On October 22, 2001, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III, a game that transported the publisher’s trademark criminal mayhem to the unimaginably immersive 3D Liberty City. GTA III became a best-selling sensation that defined the open-world genre, spawning several sequels, inspiring countless imitators, and causing a cultural uproar. Twenty years later, we’re taking a look at its legacy while we wait for the upcoming GTA trilogy remaster, prepare to purchase yet another version of GTA V, and read rumors about the still-unannounced GTA VI. Welcome to GTA Day.
Depending on one’s definitions, there have been 10 3D games in the past 20 years of Grand Theft Auto history, dating back to the seminal GTA III. There’s never been a bad one. The consistent quality of the titles is admirable, but their quantity is incredible, considering it’s been more than eight years since the release of the franchise’s most recent installments, GTA V and GTA Online. Do some division, and you’ll realize that the early 3D GTA games must have come out fast and furious for a while.
At first, Rockstar really expedited sequels to its breakthrough release: It took only nine months for Rockstar North to develop Vice City, and San Andreas debuted just three years after GTA III. That rapid pace was rewarding for fans but grueling for Rockstar’s developers, who crunched relentlessly. The company’s culture is supposedly healthier now, which (along with the perpetual profitability of GTA V and GTA Online) means GTA VI is still seemingly a long way away. But while we wait, we can cast our minds back to the best (and “worst”) of the games that set the stage for the series’ inevitable next act.
Last week, we surveyed our staff and arrived at a ranking of the 3D GTAs, beginning with GTA III and ending (thus far) with GTA Online (which Rockstar considers a separate entity, and which will soon be sold on its own). Our apologies to the trailblazing top-down GTA games—and the celebrated 2009 Nintendo DS game Chinatown Wars, which has a hybrid perspective—but we’re limiting the list to games directly descended from GTA III, including console expansions and PSP games that were ported to PlayStation. (Put another way, we’re ranking the 3D GTA games that have gotten non-handheld releases.)
Two decades after GTA III, it’s still Rockstar’s (open) world—we’re all just playing in it. Let’s count down the entries in the 3D GTA catalog, from the lesser lights to some of the best-regarded games of all time. —Ben Lindbergh
10. Vice City Stories (2006)
Lindbergh: Well, one of these games had to place last. Released on PSP in October 2006 and ported (with improvements) to PS2 some months later, Vice City Stories starred ex-soldier turned crime lord Victor Vance. Vance dies in the intro to Vice City, which came out in 2002, but this isn’t a ghost story; it’s a prequel that takes place in the Vice City of 1984, two years before the adventures of Tommy Vercetti. A number of non-Victor characters cross over from Vice City, and the map is mostly the same as that of the earlier-released, later-set game, but some sections were altered to reflect the temporal gap.
Although Vice City Stories was initially released on a smaller system than Vice City, it’s not a significantly smaller game; according to HowLongToBeat, the average length of their “Completionist” playthroughs is essentially the same. Vice City Stories’ most salient addition to the GTA tapestry was its empire-building mechanic, a blend of Vice City’s property system and San Andreas’s gang wars through which the player could make money by seizing territory from rival gangs and then opening and operating various businesses there. The game also introduced bribes to keep weapons after being “Busted” or “Wasted,” icons that indicated places to purchase vehicles, and cash rewards for saving pedestrians from enemy gangs. Vice City Stories is bringing up the rear here not because it’s bad, but because it’s up against storied competition.
9. Liberty City Stories (2005)
Lindbergh: Liberty City Stories, which predated Vice City Stories by a year, demonstrated that the GTA trilogy’s 3D design would work on a handheld system, an exciting technical feat in October 2005. (The game came to consoles the following year.) Like Vice City Stories, it’s a meaty prequel that takes place prior to the main game set in the same city. It features playable protagonist Toni Cipriani, a mobster introduced in GTA III who’s trying to work his way into a position of power with the Leone crime family.
Unlike GTA III, which takes place three years later, Liberty City Stories includes usable motorcycles, but the stories share some of the same characters and the cities are largely laid out in the same ways. Liberty City Stories dropped the RPG elements of San Andreas (I wasn’t that sorry to see them go) and also cut back on some of the exploratory skills San Andreas protagonist CJ possessed, such as swimming and climbing. Although those were disappointing (albeit temporary) steps backward, the more important takeaway was that the core look and gameplay loop of the GTA trilogy—which had seemed almost miraculous a few years earlier—could already be re-created on a portable platform.
8. The Lost and Damned (2009)
David Lara: The Lost and Damned, a.k.a. Grand Theft Auto: Sons of Anarchy, wasn’t my favorite of the two GTA IV DLCs, but it was still a lot of fun. It introduced an automatic shotgun, probably the best gun in the game. It also made riding a motorcycle extremely enjoyable, and easier than in GTA IV. Crucially, it introduced mid-mission checkpoints, which have stuck around for the rest of the series. The Lost and Damned provided five to 10 extra hours of gameplay, a solid offering for a downloadable expansion, and it previewed what we’d see in the next main game by introducing characters who would appear in GTA V. The Lost and Damned’s protagonist, Johnny Klebitz, interacted with Niko Bellic a handful of times throughout GTA IV, and in the DLC, players could take control of Johnny and experience the other side of those missions. But the best part of the package was just riding around with your crew: You could call them up to join you for backup, or even have the gang’s gun seller pull up with weapons of your choosing to prepare you for your mission. Too bad Johnny meets his demise in GTA V at the beginning of Trevor’s story line.
7. The Ballad of Gay Tony (2009)
Lara: The Ballad of Gay Tony was easily the superior of the two DLCs for GTA IV. The expansion starred Luis Lopez, a business partner of nightclub owner Tony Prince, a.k.a. Gay Tony. It introduced the ability to redo missions to complete perfect scores, which was a welcome addition because The Ballad of Gay Tony was packed with missions worth replaying. The game introduced the APC as a Rhino replacement, permitting players to cruise through a Manhattan-esque city and roll right down Wall Street. Other options for dealing digital death from the ground or the air included a shotgun with explosive rounds and a gold-colored Buzzard helicopter capable of destroying boats and other helicopters. The most memorable aspect of this installment was playing club manager and patrolling Gay Tony’s nightclub with Luis just to make sure the place was running smoothly. Alternatively, you could get your Dance Dance Revolution on and have Luis tear up the dance floor … or jump out of a helicopter and parachute onto a moving truck. This was the perfect send-off for GTA IV, and the last GTA release until the arrival of GTA V almost four years later.
6. GTA Online (2013)
Arjuna Ramgopal: You either love GTA Online, or hate it. Often, you feel a mix of both emotions. Narratively speaking, GTA Online, which has thus far been packaged with GTA V, serves as both a prequel and a sequel to that game, with several story missions mentioning elements of the single-player game’s campaign. In GTA Online, story missions are mostly vessels for you to earn money and rank up, with a lot less love put into the plot points than in GTA V and other offline installments. The real allure of GTA Online isn’t the story, but the chaotic fun you can get up to with your friends and internet allies. The money-minting game still receives regular updates from Rockstar, to the point that you really have to pay out of pocket to keep up if you’ve taken a year or two off from the online entry. The realism of the more recent GTAs is nowhere to be found, with jetpacks, flying cars, and any other wild activity or vehicle you can think of packed into the game. The experience is undeniably fun, but it doesn’t stay that way long enough to justify all of the money or time you have to hand over to keep the content and entertainment coming. GTA Online’s lucrative “game as a service” structure will inevitably make it the backbone of the franchise’s future, but hopefully some of the staples of previous single-player entries, such as strong stories and characters, will make their overdue returns.
5. GTA III (2001)
Matt James: Video games spent decades slowly building toward Grand Theft Auto III. From the start, the Legend of Zelda series sought to give players the freedom to explore a vast world at their own pace. But to bring that explorative freedom into the third dimension without the constant need to pause gameplay and load more of the world was a technical hurdle that developers struggled to clear for years. The seamless 3D, open-world-sandbox experience that GTA III delivered was one of the biggest advances in gaming history. Today, it’s tough to even imagine a gaming landscape without the GTA III model of traversing a big map, engaging with missions, and discovering items and upgrades. It’s practically the default form of blockbuster games in 2021. Recent releases Far Cry 6, Ghost of Tsushima, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla are all open-world sandbox games that owe a deep debt to GTA III. That open-world dynamic even shows up in completely different genres, whether in connecting levels in Psychonauts 2 or providing an online meetup space (that somehow still looks and feels like GTA III) in the NBA 2K series.
What is the point of video games if not to transport us to another living, breathing world? At the time of its release, GTA III gave us arguably the most fully realized 3D game world to date, making it possible for players to chart their own course through Liberty City. Play through the story missions, search the city for hidden packages, track down a new car, harass random NPCs on the street, or just drive around the city blasting a great soundtrack while obeying all traffic laws—we now take this kind of freedom for granted in games. GTA III was a longstanding dream realized, and an unforgettable gaming experience.
4. GTA IV (2008)
Ramgopal: “Niko! Cousin!” I’ll never forget those words from Roman Bellic in the most ambitious Grand Theft Auto campaign ever. Coming out in an era when being gritty, realistic, and dark was in, GTA IV offered the franchise’s most grounded story via the saga of Niko Bellic. Niko (and his over-the-top accent) was the center of an archetypal rags-to-riches story, but one told from the eyes of someone completely new to everything in Liberty City and the United States. That familiar environment was expanded yet again, with New York’s real-life look and feel expertly captured throughout.
The story, which featured a number of colorful supporting characters, was so strong that it spawned two successful spinoffs. Several aspects of the game haven’t aged well, including the fact that Niko is voiced by a non-Serbian voice actor. Nevertheless, the campaign is still one of the strongest in the GTA-verse, featuring a finale that’ll leave you depressed regardless of which ending you choose. GTA IV also contained Rockstar’s first attempt at an online GTA. While not exactly a highlight of the game, it did lay the groundwork for the creation of GTA Online. Overall, GTA IV offered some of the series’ best moments, especially in its campaign, and contributed some of the strongest characters in the Rockstar canon.
3. San Andreas (2004)
Jomi Adeniran: GTA has been embedded in the minds of gamers since its first 3D drop (if not before), but arguably none of the older games have stood the test of time quite like San Andreas. Released in 2004, the game followed everyone’s favorite meme machine, Carl Johnson (a.k.a. CJ), as he returned to his hometown and faced off with old friends, new enemies, and everyone in between.
The reasons for San Andreas’s successes are threefold: the look, the story, and the gameplay. The game’s aesthetic is very reminiscent of the mid-’90s Los Angeles from the music videos of NWA, Snoop Dogg, and Westside Connection. The streets are filled with lowriders, and the gang members are wearing tank undershirts—it really feels like South Central L.A. San Andreas’s story is one of gaming’s best. CJ’s attempts to navigate the gang feud between the Grove Street Families and the Ballas, deal with C.R.A.S.H., and launch OG Loc’s rap career makes for some of the finest storytelling in GTA history. The gameplay didn’t change that much relative to Vice City, but the option to customize characters was a vital inclusion that became a mainstay of the franchise.
GTA IV and V have stayed in our collective consciousness for years, and rightfully so, but story-wise, San Andreas was the blueprint for both.
2. Vice City (2002)
Brian Phillips: As Grand Theft Auto entered the mainstream, Rockstar began looking for ways to tone down the gleeful nihilism of the series’ early entries. Without taking away the player’s ability to wreak phenomenal sociopathic havoc—that would be like taking the oranges out of orange juice—the developer worked to frame the runaway violence in a more moral, or at least more artistically justifiable, context. The satire of American culture got more pointed; the protagonists’ backstories got more sympathetic. The effect, oddly, was to make the inevitable crime sprees feel more self-righteous without making them less brutal: Yes, I just ripped an old man out of his car, beat him to death with my bare hands, and drove a truck over 35 pedestrians, but did you know America made me this way?
It’s in that light that the greatness of Vice City can best be appreciated. There may be more ambitious GTA games. There may be more hedonistic GTA games. But Vice City is more ambitious than any game more hedonistic, and more hedonistic than any game more ambitious. By setting the story in the Lamborghinis-and-white-polyester-suits universe of 1980s movie Miami, the cocaine-schlock wonderland of Miami Vice and Scarface and a million shameless variants featuring seaplanes and villains called “Esposito,” Rockstar guaranteed that the tale of Tommy Vercetti would be too joyously silly to be truly disturbing. It’s the only GTA game that tried to justify its body count by getting lighter and more fun rather than darker and weightier. And it worked. There are Grand Theft Auto games I remember as more cinematic, more sophisticated, and more mind-blowing in their design, but I never felt happier inside a Rockstar joint than while screaming past a row of pink houses with a trunk full of narcotics, a silk shirt unbuttoned to the waist, and an ’80s sax solo wailing on the radio. Say hello to my little friend, indeed.
1. GTA V (2013)
Ramgopal: I don’t know what I loved more about GTA V: the sheer size and scope of the game, including wacky missions that took you all over its massive map, or the hilarious conversations you would hear as you walked the streets of Los Santos. The second-highest-selling game of all time wasn’t as gritty or realistic as GTA IV, but it did boast a similarly rich and compelling story, sporting three protagonists for its main campaign. Michael felt like a throwback, Franklin was the most likable, and Trevor was the maniac we all devolve into when we play any Grand Theft Auto game long enough.
These three unlikely friends come together to offer multiple ways to play the game. Gone is the well-worn arc of upward mobility, as each of the three protagonists offers a different variation on the typical GTA story. A multitude of preexisting characters appear or are mentioned throughout, with several old favorites returning to play prominent roles. An epic finale with tons of replayability was the perfect capper for the latest and greatest Grand Theft Auto to date.
Closing Thoughts: What would Rockstar have to do for GTA VI to jump to the top of your ranking?
Ramgopal: Make the game an online experience, but have everything you do matter, with player choices dictating how the game, and the world, develop. Give us all of the cities (Vice, Liberty, and Los Santos), and make the game less reliant on microtransactions and grinding. I want to enjoy this game, not feel like I have to log on every day for five hours.
Lara: I think all it would have to do at this point is be released. In all seriousness, though, I think it would have to introduce an even bigger world—as Arjuna suggested, sort of like having the ability to play in Vice City, Liberty City, and other GTA settings within the same game.
James: Some of us are actually old enough to remember the Grand Theft Auto series before it went 3D. I’d love to see some sort of nod to those early 2D, overhead GTA games within GTA VI. Perhaps the old games could be available to play on an in-game computer? Maybe Rockstar could drop in a brand-new, small-scale, top-down GTA that acts as a prologue to the main story of GTA VI? A lot of GTA diehards are too young to have experienced the first few GTA games. Give those younger players a fun history lesson and the rest of us a nice hit of nostalgia.
A second suggestion: The Grand Theft Auto series is known for its incredible in-game radio stations. Rockstar has smartly hired real-life artists and DJs to program its GTA radio stations, exposing countless players to great new music across a wide variety of genres. I’d love for Rockstar to make GTA VI even more of a destination for new music. I’d like to see radio stations update their playlists every month, giving players yet another reason to keep coming back. I’d also like to see Rockstar form partnerships with big musical artists, debuting new songs exclusively in the game. Fortnite has had huge success with big in-game events and concerts. GTA VI will have a ridiculously large player base, so it only makes sense to create those big, attention-grabbing, in-game events. Years from now, you might remember where you were the first time you heard a legendary song—cruising around the city of GTA VI with your friends.
Adeniran: GTA IV’s location was Liberty City, a.k.a. New York. Vice City is a facsimile of Miami, and GTA V’s Los Santos is a facsimile of Los Angeles. So far, every GTA has taken place in the good ol’ U.S. of A. So how about a GTA set somewhere other than America? More specifically, across the pond: GTA Yorktown. Think about it: GTA in England. You get Guy Ritchie to write the script, and it’ll be like playing Peaky Blinders in modern times. Sign me up, Rockstar.
Cory McConnell: It’s not so much what I’d like to see in GTA VI as where I’d like to see it. I’d prefer for the game to be set somewhere that the franchise hasn’t been before. SoCal is extremely well-trodden territory for Rockstar, as is New York (and aesthetically, essentially any Northeastern U.S. city). The rumors about the franchise returning to Miami are intriguing, but with a Vice City remaster on the way, that also seems repetitive. I’d like to see Rockstar push the envelope into either Asia or Europe: Think how cool it would be to have a San Andreas–style, three-city setup, but instead of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, you’d tool around Paris, London, and Berlin. Maybe throw some Mediterranean side missions in there, or an excursion to North Africa or Greece. I’m not saying the game needs to have Uncharted levels of exotic locales, but breaking out of the typical domestic setting would be the most exciting outcome.
Lindbergh: You’re all thinking too small. Only one outcome could justify a decade (or more?) between new stand-alone games: GTA World. If Microsoft Flight Simulator can put the whole globe in the game …
OK, so even a franchise with the draw of GTA would have a hard time populating a planet-sized map. Plus, I’m generally against games getting bigger and bigger. So here are my more realistic
demands requests: destructible environments, so that I can leave my mark on the map. A playable female protagonist, which would somehow be a first for the series. Story-based DLC, so that the wait for the following full-fledged release won’t be as interminable. A more complex combat system that truly makes fighting fun. More varied and emergent missions that make me feel like I’m experimenting and improvising, not following a pre-planned path. Something for the single-player diehards, not just the always-online metaverse citizens. And, finally, any hard news that would free me from the rumor mill.
There’s probably nothing Rockstar can do to make GTA VI my sentimental favorite, considering how close to my heart the franchise’s formative titles are. But given how long the game has been in the oven, and in light of the sure-to-be-notable technological leaps from its PS3-era predecessor, VI is bound to be the best game in the series in a whole host of ways. Just announce it now.