We’re going to go out on a limb and assume you’ve played at least one game in the Grand Theft Auto franchise if you’re visiting this website. Call it a hunch. However, since the debut of the very first GTA game back in 1997, a total of 15 games have been released under the label. However, as we all know, there can only be one which carries the title of best, and usually the answer isn’t as simple as “the newest one”.
Debate about which title is superior to all others has gone on unending for almost as long as the existence of the franchise itself, and since it really does come down to personal preference, there truly isn’t a single correct answer. But we’re interested in the community’s consensus nonetheless.
However, notwithstanding if they’ve played them all or not, even an avid fan of GTA might have a hard time remembering all 15 titles. The franchise has graced a number of platforms in these past two decades and went through many major changes in gameplay and style. To help you jog your memory for your vote, we’ll provide a summary of the history of GTA below.
Grand Theft Auto (1997 – PC, PS1, GameBoy Color)
The very first title in the franchise was very different from the GTA 5 most people are playing today. If you’d compare two screenshots without knowing the connection, it might be hard to tell that they’re related. The game was played from a top-down perspective, a single shot could kill the player and you could name your character, which was also the system used to activate cheats.
This game introduced the settings that would return in the franchise even today – Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas. Though the whole “satirical fictional version of the USA” shtick didn’t quite formulate yet, players were dropped in a world clearly based on the real one, but with crime being rampant. The open-world nature of the game, as well as player freedom, were established as staples of the franchise.
Naturally, playing it today would make the visuals seem extremely dated and the gameplay somewhat repetitive, but the level design is fantastic and exploring the locations can still provide quite a bit of entertainment. A neat feature on the PC version allowed players to remove the game CD after it loaded, insert a music CD and listen to the tracks on the in-game radio.
Grand Theft Auto: London 1969/1961 (1999 – PC, PS1)
It’s a little-known fact that GTA has actually visited a location other than the USA before. Two expansion packs were released for the original GTA, adding new maps based on London to the game, alongside new vehicles and missions. That said, these packs didn’t quite bring a whole lot of new content and were generally considered to be weaker than the base game, and were criticized for not actually improving or tweaking anything, thus all the issues of the original title remained.
Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999 – PC, PS1, Dreamcast, GameBoy Color)
GTA 2 took the series in a different direction, with a slight dystopian, sci-fi tinge to it. The game was set in “Anywhere City” which had a unique retrofuturistic look and overall was designed with a grim futuristic vibe. While Rockstar backpedaled on this and all future GTA games would much more closely resemble the real world, it was an interesting setting nonetheless.
It was the first game to feature something that actually amounts to a – granted, rather threadbare – storyline with a single set protagonist. The game was largely identical to the previous title in terms of gameplay, being played from a top-down perspective with the same controls and same game mechanics, however more activities were introduced, such as rampages and side-missions.
Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001 – PC, PS2, Xbox, Mac, iOS, Android, Fire OS)
GTA 3 is often considered as the point where the franchise achieved mainstream popularity. A major shift from the previous games was the game going fully 3D with a third person camera, however countless other improvements were introduced across the board. The game featured a proper storyline, a lot of voice acting, decent graphics for the time, a reactive world where NPCs would do their own thing and behave realistically as well as a dynamic day/night cycle.
The game only featured a single location, Liberty City, however it was separated into three islands which players had to unlock as they progressed through the story. The game also introduced a much wider range of vehicles, including boats and aircraft, alongside several different classes of automobile.
Side missions were expanded upon greatly, offering significantly more kinds of activities to complete, and mission variety was jacked up too, resulting in gameplay that was far less repetitive. New mechanics, such as drive-by shooting was also added. The game also was first to feature the series’ now-signature collage style box art.
It was also the first title to generate any significant amount of controversy with the high level of violence and inclusion of sexual content. That said, it was also a majorly popular title, and was the best-selling game of 2001 amid universal critical acclaim. Some maintain that it was the most important title of its generation and is the best entry in the franchise.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002 – PC, PS2, Xbox, Mac, iOS, Android, Fire OS)
GTA: Vice City was even more of a success than its predecessor. Selling more copies and gaining even more praise by improving upon the already fantastic foundations laid by GTA 3, Vice City was an instant classic. Set in a fictional version of Miami during the 80’s, inspired by films and shows such as Scarface and Miami Vice, the game oozed style.
Introduced in Vice City were bikes, a voiced protagonist, and a much livelier city than the setting of GTA 3. The style of the game did much for its image, making it wholly memorable, with fans hoping that the franchise will return to Vice City in future installments.
Vice City kicked up even more controversy than GTA 3 did, due to the depiction of Haitian and Cuban gangs. This was also the first title to be linked to a murder, and the first time Jack Thompson tangled with Rockstar Games in an attempt to ban the game and sue the developers.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004 – PC, PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Mac, iOS, Android, Fire OS, Windows Phone)
Rockstar was one-upping itself consistently, delivering after Vice City the title that even today remains in the public memory as one of the best titles of the PS2 and considered by many to still be the best GTA game ever made. San Andreas introduced a map far bigger than anything the franchise had seen before, with three entire cities occupying the same map spread across four islands.
The game had the most fleshed out and compelling narrative of the franchise at the time, involving many real-world events making it highly topical. This was when the whole satire angle became full-blown, and the game introduced a number of new mechanics as well. For the first time players could swim climb, customize the look of the protagonist and increase given stats in an RPG-lite system. Side mission variety was increased once again, and the ability to upgrade vehicles was added as well.
Controversy didn’t avoid this entry of the franchise either. Beyond the depiction of gang activity and violence, a modder found and unlocked unused game-files for an interactive sex minigame that Rockstar decided to cut from the final release. However, the files were still there, and the mod, called the Hot Coffee patch, unlocked them. The resulting fallout resulted in the game being pulled and re-released without these files.
Grand Theft Auto Advance (2004 – GameBoy Advance)
Advance was released on the same day as GTA: San Andreas, though it didn’t make as big a splash. The title returned to the top-down roots of the franchise, as the hardware of the GameBoy Advance didn’t exactly allow for the kind of visuals seen on the PC and consoles. The gameplay of this entry was several steps back from what the series has achieved, and the story wasn’t too developed either. The mere fact that the game exists is forgotten by many.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (2005 – PS2, PSP, iOS, Android, Fire OS)
Liberty City Stories didn’t bring too much new to the table. It used the same map as GTA 3 and only incorporated some of the improvements seen in the newer titles. Regardless, the storyline was solid, earning the game critical praise.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (2006 – PS2, PSP)
The second “Stories” entry is much like the previous one. It re-used elements of previous titles for a handheld game (though it got a PS2 release as well) with little new by way of improvements. However, there was more here than in LCS – Vice City Stories introduced a mechanic where the player had to build their own criminal empire through the acquisition of properties and gaining control of territory. The combat system was also improved, with better targeting mechanics.
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008 – PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
The next big leap in GTA’s development, the fourth numbered title introduced a new engine and vastly improved graphics, and marked the beginning of the HD era. Liberty City got a major overhaul, and became the biggest city the franchise has seen – though San Andreas still had a bigger map overall. That said, the setting of GTA 4 was the most detailed at the time, with various weather cycles, advanced NPC AI, realistic physics, and more.
Gameplay remained largely the same, but more refined. A cover system was introduced to combat, and a wider range of weapons were available. The game also had a somewhat darker storyline, but the humor typical of the franchise was still present. Players could now maintain friendships with various characters they encountered.
Two expansions were released for the game, using the game map and some recurring characters, but featuring new storylines, protagonists and vehicles. These were The Lost and Damned focusing on biker gangs, and The Ballad of Gay Tony which focused on the criminal underworld’s ties to the entertainment industry.
While not the first game in the franchise to feature multiplayer, the Online mode of GTA 4 was the best developed at the time. It allowed up to 32 players to play together in a recreation of the single-player map, with a wide variety of activities to partake in.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009 – DS, PSP, iOS, Android, Fire OS)
Chinatown Wars was the first handheld title in the HD era. The game had an isometric perspective, as well as a cel-shaded visual style reminiscent of comic books. The game took place in a downgraded version of GTA 4’s Liberty City and featured a unique storyline.
The title gained critical acclaim to the point of being the best-reviewed game on the Nintendo DS of all time. The gameplay featured many improvements over previous top-down entries and had several side activities such as drug dealing. This earned this entry a measure of controversy as well.
Grand Theft Auto V (2013 – PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
And here we are. The latest and most popular entry of the franchise. GTA V has broken sales records time and again since its release, and earned even more critical acclaim than any of the previous installments. The game boasts vastly improved visuals, a well-written storyline with three protagonists, an absolute boatload of new side-activities, vastly improved gameplay mechanics and an ever growing Online mode – though we don’t think we need to introduce this game much to you guys.
Cast your votes above, and we’ll take a look at the results a week from now and crown the king of GTA.
What do you think? Sound off below!