The Top 10 Grand Theft Auto Characters of All Time

by Matt Helgeson on Nov 21, 2012 at 10:09 AM

This month, we’ve been celebrating the coming arrival of Grand Theft Auto V, but we also want to take some time to look back at the characters that helped make the series the blockbuster franchise it is today. Read on to find out who we picked as the ten greatest characters in Grand Theft Auto history. From the ridiculous to the ridiculously badass, this list is a great reminder of how Rockstar has created some of the most memorable characters in gaming.

10. Frank Tenpenny

Frank Tenpenny is as low as they come. The corrupt cop was Rockstar’s commentary on the scandal-ridden LAPD of the Daryl Gates and Rodney King era. Though cloaked in the colors of the law, Tenpenny’s just as much a criminal as any of the Grove Street Family in San Andreas, and proves to be a formidable enemy for CJ throughout the game. Upon his arrival back in San Andreas, CJ has a run-in with Tenpenny, who instantly gains the upper hand by threatening to frame the ex-gangbanger with the murder of a cop unless he does his bidding. He’s not the enemy you love to hate – you just hate Tenpenny. However, we can’t deny that he has a certain amoral flair, which is enhanced by a menacing voice-acting performance by legendary actor Samuel L. Jackson. He remains the ultimate GTA bad guy.

9. Ken Rosenberg

Ken Rosenberg is a lying, gutless, two-faced, backstabbing cokehead who doesn’t have an ounce of morality. So, he’s basically exactly who you’d want for a lawyer if you were a drug runner in Vice City. Ken, heavily based on Sean Penn’s character in the classic film Carlito’s Way, is one of Vice City’s most beloved characters. He never shuts up, and we love him for it – especially when he’s threatening the cops with lawsuits if they don’t let Tommy Vercetti out of jail immediately. Despite his shady ways, Ken is one of the few people Tommy can rely on in Vice City, and he helps Tommy win out in the end when faced with long odds and a serious betrayal by a supposed friend. An older and more desperate Rosenberg appears as part of CJ’s saga in San Andreas, but we’ll always prefer to remember him as the brash a-hole with a balding white-guy afro and terrible suit in Vice City.

8. Yusuf Amir

Yusuf Amir, the clownish playboy son of a real estate magnate from Dubai, provides some of The Ballad of Gay Tony’s biggest laughs. Yusuf fancies himself a nightclub kingpin and gangster of sorts, but his clownish behavior makes him more a figure of derision than respect – especially by his father, who clings proudly to Arab tradition. Yusuf has made a small empire for himself with daddy’s money and loves the good life of cocaine and women of questionable morals. He’s also addicted to dancing (badly) to Busta Rhymes’ song “Arab Money” (sometimes in his underwear) and cluelessly using the “n-word” – something that does not endear him to Luis Lopez, who he manages to drag into some of his schemes. Despite his faults, he definitely falls into the honored tradition of other GTA affable losers like Brucie and Phil Cassidy, who we can’t help but love against our better judgment.

7. Lance Vance

A little bit Ricardo Tubbs from Miami Vice, a little bit Lando Calrissian from The Empire Strikes Back, Lance Vance is one of the cooler cats in the GTA universe. Dressed from head to toe in the finest pastel suits a career criminal could afford in the 1980s, Lance is Tommy Vercetti’s suave companion for a large part of Vice City. However, underneath his cool exterior lies a man with his own anger and motives for revenge; Lance often acts irrationally and puts himself in danger. As we later discover, he’s not above crossing a close friend if it suits his means (the Lando comparison is apt in more ways than one). Still, he’s a memorable character and his troubled friendship with Tommy is one of the first really nuanced relationships in the series.

6. Lazlow Jones

Okay, we’re cheating a bit here. Lazlow Jones isn’t a made-up character in the GTA universe, he’s a real life radio personality who’s worked with Rockstar on the series’ iconic in-game radio stations since GTA III. However, his acerbic humor has been an integral part of the GTA universe, from his work on GTA III’s Chatterbox FM and Vice City’s popular hair metal station V-Rock to his more offbeat work as a freeform man on the street interviewer on GTA IV’s Integrity 2.0.

Lazlow’s in-game persona has always added another level of parody, as Lazlow pokes fun at both wider U.S. culture and the GTA series itself. Though he’s only a voice on the radio dial, his character has made an indelible impact on GTA fans, and definitely deserves a spot on this list. Rockstar itself acknowledged his importance to the series by making him one of the few elements from the PS2 trilogy of games that made it into new Grand Theft Auto IV universe. He also helps the Rockstar team with writing the dialogue for the radio stations, making both his real-life and fictional incarnations crucial to the game’s success.

5. Brucie Kibbutz

Shirtless and steroid-addled Brucie Kibbutz is the epitome of the modern idiot, an Ed Hardy shirt come to life. Is it wrong that we love the lunkhead? Grand Theft Auto IV took a more serious turn for the series, but even as it told the tale of taciturn Niko Bellic it kept its trademark humor with characters like Brucie. He loves partying, fast cars, slapboxing, and talking…and talking…and talking. He never shuts up, spouting off ridiculous boasts, nonsense schemes, and bad jokes. Much of the fun of watching Brucie in action is seeing the all-business Niko struggle with his instinct to snap Brucie’s neck. Sadly, Brucie missed his true calling. GTA IV was released in 2008, just a year before MTV’s Jersey Shore debuted. Something tells us Brucie would have fit in well with Snookie and the Situation.

4. Tommy Vercetti

Tommy Vercetti is a transitional character for the GTA series. Following GTA’s silent protagonist Claude, he was the first GTA protagonist to feature full voiceovers (in this case performed by Goodfellas legend Ray Liotta). Tommy served as our eyes and ears as we traveled through the glitzy, seedy streets of Vice City. He was clearly modeled on Al Pacino’s iconic Tony Montana character from Scarface, and he wasn’t shy about pulling out a gun when angered.

However, for all the carnage he caused as he struggled with Sonny Forelli for control of the Vice City drug market, he wasn’t a one-note a character. Vercetti has a softer side as well. When Lance Vance betrayed him, it stung, and his affection for Earnest Kelly, an old counterfeiter who reminded him of his late father, was touching. Later GTA anti-heroes might have had more depth, but Tommy was a perfect man for GTA’s take on the 1980s.

3. Johnny Klebitz

Even by the high standards of the series, Johnny Klebitz gets our vote as the biggest badass in GTA history. As a member of The Lost biker gang, Klebitz has lived a hard drinking existence governed by the biker code of loyalty above all else. With his thick, tatted up physique and imposing chopper bike, Klebitz personifies danger. Though he makes appearances in GTA IV and the Ballad of Gay Tony, it was his star turn in The Lost and Damned that made him an icon for fans.

In Lost and Damned, Klebitz relies on both violence and cunning as he balances a host of dangers, from both outside forces seeking to destroy his gang and an internal power struggle between his former friend and gang leader Billy Grey. Adept with both his fists and a gun, Klebitz can deal out punishment with the best of the GTA antiheroes. However, like Niko Bellic, with whom he shares a mutual respect and occasional alliance, he’s also more than just a brute criminal. His love for his meth-addicted ex-girlfriend Ashley Butler shows off his softer side, even as she becomes unable to remain true to her promise to get clean. He’s just another example of how Rockstar’s writing has grown in depth over the years, and his saga left an indelible mark on those that played out The Lost and Damned to its ambivalent, sad conclusion.

2. Carl “CJ” Johnson

CJ was the last protagonist of GTA’s PlayStation 2 era, but in many ways he laid the foundation for many of Rockstar’s future stars, including GTA IV’s Niko Bellic and Red Dead Redemption’s John Marsten. Like both those men, CJ is a more fully realized and thoughtful hero – one beset by doubts and the ghosts of his troubled past.

Johnson grew up as part of Los Santos’s notorious Grove Street Families, who controlled the city’s gang-infested streets. However, after the family came under the pressure of the C.R.A.S.H. task force and CJ’s brother Brian tragically died (which estranged CJ from his remaining siblings), he left for a new life in Liberty City.

At the outset of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, CJ is drawn back into the world of Los Santos following the death of his mother. There, he discovers that he’s trapped. On one side he has his old homies and family members who want him to help restore the Grove Street Families to power. On the other side, corrupt police officer Frank Tenpenny forces CJ to work for him to avoid being framed for the killing of a police officer. As he journeys through the dark heart of San Andreas, the web of relationships expands to include shady music world dealings and a troubled relationship with Caesar Vialpando's cousin Catalina. Through it all, we maintain the sense that CJ, for all his misdeeds, is trying to do the right thing as he sees it.

1. Niko Bellic

Rockstar reinvented its series on current-generation consoles with the epic and masterful GTA IV. Continuing with the more serious tone set by San Andreas, writer Dan Houser created an unexpected protagonist in Niko Bellic, a circumspect Serbian who takes refuge in Liberty City after a career as a child soldier in the Bosnian wars of the ‘90s. The game was Rockstar’s love letter to New York City, seen through the eyes of an immigrant.

Of all the GTA protagonists, Niko was the hardest to know in some ways. He’s naturally skeptical and keeps his emotions under close guard. However, this proved to be a great decision on Rockstar’s part, allowing us to gradually peel away the onion of Niko’s past and the motives for revenge on the men that betrayed him years ago. He also served as an excellent foil to the more outlandish characters of Liberty City; his scenes with Brucie showed that he also possessed a dry wit.

Niko is no white knight; he can be a ruthless killer when it suits his needs. However, he has a few people he genuinely cares about, most notably his cousin Roman Bellic and his love interest Kate McReary. Sadly, as the game unfurls, Niko is forced to make choices with outcomes that will shatter some of these relationships in tragic fashion. Niko is the core of what makes GTA IV the most emotionally involving game in the series.