Grand Theft Auto is one of the biggest franchises ever, even outside of video games. In 2018, it was reported that Grand Theft Auto V alone was the highest-selling media product of all time. The series has a long list of titles all based in a world similar to real life, meaning there are quite a few story beats and characters shared between each game.
However, Grand Theft Auto’s timeline isn’t so straightforward.
Thanks to an interview with Rockstar Games, we can see that all GTA games are set in a specific universe:
This makes for significant changes in the story and history of each title. Even when groups, characters, and even plot points are shared between universes, an event from San Andreas might’ve never happened in GTA V.
This article will take a look at each universe individually, following them from one set of years to the next. With that in mind, here are all GTA games in order chronologically!
Table of Contents
2D Universe GTA Games
Not many 2D games exist in GTA’s chronology. In fact, the only major titles here are the original GTA and GTA 2. London 1961 and London 1969 were released as expansion packs to the first game, and there are only two other titles in the franchise to use a fixed top-down perspective.
The original GTA games were extremely simplistic, even compared to games released just a couple of years later. These early entries utilized sprites instead of 3D models, and story elements are only there to give context to players for the missions they play. It’s even hard to say the exact timeframe of the first or second GTA games, outside of them taking place during their release years.
Despite the lack of plot and relatively unintuitive gameplay, the 2D Universe introduced Grand Theft Auto to the masses. Starting with the next universe, it would soon become a franchise on the road to even greater success.
3D Universe GTA Games in Order
The release of the 3D Universe GTA games does not coincide with its timeline at all. GTA III was the first game to release but the last in its timeline, while Vice City Stories was the opposite. Each game is mostly self-contained, mostly taking place in different cities, but characters and locations end up appearing multiple times throughout the series.
Vice City, San Andreas, and the Stories games all take place before the turn of the millennium. If taking the 2D Universe into account, some of these games even happen before GTA 1 and 2. It doesn’t mean much in the long run, both because the universes don’t interact with each other much and because the 2D Universe was light on story anyway, but it’s interesting to think about.
GTA III was the first game to introduce a third-person perspective, and later games allowed players to explore the world with fully-voiced protagonists. These titles set a new standard for the franchise, establishing a formula and popularity that would only continue to grow bigger and better as time went on.
HD Universe GTA Games in Order
Thanks to flashbacks and the new Online, the HD Universe timeline is a bit trickier than most. GTA V’s prologue takes place years before any other game in this universe, including GTA V itself. GTA IV, as well as The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, all occur within the same timeframe. To be specific, The Lost and Damned happens shortly after GTA IV’s opening, while The Ballad of Gay Tony takes place later in GTA IV’s story - namely the bank robbery.
GTA Online takes place just before (and partially during) GTA V’s main story. Players meet characters and visit locations from the game, but it’s clear certain events haven’t happened by the time those players arrive. However, starting with the Gunrunning update, GTA Online’s story was thrust into the year 2017, taking place later than any other GTA game.
The HD Universe refined the Grand Theft Auto formula as far as it could. With more intricate storylines, improved graphics, and extreme amounts of content, it’s no wonder GTA V - and by extension, GTA Online - is the best-selling game Rockstar has ever made.
While the GTA games have a very obvious chronology, few characters are shared between titles. You can get away with playing the 2D and 3D games without much trouble - many of the prequels, such as Vice City Stories, were released after the games they were based off of.
The HD games contain some heavier plot elements. If you want to get invested in each title's story, you're better off playing them in order - with the exception of GTA V's prologue, since it's not really connected to GTA IV. You're also better off playing GTA Online after completing GTA V's main story, especially since recent updates continue the story of some important characters.
The Grand Theft Auto franchise is known for more than its story, but seeing how each game relates to each other helps to make them even more enjoyable. Familiar faces appear many times in the 3D and HD games, with important characters and their storylines either being further developed or brought to an abrupt end. Whether Rockstar decides to bring back more characters for GTA Online or a possible Grand Theft Auto 6, it will be interesting to see who else might return to the spotlight.
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