The GTA franchise has had a chokehold on the industry for the last couple of decades in a way that perhaps no other franchise in the history of games. From the moment the Houser brothers arrived on the scene with 2 unabashedly violent and almost-exhibitionist games in Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2, the industry was put on notice.
While the first couple of games didn’t quite have the polish or the quality to stand the test of time – Rockstar Games would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were here to stay as they made one heck of a statement with GTA III. Since that point, Rockstar has gone from strength to strength, releasing an unbelievably successful string of games, rarely ever faltering in their 2 decade-long run.
The publisher has confirmed GTA 6 as being in development, and while we wait for the next game to arrive sometime in the next couple of years or so – it’s time to take a look at each mainline entry in the series and see what makes each of them special.
Every Single Mainline GTA Game Explained
GTA 1 and 2
The first two games in the series, developed by DMA Design (later rebranded to Rockstar North), did just well enough for Rockstar and their publishers and parent company, Take-Two Interactive, to greenlight a sequel. The games themselves aren’t really all that polished and going back to them now only further solidifies how much the franchise has grown beyond its narrow scope and scale.
The first game featured six levels split between 3 main cities – San Andreas, Liberty City, and Vice City. This would go on to form the foundations of the series heading forward and it seems to have been the game’s biggest contribution to the franchise. Both games feature a very skeletal plot that only serves as a way to drive the game forward and introduce new levels to the player.
The gameplay here constitutes simply running and gunning all over the city and occasionally popping into vehicles and causing all sorts of general mayhem across the city. The games were criticized for their reckless abandon in their approach toward violence and graphic content in games. While the games weren’t all that great themselves, the media storm they kicked up would provide Rockstar with all sorts of notoriety that allowed them to push the boundaries even further and carve a place in the mainstream.
The game that really set the world alight and had droves of players lining up for a copy of the game outside stores, Grand Theft Auto III couldn’t have made a bolder statement on arrival. Ditching the top-down perspective, Grand Theft Auto III featured a rather large 3D open world the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. Also new for the franchise was an actual plot that followed our protagonist’s life of crime in Liberty City.
The game kicks off with our protagonist, Claude, pulling off a robbery with his girlfriend, Catalina. As the pair were escaping, Claude is gunned down and betrayed by Catalina, leaving him for dead as the police arrest him. On the way to prison, the transport is attacked by members of the Colombian Cartel, which allows Claude and his new friend, 8-Ball, to escape.
Following the escape, Claude finds himself allying with the Leone Mafia family as he completes several jobs for them across the city – including hits, robberies, and extortion. In his time as a gun for the mob, he earns the respect of Don Salvatore Leone, who enlists him in a war against the Triads and the Colombian Cartel. Leone’s wife, Maria, eventually convinces Leone of an affair between her and Claude, which prompts Leone to send hitmen after the pair.
As the pair escape and find themselves under the threat of three rival factions – the Mafia, the Yakuza, and the Cartel, now led by Claude’s former girlfriend, Catalina. Claude barely escapes death and finds retribution against Catalina by gunning her down and freeing a captive Maria. The game ends with the pair walking away as Maria complains about the kidnapping.
GTA Vice City
The next game in the series was not a numbered title, but was, in fact, a full-fledged sequel to 2001’s GTA III. Vice City was a game set in the 80s, years before the events of Grand Theft Auto III. This time around, the game followed a brand-new protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, as he attempts to climb the criminal ladder in Vice City, a fictionalized version of Miami.
The gameplay was a significant step up from the 2001 game and featured a number of improvements to movement and traversal that greatly impressed fans. While the combat remained as clunky as ever, fans appreciated the significant step-up in presentation as well as the quality of storytelling.
The story begins with our protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, fresh out of prison, and sent into Vice City to complete a drug deal. Unbeknownst to Tommy, his sole purpose in Vice City is to lay the groundwork for the Forelli family in Vice City and eventually give way to Sonny Forelli, the head of the crime family to take his place. The deal, however, goes horribly wrong as both the money and the merchandise are stolen.
This leaves Tommy to track down the parties behind the setup – leading him to Ricardio Diaz, a local drug kingpin. Tommy enlists the help of Lance Vance, someone who was also wronged by Diaz and the pair plot a plan to eliminate Diaz and take his place as kingpins of Vice City. The pair are successful, but as Tommy grows in power, Lance grows increasingly resentful of Tommy.
Tommy Vercetti eliminates all threats to his empire and becomes the most dangerous man in all of Vice City in the process. Towards the end, he is betrayed by Lance as Sonny comes into town to take Tommy’s place. In a Scarface-like showdown at Tommy’s manor, our protagonist comes out on top and eliminates Sonny’s and Lance’s forces.
GTA San Andreas
Perhaps the most beloved entry in the series, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, featured perhaps the most ambitious open world in the history of the franchise – blowing everything else that came before out of the water. The game featured, not one, but three cities in the state of San Andreas – Los Santos, Las Venturas, and San Fierro.
The game featured a variety of new mechanics, including a new RPG-like system of stats such as Muscle, Stamina, and Fat. This introduced a whole bunch of new side activities such as the Gym, Fast Food restaurants, and even Dating. The game is still the best-selling game on the PS2 and it is easy enough to see why. The game’s ambitious open world, polished mechanics, and the increasingly hilarious and wacky story made for some of gaming’s best moments ever.
The story follows our protagonist, Carl “CJ” Johnson, returning to his hometown, Los Santos for his mother’s funeral. He finds that his mother’s death was the result of a gang drive-by as he discovers his former gang, Grove Street Families, is in complete disarray and without direction. CJ reluctantly comes into contact with a corrupt CRASH officer, Officer Tenpenny (voiced by Samuel L Jackson) as he completes various assignments for him.
Along the way, he discovers the true culprits behind the attack on his mother as he discovers his childhood friends and gangmates, “Big Smoke”, and “Ryder” were behind the attack. Following a sprawling adventure throughout the 3 cities that feature all sorts of wackiness with the Triads and government agencies – CJ emerges victorious as he puts down Big Smoke, Ryder, and Officer Tenpenny.
Grand Theft Auto IV is a major outlier in the franchise and a huge departure from the rest of the series. To this day, by far, Grand Theft Auto IV is the darkest entry in the series and its rich, deep undertones of commentary and satire continue to impress fans. The game came out in 2008 and still stands as the most well-reviewed game in the series.
The game was not without its detractors as many still hold critiques against the game for its snail-like pace and lack of mission variety. GTA IV might not have been the most outright “exciting” game in the series, given its darker storyline – it still holds high regard in player’s minds for its commitment to storytelling.
The game kicks off with Eastern-European immigrant Niko Belic arriving on the shores of Liberty City to reunite with his cousin and help him in his “flourishing” business. He is later confronted with the truth that his cousin’s business is failing and that Niko will have to dip his toes back into a life of crime he had long abandoned.
His struggle to survive in Liberty City has him working for the Russian mob in LC and somehow finding a way to keep himself and his brother alive. The game quickly takes a darker turn as it is revealed that Niko arrived in LC with the sole purpose of revenge as he hunts down his former CO from his time in the army. This cold-blooded revenge tale sees Niko going up against some of the most powerful people in LC while trying to keep things together.
The last entry in the series was, in many ways, the magnum opus that Rockstar had been working towards with previous titles. The game featured, not one, but three protagonists – Michael, Trevor, and Franklin. All 3 characters had unique personalities and playing as each one provided a whole new perspective of the story.
Players could freely switch between the 3 characters, which made for a refreshing change of pace. The game was built on the latest iteration of the RAGE engine, which provided one of the best-looking games of its generation. The polished cover system and gunplay went a long way in making GTA V one of the best games of all-time, which is reflected in its position as one of the highest-selling games of all-time.
The story initially followed Michael De Santa, formerly known as Michael Townley, who faked his death during a bank robbery to escape the clutches of the law by cutting a deal with an FIB agent. Several years later, a retired Michael is set upon by Franklin, who attempts to “reposesses” a vehicle from Michael’s house. Michael then mentors Franklin as he teaches him the ways of robbery and the two become a formidable pair.
The news of Michael pulling off heists reaches Trevor, a raging drug kingpin, who reconnects and with Michael in LS. The trio then pull of several heists across Los Santos in a bid to stay alive and get rich while doing it. The trio are hunted down by various crime factions, including a mercenary group and government agencies.
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