Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto franchise debuted in 1997 on the original PlayStation. That first game was undoubtedly fun, but met with lukewarm reviews about bland gameplay and lack of flavor.
Sixteen years later, Rockstar had gone from a small indie video game company to a verified behemoth, with the Grand Theft Auto series risen to become one of the greatest video game sagas of all time—and the fifth iteration waiting to hit the world.
As of this writing, Grand Theft Auto V is the second best-selling video game ever. Over time, the story and main characters grew more interesting and complex, garnering critical acclaim all around.
Let’s take a look at all of the best Grand Theft Auto (GTA) characters throughout the franchise. Which one stands as king of the urban streets—and our hearts?
7. Lazlow Jones (Various GTA)
Lazlow has been present in every Grand Theft Auto game since the era-defining GTA III. The moronic radio host has moved about all over the GTA universe with his self-obsessed wit and bad humor.
He’s iconic because Lazlow is a character that the audience has come to expect in every edition of the game series. Without his hilarious radio show and trademark narcissism, the Grand Theft Auto series wouldn’t feel complete.
Lazlow Jones is a real-life man who does indeed have a real-life radio show—but the real Lazlow is nothing like the fictional version of himself. He’s also is a contributor to Rockstar Games in general, helping to write the games themselves.
6. Lance Vance (GTA: Vice City)
The ultimate Grand Theft Auto best buddy—right up until the moment he betrays you. Lance Vance was suave, with the cool white Infernus, and for so much of Vice City, you thought he was your closest ally.
The two men take the biggest mansion on Starfish Island and cement their position as the biggest gangsters in town, but Lance grows irritated by Tommy’s empire-building and constantly complains.
In the end, he betrays Tommy—and the player follows Lance up to the roof, where a well-placed minigun finishes everything quickly. Voiced by Philip Michael Thomas, Lance Vance was one of the most entertaining GTA characters in any of the games.
5. Carl “CJ” Johnson (GTA: San Andreas)
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas still feels like the most ambitious title in the series in many ways. There were lots of properties that you could buy in the game, the villain was voiced by Hollywood royalty, and the story felt like a John Singleton-directed feature.
At the center of San Andreas stood CJ, a former member of The Grove Street Families and a retired gangster. When his mother dies, CJ returns to San Andreas for her funeral, staying to find out why her death was suspicious.
CJ was an interesting character, as Rockstar ditched the cold-killer feel from prior games and instead brought CJ across as a person that didn’t like to kill if it wasn’t necessary. His story remains one of GTA’s best, and CJ’s legacy has endured.
4. Officer Tenpenny (GTA: San Andreas)
Voiced by the legendary Samuel L. Jackson, Officer Frank Tenpenny was Grand Theft Auto’s greatest villain. He was manipulative, intelligent, backstabbing, and extraordinarily violent.
After pulling CJ all over the map during the events of San Andreas, Tenpenny meets his end as he’s fleeing the city with a suitcase full of money. His fire engine crashes off the overpass into Grove Street, and he crawls from the wreckage to spit vitriol one last time before dying.
Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as Frank Tenpenny is one of the highlights of San Andreas and the GTA series as a whole.
3. Niko Bellic (GTA IV)
The protagonist of Grand Theft Auto IV was as complex and lethal as any that have led a GTA game. Niko was an Eastern European immigrant who arrived in Liberty City to start fresh; however, he soon found himself mixed in a world of gangsters and lowlifes.
Niko was a level-headed character, but because of his past as a former soldier, he could kill anybody he needed to with relative ease. But Niko wasn’t an awful person, which can’t be said for many characters on this list.
While he did morally questionable things, he was only looking out for himself and Roman, as well as trying to find the person who betrayed him and his unit during the war. Niko’s story was ultimately a tragic one with no happy ending.
2. Trevor Philips (GTA V)
Grand Theft Auto V brought many incredible new additions to the table, none more so than Trevor Philips—the psychotic hillbilly who would kill anybody just for looking at him the wrong way.
Trevor was just too much fun to hang around with, which is credit to Steven Ogg’s performance. As a player, Trevor could go into rage mode, which would improve his killing ability and usually end up sending countless NPCs to their doom.
One of Trevor’s key characteristics was his wicked intelligence. He was a person who could genuinely outwit any other character in the game, even if his outward appearance and behavior often held him back.
When the player switches to take control of Trevor, he’s often found in the middle of a cop chase, or waking up in a desolate part of the map, or drunk and asleep. That was all part of Trevor’s appeal.
1. Tommy Vercetti (GTA: Vice City)
Voiced by Goodfellas’ own Ray Liotta, Tommy Vercetti’s story is still the best one depicted in the whole GTA universe.
The whole game is loosely based on Scarface, and Tommy’s rise through Vice City’s underworld to become the biggest gangster makes the player feel like they’re living out the game to this day.
Tommy was intelligent, but he also had a wild temper when he became agitated. Liotta’s performance was perfectly suited to Tommy’s character, and fans have been clamoring to see more of Tommy ever since the game was released in 2002.
Few experiences in gaming match the fun of controlling Tommy and touring around Vice City, waiting for an NPC to upset you in some arbitrary way—which is why even 20 years later, Tommy Vercetti is still the best GTA character of all time.