From the unending sprawl of GTA 5 to the neon lights of Vice City, the Grand Theft Auto series has blessed with some of the greatest games of the past 20 years. But which one is the best? We’ve driven down memory lane – knocking over pedestrians in the process – to come up with this list: the best GTA games, ranked worst to best.
We’re interested in the main GTA series, so we’re not ranking handheld games or expansions. We’re also excluding GTA 1 and 2: both are amazing in their own right, but they’re both top-down, PS1-era games that stand apart from later entries. GTA 3 was the one that established the 3D open-world formula we know and love, so we’re starting there. Essentially, we’re talking about the five main games, comprising GTA 3, GTA 4, GTA 5, San Andreas, and Vice City.
It’s also worth saying that the “worst” game on this list (spoiler: it’s GTA 3) is still a masterpiece. It’s just that the others are even better. With those qualifications out the way, let’s crack on: here are the best GTA games, ranked from worst to best. Let us know your own ranking in the comments.
GTA 3 did more than show Rockstar the way forward: it changed the way the industry thought about open-world games. Sure, there had been sandboxes before, but none as detailed or well-realised as Liberty City, a place where you could spend hours on end just driving around doing side quests, and forgetting the main story entirety. Steal a taxi and you could pick up passengers for fares, or you could grab an ambulance and deliver patients to the hospital within a time limit. Or — and this is how we spent our time more often than not — just roam around lobbing grenades at police cars, or starting fires and hijacking the fire engines when they arrived.
The shooting was wonky, cars exploded if you so much as looked at them, and the missions were occasionally confusing. But these were just teething problems for an addictive open-world structure that still endures today.
GTA 4 was ridiculed for its self-seriousness story, but Niko’s journey from nothing to hotshot is what we loved most about it. Yes, the tone shifts wildly from poignant to absurd, and supposedly emotional cutscenes are interspersed with open-world chaos. And yes, your cousin Roman constantly bothers you to join him at the bowling alley. But by focusing more on its characters, Rockstar made us genuinely care about Niko’s tale. From the moment he arrived on a boat from Eastern Europe his pursuit of the elusive American Dream had us hooked, and we couldn’t help but root for him.
You could still do all the silly open-world stuff too, with a massive list of side quests to complete, cars to drive, and weapons to master. GTA 4’s combat and physics were a huge step up from Vice City and, in some ways, better than what we got in GTA 5, which made causing mayhem as fun as ever. That’s not to mention its two chunky expansions, The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost and Damned, which gave us some of our best GTA memories.
GTA: Vice City
One word sums up Vice City: style. It nails a time and era better than any other GTA game, and its 1980s recreation of Miami buzzes with colour and life — where GTA 3 built the foundation for the series going forward, Vice City smeared a layer of personality on top. Hot-tempered Tommy Vercetti, fully voiced by Ray Liotta, felt like a believable character - intelligent and loyal - which got you invested in his attempts to conquer the city’s criminal underworld
The city had a pulse of its own. Rival gangs scrapped in the streets and cars slammed into one another at junctions, and you could dip inside buildings such as shopping malls, which made it feel like a real place. If you had the bank roll, you could even buy factories, clubs or hotels. More ambitious missions and a wider variety of both weapons and vehicles put it a step above GTA 3, plus the soundtrack is still one of the best in any video game. We could spend hours idly cruising in our Phoenix muscle car, listening to Emotion 98.3 and Fever 105.
GTA 5 is an indulgent take on the excesses of modern life, set in a huge city filled with not very nice people doing not very nice things. Rob a bank, mow down police with a mini-gun, steal a helicopter, blow up a social media network’s HQ, shoot down a plane with a sniper rifle: it feels like the gloriously over-the-top GTA that Rockstar always wanted to make, turning every single dial from previous games all the way up. You can do it all in either third or first person, too: going close up as you lump a stranger with a right hook makes the thump of bone on bone sound even sweeter.
It’s hard to love its protagonists, but at least there are three of them, all with their own unique special ability. If you’re tired of racing supercars through the streets as Franklin, just switch to Trevor and roam the hills to the north of Los Santos, bashing some skulls in, or go play a round of golf with Michael. This rich, ridiculous world will never get old, and if you need a change of pace you’ve got the ever-evolving GTA Online waiting for you, where you can embody any character imaginable.
GTA: San Andreas
A timeless masterpiece. San Andreas built on the brilliance of Vice City in every way: it was more than three times the size, and each of its cities — Rockstar’s versions of LA, San Francisco and Vegas — felt unique. Protagonist and gangster Carl "CJ" Johnson managed to keep the story on track despite the absurdity of everything you could do, from robbing a casino to stealing a jetpack from a top-secret government bunker and blasting away from the scene. The ambitious plot wasn’t afraid to change pace, and at one point plucked you from the streets of Los Santos and dumped you in the hilly countryside between the three cities. You went from pinching sports cars to stealing combine harvesters.
The bit we remember fondest is the roleplaying. At times, San Andreas felt almost like a life sim: you could build muscle at the gym provided you ate enough to maintain your bulk, but if you stuffed yourself too often you’d put on weight. You could visit the barber, show off your new trim on an evening date, play pool with your crew, or hit the basketball court, and an RPG-like stats system for every vehicle and weapon type in the game added extra customisation.
It was, and remains, the best GTA game of all time.
Want to know more about the future of Grand Theft Auto? Check out our roundup of everything we know so far about GTA 6.