There’s no shortage of incredible things video games let us do. The best games often allow us to enjoy experiences that would be impossible or deadly in real life. Maybe that’s why crime games have always been so strangely appealing.
As some of the best and biggest TV shows, movies, and books have proven, we are often more fascinated with the world of crime than many of us are willing to admit. Of course, there are limits to what those mediums can offer. We can watch Tony Soprano and Henry Hill live out that life we’re strangely fascinated with, but we have to check our darker desires to participate at the door before we go on a guided tour through that lifestyle.
That’s where crime video games come into play. They alone allow us to experience the highs of the world of crime without having to really deal with any of the negative repercussions or moral quandaries. Of course, a few of the very best crime games do force us to deal with the consequences of our actions in their own ways.
Before we get into this list, though, here are a few pieces of selection criteria to keep in mind.
- We used a “cops and criminals” rule to assemble this list. Simply put, a game had to let you play as a cop or criminal (or both) in order to be eligible for consideration. From there, the more that game emphasized either committing or stopping crimes ultimately influenced its final ranking to some degree.
- The rule above means that most superhero games, spy games, and military games were not considered eligible for this particular list.
- For the most part, there is a “one game per franchise” rule in place for this list. However, we ultimately decided to put two GTA games on the list. It was just too hard to ignore all but one entry in gaming’s biggest crime franchise.
With that out of the way, here are the best crime video games ever made.
20. The Getaway
With due respect to every other subgenre of crime story, I have to say that there’s just something special about British gangster films. Movies like The Long Good Friday, Get Carter, and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels tap into a certain style that is impossible to replicate in any other region. Unfortunately, there are very few crime games that truly utilize that same style. Fortunately, there is always The Getaway.
The Getaway tells the parallel (and often intersecting) stories of a former bank robber and a current police detective. From that seemingly simple premise emerges a genuinely compelling narrative that makes the most out of the game’s London setting through its various twists and turns.
At a time when GTA: Vice City was the toast of the gaming world, The Getaway’s limited open-world freedom and more narrative-based structure made it feel like an inferior offering in the minds of many GTA fans. Valid criticisms aside, this game’s atmosphere and specific style have yet to be bested. – Matthew Byrd
19. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Many games starring cops and criminals are the kind of open-world titles that let players stop (or commit) crimes anywhere they want. While you probably don’t think of survival horror titles when you think of video game cops and robbers, Condemned happens to be one of the absolute best “crime” games out there.
In Condemned: Criminal Origins, players control police investigator Ethan Thomas: an agent on the hunt for Serial Killer X. That classic set-up takes a hard turn left when Serial Killer X frames Ethan for murder. The continuing pursuit takes players on a tour of a city that is being eaten alive by a small army of deranged criminals.
Condemned: Criminal Origins is that kind of survival horror game that thrives on its atmosphere. Every area is brought to life with oppressive lighting and texture work, and combat is intentionally slow and simple to sow tension. Perhaps best thought of as an elaborate and lost X-Files episode, Condemned: Criminal Origins demonstrates just how grimy and terrifying the darkest corners of the world can be. – Aaron Greenbaum
18. Driver: San Francisco
While the original Driver gave many PS1 fans a fantastic cops and robbers game, that franchise eventually struggled to keep up as the crime genre evolved in the post-GTA 3 era. That’s why some of you may not know that 2011’s Driver: San Francisco is actually one of the most entertaining crime games ever made.
This truly bizarre title is built around the fascinating idea that the game’s lead character (an undercover cop) has fallen into a coma and now has the ability to inhabit other drivers. That gimmick not only affords you the ability to hop around the city and between vehicles with relative ease, but it allows you to sneak a peek into the lives of some truly strange side characters. This is just an incredibly creative take on the entire crime game concept that also happens to offer some of the most entertaining multiplayer modes this genre has ever seen. – MB
17. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Criminals going on drug-fueled rampages is a strangely popular trope in fictional media, but few games out there properly encapsulate that wild experience quite like Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
Like Hotline Miami before it, Hotline Miami 2 is a top-down shooter that tasks players with slaughtering mobsters and pretty much everybody else. The story takes place in different time periods and stars a wider cast of characters, each as psychotic as the last. Remarkably, that structure doesn’t hinder this sequel’s storytelling. If anything, this game’s story is more straightforward than the first title.
While the narrative is slightly different, the original game’s incredible combat is almost completely unchanged. Players still have to plan out their raids tactically while also keeping a finger on the trigger. All the while, the color palette shifts through various neons. It’s enough to make someone feel like an invincible vigilante high on narcotics (until they die in one hit, that is). – AG
16. Scarface: The World is Yours
Scarface is a legendary crime drama starring Al Pacino as Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who eventually becomes Miami’s drug kingpin. The movie ends with a truly epic shootout that sees Tony get shot in the back. In a truly wild twist, Scarface: The World is Yours asks you to play out a kind of “What If?” scenario in which Tony survives that shootout.
Scarface: The World is Yours is an open-world criminal management sim that picks up after the (reimagined) events of the film. Players can drive around the streets of Miami, gun down enemies, sell drugs for money, and slowly build a criminal empire via wheeling and dealing. Actually, it’s Scarface‘s various criminal empire-building mechanics that really separate it from pretty much every other crime game out there. Even the GTA titles don’t emphasize expanding your criminal network as well as Scarface does. -AG
15. Saints Row: The Third
Initially, the Saints Row franchise began as a semi-blatant Grand Theft Auto-clone. Sure, Saints Row focused on gangs, but it still took itself as seriously as GTA. That changed a bit with the slightly wilder and weirder Saints Row 2. By the time Saints Row: The Third was unleashed, the franchise was almost unrecognizable in the absolute best way possible.
In Saints Row: The Third, players command and customize the 3rd Street Saints’ boss. The game shares much of its DNA with GTA, as players can explore a large open world, complete missions for fame and fortune, and participate in story-driven quests.
Unlike previous Saints Row titles, though, The Third doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. The game’s story revolves around the 3rd Street Saints becoming international celebrities who also still happen to be hardened criminals trying to work their way back up the social ladder. It’s the kind of bizarre gaming journey where things like assaulting civilians with a sex toy soon become commonplace – AG
14. L.A. Noire
Some went into L.A. Noire expecting gaming’s most glorious tribute to cinema’s best hard-boiled adventures. What they got instead was a methodical detective game that most certainly wore its noir influences on its sleeve but rarely opted for the most crowd-pleasing gameplay options
As a detective game, though, L.A. Noire is nearly unrivaled. Few experiences in gaming match the thrill of perfectly solving some of the wickedly difficult cases that this game assigns you. While some of L.A. Noire’s interrogation mechanics are spotty at best, this game deserves all of the credit in the world for making the procedural experience of cracking a big case feel even more exciting and rewarding than most car chases and shootouts. – MB
13. Mafia II
While I love the original Mafia and the many guilty pleasures its prohibition-era gangster campaign offers, that game did sometimes feel like the test run for a much more ambitious project. Well, Mafia 2 is that project.
Mafia 2’s epic crime story spans two decades (the ‘40s and ‘50s) and includes dozens of memorable characters. While Mafia 2’s generally smoother gameplay and expanded open-world options clearly address its predecessor’s biggest shortcomings, it’s Mafia 2’s stunning storyline that really separates it from some considerable competition. Anyone who has ever found themselves darkly entranced by the power struggles and dynamics of classic wiseguy stories will have no trouble losing themselves in this incredible tale that finds the humanity in an almost fantasy world. – MB
12. The Warriors
Before Rockstar Games got in the habit of releasing a new title once every several years, the company actually produced a string of compelling smaller hits. Among those smaller hits was this cult classic gang-themed beat-em-up title based on the hit 1979 film, The Warriors.
As in the film, the protagonists, the titular Warriors gang, are trying to make their way back to Coney Island while being pursued by both police and rival gangs. The game recreates countless scenes from the movie and even utilizes much of the film’s soundtrack. Heck, Rockstar even hired the original actors to reprise their roles. However, the game doesn’t just retread familiar ground. Rockstar also added many new segments, including an origin story that recalls how the Warriors rose through the ranks of gang hierarchy.
Unlike most of Rockstar’s games, The Warriors is a mission-based beat-em-up, and each character has their own strengths and styles. This makes the experience linear, but the polish and presentation more than makeup for it. – AG
11. SWAT 4
The Rainbow Six series is rightfully seen as the gold standard in tactical shooters. For my money, though, 2005’s SWAT 4 remains the absolute best example of that style of gameplay.
So much of SWAT 4’s brilliance can be attributed to the unique nature of its more grounded setting. I’ve infiltrated countless military bases in similar games, but SWAT 4’s “common” locations grant most of the game’s missions an almost unsettling atmosphere. That design approach is highlighted by an all-time great gaming level that sees you infiltrate the basement lair of an apparent serial killer. The way this game truly emphasizes tactics, restraint, and non-violent solutions over falling back on your weapons makes it a true breath of fresh air in the crime genre. – MB
10. Watch Dogs 2
The original Watch Dogs wasn’t a complete disaster, but it was certainly a disappointment. Chief among that game’s many signs and shortcomings was the fact that it didn’t come anywhere close to realizing the potential of an open-world crime game focused on hacking the planet. Well, Watch Dogs 2 not only realizes the potential of that same concept, but explores new possibilities most of us probably never even considered.
At the very least, Watch Dogs 2 improves upon so many of the little problems that made its predecessor such a chore to play. More importantly, Watch Dog 2 embraces that “hack everything” concept we only saw glimpses of in the previous game. As others have pointed out, Watch Dogs 2 is that rare modern open-world crime game that truly treats its sandbox environment like a playground. Indeed, there are times when Watch Dogs 2 makes you feel more like a superhero than a criminal or antihero. – MB
9. Payday 2
The big heist or big score is a common trope in the best crime thrillers. Maybe someone wants to rob a bank or a jewelry store, but no matter what, they need a team to get it. Some crime games simulate the feeling of executing a heist, but Payday 2 nails it.
Payday 2 is a multiplayer-oriented title that casts players as a team of criminals tasked with doing everything from robbing banks to cooking meth in the middle of a firefight. Due to the variety of difficulty levels, objectives, and team builds the game offers, every match feels different.
Moreover, customization is a huge part of Payday 2. Players can deck out their characters with a variety of perks and cosmetics to create the career criminal of their dreams. Want to rob a bank as a bulletproof gorilla in a Doge mask? You can in Payday 2. – AG
8. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
Truth be told, the original Max Payne may feature a more compelling crime game atmosphere. That whole title is just such a gloriously over-the-top tribute to the hardboiled world of the seediest cinematic criminal undergrounds you can imagine. However, Max Payne 2 is simply the better game.
This sequel’s airtight third-person shooter combat is highlighted by some of the most entertaining uses of the Havok physics engine ever. The game’s plot also leans into the delightfully ridiculous nature of its predecessor while still managing to deliver a genuinely compelling story of love, betrayal, and revenge. This game remains the perfect companion piece to your favorite action movie. – MB
7. A Way Out
Split-screen multiplayer is a dying art. These days, game studios are more interested in online multiplayer arenas, though a new wave of slightly smaller titles has embraced the couch co-op of old generations. There are few better examples of that new era of couch-cop than Hazelight’s A Way Out.
In A Way Out, one player controls Vincent Moretti while the other takes the role of Leonard “Leo” Caruso. The two characters meet while in prison, and, thanks to a stroke of luck, they eventually team up, break out of prison, and bond during the aftermath.
While A Way Out relies on its relatable characters, it excels in gameplay. The title is a two-player experience at heart, so cooperation is key. A Way Out’s various challenges force players to work as a team and also makes them feel like one. There are few truly great “escape” games in the crime genre, though A Way Out nails that concept so completely that you really don’t need anything else. – AG
6. Disco Elysium
In most games, failure is meant to be avoided. Depending on how badly you fail, you might even have to start over. However, Disco Elysium transforms failure into an inevitable step on your journey.
Players start Disco Elysium in a trashed hotel room. They have no idea who the main character is or how he got in the room, but a quick search helps players piece together that the main character is a detective and he’s trying to solve a murder. That’s about as clear as things get in Disco Elysium, which is actually a testament to the game’s bold storytelling and gameplay.
Disco Elysium is a fresh take on RPGs. Everything takes place by wandering around environments, making choices, and succeeding (or failing) skill checks. There is no combat in the traditional sense; the game plays out like a point-and-click adventure filled with dialogue and action choices. Even when players sail, the game continues in a new direction that almost always feels like the path you were meant to walk. – AG
5. Sleeping Dogs
For too long, any game that looked like it might have a few things in common with the GTA franchise was written off as a “clone” without so much as a second thought. While quite a few titles suffered from that clone tag, Sleeping Dogs is likely the best crime you may have missed out on due to those misconceptions.
Sleeping Dogs is actually the most glorious tribute to the world of Hong Kong action films that you’ll ever have the pleasure of playing. What this game lacks in open-world activities it more than makes up for with its hard-hitting action sequences, wonderful set pieces, and undeniable style. This tale of an undercover cop trying to escape the deepest hells of the criminal underworld taps into darkly appealing cinematic elements of the crime genre rarely explored outside of the very best John Woo films. – MB
4. Grand Theft Auto 4
Arguably the only “love it or hate it” Grand Theft Auto game in the franchise’s post-GTA III era, GTA 4 honestly deserves to be divisive. It’s a unique installment in the series that attempted a slightly more grounded storytelling/presentation style that didn’t sit well with many. Others were simply annoyed by the game’s “realistic” driving controls that sometimes made driving to the end of the block an eternal struggle.
Yet, there is undeniable brilliance in GTA 4. The game’s exceptional cast of characters contributed to a more mature narrative that attempted to examine elements of the immigrant experience as well as the less romantic aspects of a life of crime. Meanwhile, the game’s stunning version of Liberty City set a new bar for how engrossing and detailed an open-world environment could be. To this day, it remains one of the open-world genre’s greatest design accomplishments.
While GTA 4 would be worthy of this list by itself, it should be noted that the quality of the game’s DLC (especially The Ballad of Gay Tony) easily puts the game in the running for “Best GTA game” honors – MB
3. Red Dead Redemption 2
Truth be told, I had to remind myself that Red Dead Redemption 2 qualifies as a crime game. That’s not because the game’s criminal elements are forgettable but rather because this epic adventure touches upon so many themes and ideas that it can often be difficult to boil it down to any one aspect.
As a crime game, though, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a simply exceptional example of the genre at its very best. Indeed, few games examine the complicated relationship dynamics of the “brotherhood of thieves” quite as well as Red Dead Redemption 2. We grow to understand how these outlaws formed their strange family and what keeps them together through truly terrible times.
Anyone who has ever felt a strangely joyful sensation at the sight of outlaws riding across the open plains together after a big score will certainly appreciate the ways that game lets you live out black hat fantasies. – MB
2. Yakuza 0
Origin stories are notoriously hit and miss. Too often, our imaginations regarding a character or story’s earliest days are more spectacular than whatever those prequels can show. However, Yakuza 0 is one of the best examples of how special a prequel can be.
As the title suggests, Yakuza 0 chronicles how series mainstay Kazuma Kiryu worked his way up the social ladder of the local Dojima Family yakuza. However, Kazuma’s story is only one part of the Yakuza formula. After all, what would he be without his best frienemy, Goro Majima? Thankfully, Yakuza 0 also tells audiences how he became the snakeskin-wearing psycho we love.
As with most Yakuza games, Yakuza 0 is a blend of gripping gang drama and action combat. The story takes many twists and turns as loyalties are tested, and through it all, combat is flashy, impactful, and ludicrous. Furthermore, to break up the gameplay loop, Yakuza 0 is full of minigames, light business simulations, and side missions that add levity without feeling out of place. – AG
1. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
The early Grand Theft Auto titles were generally well-received, but the power of the PlayStation 2 revealed the series’ full potential. Of course, it was 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that revealed the full scope of Rockstar’s vision for that revolutionary franchise.
In San Andreas, players control Carl “CJ” Johnson: a man who got out of the gang life but has to return to his old ways when some corrupt cops threaten to frame him for murder. What follows is one of Rockstar’s best narratives. It’s that perfect blend of absurdity and emotions that we know the GTA games can deliver at their absolute best.
GTA: San Andreas might not boast the biggest map in GTA history (that honor goes to GTA 5), but the way the game is stretched across three major cities with unique connecting areas makes it feel like the largest GTA game ever. Even better, that map is filled with missions and side activities designed to keep players busy. Even subsequent GTA titles struggled to replicate the sheer amount of things to do that this game offers.
How Rockstar crammed so much into GTA: San Andreas and still made the game run relatively smoothly is a true design miracle. This stands as the one crime game you can easily recommend to anyone looking to live a life of crime from the comfort of home. – AG