In October 1997, a British company called DMA Design (now Rockstar Games) released Grand Theft Auto for PC. It received mixed reviews, with some praising the open gameplay and freedom it afforded players, while others criticized the odd bird’s-eye view.
Fast forward to today, GTA V is one of the best-selling video games of all time and is still massively played almost eight years after its release.
In between, there have been some great Rockstar releases, but which one is the best?
Grand Theft Auto, London and GTA2
While the original game was groundbreaking and fun to play at the time, and the two London expansion packs stand out as the only releases outside of North America, they pale in comparison to the games in the “3D era” and beyond.
GTA2 was a revamped and slightly modified version of the original, so it would be taking it too far to call it the best in the series.
Grand Theft Auto III
In October 2001, the GTA series became what it is today. Rockstar released the first 3D version in a simulated New York City. Fans loved the originality, the perception that you were in a real metropolis and the new perspective that added the third dimension.
While other games build on this, GTA III remains a contender simply because it was the first proper Grand Theft Auto title and the other releases wouldn’t be what they are today without it. That’s why the New York Times described it as “one of the most influential… ever made”.
A year later, Rockstar releases Vice City on the PlayStation 2. This has been fixed many of the missing elements from GTA III, with engines, helicopters, a plane that can fly, a main character that can talk and better physics.
It also added some of the coolest 80s songs you could ever want and a much brighter atmosphere than the previous game.
Mechanically, newer games have improved over Vice City, but its 80s theme, soundtrack, gripping story and colorful visuals make it one of the best in the series.
In 2004 San Andreas blew us all away by taking a huge step up. Rather than being located in just one city, this game’s map features three, plus a desert and mountainous area dividing them.
It added more customizations, new mini-games, bikes and a series of new planes. Crucially, it also made the main character swim, removing one of the biggest frustrations people had with previous GTAs.
Players got better at driving, shooting and swimming over time, which helped create a better sense of progression.
San Andreas also introduced casino games to GTA for the first time. It allowed players to direct CJ to some of Las Venturas’ casino resorts and play games such as roulette, slots and blackjack.
These casino games were a new addition to Grand Theft Auto, but of course they are nothing new, with blackjack originated about 400-500 years ago. Meanwhile, the history of the cards used to play them can be: traced back to ninth-century China, although it took them some time to evolve into the 52-card four suit decks we know today.
Newer releases certainly have better graphics and maybe even a better story, but San Andreas has a magic that is hard to replicate.
Grand Theft Auto IV
The first game in the “HD era”, GTA IV returned to Liberty City, but with better graphics, more realistic physics, better shooting mechanics and a lot more detail. The game is set in the then current (2008) and featured many references to contemporary life at the time, such as “Web 2.0” and “camera phones”.
Players could use their phones to interact with other characters and do things together, a nice feature that helped unlock perks like a weapon delivery service and someone to clear your desired level.
It also added multiplayer options for the first time, although these were nothing compared to GTA V.
IV also got its story told from multiple perspectives thanks to the DLC expansions “The Lost and the Damned” and “The Ballad of Gay Tony”. This helped to make the game much more gripping and feel real.
Grand Theft Auto V
Released five years after IV, GTA V is the latest title in the series. It returned to Los Santos (one of three towns in San Andreas) with no real explanation as to why the other two had disappeared.
The story was also told from three perspectives, but allowed players to switch between the protagonists within a single game rather than creating expansion content. This was a divisive thing, with some players praising it and others complaining that it was getting harder for them to root.
Graphics were improved, new features like stock trading helped to make you feel like you were in a living, breathing city, and the physics was “upgraded” from IV.
However, the biggest change for GTA V was the introduction of GTA Online, a new multiplayer world that has been regularly updated since then. This introduced co-op missions known as heists, an online casino, a parking lot, and even added new islands to the map.
Which is the best?
It’s almost impossible to say that one GTA is better than all the others. They each have their own qualities that make them stand out. Vice City had a great story and a great soundtrack, but if you want a constantly evolving open world, GTA V is the way to go. For a compelling single-player story, GTA IV is probably your best bet, but if you want the ability to fly a jetpack and scour the countryside for Bigfoot, you’ll need San Andreas.