Every Rockstar Game Ranked Worst to Best

They've helped changed the way we play video game, but which Rockstar Studios game is the best of the best?

Best Rockstar Games
Photo: Rockstar Games

Rockstar is arguably the defining studio of the last 20+ years of gaming. During that time, Rockstar essentially reshaped our collective idea of what a game could be by introducing millions to phrases like “open-world” and “sandbox” while continuously pushing the envelope in terms of mature content. Even after other developers started to make more “Rockstar-like” games, Rockstar found ways to raise the bar and show why they are one of the great blockbuster developers in gaming history.

While Rockstar’s library is defined by those open-world masterpieces, the studio’s catalog is much deeper and more interesting than it always gets credit for. Dig a little deeper into Rockstar’s history, and you’ll find a variety of games that have largely been forgotten. Though some deserve to be lost to time, others are begging to be rediscovered (or discovered) as they are absolutely worthy of that logo that we have come to associate with some of the most successful and acclaimed games of the modern era.

Before we dive into that, though, here are a few things to keep in mind for this list:

– This list only includes games that were developed and published by Rockstar. That means games like the first two Max Payne titles and Space Station Silicon Valley are not included. However, I have included titles from developers that were eventually acquired by and incorporated into Rockstar (such as Angel Studios, Inc.).

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– The exceptions to the rule above are Grand Theft Auto, Grand Theft Auto Advance, State of Emergency, and L.A. Noire. The GTA games are included in order to feature the entire franchise, while State of Emergency is a notable part of Rockstar’s early history. As for L.A. Noire, it was actually worked on by several Rockstar studios at various points in its development and is another notable part of Rockstar’s history.

GTA Online and Red Dead Redemption Online are considered separate projects by Rockstar, so they have their own entries on this list.

– Finally, we’re using a “best port available” rule for this list. That is to say that ports of the same basic game share an entry and the best version of that game is considered the definitive version. Any DLC is also considered to be a part of that base experience. User created mods, however, did not impact these rankings.

With that out of the way, here are the best and worst games from Rockstar’s history:

Austin Powers: Oh, Behave!

34. Austin Powers: Oh, Behave!/Austin Powers: Welcome to My Underground Lair!

Truth be told, the Tarantula Studios Game Boy Color games (we’ll be getting to them in short order) barely qualified for this list. However, since Tarantula is now Rockstar Lincoln and these games were published by Rockstar…well, here we are. 

Though technically two separate games, both of these GBC titles offer an array of slightly different Austin Power-themed minigames. Similarities aside, the real reason these games share an entry on this list is that they’re both unspeakably bad and barely functional. The only things notable about either title, in retrospect, are their bizarre early internet “fake browser” features (complete with fake DOS interactivity) and how they capture a very specific time. Though they’re interesting enough as historical curiosities, they’re pretty much irredeemable as games meant to be played and enjoyed.

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Evel Knievel Game Boy

33. Evel Knievel

Honestly, a Stuntman-like game starring Evil Knievel could be a lot of fun. While I suppose that’s what this largely obscure GBC title intended to offer in its own way, it ultimately plays like a particularly bad version of Excitebike mixed with a forgettable platformer. 

The only thing that rescues this game from the bottom spot on this list is how odd the whole thing is. An Evel Knievel game is unique enough, but an Evel Knievel game where you navigate Alcatraz on your motorcycle or jump over a group of hillbillies while occasionally “recreating” actual Evel Knievel stunts? That has to count for something. 

Wild Metal Dreamcast

32. Wild Metal

Rockstar published the Dreamcast port of this DMA title that has largely been forgotten over time. In its day, though, Wild Metal actually did turn a couple of heads. Its tank vs. tank combat offered a neat variation on car combat concepts (as well as a few fun multiplayer options), and the game’s larger levels offered another hint at Rockstar’s open-world ambitions. 

The game itself is kind of a nightmare, though. It’s ugly, it doesn’t run particularly well, and what little action the game offers isn’t particularly compelling. It’s barely a relic of its time, and there’s certainly little to love about it today. 


31. Beaterator

A truly bizarre entry in the Rockstar library, Beaterator is basically a modified music mixer tool released for the PSP. There’s little actual gameplay to speak of here, as the bulk of this title is closer to an elaborate app than a gamified version of the music-mixing process. 

Although ambitious and unique (two words I find myself using even with lesser Rockstar titles), Beaterator is bogged down by numerous technical limitations that make it barely functional as a music tool and nearly disqualified as a video game. The tech behind this title could have propelled a much more entertaining experience. 

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30. Smuggler’s Run

To its credit, Smuggler’s Run was fairly impressive for a PS2 launch title. The game’s wide open levels offered a taste of what the new console could do, and getting to play as a smuggler (or any criminal) was still a rare “treat” in gaming at that time.

Even though Smuggler’s Run passively resembles what we now consider to be a modern Rockstar game, it’s ultimately dragged down by its barely there driving/racing gameplay that essentially exists to take you on a technical tour of the expansive environments. It’s one of those games of this era that will entertain nostalgic gamers for about five minutes before reality kicks in.

29. State of Emergency

As noted in the intro, Rockstar did not technically develop State of Emergency (that would be VIS Entertainment). However, the publisher’s logo on the box was a big deal at a time when GTA 3 was setting the world on fire. Despite its surface similarities to GTA 3 (most notably, the game’s violent nature and controversial content), State of Emergency was ultimately hurt by those expectations. Those expecting an open-world crime title instead found a relatively limited arcade-like 3D beat-em-up. Granted, the game’s poor controls and repetitive nature did it few favors.

Even though State of Emergency was a stark reminder that not everything that offended was gold, it was not without merit. Glimmers of a much more enjoyable arcade-like game can be found in this title that occasionally feels like the Smash TV experience it was seemingly intended to be.

28. GTA Advance

Unlike the Game Boy Color ports of GTA and GTA 2, GTA Advance is very much its own game. It’s actually a prequel to GTA 3 that essentially tries to recreate elements of that game in a top-down visual style more reminiscent of the earlier titles in the franchise. It’s actually technically advanced for a GBA game, but then again it would be given that it was released in 2004 during the hardware’s dying days.

Unfortunately, GTA Advance’s existence has long been its most notable attribute. Unlike the GBA versions of Tony Hawk and Max Payne, GTA Advance’s impressive tech just doesn’t come close to offering the console-like gameplay experience this title is reaching for. It’s always challenging to revisit the top-down GTA games, but GTA Advance can’t even get by on the “for its time” label that elevates those older games.

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27. Midnight Club: Street Racing

Much like Smuggler’s Run, Midnight Club was a PS2 launch game that was all dressed up with nowhere to go. Though technically ambitious and conceptually interesting (it predates Fast and the Furious in terms of capitalizing on the emerging street racing scene), this game just couldn’t quite put it all together. Its roaming/challenge system is more interesting than it is entertaining, and the races themselves are hindered by floaty driving mechanics that always feel slightly “off.”

Though this is actually one of the better titles in the PS2’s weak overall launch lineup, most people were far better off buying Ridge Racer V instead. However, this game would kick off one of Rockstar’s more interesting (and underrated) franchises. More on that in a bit…

26. Smuggler’s Run 2: Hostile Territory

Though superior to its predecessor in just about every way, Smuggler’s Run 2 also exposes the limits of this series’ core concepts. Released a week after Gran Theft Auto 3, Smuggler’s Run 2 felt outdated out of the gate. Bouncing around deserts in dune buggies while occasionally picking up packages just has so little to offer compared to what modern GTA games could provide. 

Still, this game’s physics were pretty neat for its time, and its unique multiplayer modes remain somewhat underrated. We’re slowly creeping up on some must-play and historically significant games, though, and Smuggler’s Run 2 was never either of those things. 

25. Manhunt 2

Manhunt 2 is the rare Rockstar sequel that not only doesn’t significantly improve upon its predecessor but is arguably actually worse than the game that came before it. The game’s expanded shooting mechanics actually detract from the overall experience, and it fails to address some of its predecessor’s biggest technical flaws. Furthermore, this sequel’s increased levels of violence aren’t quite the draw you’d expect them to be. The whole thing feels a little cartoony and shocking for the sake of attention, which kind of defeats the purpose of the original game’s most interesting theme (more on that later).

Yet, there are things to like in this game. At its best, Manhunt 2 still features the stealthy shocks and scares that made the original game so noteworthy, and there are definitely memorable moments scattered throughout. This just feels like such a miss from a company that should have been firing on all cylinders at that time. 

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24. Midnight Club 2

Released just a few years after the original Midnight Club, Midnight Club 2 turns its predecessor’s potential into something much more interesting. The addition of several new gameplay mechanics makes this sequel’s driving feel significantly better, and Midnight Club 2’s world actually feels like a series of proper courses rather than a loose collection of streets and alleyways. 

While Midnight Club 2 is significantly better than the original game in every single way, it starts to suffer a bit when you compare it to the competition. Not only is it largely inferior to the Midnight Club games that would follow, but it lacks the pure speed and other unique gameplay mechanics that elevated other arcade racing titles of its era. Also, while it has style to burn, some of the game’s…choices are a little more questionable in 2023. 

23. Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis

Look, Table Tennis will always be an oddity that was largely designed to allow the Rockstar San Diego team to test the capabilities of the Xbox 360 hardware. Its modes, characters, and gameplay are all pretty limited. There was a chance for Rockstar to infuse this game with their unique stylistic touches, but the studio didn’t go that route. The result is a surprisingly basic game. 

Yet, for what is essentially the Xbox 360 version of Pong, Table Tennis is a ton of fun. Its physics feel good, its multiplayer is solid, and the game just taps into a basic gaming pleasure in ways that will put a smile on your face. It’s more than that joke game it’s sometimes made out to be, but it’s not much more than that. 

22. Grand Theft Auto

It’s hard to rank the original Grand Theft Auto on this list without feeling disrespectful to its historical significance or too eager to inflate the value of that same attribute. To be fair, there are reasons why GTA didn’t set the world on fire in 1997. Even at the time of its release, it was seen by many as a compromised version of a more interesting idea. 

Still, this was clearly a game ahead of its time. Grand Theft Auto‘s emphasis on freedom, criminally charged gameplay, and stylistic (almost parody-like) worldbuilding touches would all be expanded upon by future GTA games in ways that reshaped the industry. It is ultimately closer to being important rather than great, though. 

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21. Grand Theft Auto 2

You don’t hear much about GTA 2 these days, likely because it has the misfortune of being sandwiched between two significantly more impactful/noteworthy franchise releases. Indeed, this game is not nearly as revolutionary as its successor or predecessor. It sometimes feels closer to a glorified expansion of the previous game. 

However, you can really start to see the GTA franchise coming into its own with this title. The game’s world is so much more alive, its soundtrack is a banger, and the addition of multiple factions added a level of criminal underworld building that Rockstar would only expand upon from here. It’s definitely the superior top-down GTA experience of its time. 

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

20. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories

In many ways, Liberty City Stories is another example of a Rockstar game that is really just an elaborate technical showcase. In this instance, Rockstar wanted to show that they could get a 3D GTA game to run on the PSP, and Liberty City Stories does just that. It’s a proper, PS2-era GTA game that runs fairly well on a handheld device. 

Unfortunately, Liberty City Stories isn’t much more than that. It lacks many of the mechanics and activities featured in Vice City and San Andreas, which means that it really felt like a step back when it was released in 2005. Given how much those games advanced the GTA formula in such a short amount of time, it’s kind of hard to go back to (roughly) the way things were, especially if you’re trying to play this game in 2023. Even still, this was an impressive experiment for its time.

19. Red Dead Online

Red Dead Online could be considered the biggest failure of Rockstar’s modern era. The potential for this title to be great was always there, but fans soon found themselves quite literally begging for updates. When Rockstar confirmed that they no longer intended to release any substantial content updates for RDO, those who stuck with the game couldn’t help but feel betrayed. It was a bitter end to a sad story. 

While it’s hard to rank Read Dead Online lower than this given its incredible potential and how much fun the game often was, it’s hard to give too much credit to a game that should have been so much more than it was. 

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18. Red Dead Revolver

Although it’s rare for a game that kicks off a successful franchise to eventually become that series’ black sheep, it’s not hard to understand why Red Dead Revolver is the most easily forgotten game in the Red Dead series. Rockstar essentially inherited this project from Capcom, and it really does feel more like a mid-2000s Capcom action game that often lacks those little touches we associate with the best Rockstar titles. 

At the time of its release, though, you could easily make the argument that Red Dead Revolver was the best Western game ever made. Granted, it’s not even in the same league as the other Red Dead games, and its core action didn’t live up to the standards the Max Payne series had set at that time, but it’s a solid linear action title that allowed you to squint and imagine living out your wildest Wild West dreams.

17. Midnight Club: Los Angeles

The final Midnight Club game (to date) clearly benefited from being able to build upon its truly exceptional predecessor (which we will be discussing in a bit). While I think that Los Angeles lacks some of the charms, innovations, and surprises of its predecessor, it is a fittingly great swan song for an underrated franchise. 

Actually, Midnight Club: Los Angeles may just be the “most Rockstar” of all the Midnight Club games. Granted, this title’s expanded storytelling actually ends up being kind of a drag, but its slightly more realistic visuals, expansive open-level design, and even its online play capabilities all help Los Angeles feel like a game that was made by one of the greatest blockbuster development studios in gaming history. Somebody needs to pick up where this game left off. 

16. L.A. Noire

As I mentioned in the intro of this article, L.A. Noire’s troubled development makes it a complicated candidate for this list. Then again, L.A. Noire’s troubled development has long contributed to this project’s largely divisive legacy. Simply put, L.A. Noire has never felt like a truly finished game. Its pacing is atrocious, you can practically feel it shedding gameplay weight to keep the technology afloat, and the title’s core mechanics (most notably, its wonky interrogation system) still don’t feel quite right despite being tweaked numerous times. 

However, this remains something of a dream game for noir fans as well as one of the few detective titles of its kind. While the title’s 1940s L.A. setting remains an undeniably appealing draw (the soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission), it’s the thrill of investigating crime scenes, interrogating witnesses, and often actually solving cases rather than shooting your way through them that make it so hard to hate this game. Granted, those ideas don’t come together as well as they could as often as they should, but the bones of a masterpiece are here. 

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15. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

At first glance, Chinatown Wars certainly looks like a step back for the handheld entries in the GTA franchise. At the very least, its top-down 2D visuals (a necessary compromise for the Nintendo DS) should be hard to return to after enjoying a 3D GTA game. There are certainly times when you’ll find yourself wishing that the game featured the proper 3D perspective and mechanics it occasionally attempts to emulate. 

Thankfully, Chinatown Wars aspires to be so much more than a 2D recreation of 3D experiences. Most notably, the game’s drug dealing system (which sees you play with market prices as you try to build your criminal empire) is a simply brilliant idea that helps you feel like you’re part of a criminal organization rather than an agent of open-world chaos. Generally speaking, Chinatown Wars does as much as possible in as many areas as possible to distinguish itself from much larger games. If you haven’t played it yet, you absolutely need to do so. 

14. Manhunt

Manhunt often feels like it’s falling just shy of greatness, which makes the shortcomings of its sequel that much more disappointing. While Manhunt’s brutal violence and grimy nature were the sources of numerous controversies back when the game was released in 2005, it’s the title’s stealth gameplay that will likely divide more gamers these days. Stealth titles have certainly fallen out of favor since Manhunt’s release, and Manhunt’s core “sneak and destroy” gameplay couldn’t quite replicate the brilliance of genre-leading titles like Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, and the Thief series. 

In other ways, though, it’s easier than ever to appreciate what Manhunt was trying to do and often accomplished. Despite what some pundits at the time would have you believe, Manhunt is a condemnation of violence rather than a celebration. At the very least, few games (Rockstar games or otherwise) have made you feel so bad for choosing to resort to the most violent means not because they are necessary but because you want to see what they look like. The game’s wonderful grindhouse atmosphere (highlighted by Brian Cox’s performance as a snuff film director) also feels appropriately foreboding in a way that Manhunt 2 couldn’t replicate.  

13. The Warriors

Truth be told, I originally had The Warriors ranked much higher than this. Ultimately, though, it didn’t feel fair to the ambition, quality, and historical significance of some of the other titles we’ll soon be talking about to rank this one much higher. After all, The Warriors is a very short, incredibly simple beat-em-up game that always felt trapped between different eras of gaming. 

In its own ways, though, The Warriors is a truly miraculous title. As Rockstar was becoming one of the biggest and most beloved game developers in the world, they decided to make a game based on a cult classic ‘70s film. It was (and remains) a strange decision, but it must be said that The Warriors is one of the biggest love letters to its source material that gaming has ever seen. Its 3D beat-em-up and run away gameplay is a perfect fit for the movie, and the ways that The Warriors actually expands upon the events of the film make it an essential part of that film’s already considerable legacy. Do you remember those terrible adaptations that ruined many gamer’s childhoods during the NES era? This is the game we were hoping those adaptations would be. 

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12. Grand Theft Auto III

GTA 3 belongs on any respectable shortlist of the most important or most influential games ever made. In many ways, we’re still living in a post-GTA 3 world where so many innovations and design decisions can be traced back to what this game accomplished. Even then, you kind of had to be there to appreciate what it felt like to experience GTA 3 soon after its launch

Granted, Vice City blew this game out of the water just a year after its 2001 release, but GTA 3 isn’t without its charms even to this day. The cast is memorable, the game’s world is remarkably well-designed given how innovative it was, and driving around causing mayhem in this game is as fun as it has ever been. Time hasn’t always been kind to GTA 3, but you can’t deny its legacy. 

11. Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition

Midnight Club 3 may just be Rockstar’s most underrated game, and I might even be underrating it slightly here. While I feel that other arcade-like and open-world racers ultimately surpass it, this really is one of the best racing games that hardly anyone seems to talk about. 

The gap in quality between Midnight Club 2 and Midnight Club 3 may be one of the greatest we’ve ever seen between two racing games in the same franchise. Mechanically, Midnight Club 3 is a much more satisfying racer than its predecessors, but it’s the game’s scope and style that elevate it above pretty much everything else in this series. The addition of (customizable) licensed cars helped legitimize the core experience, while the game’s exceptional soundtrack and four (!) playable cities grant it a personality that few racing games have ever successfully challenged. It’s an exceptional title from a much different era for Rockstar. 

10. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories

Much like Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories essentially tries to recreate a PS2-quality GTA experience on the PSP. Unlike Liberty City Stories, Vice City Stories is so much more than “close enough” to being a console GTA game. In fact, it’s better than some of the major GTA console games in some significant ways. 

At the very least, this Vice City prequel allows us to return to Vice City itself and enjoy the sights and songs that make that area and that ’80s era such fan favorites. However, this game goes one step further by incorporating numerous elements that weren’t in GTA: Vice City (such as improved combat and the ability to swim). Hell, Vice City Stories includes certain features (such as the ability to build and maintain a criminal empire by managing certain businesses) that were only hinted at in GTA: San Andreas. While my heart wouldn’t let me put this above Vice City for reasons we will soon discuss, it really is the mechanically superior version of that game and an incredible GTA title in its own right. 

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9. Max Payne 3

For fans of the first two Max Payne games (which were developed by Remedy Entertainment), Max Payne 3 was a somewhat bitter pill to swallow. Stylistically, Max Payne 3 cuts down on the intentionally overwritten noir babble and replaces the comic book panel cutscenes from the previous two games with a more traditional cinematic narrative clearly modeled after Man on Fire and Michael Mann films. If that wasn’t jarring enough, Max Payne 3 also takes Max out of New York City and somehow finds ways to make him an even more tragically broken character than he already was. Narratively and stylistically, it sometimes feels like it belongs to a separate franchise. 

Years later, though, it’s fairly easy to see this as Rockstar’s action game masterpiece. Max Payne 3 may just feature the best feeling third-person shooting in gaming history, which is really saying something when you consider both the competition and Rockstar’s struggles in that area up until this point. While the game’s presentation and storytelling style may not be everyone’s preference, they’re ultimately significantly better than the majority of the competition in this genre. I’m even a fan of this game’s tragically overlooked multiplayer mode. 

8. Bully

Bully is somehow both the prototypical Rockstar gaming experience and the strangest major game in the modern(ish) Rockstar catalog. Like Rockstar’s famous GTA series, Bully is an open-world title that emphasizes freedom of choice and the ability to cause mayhem. Unlike GTA (and other open-world Rockstar titles), Bully exchanges overtly violent criminal underworld gameplay for schoolyard hijinks. Mind you, it was still plenty controversial in its day. 

Ultimately, it’s Bully’s rarely-seen setting that makes it so special. Rockstar had obviously figured out how to make fun open-world games by this point, so they instead focused their efforts on creating an academic environment that allows you to live out teenage dreams while overcoming both exaggerated and grounded obstacles associated with that time in our lives. Yes, you can choose to be a bully in Bully, but it’s the ways the game organically encourages you to rebel against a stuffy system for the benefit of all (yourself included) that make it one of Rockstar’s most compelling accomplishments. 

GTA Vice City

7. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

It still blows my mind that Vice City was released almost exactly a year after GTA 3. No, it doesn’t make the kind of significant changes and improvements to the series that later entries would introduce, but it is a deeper, tighter, larger, and generally more engaging experience across the board. Few sequels have ever so thoroughly replaced their predecessors in such a short amount of time. 

After all these years, though, it is Vice City’s style that earns it a high spot on this list. Vice City’s soundtrack may just be the best licensed soundtrack in gaming history and will likely remain as such given the difficulties of licensing this many iconic songs for a video game in the modern age. Of course, that soundtrack ultimately exists to support that magical version of hyper ‘80s culture that Vice City so brilliantly captures. Pop culture’s love affair with that decade gets a little annoying from time to time, but Vice City was a little ahead of the game in that department and still feels like the best recreation of…well, not the ‘80s as it was, but rather this very specific idea of that time period that works so perfectly for a game as excessive as this one.

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GTA Online

6. Grand Theft Auto Online

GTA Online was a nightmare when it was first released. The so-called dream GTA experience was quickly compromised by a variety of server issues that rendered the game unplayable for many fans. Even after some of those issues were smoothed over, early players quickly discovered that the initial version of GTA Online often asked you to make your own fun while navigating a hostile environment and dealing with a busted (and often microtransaction-fueled) economy. 

Even though GTA Online has never quite solved some of its biggest problems, the game has grown into a phenomenon, and rightfully so. The ambition of this online experience’s open-world elements surpasses even the wildest expectations for what an online version of GTA might look like. What other game lets you shoot an orbital defense laser from your Yacht before heading to the casino with your friends? More importantly, GTA Online eventually grew to provide enough quality scripted content to fill a new GTA game. Yes, some would have preferred a new GTA game (or just more single-player DLC), but it’s impossible to deny the ambition of this project. 


5. Grand Theft Auto V

What do you say about the second-best-selling game of all time and a title that regularly tops the sales charts a decade after its release? That’s the question that writers, fans, and even detractors continuously ask themselves as they try to contextualize and comprehend a level of success no other game may ever achieve again. Of course, much of that longevity can actually be attributed to the success of GTA Online. What about the base game?

Well, after all these years, the thing that stands out to me most when I play even the original version of Grand Theft Auto 5 is how modern it feels. Actually, it’s better than that. Yes, developers since GTA 5’s release have certainly tried their best to replicate its success, but so few have come close. As a result, GTA 5 somehow remains the best modern(ish) GTA-like experience for the millions and millions of people who dearly love this franchise. That’s a testament to the ways Rockstar took so much feedback to heart and aspired to make GTA 5 the ultimate version of what GTA had become in the hearts and minds of millions. 

That’s the wildest thing about Grand Theft Auto 5. If you view it in the context of the franchise, you may very well find it has the best driving, the best action, and some of the best world design, characters, and narrative moments in a series defined by many of those things. Yet, it’s the ability to sit with GTA 5 today and find a game that is, essentially, two generations old that still feels remarkably untouched by time that may be the biggest testament to its power. 

4. Red Dead Redemption

Despite the now-legendary “GTA on horses” jokes people often made when this game was released (and shortly thereafter), the fact of the matter is that many people played Red Dead Revolver and found themselves wishing it was more of a GTA-like game. The thing that most people were curious about (or even worried about) was how the game was going to distinguish itself from the things that often defined that series. A GTA-like game without cars, radio stations, and all other modern devices? What would that even look like?

Well, it ended up looking like a game that many still believe is Rockstar’s finest open-world title. By depriving themselves of certain GTA tropes, the team at Rockstar San Diego seemingly challenged themselves to reconsider their approach to open-world design. As a result, simply riding around Red Dead Redemption’s world on your horse and soaking in the atmosphere feels as good (if not better) than causing havoc in a GTA game. Yes, Red Dead Redemption features some of the best action in a Rockstar open-world game (as well as Rockstar’s trademark sense of humor and outlandish characters), but it’s the smaller pleasures that ultimately make this concept work better than some felt it ever would.

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Yet, it is Red Dead Redemption’s story that ended up being the game’s biggest and most impactful surprise. The game’s greatest and most shocking narrative moments showcase the kind of humanity that Rockstar was previously accused of downplaying even in their most acclaimed adventures. It’s the kind of game that sticks with you and the kind of game that was easy to return to even before Undead Nightmare came along and raised the bar for video game DLC. 

3. Grand Theft Auto IV

There’s a degree to which Grand Theft Auto 4’s brilliance is inseparably linked to some of the things that people have long despised about the title. In their effort to create a slightly more grounded and mature GTA game, Rockstar may have gone a bit too far in certain key areas. GTA 4’s weighty driving often feels anti-fun, its lack of side activities (especially before the Ballad of Gay Tony DLC was released) was certainly notable coming off of San Andreas, and the less said about being bugged to go bowling with Nico, the better. Even if you respect Rockstar’s vision for GTA 4, you have to be fair when analyzing some of its shortcomings. 

Yet, there are many ways that GTA 4 has gotten just a little bit better every year in the 15 years since its release. It starts with the game’s story, which was always considered to be one of the game’s greatest strengths but feels even more impactful today. That’s partially because of its themes of immigration in America, but it has more to do with how it tells that story in such a GTA way. There are times when GTA 4 feels like an examination of what would happen if actual humans had to live in the GTA universe. As our own world becomes increasingly absurd in ways that resemble GTA titles, the weight of that approach feels heavier and more pressing than ever. It’s also a story that not only enhances the game’s excellent selection of missions but is brilliantly continued/expanded upon in two of the best pieces of video game DLC ever: The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.

But whenever I think most fondly of Grand Theft Auto 4, I almost always find myself thinking about its world. The decision to make Liberty City feel like a living, breathing place rather than the widest piece of digital real estate possible may have rubbed some the wrong way, but that decision has changed gaming for the better. Even though some of the best modern open worlds aspire to feel as alive as GTA 4, few feelings in those games quite match the thrill of cruising around Liberty City at night with the music up and your eyes on everything but the road. 

2. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

The best magic tricks remain impressive even after they’ve been solved. For instance, we now know that GTA: San Andreas‘ massive open world (which included three distinct cities as well as forest and desert areas) is actually a bit smaller than we sometimes remember it being and greatly benefited from some smoke and mirror techniques. We know that, and it still doesn’t matter because few games have ever felt as big as San Andreas

San Andreas was a PS2 epic that few fans could have ever dared dream of. Yes, that speaks to the game’s legendary map and the feeling of realizing Los Santos was only the beginning, but it’s more about the things you do in that world. Just when you think you’ve seen the craziest thing this game has to offer, you’re using a jetpack to escape from Area 51 or stealing a fighter jet. Incredible individual moments aside, San Andreas also features some of the best smaller stories in the franchise as well as a surprisingly strong overarching narrative. While its ‘90s themes and ‘90s soundtrack don’t get as much love as Vice City’s nostalgia trip, both are simply exceptional. 

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I can’t tell you that San Andreas is a perfect game or even the perfect GTA game. What I can tell you is that San Andreas is the perfect encapsulation of how we expect GTA games to make us feel when we play them and how we expect new Rockstar games to raise the bar to absurd heights. 

1. Red Dead Redemption 2

There are elements of Rockstar’s past spread throughout Red Dead Redemption 2. The game obviously expands upon Red Dead Redemption’s world and lore (despite technically being a prequel), it’s filled with GTA 5 gameplay innovations (as well as a few new tricks), and it even harkens back to GTA 4’s more grounded characters/storytelling style and emphasis on a living world. RDR 2 really does feel like the culmination of Rockstar’s innovations, advancements, and all of the other advantages that come from its partner studios’ many years of experience. 

In so many other ways, though, Red Dead Redemption 2 not only blazes a new path forward for Rockstar but for the entire open-world genre and gaming as an art form. On a purely technical level, RDR 2 may be the best-looking, and best-sounding, game ever made. It almost feels crass to boil RDR 2 down to its technical accomplishments, though. After all, it features one of Rockstar’s most epic, most human, and most morally complex narratives as well as the truly exceptional (and massive) cast of characters needed to propel a story of such awesome scope. 

Yet, it’s the quality of Red Dead Redemption 2’s world and the ways the gameplay feels derived from that world that ultimately makes this game a special part of a legendary library of titles. In RDR 2’s vision of the twilight days of the Old West, the inevitable hovers just on the edges of a world both remarkably untouched by man and bleeding from our transgressions against ourselves and each other. By slowing down numerous elements of the game’s action and navigation, RDR 2’s developers encourage you to stop, take a breath, and soak in this world where every action has weight and meaning. It helps make RDR 2 a testament to the power of how a game can make us feel while still allowing us to enjoy the simpler pleasures of shooting, riding, and living how we set fit in a digital world,