Nearly 30 years ago, a little niche title arrived for PC and PlayStation by the name of Grand Theft Auto. This humorous top-down “crime simulator” quickly gained itself some notoriety thanks to its depictions of violence and supposed glorification of it, but then somewhat faded into cult-classic territory in the years following thanks to sequels with diminishing returns. Then, in 2001, the series made its first foray into 3D territory with Grand Theft Auto III and simultaneously made Grand Theft Auto a household name while also revolutionizing the video game industry.
Since the success of GTA III, the franchise continues to serve as the benchmark for open-world action games, with thew launch of each new entry representing a massive event in both the medium of video games and the pop culture zeitgeist at-large. From its humble beginnings as a fringe PC title to being one of the most successful video game franchises of all-time, Grand Theft Auto is one of the most important modern pillars of the industry. More than 10 years later, the most recent Grand Theft Auto title (GTA V) is still one of the most popular games played online and is also the second best-selling game of all-time.
With the runaway success and pop culture impact of the franchise, it only makes sense that there are more than a dozen entries for fans to appreciate between the various mainline games and their episodic expansions and side stories. The sixth entry in the series is rumored to be launching sometime in 2024 if Rockstar and parent company Take-Two’s financial projections are to be believed, making it the perfect time to rank all of the current Grand Theft Auto games in a tier list.
- Grand Theft Auto V – Grand Theft Auto V is both the most recent entry in the franchise and arguably the best, thanks to its incredible single-player campaign and nigh-unbeatable multiplayer. Everything that GTA IV did to move the series forward is improved on in GTA V, with both the shooting and driving feeling vastly better. In terms of its multiplayer, GTA Online continues to be an absolute juggernaut in terms of revenue and streams. Additionally, the campaign’s heist missions and three protagonist structure have influenced plenty of other action games. With one of the series’ best open-worlds, excellent writing, and an online mode with thousands of hours of potential gameplay, GTA V is the series at its best.
- Grand Theft Auto IV – After three 3D entries on 6th generation hardware, Grand Theft Auto IV represents the first true “next-gen” leap for the series. The somewhat tragic tale of Niko Bellic and his attempts to escape a violent past through an embracing of the American Dream may still be the best story in the whole series. Beyond its incredible narrative, though, GTA IV completely revamps the driving and shooting mechanics the series is famous for while also taking players back to the iconic Liberty City from GTA III. That many still consider GTA IV the pinnacle of the series in the face of GTA V‘s existence speaks volumes about its quality.
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – Taking everything that works in GTA III and turning it up to 11, GTA: Vice City isn’t just one of the best games in the series, it’s one of the best games of all-time. Arriving on the PS2 just a year after the launch of GTA III, Vice City transports players back to the neon-soaked 1980s in an analogue for Miami as it’s depicted in movies like Scarface. To help add to the game’s authenticity, Rockstar spare no expense in both the game’s soundtrack and voice talent. Hundreds of licensed classics from the era appear alongside excellent performances from Ray Liotta and Burt Reynolds, making Vice City a decidedly more cinematic and polished affair than its predecessor. Ultimately, the widespread love and nostalgia for the 1980s helps to propel this game from just another sequel to an all-time classic.
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – Taking a similar approach to Vice City, San Andreas is another era-sequel to GTA III. Instead of taking place in the 1980s, San Andreas jumps forward to the early 1990s and changes settings to the now-legendary Los Santos. The GTA universe’s version of the real-world Los Angeles, Los Santos’ gritty urban sprawl and gangsta rap aesthetic help San Andreas to clearly stand apart from Vice City. Also, the RPG mechanics that Vice City only slightly dabbles in are on full display in San Andreas. Players can change main character CJ’s appearance, clothing, and stats by participating in dozens of optional activities, each with their own progression paths and rewards.
- Grand Theft Auto III – As the first 3D game in the series, GTA III represents a watershed moment. Other games before it make attempts at an open-world, but none of them reach the same heights as Rockstar Games’ 2001 classic. Not only does GTA III‘s release completely change the trajectory of its franchise, it helps to change the trajectory of all action games moving forward. There’s a reason that dozens of franchises begin to embrace open-world gameplay following 2001, and it can all be traced back to GTA III‘s success. However, outside its importance in the history of gaming, GTA III is still just an excellent time. The three islands of Liberty City offer enough map and mission variety to keep the campaign fresh throughout its runtime, and the numerous side activities offer plenty of distractions that can provide worthwhile rewards.
- Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony – The last of the episodic expansions for GTA IV, The Ballad of Gay Tony is a fitting sendoff for the title. Gay Tony takes the template that GTA IV establishes and injects it with some great mission design, an entertaining campaign, and some incredible new additions to the vehicle and weapon rosters. If either Gay Tony or the other GTA IV expansion were full-length games, it’s entirely possible they would land higher on the tier list.
- Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned – Similar to the other episode for GTA IV, The Lost and Damned is an excellent expansion to the base game of GTA IV. Players assume the role of Johnny Klebitz, the Vice President of Liberty City’s chapter of the Lost Motor Club. With a campaign that feels heavily influecned by Sons of Anarchy, some of the missions in The Lost and Damned rank among the best available in GTA IV. Not only that, the new additions to the weapon and vehicle rosters (including several new and improved types of motorcycles) are an asbolute blast to play with.
- Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories – The second of two PSP-turned-PS2 side story games to the original 3D trilogy, Vice City Stories is a great game that takes much of what makes the original Vice City special and expands on it. The main downside to the game is that it offers only marginal amounts of new ideas on top of an already classic game, making it feel like it’s cashing in on the brilliance of the original. Still, there’s never a bad time to revisit Vice City.
- Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories – Liberty City Stories practically accomplished the impossible when it was released: putting the full 3D GTA experience onto a handheld. One of the best titles available for the PSP, this side story to GTA III has players assume the role of Fat Tony and learn more about his backstory and history of climbing the ladder within the Leone crime family. Because the title takes place several years before the events of GTA III, several of the layouts and locations present in GTA III‘s version of Liberty City are different, adding some unexpected wrinkles to several missions and the general flow of gameplay.
- Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars – While it may not be as highly regarded as the PSP handheld GTA games, Chinatown Wars is an excellent side story that makes use of the Nintendo DS hardware to provide a unique experience. Still, the mission design and narrative of the game pale in comparison to the other entries in the series, earning it a place further down the list in terms of how it compares to the rest of the franchise. That said, the game’s excellent and unique art style (which is reminiscent of a graphic novel) should definitely make a reappearance at some point in a future series title.
- Grand Theft Auto – The original Grand Theft Auto is somewhat of an anomaly in that it provides players with the same open-world freedom of its sequels but essentially requires that players finish missions to see the game’s best parts. Its top-down perspective and simplistic combat and mission design pale in comparison to future series entries, but what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in charm. After all, without the cult-classic success of the original we never get Grand Theft Auto III.
- Grand Theft Auto 2 – GTA 2 is a decent enough game, but it does little to distinguish itself from the original outside featuring a slight graphical upgrade and the ability to play gangs/factions off one another. Still, this was many gamers’ first entry in the franchise and its sales numbers helped to make a case for the developer to begin work on an ambitious transition to full-3D gameplay.
- Grand Theft Auto: London – London is a somewhat entertaining expansion/side-story to the original GTA that still retains the same overhead perspective and graphical engine. However, the title is mostly noteworthy thanks to transporting players to the first new setting and new era in the franchise — something that would become a series staple after GTA III.
- Grand Theft Auto Advance – Although arriving on GBA several years after the GTA series made its transition to full-3D, Grand Theft Auto Advance dials back the clock to return players to the top-down perspective of the original games in the franchise. The result is a game that feels out of place, and GTA Advance quickly went the way of the dodo thanks to the release of Liberty City Stories just a year later.
The Tier List
To see how each of the games in the series rank among each other, here is the full version of the tier list according to how each game appears above: