Who’s better, Tommy or CJ, Nico or Franklin? Here’s our definitive ranking of the Grand Theft Auto video games.
First up, and let’s get this out of the way before gibbering internet simpletons start throwing their faeces around the comment section: this is not a scientific list. I haven’t polled ten thousand people, or even ten. Hell, I didn’t even ask around the office. This is one writer’s unilateral (but still entirely ironclad and unassailable, obviously) opinion on the best Grand Theft Auto video games.
Second important point: this only applies to the main series, multi-platform games in the Grand Theft Auto series. So in this list, Vice City is in (because it’s a standalone game) but The Ballad of Gay Tony isn’t, because it’s an add-on for Grand Theft Auto IV (Episodes from Liberty City doesn’t count as standalone, either). That means that some really great things – like Chinatown Wars or The Lost and the Damned – aren’t included, sadly. It also means we don’t get to mock London 1969 at great length.
And no, Grand Theft Auto: Online isn’t included as a separate entity, either, though it may or may not count towards the fifth instalment’s overall position. Let’s find out.
Also, profanity warning – this is an article about Grand Theft Auto, after all.
7. Grand Theft Auto (1997)
This is where it all started. But while Grand Theft Auto was revolutionary on its release in 1997, it really doesn’t hold up well today. Most of the elements that we know and love – theft, murder, and general rampaging merriment – are all there, but it’s just not all that much fun to play anymore. It feels clunky, it looks to have aged terribly, and is probably best left in your rose-tinted memory banks.
6. Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999)
I promised myself this wasn’t just going to be a list progressing in chronological order, and therefore following the evolution of technology and Rockstar Games’ ambition, but here we are. Grand Theft Auto 2 suffers from exactly the same issues as its predecessor: it feels like a dinosaur compared with its newer, younger brothers and sisters, and even comes off poorly compared to indie titles like Hotline Miami.
5. Grand Theft Auto 3 (2001)
Shit… we’re still going chronologically, aren’t we? Grand Theft Auto’s first foray into three dimensions was a massive step forward for the series and shaped everything we know and love, but this definitely feels like a first effort. The gameplay is all there, but the story and charm of the games that followed – particularly its stablemates, Vice City and San Andreas – just aren’t there in Grand Theft Auto 3. Hell, I can’t even tell you what the game’s protagonist is called, that’s how much of an impact the story had on me. It feels like a work in progress, but when it got there? Boy, did it get there.
4. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
There we go, we’ve broken the chronological stretch. In many respects, Grand The–
Hey cousin, it’s me, Roman! You want to go bowling?
Hmm. That’s annoying. In many respects, Grand Theft Auto IV is a remarkable game. It takes all of the ambition and scope of-
Hey, Nico! It’s Roman! We should hang out sometime!
Shut up, Roman. Can’t you see I’m trying to praise your stupid game here? Grand Theft Auto IV is a technical leap forward for the series, with a-
Nico! Cousin! Why don’t you call me back? We need to get a beer, man!
Fuck you, Roman. And fuck you, Rockstar, for putting a bloody mobile phone in this game, and giving every jerk in said game my number, and not giving me the option to switch it off or even put it on silent. I’m going to go play Vice City instead.
3. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
Ah, now we’re talking. Vice City was the first time the series really embraced the possibility offered by its unique position, sitting in the intersection of the Venn diagram that contains both video games and the best cop dramas and crime capers, most notably, Miami Vice and Scarface. Vice Ci–
Mission failed! You killed Lance!
Vice City was the first time the series transcended itself, moving from–
Mission failed! You killed Lance!
Look, it’s not perfect, alright? Some ropey mission design and suicidally bad AI (read: Lance) is a massive pain in the–
Mission failed! You killed Lance!
I don’t care. It’s a great game and, even with Lance Vance’s mission-dependent death wish, it’s still less annoying than Roman and that damn mobile phone. Vice City changed the focus from game to multifaceted, narrative-driven experience, setting out the template for all Grand Theft Auto games to follow, and we should all be grateful for that.
2. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
The fifth instalment in the series really does have it all, doesn’t it?
The biggest game and the largest playable area in the series yet; three playable protagonists with complex, interwoven storylines; massive production values that take Vice City‘s playful riffing on cinematic and televisual standards to a new level; and a living, breathing representation of modern California that’s so real you can almost smell the Pumpkin-Spiced Lattes. It’s even got a sprawling, near-sentient online mode that actually doesn’t suck, and from me that’s high praise indeed (I really hate online multiplayer, particularly when it’s just shoe-horned into formerly single-player titles to extend the lifespan).
But there’s something not quite right for me, about Grand Theft Auto V. Something off. Maybe it’s that underwhelming submarine, or the tedious non-impact of heist planning. Perhaps it’s the fact that, in Trevor Phillips, the game effectively giving you permission to play as a sociopath means it no longer feels naughty to do so. Or maybe it’s the modern-day setting, complete with all of the awful trappings of social media and online lives, terrible music, and a missing sense of cool that comes from the settings of Vice City and San Andreas?
Yes, it’s probably that last one, actually. Also, going back to Grove Street and finding it overrun by the Ballas breaks my heart. I know Grand Theft Auto V technically takes place in a different universe to San Andreas, but fuck you, Rockstar! I worked hard for the Grove Street families and you just undid it all with a stroke, you fuckers!
1. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
Really, there could be only one, couldn’t there?
If you’re going to pick a setting for a gangland crime empire video game, in terms of both era and location, there’s only three that I can, hand on heart, say are perfect. Literally, perfect. The first is Capone-era, prohibition New York, in the twenties. The second is, well, Vice City exactly – Miami in the eighties. And the third? That would be South Central Los Angeles in the early nineties, and with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Rockstar absolutely fucking nailed it.
And it’s as ground-breaking as it is perfectly pitched. Other than a few selectable options in fighting games – like Adam Hunter in Streets of Rage or Balrog (Boxer) in the Street Fighter series, or party members like Barratt Wallace in Final Fantasy VII – Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson is the first proper black protagonist I can remember in video games.
You could argue that picking a black protagonist in a game about drugs and gang violence is reinforcing stereotypes, but in that setting of
Inglewood, Los Angeles Idlewood, Los Santos, with its amazing NWA-filled soundtrack, anything else would have simply been the wrong choice.
In an industry that even today still can’t get over the idea that its audience is exclusively white and male – which it abso-fucking-lutely isn’t, by the way – Rockstar bucked the trend in a big way. This was a majority black cast in a redemption story, of a downtrodden gangland family not just working to be on top, but to clean up their own hood from the problems that blight it. It even features Samuel L. Jackson as Officer Tenpenny, the corrupt cop and main antagonist of the piece, which is about as outspoken an endorsement of its cast and setting that I could possibly think of.
Oh yes, and it’s also a pretty fucking special game, too. In addition to the killer story delivered by a stellar cast, the amazing, living city, and the unparalleled radio soundtrack, it is also: the first in the series to introduce roleplaying elements; the first in the series for proper character and vehicle customisation; the first in the series to offer countryside terrain and different urban environments; the first in the series to feature turf wars and reactive factions…
I could go on all day, but – other than that bloody remote control car mission – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is absolutely perfect.