I was apprehensive about the Grand Theft Auto series when I first started it, mainly as a result of the mixed reviews regarding the game’s intense depictions of gang violence. I avoided the series growing up, but after a car accident left me bedridden (ironically enough), I turned to GTA V to get through the boredom.
And once I started, I couldn’t stop. I was simply blown away by GTA’s storyline and immersive gameplay mechanics. All those years avoiding it, I had no idea how exciting it could be.
I recently started replaying GTA V and wanted to take this time to celebrate this franchise as part of our “Games in Order” series. Since this is such a long series, I’ll be listing expansions and prequel spin-offs as part of their associated main-series title — check out the list below for our roundup!
Who Would Like the Grand Theft Auto Series?
The Grand Theft Auto series is one of the most successful of all time, so it’s fair to say that most gamers would enjoy it. The series’ focus on crime and violence may drive some away, but it’s far more than just that. GTA provides storytelling that no other series can emulate, often telling the story of people who got involved in crime due to a series of bad decisions they grew to regret. It isn’t (usually) all about hardcore killers that show no remorse, but instead dives deep into the moral struggles that surround drugs and gangs. GTA is a series for anyone that wants to explore the idea of morality in a bad world, and also people who want to use flamethrowers and run people down in fast cars.
The GTA Games in Order
Let’s jump right into our list with the first GTA ever made.
1. Grand Theft Auto
- Release Date: October 21, 1997
- System(s): MS-DOS, PC, PlayStation, Game Boy Color
The original Grand Theft Auto is a top-down action-adventure game set in the fictional US cities of San Andreas, Liberty City, and Vice City. Originally called Race’n’Chase, the game follows the player character through a series of missions assigned by a crime syndicate. The player is free to explore and interact with the world however they want outside of these story missions, an aspect of the game that made it stand out from other titles in the late 90s. It was first released on PC, then ported to both PS1 and GBC.
Grand Theft Auto’s gameplay is relatively simple — players must earn a certain amount of points in each level (without dying) to progress. Points can be obtained in any number of ways, but they’re amassed most reliably by completing missions like robberies and assassinations for the crime syndicate. Successful missions increase the player’s multiplier, which increases the number of points earned through more general actions like stealing and reselling cars. The game’s Wanted mechanic encourages players to avoid law enforcement at risk of getting “Wasted” and losing points.
Players are allowed to choose from a variety of characters to play as, but this choice doesn’t affect the story itself. The story follows the protagonist’s journey through three cities (Liberty City, San Andreas, and Vice City) as they complete jobs for several bosses.
GTA 1 set into place many of the ideas expanded upon by the rest of the series. The multi-genre radio station, free roam chaos, and gang violence introduced in this entry would stay with the series throughout its length. GTA 1 might not have aged as well as many entries, but its impact alone makes it worth a play.
Two expansion packs, London 1969 and London 1961, were released for Grand Theft Auto in 1999. The expansion packs provided additional missions for the core game, adding to the setting by offering a new city for players to explore.
2. Grand Theft Auto 2
- Release Date: October 22, 1999
- System(s): PC, PlayStation, Dreamcast, Game Boy Color
Grand Theft Auto 2 is similar to its predecessor in both story and gameplay. GTA 2 built upon the ideas of GTA 1, with the major addition of dynamic gang warfare. Once again, the player proceeds through the game by completing missions for the various crime syndicates of the area, though this time with an open-world design that lets them explore the three distinct districts of Anywhere City, USA.
Grand Theft Auto 2 follows the story of Claude Speed as he rises throughout his criminal career, and takes place in Anywhere City. The setting of GTA 2 is one of its most unique aspects, as both its setting and time period are vague. It is believed to take place in either 1999 (because of references to Y2K) or 2013 (because of documents found in-game), but neither can be confirmed.
The most notable difference between the first and second installments of the series is Grand Theft Auto 2’s introduction of warring gang factions. Gaining respect with one gang will make another gang want to kill you, so carefully planning which gang(s) to work with is essential. Since the game takes place in one city, the player can complete missions for more than one gang in a given area. This leads to added consequences — working with one gang may foster distrust with another. The world itself is also more dynamic, as players can have more meaningful interactions with the environment (through the game’s day/night mode and the introduction of side gigs like taxi driving) and NPCs (including an ongoing mission to kill Elvis impersonators).
Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto 2 is very similar to its predecessor in terms of gameplay and style, but is more refined. Its replayability remains true even today, and is widely regarded as one of the best 2D games.
3. Grand Theft Auto III
- Release Date: October 22, 2001
- System(s): PC, PS2, Xbox, Mobile
Grand Theft Auto III shifts the franchise into the 3D era, placing a sharper focus on story and character while remaining true to the series’s roots. The player controls the voiceless protagonist Claude as he completes missions for the Yakuza of Liberty City, fighting the Colombian cartel that his ex-girlfriend has sided with.
The 3D nature of the game made the actions within it feel more realistic, and thus prompted even more controversy than its predecessors. It follows a mute criminal named Claude, who escapes from police custody after he’s arrested for bank robbery. He works for several gangs as he works toward revenge against his ex-girlfriend who shot him after their bank robbery and left him for dead.
Players can roam the open world of Liberty City’s three main boroughs, completing story and side missions to progress through the campaign. Although the main concepts of the game remain the same as previous installments (with missions revolving around robberies and other crimes), the basic mechanics surrounding driving and combat have changed to work in the 3D world.
A prequel for GTA III was later released for the PSP, titled Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. The prequel incorporated gameplay elements and vehicles that were introduced later in the franchise, though it reduced the size of the Liberty City map and cut the player’s ability to climb and swim in open water. Liberty City Stories later ported to PS2 and mobile platforms.
4. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
- Release Date: October 29, 2002
- System(s): PC, PS2, Xbox, Mobile
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is the first game in the series to introduce a voiced protagonist. Players take on the role of Tommy Vercetti, an ex-con who seeks revenge on his enemies as he builds a criminal empire in the neon-saturated setting of Vice City.
Mechanically, the game remains similar to GTA III, but with new weapons and improved graphics and animation. The game’s aesthetic was inspired by the 1980s and various movies set in that period. In fact, much of the game’s development reportedly went into worldbuilding and refining the overall “feel” of the game to be as evocative of the criminal underbelly of 1980s Miami as possible. This backdrop provides the perfect atmosphere for a game that is essentially all about tracking down stolen cocaine. But more than that, it’s about the characters and their relationships. Tommy is a much more realistic character than GTA III’s Claude, and is the first truly great protagonist in the series.
As with Liberty City Stories, Vice City received its own PSP prequel. Vice City Stories included a non-linear environment and mechanics that largely resembled those of Liberty City Stories, and was the last game in the franchise to employ well-known, Hollywood voice talents for its characters.
Vice City continued the legacy the franchise was building, solidifying Grand Theft Auto as a mainstay in pop culture. Flocks of gamers were drawn into the no-holds-barred storytelling and open world environment it offered, and its no stretch of the imagination to think most of them remain fans to this day.
5. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
- Release Date: October 26, 2004
- System(s): PC, PS2, PS3, Xbox, Xbox 360, Mobile
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas takes place in the fictional state of San Andreas, and features the cities of Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas. Players take on the role of CJ Johnson, a former gangbanger who returns home to investigate his mother’s murder.
GTA: San Andreas will always stand out as one of the most influential video games of all time. While Vice City and GTA III redefined open-world games, San Andreas redefined games in general. The technical advancements this game made were unheard of at the time, allowing players to explore three full cities without interruption and showing what the PlayStation 2 was truly capable of. No game truly captures what gaming was like in the 2000s like San Andreas.
San Andreas introduced several elements and mechanics to the GTA series, including new RPG options, immersive gang wars, and additional mini-games. Players can change CJ’s appearance and upgrade his skills for improved gameplay and melee combat options. There are also a greater number and variety of vehicles in the game (including bicycles and jetpacks), which can likewise be customized and upgraded.
San Andreas pushed boundaries that no-one expected to be pushed and ignited controversy and pushback from concerned parents. But everyone still knew about the game and its more infamous qualities because the kids that were allowed to play couldn’t stop talking about it! (Looking at you, “hot coffee” mod). San Andreas goes down in history as one of the best, most technically advanced, and most controversial (arguably in a fun way) games of all time.
6. Grand Theft Auto Advance
- Release Date: October 26, 2004
- System(s): Game Boy Advance
Grand Theft Auto Advance returns the game briefly to its top-down era, employing many of the same mechanics as the first two GTA games alongside weapons and side-missions introduced during the 3D era. Set once again in Liberty City, the game follows a small-time criminal named Mike, whose plans to leave the city are interrupted by the murder of his partner, Vinnie. Mike must work with the warring crime syndicates of Liberty City to uncover the truth and escape with his life.
The game’s capabilities are a step backward for the franchise, as the GBA’s hardware somewhat limited potential mechanics. Animated cutscenes are replaced with text-based cutscenes, and radio stations are replaced with a single, repeating tune for each vehicle. A handful of characters from GTA III return with the setting, along with new characters exclusive to the new story.
7. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
- Release Date: October 24, 2005
- System(s): PSP, PS2
Liberty City Stories was the first 3D GTA game released on the PSP, and is a prequel to Grand Theft Auto III. The layout of Liberty City is mostly the same as it was in GTA III, with only a few key exceptions. The story is nothing new for the franchise, following Toni Ciprani’s doings as a criminal in Liberty City. Gang warfare returns as expected, as do the typical tropes of betrayal and murder.
Liberty City Stories might not have been anything revolutionary in terms of storytelling, but the fact that it was a 3D GTA game on a handheld device is reason alone for it to be remembered. There were certainly a ton of gamers that couldn’t afford the major consoles of the time, so to have a GTA game available on the cheaper handheld options was a great choice.
8. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
- Release Date: October 31, 2006
- System(s): PSP, PS2
Similarly to Liberty City Stories, this entry was a prequel to a previous game in the series (this time GTA: Vice City). It follows Victor Vance, a U.S. Army member who gets involved in the drug trade and is eventually discharged from the army.
Victor is one of the least morally corrupt protagonists in the series, and most of the trouble he gets into throughout the game at least begins due to his strong morals. He saves a woman from her abusive husband, which then leads to him beginning a relationship with her and becoming even more involved in crime. And after that, he and his brother begin trying to raise enough money to pay for their other brother’s asthma medication, which leads to more crime.
Vice City Stories is memorable for the same reasons as Liberty City Stories before it. Full-sized GTA games on handheld consoles was a revolution for the handheld gaming industry, proving that the smaller consoles could provide gaming experiences at the same level as traditional consoles.
9. Grand Theft Auto IV
- Release Date: April 29, 2008
- System(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Grand Theft Auto IV was the definitive GTA game of the PS3/360 generation. The game is set in Liberty City as well, this time following a war veteran named Niko Bellic as he travels to the US to pursue the American Dream. The story is notable for being less over the top than previous entries, instead focusing on real-life criticisms of capitalism and other aspects of American culture.
Upon arriving in Liberty City, Niko realizes that his cousin Roman’s stories were all lies to cover up a life of debt and crime. He gets involved in Roman’s life and begins completing jobs for him, which ultimately leads to undercover work for a government agency and a deal that may make or break his chances at the American Dream.
GTA IV introduces a cover system to its combat, allowing players to duck behind cars, walls, and other parts of the environment to shield themselves from incoming fire. Players can move around in cover to fire blindly, aim freely, or focus on a specific target (even targeting certain body parts). The game also features an online multiplayer mode that supports up to 32 players in a single session.
GTA IV is arguably the darkest entry in the series in terms of storytelling. Rockstar has always used the GTA series to criticize and parody aspects of American culture, but they do so far more heavily here than ever before. This is a mentality they would continue to employ in future entries, but the dark tone of GTA IV makes it stand out the most.
Rockstar Games released two expansions for GTA IV in 2009 — The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. Each of these expansion packs follows a new protagonist and a plot related to one of the side characters of the main campaign.
10. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
- Release Date: March 17, 2009
- System(s): PSP, Nintendo DS, Mobile
In Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, players follow Huang Lee, the spoiled son of a Triad boss, after he’s kidnapped and loses a valuable family heirloom. Huang and his uncle are dishonored as a result, and must work to regain their status and honor in the Triad gang. The game takes place in the Liberty City of GTA IV, and is shot from a pseudo-top-down angle that allows for full camera rotation. The game is stylized to look like a comic book in all versions but the PSP port.
It’s also the only game in the franchise to explore the world of crime within Chinese criminal groups in America. The plot of Chinatown Wars is centered more around murder and police (or the “FIB”) than drugs, and largely follows the protagonist’s attempts to retrieve the Yu Jian sword that was stolen from him at the beginning.
The basic mechanics remain similar to the other installments in the franchise, with added touchscreen features for portable devices. The game modifies the Wanted mechanic by allowing players to demolish police cars to reduce their Wanted level. It also introduces a drug dealing mechanic that gives players a chance to utilize geography and underground markets to make money on the side.
Chinatown Wars offers cooperative and competitive multiplayer, though the PSP version is limited to only two players. GTA: Chinatown Wars expanded the series’ reach by bringing it back to Nintendo consoles once more. The Nintendo DS was largely a family-friendly console, so having a Grand Theft Auto game on it felt fresh and exciting. It’s one of the most unique games in the franchise, and was praised heavily by both critics and fans alike.
11. Grand Theft Auto V
- Release Date: September 17, 2013
- System(s): PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Grand Theft Auto V returns to the city of Los Santos, and is the first installment of the series to feature more than one central protagonist. Grand Theft Auto V is the first entry in the series that allowed for three different playable characters, each with their own unique story. Players follow Michael De Santa, Franklin Clinton, and Trevor Phillips as they’re caught up in a life of crime that each of them had sworn they’d left behind. The protagonist’s lives quickly become derailed as a result of their heists and increasing involvement with the feds, and players are left with a choice that questions the meaning of loyalty in a world that prioritizes the cycle of violence.
The game’s mechanics remain relatively unchanged from previous installments, but they’re streamlined for smoother gameplay. Case in point? This iteration once again incorporates RPG elements, allowing players to customize any of the three protagonists, all of whom come with unique skill proficiencies based on their former life of crime. Players can experience the game in first or third person, and switch between them at any time.
Grand Theft Auto V returned the series to the over-the-top environment it brought to life during the PS2 era, while retaining the more serious and socially critical elements of GTA IV. It was a technical marvel on the PS3 and 360 due to how large the map was, and continues to amaze gamers after almost ten years on the market.
GTA V was re-released for next-gen consoles after its initial launch and has received several expansions for its online multiplayer mode, including several new customization options, vehicles, and heists. It’s also the first time Rockstar Games invested in the online possibilities of the series, with GTA Online remaining one of the most played multiplayer games today. The game’s massive success all but guarantees the success of GTA VI whenever it does come out.
Grand Theft Auto Online
- Release Date: October 1, 2013
- System(s): PS3, 360, PS4, Xbox One, PC
Grand Theft Auto Online released shortly after GTA V, and quickly became one of the most popular multiplayer games available. It wasn’t the first time Rockstar had attempted multiplayer for the series, but it was the first time they had committed to making it an excellent, full experience. GTA Online allowed players to truly play together the way they wanted to for the first time, and its success (both critical and financial) prove how much players have loved it over the years.
GTA Online was, and still is, beloved by so many people because of its chaotic open-world experience which allowed up to 30 people to roam freely at once. In addition to this, the game also offers a variety of missions and heists to complete with others. The success of GTA Online will long be remembered and mimicked. It is in some ways the culmination of over two decades of progress.
The stream of updates and ongoing attention Rockstar Games has devoted to GTA Online, has resulted in an ever-evolving world. Some gamers would lump GTA Online in with the GTA V experience, but we thought it deserved its own entry in this acclaimed franchise.
The Future of Grand Theft Auto
As of right now, there are only rumors about a potential Grand Theft Auto VI. Many gamers are clamoring for the next iteration of perhaps the most iconic game franchise of our time, arguing Rockstar Games should focus their work on it rather than pumping out more clothing options for GTA Online. There’s already a lot of debate surrounding the unannounced installment, including speculation about a return to the Vice City setting or the introduction of a female protagonist. We at HGG are excited to see where the series takes us next and will be keeping you updated on any news!
Thank you for reading! We hope you enjoyed our list of GTA games. Please feel free to leave a comment, and check out some of HGG’s other gaming roundups!
Updated 7/15/21. We updated this in order list to be more comprehensive. We added entries for Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories as well as new screenshots of the main titles. We also included our writer Brett Moss’ viewpoints and takes on the series.