Well, it's a lovely format you've come up with here, but for what I want to say, it just won't work, so I'm just going to take my own route.
It all started for me at about age 11, when I first rented Vice City. And boy, what an experience it was. The first time I took a tank on a rampage was when I fell in love, though admittedly what really made me fall head over heels was driving a type 2 bloodring banger through the city with Perfect Handling and Cars Float enabled while listening to V-Rock, the greatest radio station to ever exist in video games, and I say that with a ton of subjectivity, having a love for wailing guitars.
Even playing it today, it blows my mind with how well it comes together. The wacky mayhem, the 80's colors and setting, it all works perfectly well together, and it doesn't take itself too seriously. What makes it great is that fusion of mechanics and themes. It's offensive, it's crazy, it's funny, it's almost perfect as a GTA game for me, though I might be biased because it was also my first.
I didn't play much of III, in fact I only ever rented it. It sits as an emulated ps2 to ps4 game on my ps4 right now, but I will say I do like how you can go on a tank rampage in the game, and as long as you don't use the cannon and only run over cars, the cops won't give a crap. I've honestly always found the cops annoying in GTA games, mostly because in Vice City they can end your tank rampage early if they get to the door, so it's nice to have a proto never wanted strategy.
San Andreas. Now, here's a game that clearly had too many ideas. When starting up the game, I usually enable no hunger because San Andreas tried to be more of a role playing game, and unfortunately the designers thought that interrupting your fun rampage spree to get a f*cking burger was good game design. But I still adore san andreas, and it's primarily due to the fact that it has so many cheats that I don't even need a cheating device (like action replay for GTA III and GTA Vice City for the PS2) to play it, I can just enable most of those codes in the game. There is nothing like flying a stock car around with nitrous like you're a gangster harry potter. There are SO many different cheats in the game that it's almost like it tried to include it's own simple native trainer. I can ignore a lot of it's flaws because of this, and that's why I still go back to it sometimes.
GTA IV. Ah, GTA IV. Now, the story is fine. Honestly, it is. It may not be as deep as it thinks it is, but I honestly found it engaging. The only problem is that the free roam took a significant step backwards. There are no more planes, because "The map is too small". There are no parachutes unless you buy the DLC, which I will get to further down this wall of text. There is no tank, although again, there is a tank facsimile if you get the DLC. There are far less weapons, and the Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher has terrible physics. Seriously, why does it spiral so much? I've never seen real RPG rockets act like that, granted youtube had far less video content available in 2008, so maybe there wasn't any way to show rockstar that. And that's the thing, mayhem no longer benefits anything. This is not great, because most players are into sandbox gaming because they like to blow sh*t up. To quote yahtzee "Saints Row 2 shows a much better understanding of it's audience, it is fully aware that most players are dickheads and if you give them any kind of freedom, their first instinct will be to abuse it. If you give them guns, they will shoot old ladies, if you give them cars, they will run over old ladies, and if you give them aircraft, they will ascend to the highest possible point and hurl themselves out onto an old lady. And if you give them customizable outfits, they will take off all their clothes and run around the streets, hip thrusting in the faces of old ladies. And if you try to stop them from doing all this, they will hate you for it.". And really, that's the big issue. Rockstar cared more about you getting invested in the characters, so much so that the game tries prodding you into taking them on dinner dates. And the thing is, that all of these people have perks, and you can't call up a regular taxi service in the game, so if you want a taxi that is not only free, but that you can call in any way, shape, or form, you have to take roman bowling every single hour, or else he'll hate you. And this goes for every friend in the game. Some give you weapons, others give you health, others lower your wanted level without you needing to cheat. And speaking of cheats, there's no infinite health, there are a few token vehicle spawning cheats and one weather cheat where you have to cycle through every kind of weather to get the one you want, and of course the token wanted level and weapons cheats. This was a game that seemed more like it wanted to limit the fun you could have rather than expand on it, and that was GTA IV's most problematic element.
GTA IV: Episodes From Liberty City was a pretty big expansion, and both of the games had decent stories. There's The Lost And Damned, which was the gritty guns and bikers and death metal addon. I did play all the way through it, I guess because I wanted to be able to talk about in depth, but honestly most of it is just "Biker kills people, biker gets revenge on other people by killing them, grrr grrr loyalty", which is really lovely for people who like that sort of thing, I guess.
My favorite expansion, so favorited that it gets it's own paragraph, is The Ballad Of Gay Tony. Finally, liberty city gets some damn color. That was my other issue with IV, it had a color problem. Even when sunny, the entire city is a mix of gray and brown, aside from when you're in middle park or The Triangle, mostly because the triangle has a bunch of colorful advertising around it. Anyways, the ballad of gay tony adds a bunch of new fun weapons, including golden weapons and sticky bombs, it adds an APC and gives you a cheat to summon it, f*ck yeah, it adds a new attack chopper, and you even have 2 clubs that you can go to, and one is only open at night, adding to the nightlife atmosphere. I really liked the clubs, and I even enjoyed the QTE dancing minigames. The story went a bit wackier, with more insane stunts and big explosions, and I really liked that, because I'm not exactly in this to mimic the real life action of logging on to a computer and browsing a virtual internet that doesn't even having working video or browser games. I'm in it to do crazy stuff that I could never pull off in real life. The Ballad Of Gay Tony was a very enjoyable expansion, and it's the one I played right up until GTA V came out.
GTA V. Ah, GTA V. When I first played it, it blew my mind. Especially on the 360, and I got the PS4 version in november of the next year. The graphics were incredible, there were random cop chases of people other than you, there were multiple protagonists, each brimming with possibilities, and planes and tanks had finally fully returned. But, I've been playing this for years now, as I did with Episodes From Liberty City before it came out, and honestly, the flaws stick out more and more every time I play. The satire, even when compared to GTA IV, is junk. It's all mean spirited, none of it is funny just to be funny (even GTA IV had just or unjust and an in game comedy club), all of it is trying to make some wider point about culture and stuff, but it's only point seems to be "Everything sucks". It's a good thing the free roam has so many fun toys to mess with, because otherwise I wouldn't have even liked this game more than IV, but free roam has all these different aircraft, a bunch of different cars that you can customize (although only do this if you plan to use them in director mode, because otherwise you can permanently lose them), and a bunch of different fun weapons that you can upgrade and get skins for, if you care about skins. And honestly, free roam is the best part of GTA V, running around with cheats and blowing stuff up is still stupid fun, and now you can steal a full sized jumbo jet and crash it into the free way during rush hour. AND THEN, there's also a director mode which lets you not only enable a bunch of cheats without time limits and with only a few limitations (no super jump in tunnels), but it also lets you summon any vehicle from your garage at any time. You don't even have to exit your previous vehicle to do this. You can summon a helicopter, ascend, and then immediately transform into any plane in your garage and the game will even give you a bit of speed so you can start flying right away. And you can't lose any vehicle permanently while in director mode. If the free roam wasn't so fun and the world wasn't so detailed, I wouldn't see myself coming back.
I mean, let's face it, the satire is mean and unlikable, the protagonists are whiny and unlikable. Michael is only ever happy after a heist. Trevor seems to be in some kind of permanent angry rage, and yet they still tried to give him mommy issues like he's actually a deep person (Uh, no). Franklin can't even crack a smile when he's getting high in the mansion that lester gives him after one of the heists. I mean, seriously, do I need to give franklin the playboy mansion or his own castle before he'll be satisfied with his life? You could say he was happier in the hood, but he wasn't. Guy isn't happy anywhere. Forget weed, franklin needs a good dose of ketamine or magic mushrooms, I heard those cure chronic depression right quick. And it's not like he doesn't have the connections to get them. Every joke in the entire game relies on stereotypes. The homophobe who is in the closet stereotype, the anime stereotypes, the rich snooty kid and the rich entitled CEO stereotypes, the redneck stereotypes, the liberal stereotypes, and the female stereotypes. There was not one woman in GTA V who wasn't a stripper, a vain celebrity, a nagging wife, a valley girl who dreams of being a vain celebrity, or a drunk party girl who enjoys sex. And the way every single stereotype is portrayed is in the meanest, most cynical way. And of course, people are taking this as a sign that the next game needs to have less jokes, not that the next game needs better jokes. I mean, what would making GTA a serious series really accomplish besides making it look like a lame rip off of the Mafia series? But, back on topic, the game even hates you guys. A lot of people think trevor is supposed to represent the base, which, even if he is, that's not particularly kind, but I think that jimmy is really the one who is supposed to represent us. A fat loud mouth who smokes weed and tries to be a gangster. Now, I know he's playing a COD parody, so many of you would assume it's a parody of COD players, but take a close look at him. I mean, how many of you guys have pretended to be gangsters, even if you were pretending to be italian mafia instead of a hood gang? And even then, I think jimmy would fit perfectly in with GTA V's gangsters. He and lamar are almost brothers, except that lamar uses the N word a lot more. It shows how much GTA V relies on stereotypes when the wannabe gangster gamer is almost just like a real gangster in the game world.
So in the end, I still find myself going back to Vice City quite a lot, as Vice City to me seemed like the game where the tone and themes matched the gameplay and mechanics. Vice City knows it's wacky, knows it's colorful, knows it's bloody and offensive, knows it's a parody. And it revels in it. Again, V-Rock is a legitimately amazing radio station that couldn't have been made if the people making it didn't love the 80's. The satire, the story, the gameplay, they all mix together well, and it results in a world that feels complete, and feels like it's really there. I think that honestly, the best sequel to both San Andreas and Vice City wasn't GTA IV, it was Saints Row 2, which features a similar love of wacky parody and hilarious open world madcap fun. And saints row IV is still a game I find myself playing today because it too cares about having a great time, about having fun. So much so that it not only hands you superpowers, but an activity in the game hands you a giant robot and tells you to go butternutty. Saints Row 2 and 4 feel like a continuation of what GTA 1, 2, 3, and vice city set out to do. Be fun video games, as opposed to philosophical think pieces about how the american dream is dead and reality TV sucks.
I hope GTA VI, whatever it does, realizes that the GTA series has never been particularly deep or philosophical, and that's fine. I hope 6 goes back to the roots, and gets back to being a fun parody rather than an analysis of how vain celebrities are vain and politicians are wacky. Because GTA is at it's best when it's not taking itself seriously and you're driving a sports car off a ramp into a big fire.