GTA Gameplay Overview

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For 25 years, the GTA series has dominated the gaming industry. From its humble 2D beginnings with GTA 1 in 1997, all the way to the modern age with Grand Theft Auto V and Grand Theft Auto Online, which has gone on to become the second best-selling game of all time, only behind Minecraft.

Players often find themselves emotionally attached to the characters and get sucked into the epic stories that are featured in-game.

But, the GTA gameplay has helped the GTA series set itself apart from other similar games on the market, with it constantly evolving over the years and setting the benchmark for what an open-world game can be.

For this article, I will be breaking down the gameplay in the GTA series across all iterations, from the early 2D games into the 3D era, covering everything you need to know about the series.

Jump into Liberty City, Vice City, or San Andreas/Los Santos and get to building your empire and experiencing one of the greatest video game franchises of all time.

Bottom Line Up Front

The Grand Theft Auto series can be distinctly broken up into two different styles of game, the 2D and 3D styles, with the series transitioning as technology advanced with the sixth generation of consoles.

Despite moving to 3D in 2001, the GTA series has returned to the 2D style on a few occasions, although it has largely remained 3D for the past 20+ years.

The GTA games that are in the 2D style are:

  • Grand Theft Auto
  • Grand Theft Auto: London 1969
  • Grand Theft Auto: London 1961
  • Grand Theft Auto 2
  • Grand Theft Auto Advance
  • Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

The GTA games that are in the 3D style are:

  • Grand Theft Auto III
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
  • Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
  • Grand Theft Auto IV
  • Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned
  • Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony
  • Grand Theft Auto V
  • Grand Theft Auto Online

We may see another 2D GTA game in the future, especially if it is explicitly designed for mobile or handheld devices, but it is unlikely. From now on, we will likely see the GTA series remain a 3D franchise.

Both game styles are fun, and each has pros and cons; this article will detail everything you need to know about 2D and 3D GTA games.

The 2D era

GTA 1 1997 Driving

The Grand Theft Auto series began in 1997, while Rockstar North was known as DMA Design.

Before releasing Grand Theft Auto, DMA Design was best known for the Lemmings series, with six titles released, including Lemmings, Oh No! More Lemmings, Christmas Lemmings 1993, Lemmings 2: The Trible, All New World of Lemmings, and finally Christmas Lemmings 1994.

Some more games were developed by DMA Design, but none were as noteworthy and iconic as the Lemmings series.

On November 28, 1997, the first Grand Theft Auto game was released on PC, with a PlayStation version released two weeks later and a Game Boy Color port released in 1999. The series would feature a 2D style and remain that way for the first four years before jumping to 3D.

However, it has been revisited on a few occasions since the move to 3D. Interestingly, DMA Design went for the 2D style despite 3D gaming becoming more common thanks to the advancements in PC tech and the release of the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn in 1994 and 1995, respectively.

Grand Theft Auto was initially designed to be a cops vs. robbers game, with players controlling either law enforcement or criminals. But DMA Design quickly discovered that playing as the criminal was the most fun part of the game.

It was reworked, so the player would only take control of a criminal as they build their empire and gain a reputation in the criminal underworld.

It is hard to imagine what Grand Theft Auto would have been like if DMA Design had gone with the cops vs. robbers theme. It is possible that the series wouldn’t have flourished as it did and would largely be forgotten today.

With all that backstory out of the way, let’s look at the early 2D style of the Grand Theft Auto series.


GTA London Gameplay

Compared to the more modern 3D GTA games, the gameplay for the older 2D era was much more simplistic. The 2D games feature a top-down 2D view, with the camera pointing directly down above the player.

While this is simplistic, it does limit the possibilities for what Rockstar Games (then DMA Design) could do with the game. But, we must remember that the series began in 1997 when games weren’t quite as complex as they have become today.

Despite its simplistic gameplay style, DMA Design set things in stone that would become standard in the series. It is still seen today, notably in the locations. Grand Theft Auto features three locations to choose from.

The first is GTA Liberty City which is based on New York City, Vice City, which is based on Miami; and finally, San Andreas which is based on Los Angeles and other areas in California and Nevada. These three locations have become the central locations in almost every GTA game since the series’ inception.

Except for Grand Theft Auto 2, which takes place in Anywhere City, and the London expansions, which take place in England’s capital, every GTA game has been set in either Liberty City, Vice City, or San Andreas.

Read also: The Best Games like GTA San Andreas.


GTA 1 Phone Boxes

Each of the 2D games features a variety of missions with a large variety of objectives, from finding vehicles, eliminating your enemies, and delivering items. Most of the missions are started by answering calls on payphones scattered across different locations.

However, some also begin by entering a select vehicle. The missions are more straightforward in GTA 1, with them being split into acts where once you complete all the missions in Act 1, you move on to Act 2.

Grand Theft Auto 2 features a different style in that each payphone is color-coded with green payphones indicating an easy difficulty, yellow for medium, and red for hard.

But, despite the slight change in how missions are presented to the player, the concept is still the same, and most missions are very similar, such as eliminating enemies, delivering goods, etc.


GTA 1 Busted

Combat and fighting your enemies and law enforcement is a key part of the GTA series. Still, with the gameplay style being a 2D top-down style, combat is very limited. The games feature a variety of weapons, from pistols, rifles, rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and others.

These weapons fire in the direction your player is facing, but you can turn around in full 360 degrees, rather than being stuck on a left, right, up, and down grid. This makes firing weapons a bit more accurate. But, combat is very clunky and not a very enjoyable part of the 2D GTA games.


GTA 1 Driving

Driving is perhaps the most crucial part of any GTA game, and it is no different from the 2D games. With each city being incredibly large, you need to drive around in cars, so you’re not spending all day traversing the vast landscape.

Most missions revolve around vehicles too. With the 2D games being limited in what DMA Design could do, the vehicle types are limited to cars and trucks in the early games.

Vehicles such as bikes and planes wouldn’t make an appearance until the 3D era. But, despite the limited amount of vehicle types, there are still plenty of vehicles to choose from. GTA 1 features 59 vehicles, and GTA 2 features 69, each with its own speeds, handling, and acceleration to make them unique.

Most of the vehicles seen in the 2D games didn’t make their way to the 3D era. However, some have, such as the Stinger, which was first seen in GTA 1 and has gone on to be used in GTA 2, GTA 3, GTA Vice City, GTA Liberty City Stories, GTA Vice City Stories, and GTA V.

The 3D Era


In 2001 with the advancements in 3D gaming technology, and the release of the sixth generation of consoles, the PS2, Xbox, Gamecube, and Dreamcast, Rockstar Games brought the GTA series into the 3D era with the release of GTA 3.

Since then, with other two exceptions, the series has remained in 3D, with the two exceptions being Grand Theft Auto Advance, a 2D prequel to GTA 3 released in 2004 on the Game Boy Advance, and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars in 2009 on the Nintendo DS and PSP, a top-down game like the 2D games but with a 3D rotating camera making it a hybrid, with the story taking place one year after the events of Grand Theft Auto IV.

Since the series switched to 3D, it has only gone from strength to strength, with each mainline entry selling better than the last.

Except for San Andreas outselling GTA IV due to the number of ports and rereleases it has seen. The GTA franchise has sold close to 380 million units worldwide, most coming after the switch to 3D. Here are the last known sales figures for each 3D entry.

  • Grand Theft Auto III – 14.5 million
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – 17.5 million
  • Grand Theft Auto IV – 25 million
  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – 27.5 million
  • Grand Theft Auto V – 170 million

Over the 20+ years that the series has been 3D. The series has seen many quality of life changes, its gameplay and other aspects evolving as hardware and its capabilities became more advanced.

That said, let’s look at everything you need to know about 3D GTA games.


GTA V Michael

The release of GTA 3 in 2001 saw the biggest change in the Grand Theft Auto franchise when it made the jump to 3D, thanks to the power of the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC gaming capabilities at the time. For the first time, players could explore the city and see all the details of buildings, the vehicles, and of course, the characters.

Combat became much easier with a proper aiming system, which has only evolved over time. Driving became a much more enjoyable experience, opening up the possibility of extra side missions and collectibles such as stunt jumps.

Overall, the entire GTA experience was only enhanced by the jump to 3D. It would have been possible for the series to begin in 3D due to the capabilities of the PlayStation, and games such as Driver proved it. But it didn’t start the way just meant that when it switched to 3D, it felt like a much bigger deal.

One aspect of the gameplay that I saved for the 3D section, despite being present in the 2D era, is the law enforcement wanted levels, as it took shape and evolved from GTA 3 onwards.

With the original concept of GTA being cops vs. robbers, Rockstar Games kept that in the finished product, with the police being on your case if you commit a crime in the city.

The wanted levels range from one to five, with each increase in the level of pursuit and effort that the police will put in to catch you and bring you to justice or kill you if you go too far in your crime spree.

A one-star wanted level is where you will likely begin for your first crime, with the police just being mildly interested in you. Take your crime spree a step further to gain a two-star wanted level. At this point, the police are still looking to apprehend you and will put some more time and resources into doing so.

You’ll have to avoid the police for a few minutes to escape a two-star wanted level. Parking down a backstreet can often be a good way to do it, but keep track of their positions on your mini-map.

At three stars, this is when the fun begins, the police want to bring you to justice at this point. The police will start to set up roadblocks, and helicopters will be deployed to hunt you down; they will also be more focused on killing you than arresting you.

One thing to note is GTA V has an achievement for surviving three minutes at this level, which shows it can be a challenge.

But, if you escape law enforcement too and don’t see the error of your ways and keep causing havoc on the city you’re in, the big guns will be deployed at a four-star wanted level.

At this point, the SWAT team will be sent to hunt you down, with the officers wearing body armor and traveling in armored trucks. The police will be a lot more aggressive in shooting at you, and it can be challenging to survive or escape at this point.

Finally, suppose no police officer can take you down, and you reach five stars. In that case, the army will be deployed utilizing tanks and other military vehicles to ensure you won’t be causing chaos for much longer.

You’re not escaping them at this point, and it becomes a fight to the death. However, if you escape them without any cheat codes, it is safe to say you are one of the best GTA players out there.


GTA V Heist

When it comes to missions in 3D GTA games, things have drastically changed compared to the 2D era. Gone are the days of receiving missions from phone boxes, although a throwback to this does happen in GTA IV with a set of side missions.

Instead, the story now plays out by the main character meeting dozens of people in the city, from other members of the criminal underworld who will usually become your rivals to your friends before the story, and even random NPCs in the game that act as side missions.

Some notable ones include Franklin becoming a member of the paparazzi in GTA V.

As technology has evolved and the GTA series keeps expanding, the number of missions in the game has also increased. From 51 story missions in GTA III to 79 in GTA V with dozens of side missions to keep players exploring the city even longer. I will be surprised if GTA 6 doesn’t top this number when it releases.


GTA V Trevor Shooting

Combat has also drastically improved from the 2D games, with you now being able to aim weapons much more accurately, making the experience much more enjoyable.

In the 2D games, you are limited to just a flat 360 degrees circle to fire your weapons, whereas, in the 3D games, you can aim down sights and line up shots in a fully 3D world.

The amount of weapons has greatly expanded, too, going from just four types in GTA 1 to dozens in the 3D games, from pistols, shotguns, SMGs, assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, and many more.

One of the most fun parts of combat in the 3D games is the ability to go on rampages and cause havoc in the city to increase your wanted level. As you commit more crimes, the level of police presence increases, from a simple search party to the army coming to take you down.

And trying to see how long you can survive is a lot of fun and one of the more fun things to do while not on a mission.


GTA V Michael Car

 If you’re playing GTA, there’s a good chance you are driving a vehicle or will be very soon. The driving experience has dramatically improved with the jump to 3D, with Rockstar Games creating one of the best driving experiences in video games.

Over time there has been plenty of quality of life improvements, such as adding many more vehicle types, including bikes, planes, helicopters, boats, and many more varieties to drive around the city and cause chaos.

Newer games, including San Andreas, GTA IV, and GTA V, have introduced modding of vehicles, with GTA V being the most expansive. By modding vehicles, you can improve all aspects of the vehicle, including its speed, handling, and overall performance.

This allows you to make your vehicles unique and make them more worthwhile driving, especially when in a mission. Each character in GTA V has their main vehicle that will constantly respawn and never disappear.


GTA V Plane

Flying has been a staple in the GTA series ever since it jumped to 3D with the Dodo in GTA 3. Since then, flying vehicles have only gotten more advanced and plentiful, with GTA V featuring a range of both planes and helicopters, from passenger jets to military aircraft.

Flying can be very tricky, especially if using a keyboard and mouse. I would recommend switching to a controller while doing so if that isn’t already your preferred input device.

But, it is incredibly satisfying to control a flying vehicle in GTA and fly high above the city or weave between the buildings and bridges if it is a small enough craft. Flying is typically used in a few missions in each GTA game that it is featured in.

The Internet

GTA V Internet

With technology evolving over the years, the GTA series had to get with the times too, and games such as GTA IV and V feature the internet to add a fun new element to the game.

The internet can be used for various reasons, including communicating with friends and acquaintances to progress in missions, meeting people to go on dates, and purchasing new vehicles, properties, and many other ways to spend money earned through your criminal enterprise.

GTA V and Online is when the internet took shape, with it even featuring its own social media network and the stock market with tradable shares.

With the game being as large as it is, there is plenty of stuff to do on the internet, with many sites to purchase all kinds of vehicles and many properties. In GTA Online, you can also control your criminal empire through its version of the dark web to buy and sell stock for your businesses.


GTA V Stunt Jumps

Collectibles are a large part of GTA and keep players exploring every inch of the city when they’re not experiencing the story. These often range from having to find a set number of items that can be found across the map to stunt jumps performed in cars or bikes, as well as tagging your gang logo in San Andreas.

GTA V has the most amount of collectibles in the game, with 10 different types of collectibles to find, totaling 383 different collectibles items. Then there are stunt jumps and having to fly an aircraft under bridges and between buildings.

In addition to that, many side quests see you meet various characters and complete tasks. GTA V is designed to be a game that you will spend dozens, even hundreds, of hours playing to fully explore everything the game offers.

Fun Stuff To Do

GTA V Golf

When you’re not on a mission or collecting the hundreds of collectibles and side quests on offer, there are still plenty of fun things to do across all the different 3D games. But for this, I will focus on GTA V since it offers the most. GTA V features mini-games such as racing in cars, boats, jet skis, and other vehicles.

As well as more traditional mini-games such as playing golf, tennis, or taking part in yoga. You can also meet up with your other criminal friends and head to the bar, play darts, see a movie, and do other activities.

Rockstar Games has successfully managed to make GTA games almost as fun and varied as the real world. It is easy to spend many hours having fun in the game outside the core story; the city does feel alive.

GTA Online

GTA Online

I couldn’t end this deep dive into the Grand Theft Auto series without mentioning GTA Online. It is without question that GTA Online has played a significant role in propelling GTA V to the heights that it has reached as the online mode is included free with the game.

In GTA Online you can take to the streets of Los Santos alongside dozens of other players on the same map as you build your criminal empire while trying to take down your enemies.

The GTA V map hasn’t changed since the game launched in 2013. But in GTA Online there are new areas and buildings; some buildings that were under construction in the single-player game have been finished. The game’s soundtrack has also been expanded with new stations and tracks. There is even a brand new island to explore as part of the Cayo Perico Heists, with an appearance by Dr. Dre.

GTA Online has become a live service game that continues to evolve. It will continue once GTA 6 is released, although it is unclear whether the game will migrate to the new map or whether both versions will co-exist.

But, with GTA Online still netting Rockstar Games $1 billion per year it will remain a key part of its strategy going forward.


Question: Which GTA Games Use the 2D style?

Answer: In total, there have been four GTA games and two expansion packs that utilize the classic 2D style of gameplay. These games are:
• GTA 1
• GTA 2
• GTA 1961 expansion
• GTA 1969 expansion
• GTA Advance
• GTA: Chinatown Wars

Question: Which GTA Games Use the 3D Style?

Answer: All the GTA games except the ones mentioned in the previous question use the 3D style of gameplay. These games are:

• GTA 3
• GTA Vice City
• GTA San Andreas
• GTA IV: The Lost and Damned
• GTA IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony
• GTA Advance
• GTA Liberty City Stories
• GTA Vice City Stories
• GTA China Town Wars

Question: Which is the Best Style of GTA Gameplay?

Answer: Regarding which style of game is better, it all comes down to personal preference. However, I think I will be in the majority when I say the 3D games are much better due to a modern gameplay style and overall improvements that the series has seen since GTA 3.


For 25 years, the Grand Theft Auto series has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of the best-selling video game franchises of all time. The gap will only continue to shrink once GTA 6 is released in the future.

The series has gone from humble beginnings as a 2D top-down game to over 100 GB in size and features some of the most in-depth stories and expansive maps seen in video games. With video games constantly evolving, there is no telling where the GTA series could be heading in the future.

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