They weren’t the forerunner of the open-world genre, but the Grand Theft Auto or GTA games pushed the innovative boundaries and popularized it. They mostly did so with the GTA cities. Apart from the main characters, the GTA cities in every game ever since GTA 3 have been the main stars of the show.
In hindsight, what Rockstar Games catalyzed with GTA cities is a marvelous achievement in gaming. They were some of the few games that created a living and breathing city with an actual culture and personality. Consequently, that also got Rockstar Games into some controversies, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, we’re here to appreciate Rockstar Games’ craft by ranking their main GTA cities.
5. Anywhere City
Back when the GTA series was still testing the waters, they came up with this somewhat uninspired playground. Anywhere City in GTA 2 seems like it wasn’t made to make you feel at home or to amaze you with detail but rather to serve as a target for your crimes.
It doesn’t bear any resemblance to any particular city. There’s a more futuristic look, though it still does take place in the US. Anywhere City, despite being an ambiguous setting, would later serve as a launching pad for the more popular Liberty City. It even shares some similarities in locations and with its maps.
The city of London is technically just an expansion pack for the very first GTA game. Even so, it still arguably holds more thematic relevance compared to the blank slate of Anywhere City. The expansion is named Grand Theft Auto: London 1969, and that’s also the time period for the setting. A second expansion pack also followed, titled London 1961.
You’ll notice that London 1969 is the only GTA game named after a real-world location instead of satires of the most popular US cities. If you were to take this expansion more seriously, that means London is canonically part of the GTA mythos. You do have to give them props for this one, they even got the accents right.
3. Vice City
Vice City was undoubtedly Rockstar Games’ love letter to fans who were raised by Tom Selleck’s bushy mustache and the neon-drenched discos of 1980s Miami. GTA Vice City was also Rockstar Games’ second 3D open-world outing after the landslide success of GTA 3 and its Liberty City.
It was a different pace for some. Still, Vice City presented players with its signature wacky missions and unapologetic satire. Too bad Rockstar Games didn’t revisit the setting. Our best memories of Vice City are still stuck in the clunky PS2 graphics. It’s as if Vice City is the unrecognized middle child. However, that’s about to change sooner rather than later with GTA 6.
2. Liberty City
This is where it all started. Liberty City, first featured in 3D in GTA 3, was an achievement in gaming back in 2001. Up until that point, not many games attempted to create a sandbox open-world city that actually functioned like a close simulation. And it was also during a time period when a lot of games still hadn’t fully embraced 3D.
Needless to say, the GTA franchise owed a lot to Liberty City. It’s great to see that it got its much-deserved revisit in GTA 4 in a more high-definition recreation and satire of New York City. Even today, GTA 4 holds up well to contemporary video game standards.
1. San Andreas (Los Santos, San Fierro, Las Venturas)
If Liberty City was the eldest child, and Vice City was the wallflower middle child, then San Andreas is the youngest, the golden child of the bunch. Looking back, it was one of the most amazing games of the decade. Instead of just taking place in one city, it took place in a large state with three cities, namely Los Santos (based on Los Angeles, San Fierro (based on San Francisco), and Las Venturas (based on Las Vegas).
That’s cheating a bit since it had three cities, but Rockstar Games managed to fit all of them in one game. San Andreas, to this day, is still the most ambitious among GTA cities; even GTA 5 managed to include only Los Santos during its revisit (though it’s much more detailed this time). It would be interesting to see if GTA 6 can finally dethrone San Andreas in terms of scale and ambition. Only time will tell.