Screen Critics takes a look across all the outings, expansions and online spinoffs – ranking Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto from best to worst.
Rockstar’s ever popular Grand Theft Auto series remains a fixture for most gamers, delivering strong sales and critical claim across the board. Yet from its humble 2D beginnings through to the current generation; the series has always courted controversy for pushing the boundaries. We decided to take a look back across the main releases in the series, ranking them for their enjoyability. To be clear, I’ve thrown in the two GTA IV expansions as I felt they were different enough from the base game to warrant consideration.
14. Grand Theft Auto Advance (GBA, 2004) – In defense of Grand Theft Auto Advance, it was an ambitious attempt to bring the popular Grand Theft Auto franchise to Nintendo’s handheld device. The flip-side to this is that it’s also arguably the least fun Grand Theft Auto game ever pushed out. The series typical charm is ejected for a more muted approach. Staples like the radio stations and cinematic cut-scenes obviously couldn’t make the cut – but their absence robs the game of true grandeur. Even as a homage to the original Grand Theft Auto games it still feels very much like a mashup of the worst features from Grand Theft Auto games, with dull repetitive missions and a world that was hard to traverse. Rockstar only produced this game, and it truly shows with a lack of excitement throughout.
14. Grand Theft Auto London 1969/1961 (PC, 1999) – More a mission collection than outright game – there’s enough new content here to build on the success of the previous outings. The London locale adds some interesting unique touches to the game, while the game tries to play up the 1960’s aesthetic. Sadly it’s not terribly well done and while other outings in the series would nail their time periods more distinctively, GTA London’s two packages fail to add up to anything substantial. Fun fact: this is the only time the series has ventured out of the USA.
13. Grand Theft Auto (PC, 1997) – It seems a little unfair to slam the original game, given that it went on to define all that followed. Yet experiencing Grand Theft Auto feels very much like a different kind of game to that where the series would go. The fragmented cities provide variety but its all slightly limited in scope. Without the refinements that come later the actual experience of progressing through the game is very frustrating. That being said there’s still a lot to enjoy, with the frantic and open-ended game play affording gamers the chance to let loose. It’s a novel slice of gaming history; but one that hasn’t aged brilliantly.
12. Grand Theft Auto 2 (PC, 1999) – Introducing a number of series staples, Grand Theft Auto 2 provided the step-up to refine the Grand Theft Auto experience. In came a proper saving system, the escalated wanted system as well as expanded missions and a wider variety of things to do. Now you could choose your path through the game by siding with one of the factions; allowing for a more open approach to the game. It isn’t without fault though – its depiction of the mentally challenged proving a huge bone of contention back when the game released. The shift also to the futuristic Carter City also robs the game of vibrant colours, something that gives it a duller appearance. It’s fondly remembered but serves as a reminder that the 2D games would be overshadowed by the 3D offerings.
11. Grand Theft Vice City Stories (PSP, 2006) – Vice City Stories gets less of a pass than Liberty City Stories as it repeats many of the same beats. It’s the same kind of re-imagining except with less of the glitz that made the original Vice City so much fun; lacking a lot of the humor that made the original Vice City such a charming beast in the franchise. That being said this game does throw in a series of interesting of fun new ideas for the gamer to experience; the focus on empire building rivalled the systems found in Vice City and San Andreas. Unfortunately it was clear to all that the PSP was being pushed to its limits, with staggeringly long load times and incredibly frustrating load-in issues that would render playtime useless. There was also a multiplayer mode, although we’d argue that it was too limited to be enjoyed fully outside of dedicated fans. Overall it was ambitious, but certainly not without fault.
10. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (PSP, 2005) – Liberty City Stories was a technical achievement upon its release, bringing the full 3D experience to the PlayStation Portable. Most of the games major features make the leap, including side-missions and . Unfortunately time hasn’t been too kind to Liberty City Stories, a sense of “been there, done that” quickly fills the game as you wander through the familiar streets of Liberty City. The missions don’t feel as exciting, the world not as vibrant or different enough to warrant a deeper look. Plus it was clear that in order to get the game onto the PSP, cutbacks had to be made – these came in the form of some of the jerkiest controls offered up in the 3D games and cut scenes that looked like bad fan parodies. But for many this was the dream – GTA3 on the PSP in a form that very closely resembled the console and while it’s easy to pick away at the bones, a lot of what was here was the same GTA that only 4 years earlier had blown our socks off.
9. Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost & The Damned (360/PS3/PC, 2008) – The first expansion pack for Grand Theft Auto IV didn’t really do much to change the initial impression of the game. Throwing focus onto Liberty City’s biker gangs offers up nice potential, but it’s hard to play Lost & The Damned and not feel slightly underwhelmed by it all. The missions are slightly dull, the characters less charming and given that lack of new locales; it struggles to warrant much praise. If anything it served to remind us that Liberty City was a well designed city that could accommodate numerous stories. Dull stories at that.
8. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (DS/PSP, 2009) – A different direction for Grand Theft Auto delivers arguably its finest mobile outing. The game drops gamers back into the Grand Theft Auto 4 version of Liberty City, but instead focuses on the seedy underbelly more so than before.What results is a more intimate experience, with a game that experiments wildly. Here you have to hotwire cars, deliver drugs and destroy police to escape their hordes. It’s an interesting spin on the franchise and, depending on which version of the game you played, came packed with features such as custom radio stations and multiplayer. It was a hugely ambitious attempt to bridge the gap between handheld and console GTA games
7. Grand Theft Auto IV (PS3/360, 2008) – Grand Theft Auto IV is a very divisive entry in the series. It’s the entry that stripped back the outlandish fun and frolics of the previous games in search of a more grounded game – and for all this it’s not without its flaws. While the graphical upgrades are tremendous, it’s hard to not feel slightly let down by the limited scope of the world offered. A number of San Andreas features are ejected or simplified, enough that some never connected with the game – with a vocal minority claiming it was a step back. It’s a shame as the story of Niko is a compelling one, his story feeling more personal than any that came before. Unlike the likes of CJ or Tommy Vercetti, here we had a protagonist that was wrestling with the desire to escape a past he ultimately had no desire to return too. The cast of characters are more vivid, engaging and entertaining across the board. Add in the fact that the multiplayer mode was perfectly acceptable as a first stab from Rockstar – and we get an experience that’s very much tailored to those who want something a bit grittier from the Grand Theft Auto experience.
6. Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony (PS3/360, 2009) – The shift in focus from the dreary stories of Niko allowed TBOGT to really play up to its fun side. The expansion throws in a number of missing features that really should have been in the base game – including tanks, jet packs and a slightly sillier look at Liberty City. Outside of this, it feels tighter than the base game, and allows the gamer to experience Liberty City through a more fun orientated lens. Some will decry this, but it’s better than going bowling…
5. Grand Theft Auto 3 (PS2, 2001) – One of the most important games of all time, Grand Theft Auto 3 defined a generation of standards and set the bar for what gamers should expect from 3D action games. The characters are memorable, the locales timeless. It’s just a shame that time hasn’t been so kind to the game itself, rendering a lot of the once ground breaking features slightly hallow. It also didn’t help that Vice City arrived so soon after; improving on this games already strong frame and 1-uping it at every turn. But this doesn’t diminish the impact or legacy of GTA3, which still retains a sense of quirky fun. The first time you jump into a car and take full control, the radio stations that blare out and the amount of carnage on offer. Grand Theft Auto 3 may be long in the tooth now, but it still remains a good piece of mindless fun for those who can overlook the limitations.
4. Grand Theft Auto Online – I debated heavily whether to include this as its own entry or slap it with Grand Theft Auto 5. Put bluntly, many see this as its own beast at this stage; and is more substantial than earlier offerings – so it gets a pass. Released alongside Grand Theft Auto V, this originally wasn’t seen as anything more than a novelty add-on. Quickly though it became its own beast, spawning a massive community (Still clocking in at 10 million users a month) and a slew of DLC that’s exclusive to the mode. The sheer scale of this beast has given birth to a dedicated Youtube community, as well as a host of missions that allow you to play with friends. I’d make a strong case for this being the blueprint of future games in the series, given how much money Rockstar makes from it. This all being said, the Online segment isn’t without flaw. The high grind to reach top levels without cash is awkward while the story missions barely link together. If you’re looking for the Grand Theft Auto experience with friends – this is without question the best place to go.
3. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PS2, 2002) – Coming a year after Grand Theft Auto 3, it’s hard to believe just how far Vice City changes the game. Throwing in an 80’s vibe completely alters the atmosphere of the game and allowed Rockstar to go balls out with 80’s references. From the charmingly huge phones, to the outrageous vehicles; 1980’s Vice City is just as much a character in proceedings as any of its characters. Vice City manages to one-up GTA3 in almost every area. Tweaking the combat, adding in weapon variations, allowing you to invest in property while finally granting players the chance to really fly (GTA3’s Dodo was very much designed to irritate) and take in the city from above. Vercetti is the perfect lead for the story; with Rockstar cleverly adding in a strong cast around him. Add in the endless Scarface references and you’ve got a slice of Grand Theft Auto history that was confidence, knowing and just fun to experience.
2. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2,2005) – San Andreas was a turning for the series. The moment the developers let loose and had real fun creating a vibrant world for the gamer to explore. Introducing RPG elements such as bulking up, flying stats and swimming ability means you’re always being pressed to do something; and with such an open canvas – there’s plenty to do and explore. San Andreas is a beautifully crafted world, filled to the brim with nooks and crannys for the gamer to explore – begging you to find and do everything. But what’s a world without characters? The cast of characters introduced were interesting, had motivations and became more than just background players. So why isn’t this 2nd or 1st on this list? The biggest problem against San Andreas is one of pacing. Unfortunately the game’s story becomes a tedious slog once you’ve been ejected from Los Santos. The story meanders, loses steam and ultimately spins its wheels until the things finally pick up as you begin to plot your revenge. This isn’t to say the game is bad – but story is vital to Grand Theft Auto and for me; the story was always San Andreas biggest issue. But given the sheer quality of this game (and the ability to have fun with it even to this day) – there’s certainly nothing to stop it being considered so highly by fans.
1. Grand Theft Auto V (PS3 &4 /360/One, 2013) – Piling all the pieces together into one coherent package is quite a feat – but even three years later Grand Theft Auto V is without peer in the open world genre. From the beautiful graphics, to the multi-person focus; there’s little to dislike in this game. Perhaps best of all for fans, it to the critiques aimed at Grand Theft Auto IV and actually changed them. The vehicle mechanics have been tightened up – the gunplay is more fluid while the world is incredibly varied. From deserts to beaches, exploring the world of San Andreas is an experience all to itself.