From Liberty City to San Andreas, Rockstar has built a rich world of career criminals, lunatics, and thieves, and we’ve loved each and every one. Although over 25 years old, the record-breaking views on the first Grand Theft Auto 6 trailer is proof that Rockstar’s iconic game series remains one of the most popular franchises on the planet.
From humble beginnings — the series originally began as top-down car-stealing games — to creating some of the most advanced and realistic open world games in the industry, each new Grand Theft Auto game is worthy of celebration. So, with Grand Theft Auto 6 on the horizon, IGN has thought back on both modern blockbusters and retro classics to create a definitive ranking of all of Rockstar’s open-world crime games and determine which GTA game is the best.
Every GTA Game Ranked
15. Grand Theft Auto: Advance
After having already made the switch to 3D, Grand Theft Auto: Advance returned the series to its top-down roots in 2004 for a Game Boy spinoff. A prequel to the events of Grand Theft Auto 3, GTA: Advance successfully brings the classic car-jacking, crime spree gameplay of the original games to Nintendo’s portable. While there is a story that ties into GTA 3, GTA: Advance is primarily gameplay driven, giving players over 300 missions to complete which makes for a fun excursion but hardly a full GTA experience in the modern sense.
14. Grand Theft Auto: London 1969
An expansion pack for the original GTA, Grand Theft Auto: London 1969 is notable for taking place in the real city of London as opposed to a fictional amalgam like Los Santos (Los Angeles) or Liberty City (New York City). Like most of the early GTA games, it is hardly recognizable today and is more of a fun retro relic of the past. However, London remains one of the most fan-requested locations for the series to revisit.
13. Grand Theft Auto 2
Released two years after the first Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar returned with an improved sequel. Set in an almost cyberpunk-ish retro futuristic city, it boasted better graphics and tuned-up gameplay. But this early on in the series, Grand Theft Auto was still mostly about stealing and destroying cars and scoring the most points. One notable thing about GTA 2 was an eight-minute long short movie created by Rockstar that was used as the intro cutscene for the game, hinting at the cinematic direction the series would take later on in the series.
12. Grand Theft Auto 1
The game that started it all, Grand Theft Auto 1 seems almost unrecognizable from the game series it is today. A top-down, mission-based experience where players steal cars to reach the end of a level, Grand Theft Auto 1 was mostly about running over people and evading cops. While GTA started as an honest-to-goodness car-stealing game, the wanton destruction and irreverent sense of humor was part of the series’ DNA from the very beginning, and these traits would carry on throughout as the series made the jump to 3D.
11. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars delves into the world of the Triads, one of the many criminal factions that have appeared on the sidelines throughout the series. It was released during the series’ popularity surge of the PS2 3D era, but opted to resurrect the original top-down design, albeit reinforced by a striking visual design inspired by GTA’s iconic box art. Sticking to tradition, it is yet another story of a small-time con making it big in the criminal underworld, but the main attraction is Chinatown War’s novel use of touch controls.
While Chinatown Wars has since been ported to several handheld consoles including PSP and iOS devices, many agree that the original DS version is the best experience thanks to the fun and unique ways Chinatown Wars utilized Nintendo’s touch screen. Not many other games on Nintendo’s dual-screened system will let you use the screen to hotwire a car.
10. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
The first portable 3D GTA game, Liberty City Stories fit Grand Theft Auto 3’s whole open world into a handheld package, without the need to sacrifice ambition and return to the series’ top-down roots. Expanding the world of GTA 3, it features several recurring characters including Salvatore Leone, the Mafia Don who is a primary fixture of Liberty City across numerous games.
9. Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned
The first expansion for Grand Theft Auto 4, The Lost and the Damned stars biker gang member Johnny and takes place during the events of the base game. While the story isn’t the most memorable, The Lost and the Damned adds more weapons and vehicles to GTA 4, making the large game feel even bigger. Along with The Ballad of Gay Tony, The Lost and the Damned was an important exploration into episodic storytelling for Rockstar, something that would be recontextualised with its frequent GTA Online updates.
8. Grand Theft Auto 3
Grand Theft Auto 3 took the GTA series into the third dimension, taking the formerly top-down, level-based game, and turning it into the third-person, open-world series we know today.
Telling the story of two-bit criminal Claude and his rise in the criminal world of Liberty City, GTA 3 was the foundation upon which all future GTA games would be built on. Riffing on the likes of The Sopranos and Goodfellas, it established the cinematic ambitions that would fuel Rockstar for the next two decades. Grand Theft Auto 3 hasn’t aged as well as some of the studio’s other early games, but it remains a foundational text for the future of the series.
7. Grand Theft Auto Vice City Stories
The second handheld GTA game for the PSP, Vice City Stories returns to Rockstar’s version of Miami for a prequel to the 1980s-set PS2 hit. Playing as Vic, the brother of Vice City’s Lance Vance, you build up a criminal empire by wresting control of establishments and organizations from rival criminal gangs. Along with huge technical improvements over the first PSP game, Liberty City Stories, the main drawback in 2006 was being able to play a fully-fledged, 3D GTA game on the go, complete with a fresh new 1980s soundtrack and Phil Collins in-game cameo.
6. Grand Theft Auto Online
The real reason why we likely haven’t received GTA 6 sooner, GTA Online was initially a multiplayer side component to GTA 5 before taking on a life of its own. While on the surface it is a free-for-all sandbox set in Los Sanos, GTA Online is effectively a reincarnation of Second Life only with more car races and explosions.
Players can join up together with friends to take part in the addictingly fun heists, but just as easily screw around the world, flying around in jetpacks, or crashing airplanes into each other. GTA Online has also developed a robust role-playing community where players can live out the best (or worst) versions of themselves in a self-contained online world.
5. Grand Theft Auto 4: The Ballad of Gay Tony
The second DLC expansion for Grand Theft Auto 4, The Ballad of Gay Tony takes place alongside the events of the main game but expands upon the gameplay in key ways. Playing as former drug dealer Luis, who Niko crossed paths with in the main campaign, you’re able to manage “Gay” Tony Prince’s night clubs, an activity that will return in Grand Theft Auto Online later on. Largely considered one of the best DLCs of its era, its plot tied up all the loose threads of the GTA 4 story in a satisfying way.
4. Grand Theft Auto 4
As the first high-definition Grand Theft Auto game, GTA 4 was a massive leap for Rockstar in terms of its technical prowess. However, the biggest advancement in GTA 4 was its cinematic storytelling style. The story of Eastern European immigrant Niko Bellic, one of GTA’s best protagonists, is a surprisingly dark and cutting satire of the American dream.. In our original review, we called it an “Oscar-caliber drama” and the movie quality storytelling would only become better in the sequel, GTA 5. Of course, Niko’s adventures in Liberty City are best remembered for all the times he went bowling with his disastrous cousin, Roman – the result of a dynamic social system in which friends and allies would call you up perhaps a little bit too often.
3. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
San Andreas and GTA 5 may have overshadowed Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in terms of scale, but Rockstar’s sendup to Miami Vice and Scarface remains one of the most stylish entries in the series. Set in the fictionalized version of Miami, Vice City stars Tommy Vercetti’s career criminal, voiced by the iconic Ray Liotta, as he sets out to make a name for himself after getting released from prison. The vibrant storytelling and setting of Vice City showed Rockstar was more than just the makers of extremely violent games, they were makers of extremely violent games that were also cool as hell.
2. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was a turning point for the series, adding many of the deep customization options and rich systems the series has since become known for. Starring gang member Carl “CJ” Johnson, San Andreas follows his return to Los Santos after spending five years in Liberty City, and how he ends up getting dragged into a broader gang battle over the many territories around San Andreas.
At the time, IGN called it “the single best PlayStation 2 title” we ever played with production values that were “second to none.” Along with taking the series to the west coast for the first time with a map that sprawled over no fewer than three cities, San Andreas featured the best GTA story to-date, a rich customization system for CJ, an expanded money system with dozens of shops to spend it in, numerous minigames, and a dynamic gang wars system, all of which combined into one of the most fully-featured GTA games ever.
1. Grand Theft Auto 5
Over the decades Rockstar has continuously improved its storytelling ambitions and open-world complexity, and it all led to Grand Theft Auto 5. Although it was first released in 2013 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, GTA 5 has since been re-released for each successive PlayStation and Xbox system, as well as PC; each time subtly enhanced and each time selling millions of more copies.
Primarily a story of a criminal crew comprising Michael De Santa, Trevor Philips, and Franklin Clinton, the reason for GTA 5’s continued popularity is the sheer scale of its central setting, Los Santos, where players can freely explore the vast open world to their hearts desires. In IGN’s perfect 10 review, we praised the “extraordinary scope” of GTA 5 and fell in love with its “living world where anything can happen.” It is the current pinnacle of everything Rockstar set out to achieve with the series, featuring one of the largest, most detailed open-world maps in gaming, boundless activities — from skydiving to street racing — and an engrossing, cinematic story.
This is our ranking of the best Grand Theft Auto games of all time. Let us know in the comments which ones were your favorites, and be sure to check out our full coverage of Grand Theft Auto 6 including 99 details you may have missed from the first trailer.
Matt T.M. Kim is IGN’s Senior Features Editor. You can reach him @lawoftd.