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Out Of Every Grand Theft Auto Game, This One Stands Above The Rest

Even if you have never picked up a controller in your life, it's extremely likely that you've heard of the video game franchise "Grand Theft Auto." The controversial Rockstar Games-developed series is largely seen as one the most influential in video game history, revolutionizing the open-world sandbox genre and leaving a legacy that touched virtually every game of its ilk that came after it.

Spanning over a dozen games, the series had modest beginnings with "Grand Theft Auto," its direct sequel, and their spinoffs. Originally conceived as a top-down action-adventure franchise, the series would transition to 3D when it came to the PlayStation 2 in 2001 with the release of "Grand Theft Auto 3." Since then, Rockstar Games has turned the series into one of the most popular, critically acclaimed, and lucrative collection of titles in the gaming sphere. But which of these wildly successful games stands out from its peers as the best, most definitive "Grand Theft Auto" title?

Grand Theft Auto 3 revolutionized gaming

Starting with the release of "Grand Theft Auto 3" in 2001, the Rockstar-developed series became a pop culture phenomenon. This sequel's focus on the underbelly of society — be it organized crime, prostitution, or drugs — and the violence that goes along with it made the game a prime target for parents, activist groups, and gamers who were still struggling with the concept of an interactive medium such as gaming now playing host to stories containing adult themes.

Despite its controversy in the media, "Grand Theft Auto 3" was revolutionary from a gameplay perspective. Its open-world formula and sprawling map of Liberty City, was extremely innovative and set the bar for future games in the sandbox genre. In 2007, GamePro Magazine considered "GTA 3" to be one of the most important video games in history in terms of game design, while Ziff Davis of IGN also listed the game as being one of the most influential games ever made. "Never before had we felt so much freedom in a game world," Davis said in his look back at the game. "We could work our way through the non-linear story — or not. The game offered an unprecedented amount of side-missions, mini-games, and free play opportunities."

Vice City and San Andreas were even more ambitious

A year after "GTA 3" changed the landscape of gaming completely, Rockstar Games released its follow-up, the equally successful and beloved "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City." Taking place in a satirical version of Miami known as Vice City, the game was set in the 80s amid the era's crack cocaine epidemic and boasted a star-studded cast featuring esteemed actors such as Ray Liotta, Burt Reynolds, Dennis Hopper, and Gary Busey, just to name a few. The game's ode to 80s classics such as "Scarface" — as well as its absurdist portrayal of glam rock, Florida, and other relics of 80s culture — established the series as a unique sort of commentary on topics both old and new.

In 2005, Rockstar Games capped off its initial "3D trilogy" with "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," arguably the most ambitious of the series. "San Andreas" examined the early 90s in a similar fashion by tackling heavy urban issues such as gang cultureand corruption within the police force. The size of Los Santos' map, its quirky characters, massive amount of activities, and introduction of RPG-like elements led to the game receiving plaudits from critics and is often considered to be the best of the 3D era of "GTA."

GTA 4 and GTA 5 expanded on their predecessors' formula

After a three-year hiatus, the "Grand Theft Auto" series returned to limelight in 2008. "Grand Theft Auto 4" was released for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and took place in a more realistic and gritty version of Liberty City. Though it remained somewhat true to its satirical roots, "GTA 4" was a much darker experience and followed main character Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant and war veteran who quickly becomes disillusioned with the stereotypical idea of "the American Dream." Much like the games that came before it in the series, "GTA 4" quickly became a cultural phenomenon. In addition to generating over $500 million in revenue within its first week of release, the game garnered universal acclaim. 

"Grand Theft Auto 5," the latest game in the series, also greatly expanded upon the series' already impressive base, boasting the biggest map in series history, loads of fun side activities and missions, and graphics that pushed the envelope in terms of what was possible on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The game also featured three playable protagonists whose stories are all interwoven, a first for the series. Above all else, it also came with "GTA Online," an open-world multiplayer component that to this day remains one of the most lucrative and diverse experiences in all of gaming. Despite being rather old by gaming standards, "GTA 5" and its online companion remain immensely popular and relevant to this day.

Grand Theft Auto 4 has arguably the best protagonist

Anchoring "Grand Theft Auto 4" is its grounded story. The game's protagonist, Niko Bellic, is a veteran of the Yugoslav Wars and has a very checkered past, with hints being made towards him having PTSD as a result. This makes him possibly the most unique and layered characters in the series' history.

Writing for Game Informer, Javy Gwaltney praised Niko's arc and the artistic choices that went into conceptualizing him. Gwaltney would go on to call Niko "a complex character, someone with noble qualities that nonetheless commits heinous actions that bring death and suffering upon countless people." Players on Reddit have also said that Niko is their favorite "GTA" character, with a number of fans commenting on how Niko feels like an actual human being with real feelings and hardships. 

The praise for Niko's character isn't only retrospective, either. Upon the game's release, fans on message boards also raved about the character's grounded nature and realistic motivations, with some already hailing him at the time as the best character in the franchise's history.

GTA 4 has the best combat in the series

Combat has always been an interesting topic of conversation in regards to the "Grand Theft Auto" series. While the franchise has mostly been lauded for its story beats, range of activities, and open-world design, the combat has never been viewed as one of the series' main selling points. But what the fighting in "GTA 4" lacks in mechanical polish, it more than makes up for in gritty and striking presentation.

A good example of this is in its gunplay. As noted by Javy Gwaltney of Game Informer, there's something about the impactful and visceral gunfights that make the combat in "GTA 4" feel more "real" than many of its contemporaries. "[The game's] kills are disturbing because of the intimacy that ["GTA 5"] trades away for its scope and genre conventions," Gwaltney wrote. "The immediacy ... is much more disturbing (and interesting) than [GTA 5's] approach." This consensus seems to be shared by the fan base as well. On Reddit, threads about "GTA 4" combat are often rife with players preferring the action over that of "GTA 5."

Grand Theft Auto 5 overstayed its welcome

By any objective standard, "Grand Theft Auto 5" is a great game. The critical acclaim and impressive sales numbers it received upon its 2013 release (and well afterward) is proof of that. The same can be said for its multiplayer component, "GTA Online," which not only has revolutionized open-world multiplayer games, but has also continued raking in cash years after is launch. But if there's any area in which "GTA 5" and "GTA Online" have seemingly failed, it is by way of over-exposure.

The five-year window between the release of "GTA 4" and "GTA 5" was felt like a sweet spot. Five years was enough time to let "GTA 4" settle in with fans without waiting an exorbitant amount of time before the next title. With "GTA 5", however, fans of the series have spent years clamoring for news regarding "Grand Theft Auto 6," with little to no information popping up, even as the previous game approaches its 9-year anniversary. No matter how good a game is, too much of a good thing can always sour the experience somewhat. With "GTA 5," complacency has bred contempt among the fans, especially after being stuck with the product for so long.

On Reddit and elsewhere online, fans of the series have voiced displeasure over how long it has been since the last "GTA" release, with many feeling that their time with "Grand Theft Auto 5" has run its course.

The original GTA trilogy is a bit dated

For many, the original "Grand Theft Auto" PlayStation trilogy — consisting of "GTA 3", "GTA: Vice City", and "GTA: San Andreas" — will always be the gold standard of the series, and rightfully so. Each of the aforementioned games played a pivotal role in not just improving upon the series, but pushing the art of video game development into the future. Unfortunately, as with many classic games, the PlayStation 2 era of games is also somewhat dated when it comes to its graphics, control scheme, and overall gameplay.

Over on Reddit, many fans still hold the older "GTA" games in high regard, but note that they lack in areas where the newer entries don't. "I can get past the clunky graphics," Redditor u/Zero0_Karma said in response to how games like "San Andreas" hold up today. "[B]ut what kills me is the punishing lack of a checkpoint system during excruciatingly long missions." 

Another user, u/SchwartzJesus, couldn't get past the dated control scheme, particularly in driving sequences. "They're really good for nostalgia reasons but in my opinion after you've spent so much time on modern games they don't really hold up," another commenter added. "They are classics and will always be considered great games but I personally don't enjoy playing them as much as the new ones."

Grand Theft Auto 4 stands above the rest

"Grand Theft Auto 4" might not have as many quippy one-liners as "Grand Theft Auto 5," nor the Hollywood callbacks prevalent in the original 3D trilogy. However, the world in "GTA 4" feels the most real, even as it takes place in an exaggerated version of New York City. In many ways, the game's tone, in terms of both narrative and look, feels the most immersive. 

Writing for TheGamer, Andy Kelly expressed his difficulty in going back to "GTA 5" after doing a deep dive into "GTA 4," writing, "'Grand Theft Auto 5' is one of my favorite games," Kelly said. "But after spending around 40 hours as Niko Bellic, Johnny Klebitz, and Luis Lopez in Liberty City, 'GTA 5' feels—and this surprised me—almost like a step back for the series." Kelly pointed out that a large part of this had to do with the physics system in "Grand Theft Auto 4" and its dedication to realism when compared to the more arcade-like driving and combat in "GTA 5."

"GTA 4" and its expansions are exceptional achievements in video game development and truly the highlight of the franchise. Be it the game's great protagonist, the truly lived-in setting of Liberty City, or the highly celebrated story, "GTA 4" offers much more than the cheap thrills with which the series is typically associated. And for that, it stands out among the rest.