumble home.
Grand Theft Auto IV also excelled with its mission design and execution, with a particular highlight being the mission ‘Three Leaf Clover’ that sees Niko and the McReary crime family staging a cross town heist in homage to the 1995 movie Heat.
Missions like ‘Three Leaf Clover’ cemented the grittier tone of Grand Theft Auto IV. Some lamented the move away from the craziness and inventiveness of the gameplay demonstrated in San Andreas, however Grand Theft Auto IV showed that the series could have a sentimental and more considered side juxtaposed with the chaos.
Arguably the most important videogame of the modern age, Grand Theft Auto 3 redefined the action/adventure genre and delivered unparalleled freedom for players. Rockstar’s first foray into the third dimensional crime simulator was a relatively muted affair, with little hype or fanfare before it’s arrival. Upon release however, players discovered a bustling city that felt truly alive.
Do you choose to follow the narrative of silent protagonist Claude, to fulfil his destiny of revenge against a former lover after a bungled bank heist? Do you choose to enter a street race, or sell ice cream cones to the triads?
Or do you play taxi driver and shuttle citizens around the city until you get bored and decide that your last fare would be better suited being delivered to a car crusher on the edge of Portland? GTA3 gave you the power to do all of these things and so much more.
Grand Theft Auto 3 became the template for open world game design and established staples of the genre, whose importance and legacy cannot be understated.
Considered by many to be the pinnacle of the series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas easily makes it onto the podium of our 10 Best Grand Theft Auto Games of All Time.
Rockstar’s homage to 1990s movies such as Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society sees Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson return home to San Andreas for his mother’s funeral, only to be engulfed by the gang culture that he tried to leave behind.
An all-star cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Ice T and Chris Penn deliver exceptional performances while the soundtrack covers the best tracks of the era with hits from Willie Nelson, Soundgarden and Cypress Hill.
The gameplay variety is staggering with more complex story missions than any Grand Theft Auto game that had come before it and a plethora of side activities for CJ to participate in, including gang warfare, tackling a triathlon, modding cars, getting out on the dating scene and even flying a jet pack.
Player agency was at the heart of San Andreas and it still remains a fun sandbox to play in today.
Narrowly missing out on our top spot is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Rockstar’s love for the 1980s is evident from the opening splash screen. Visually, Vice City delivered a sunny alternative to the rainy streets of Liberty City the year prior, with buildings edged with bright neon lights and gawdy pastel suits adorning the residents of VC.
While strong characterisation was present in Grand Theft Auto 3, Vice City introduced a fully voiced protagonist for the first time in the series, with the late Ray Liotta providing his vocal stylings to Tommy Vercetti, bringing him to life with his tough and biting rasp that elevates Vercetti to a force of nature as he sweeps across Vice City in his pursuit of power.
Of course, sonically, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City will forever be remembered for its soundtrack. While rereleases have removed songs or adjusted radio stations, the original release of Vice City welcomed players to its playground with Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ as soon as they jumped on that moped after the opening cutscene.
It set the tone for what was to come, with an eclectic mix of music featuring some of the biggest artists of the 1980s, and radio stations such as V-Rock that were perfect accompaniment to a city-wide rampage in a Hunter attack helicopter.
Vice City took what made Grand Theft Auto 3 special and amplified it through the lens of the 1980s. New gameplay mechanics were welcomed, as was a wider variety of vehicles including planes and motorbikes, but it’s that nostalgia for its setting that captivated players back in 2002.
The engines are off, the bullets spent, and Grand Theft Auto V has come out victorious as the best GTA game of all time!
Grand Theft Auto V provides an unparalleled experience, combining fluid mission design, tight gunplay and exciting set-pieces to deliver a narrative that weaves a tale of deception, mistrust and ruthlessness across Los Santos.
Much like its predecessors, Grand Theft Auto V offers a smorgasbord of content to enjoy and the majority of what’s available hits an impeccably high standard.
Player choice extends beyond the activities that you choose, giving you options of how you play in addition to what you play. An early heist missions can be completed with delicacy and finesse or with a more brutal approach. The choices providing excellent replay value with opportunities to experience the different outcomes to the choices you make.
In addition to the excellent single player story mode, Grand Theft Auto V also spawned the behemoth that is Grand Theft Auto Online, offering a constantly evolving world for players to enjoy.
So, what does the future hold for Grand Theft Auto? Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick stated in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz that he’s “thrilled Rockstar’s working on the next iteration of Grand Theft Auto. I have no doubt it will be just great”. Looking at the games on our list of the 10 Best Grand Theft Auto Games of All Time, we have no reason to doubt him either.
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Theo first fell in love with gaming when he sped through Green Hill Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog back in 1991. Theo has previously provided reviews, news coverage and articles for The Games Cabin and enjoyed producing comedic Let’s Plays on his own personal YouTube channels.
A huge Kingdom Hearts and Metal Gear fan, Theo enjoys deep gameplay mechanics and complex storylines. A completionist by nature, Theo has earned over 140 platinum trophies including top digital trinkets for Stardew Valley, The Witness, Bloodborne and a plethora of GTA games.
Outside of gaming, Theo can often be found riding his motorbike, headbanging at gigs or out in the countryside exploring nature and marvelling at the ‘realistic graphics’.