The Wanted Level in GTA III Era is a measure of how much the player is wanted by the law enforcement of their respective area, and therefore how much force will be used in pursuit of the player. As the player's wanted level increases, more powerful forms of law enforcement will pursue him. In GTA III Era games, wanted level is measured on a six-star scale, ranking police lethality from the non-lethal one star to the extremely aggressive, and sometimes lethal, six stars.
Committing several minor crimes in quick succession - such as beating pedestrians up, destroying cars, etc - will earn him one star. Continuing to commit crimes or resisting arrest will often lead to a second star, and will increase. Committing serious crimes (for example, throwing a grenade into a large crowd of bystanders) often earns the player multiple wanted stars outright.
If the player has one or more wanted stars, nearby police will give chase and attempt to arrest the player. If the police have successfully arrested the player, the message "Busted!" will appear on the player's screen. An arrest is executed by either knocking or throwing (in the case of vehicular arrests) the player onto the ground and holding him at gunpoint, or by opening the player's car door and holding him at gunpoint. In both cases, the player has no choice but to give up. If arrested, the player is transported to the nearest police station and is released some time later. After the player is released, he will lose $100 and all of his weapons and armor will be confiscated (except in GTA San Andreas after dating Barbara Schternvart in which case your weapons will not be confiscated. In GTA Vice City Stories, you can buy back the weapons for $2000. In the iOS and Android versions of GTA III, getting busted does not remove your weapons, only $1000 and any armor)
The player's wanted level can be decreased various ways. A one-star wanted level will disappear on its own if the player "lies low" for a while (stays out of sight and doesn't commit a crime). Higher wanted levels can be lost through picking up Police Bribes (each one reduces the player's wanted level by one star), running a vehicle through a Pay 'n' Spray or going to airport and buying a plane ticket to another city in San Andreas. You can also see Lowering Your Stars for more ways.
It is notoriously difficult to survive higher wanted levels without the use of cheats, trainers, or modifications. In all GTA III Era games, there are cheats to raise and lower wanted levels. In GTA San Andreas, GTA Liberty City Stories, and GTA Vice City Stories, there is a cheat to prevent the player from even obtaining a wanted level at all. However, the player can still get attacked by the police at the police impound stations.
A wanted level is cumulative — repeatedly committing "one-star" crimes within sight of police may lead to a two-star rating, and so on. It is possible to reach a six-star wanted level by simply shooting and killing a lot of pedestrians, but some crimes are more serious than others, and some can earn more stars outright.
As the player's Wanted Level increases, law enforcement spends less energy trying to arrest the player and more trying to kill the player at all costs. As such, it is almost impossible to get arrested at a Wanted Level of three stars or higher, although police will still attempt vehicular arrests if the opportunity arises.
At a one star wanted level, any police officer that spots the player will give chase and attempt to arrest him. The police will attempt to knock the player down with their fists (in GTA III) and nightsticks (in other GTA III Era games). They also do not shoot unless they are threatened by the player (in GTA San Andreas, if you are holding a gun or a thrown weapon, officers will shoot at you, and also if you run over an officer but not getting killed). An exception to this rule is if you are inaccessible to the police officer; for example if you are standing on top of a vehicle (also applies to high buildings in GTA Vice City), he will pull out his gun and start shooting. Police cars will follow the player, but they can be easily outrun. If the player stays out of sight and does not commit anymore crimes, a one-star wanted level expires on its own. If the player is on foot, police will exit their vehicle and chase you on foot. Only one police officer will give chase on foot at a time even if there are multiple officers in the vicinity.
A one-star wanted level is attained by committing the following minor crimes. Many of these will not immediately result in a wanted level unless a police officer (even the corpse of a police officer) is around to witness them or multiple offences are committed in quick succession:
- Attacking and/or killing pedestrians
- Damaging and/or destroying a vehicle
- Injuring a police officer
- Attacking or shooting a police vehicle (always results in a wanted level even when out of sight and whether or not the player used that police vehicle, doesn't trigger with the Police Maverick or FBI/Army vehicles)
- Crashing into a police vehicle (crashing into an empty/parked police car will not result in a wanted level)
- Firing a weapon in public
- Revving a Chainsaw in public (except in GTA San Andreas and Vice City Stories)
- Throwing a Molotov Cocktail, Tear Gas, Satchel Charge, or Grenade in public (except in GTA III. In GTA San Andreas, the player can receive a one-star wanted level for throwing the aforementioned weapons even if out of sight of police)
- Carjacking or stealing parked vehicles within a certain proximity from a police officer (no wanted level is given if the vehicle is locked, including police cars)
- Attempting to steal a police vehicle (except GTA San Andreas)
- Driving a vehicle with the alarm going off
- Attained when the player sells ice cream cones that ends up as a multiple of 4 during the mission Distribution (GTA Vice City)
- Robbing stores for the minimum amount of cash (GTA Vice City)
- Being caught drunk driving in the Boomshine Saigon mission (GTA Vice City)
- Killing several people in a short time (usually more than 3 except if with a weapon)
- Aiming a gun at a police officer in GTA San Andreas (in all other games, two stars are attained instead)
- Being caught in a car bomb explosion
- Stealing the Washington near Mike Toreno's Ranch in Tierra Robada (GTA San Andreas only)
At a two-star wanted level, the police start actively searching for the player. Officers now shoot to kill, including when you're unarmed, and each patrol car is occupied by two officers. Officers in cars now give chase rather than simply follow behind and often try to overtake or spin the player out. On water, armed police boats give chase.
Two wanted stars are attained by:
- Aiming a gun at a police officer (in GTA San Andreas you will get one star)
- Injuring 2 or more police officers
- Destroying many cars at once
- Killing many people in a short period of time (usually 5 or 6)
- Displaying a firearm inside a police station in San Andreas (a melee weapon will not warrant a wanted level)
- Destroying any aircraft in San Andreas (this includes the Vortex, which is classified as an aircraft vehicle, despite being a hovercraft)
- Trespassing in the Washington Beach Police Station (GTA Vice City) (unless wearing the cop uniform)
- Running over a police officer with any vehicle (in GTA San Andreas, one star is triggered instead, considering the player had no wanted level prior to running the police officer over) - Sometimes, running over a police officer may trigger a one-star wanted level, after which any further crimes (except for weapons discharge) will trigger two stars.
- Attacking a police officer using a gun, knife, machete, katana, chainsaw, flamethrower, or explosives (includes destroying a vehicle with a police officer within the blast radius)
At a three-star wanted level, pursuing police vehicles become more aggressive, driving at maximum speed, and the police will also begin to set up armed roadblocks on main roads. A police helicopter is also called in to assist and its crew follows the player, putting a spotlight on the protagonist (at night), and shoots at the player via an invisible machine gun on the fuselage if they get a clear shot and yell various humourous remarks over a loudspeaker. Additionally, in GTA Vice City, the police helicopter may occasionally deploy a SWAT unit onto the ground to attack the player. From GTA Vice City onwards, police officers begin to deploy spike strips to puncture the player's tires, making driving difficult. In GTA San Andreas, from this wanted level on, officers who come out of either a Police Car or Ranger will also ocassionally wield shotguns. Additionally, in GTA Vice City and GTA Vice City Stories, undercover Vice Squad detectives armed with Uzis and driving Cheetahs also give chase.
Three wanted stars are attained by:
- Continuing to retaliate against law enforcement (evading capture or death by any means)
- Continuing to cause collateral damage (killing civilians and destroying vehicles)
- Entering police impound garages in GTA San Andreas
- Blowing up an AI controlled full-winged Dodo (the DeadDodo) in GTA III and GTA Vice City
- Trucking hot goods in San Andreas
- Breaking out Cam Jones in the mission No Escape? in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. (iOS and Android versions only)
At a four-star wanted level, the police will drive more aggressively and SWAT teams join the chase. SWAT members wear body armor and are armed with Uzi sub-machine guns (in GTA III, they also drop pistols when killed). Roadblocks now consist of the heavier and larger SWAT vans, making them more difficult to ram through. The pursuing police helicopter fires at the player more frequently and, from GTA Vice City onwards, rappels SWAT members down to the player's location. In GTA San Andreas, the police helicopter is often joined by a News Chopper, and military jets now pursue and attempt to shoot down the player if he is flying an aircraft.
Four wanted stars are attained by:
- Continuing to retaliate against law enforcement
- Continuing to cause collateral damage
- Entering a city or region not yet unlocked in the storyline in GTA San Andreas
- Blowing up the police helicopter which appears at a three star wanted level (not to be confused with the player-operable Police Maverick)
- Entering the restricted area of El Banco Corrupto Grande in GTA Vice City
- Breaking out Cam Jones in the mission No Escape? in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. (all versions except iOS and Android)
- Entering the Easter Basin Naval Station between completion of The Green Sabre (where San Fierro is unlocked for exploration) and completion of Are You Going to San Fierro? (where 5-star wanted levels are unlocked) in GTA San Andreas.
At a five-star wanted level, the FBI takes over the chase and completely replaces local police on the ground (local police will still chase the player if they see him) and the streets begin to clear of civilians (in GTA Liberty City Stories, however, there are still lots of pedestrians in the streets). Four-FBI teams of heavily armed and armored FBI agents drive armored cars and SUVs (FBI Car in GTA III and Advance, FBI Rancher in GTA Vice City and San Andreas, FBI Cruiser in GTA Liberty City Stories, and FBI Washington in GTA Vice City Stories) and make for formidable opponents. The FBI agents are armed with AK-47s and 9mm handguns in GTA III and MP5s in later games. Their driving is even more aggressive and they usually opt to ram the player's vehicle head on at high speed and then batter it to pieces before he/she can recover. In GTA III, the pursuing police helicopter is joined by a second, and both stick to the player doggedly and fire at the protagonist whenever they get the chance. The roadblocks now consist of FBI vehicles, which are easier to ram through, but the FBI agents' MP5s tear through most vehicles fairly quickly. The waters are saturated with Predators at this wanted-level. Trespassing inside a military base will release a five star wanted level and cops swarm in and attempt to kill the player. The FBI are particularly perilous to engage, as their SMGs are likely to make short work of the player's getaway vehicle. Due the increased risk of being shot to death, use of a motorcycle as a getaway vehicle is especially not recommended. All officers employ more advanced driving techniques, such as the PIT maneuver, as they try to make the player spin out of control and crash.
The five-star wanted level is considered by many players to be the most difficult wanted level in the entire GTA III era, as FBI agents always spawn in groups of four, drive very fast vehicles, and carry very strong weapons.
Five stars are attained by:
- Continuing to retaliate against law enforcement
- Continuing to cause collateral damage
- Entering or flying over a restricted area,such as over the Easter Basin Naval Station in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (only after completion of Are You Going to San Fierro?)
- Entering or flying over (at low-altitude) the Area 69 research base in GTA San Andreas. Doing this will results not only in the wanted level, but also attack from SAM Sites and enemy Hydras.
- Blowing up the Tarbrush Cafe in the mission Cop Land in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
At six stars, the National Guard will take over from the FBI and will give chase in Barracks OL trucks and Rhino tanks, making travel in ordinary vehicles extremely hazardous. Civilians have almost completely disappeared from the streets at this point (In GTA Liberty City Stories, however, there are still lots of pedestrians in the streets), and the soldiers drive with total disregard for anything but ramming the player into oblivion. Roadblocks now consist of Barracks OL trucks. At six stars, police helicopters rule the skies, the sea is thick with police boats and in addition to the army, police officers are everywhere — appearing from all directions in large numbers. If the player cannot get to a Pay 'n' Spray with a suitable vehicle, stealing a tank or taking to the skies in a helicopter and trying to pick up police bribes around the city are often the only practical options for reducing a six-star wanted level. The Army soldiers carry M16s, MP5s or M4s depending on the game. Unlike in the story mode where enemies often miss, the soldiers are pinpoint crackshots, and a gunfight is considered suicide as the army will take the player down very fast. Unlike the FBI, soldiers always come in pairs instead of groups of four, making them somewhat easier to fight than the FBI. Survival and escape is most difficult, and a very fast and/or durable vehicle is recommended. All law enforcement vehicles fire upon and ram the player relentlessly with very little regard for collateral damage. On foot, the player must move and/or retaliate quickly to avoid being cut down by gunfire; however, fleeing is the better option when pitted against several officers.
Six stars are attained by:
Reducing a wanted level
- Go to any nearest safehouse, asset or save point and save the game. Then, load it again. (GTA Vice City onwards)
- Collect police bribes around the city.
- At a one star wanted level, go to an alleyway or remote place that people don't usually hang out and wait; within a couple of minutes the star will go away on its own. (However, this becomes more difficult in the later stages of GTA San Andreas when there is a greater police presence in Los Santos; sometimes the only way to get rid of a one-star wanted level in this part of the game while in that city is to use a safehouse, drive a vehicle into a Pay 'n' Spray, or head for the country.)
- In GTA San Andreas, if the player stays out of sight of the police in an area where neither officers nor police helicopters can spot the player, they can evade any wanted level, even 6 stars.
- Enter a safehouse and change outfits. (GTA Vice City onwards) Note, however, that this does not always work in San Andreas on a 2-star wanted level or higher.
- Go to a clothing shop and change clothes. (GTA San Andreas)
- Respray a vehicle in any Pay 'n' Spray garage. (certain vehicles, however, like Military, police, SWAT, FBI and emergency vehicles cannot be resprayed). Also, committing crimes while the stars are flashing will reinstate the full wanted level (in GTA III, the player's wanted level is instantly cleared).
- In GTA San Andreas, mod a vehicle at TransFender, Loco Low Co., and Wheel Arch Angels; one modification (such as one respray) will suspend the wanted level. Any other modifications done while the stars are flashing will make them disappear.
- In GTA San Andreas, start the freight train challenge and the wanted level will instantly clear.
- In GTA San Andreas, if the player enters a region that has not yet been unlocked, receiving the 4-star level, and then re-enters the unlocked region, their wanted level drops to 3 stars and can be reduced further using bribes, saving, etc. However, the wanted level cannot be reduced while the player remains in the locked region: picking up a bribe will briefly drop the level to 3 stars, and taking a vehicle to a Pay n' Spray will reduce the level, but then the game re-registers the player's trespass and reinstates the 4-star level; safehouses are not available until a region is officially unlocked.
- In most cases, completing a mission will instantly cancel any wanted level attained. There are some missions, however, that are programmed either not to do this (e.g. Messing with the Man), or to give the player a wanted level (e.g. Jizzy).
- On a 2 to 4 star wanted level, a sports (also a muscle or a tuner) car is a better vehicle to be used as its speed easily outruns most police vehicles.
- On a 5 star wanted level, where FBI vehicles tend to knock the player off road, heavy vehicles like the Coach and Flatbed are recommended since their size makes them difficult to be pushed around.
- On a 6 star wanted level, a Rhino, if the player manages to attain one, is the best means of escape since any vehicles that runs into it will simply explode (except motorbikes in GTA San Andreas, but the player can be knocked off of one easily). Even Rhinos themselves are not all that durable against other Rhinos, as this vehicle can only be damaged by hitting another Rhino, or fire (making Molotov Cocktails an unlikely, but practical choice of weapon if one has good cover).
- A slow vehicle is NOT recommended for escape from any wanted level higher than 2 stars.
- If the player is skilled at driving a motorcycle, using a PCJ-600 or, in GTA San Andreas, the NRG-500, can often be the best choice as the fast bikes allow overland travel and jumping and speed that can facilitate escapes to save points or other safety areas.
- It is best to avoid using the Angel or the Freeway to escape a four star wanted level or higher, as they have wide turning radii and they don't brake well, meaning that the player will have to use their brakes frequently, allowing law enforcement officers to catch up to them.
- It is also best to avoid using the Pizza Boy, NoodleBoy, or Faggio to escape a four star or higher wanted level. Although these scooters have excellent handling and braking, they have a low top speed and horrible acceleration, meaning it is near impossible to outrun the law enforcement vehicles. It also makes it easier for law enforcement to bust the player.
- When attempting to avoid the police by driving through alleyways or by off roading, the Sanchez is a good option to take, as it is an excellent off roader, is small and nimble, and has excellent acceleration and handling, with a moderate top speed.
- Before unlocking Staunton Island in GTA III and GTA Liberty City Stories, Vice City Mainland in GTA Vice City, San Fierro in GTA San Andreas, or Vice City Beach in GTA Vice City Stories, the player can only attain a 4 star wanted level at maximum.
- At high wanted levels, prioritize escaping from or killing soldiers (six stars), FBI agents (five stars) , SWAT soldiers (four stars onwards, sometimes three in the case of GTA Vice City, where a single SWAT unit can drop down from a Police Maverick) and Vice Squad Agents (three stars onwards, GTA VC and GTA VCS only) over killing regular police officers, as they can kill a player with their weapons in a short amount of time.
- At higher levels, the best way to clear the wanted level is to shoot down the police helicopters, and sneak into a Pay 'n' Spray before they respawn. Another good strategy is to enter the subway system (GTA III and GTA LCS only) with a vehicle (preferably a motorbike) and follow the underground routes until they reach a Pay 'n' Spray (or lose the wanted level, if the player has a one star), but the player must be careful not to get lost in the system or getting hit by the oncoming Subway Trains.
- Stunt jumping gives the player considerable distance from the police but may not guarantee total escape, as certain factors, such as the wanted level, environment of the stunt jump, "projectile" motion concept of physics, and the position of other police units, come into play.
- Run through alleys and narrow streets to give the cops the slip.
- To save money, only use the Pay 'n' Spray if you have a wanted level of at least 4 stars, as it is easy to escape 1 and 2 star wanted levels (and occasionally 3 stars, depending on the location of the Police Maverick).
- In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, it is possible for the player to get arrested without having any wanted stars. If the player punches the air in front of a police officer (without actually hitting the police officer), he will think the player hit him. While no wanted level stars appear, the police officer will kick the player to the ground and arrest the player.
- Also, in GTA Liberty City Stories, it is also possible for the player to get arrested without having any wanted stars. In order to do this, the player must enter the "Never Wanted" cheat, then either attempt to steal a police car or provoke a cop into attacking and arresting him.
- Sometimes, if the player types in the "remove wanted level" cheat, even though the player no longer has a wanted level, sometimes the police will continue to attack the player as if he had one.
- If the player enters a building, exiting it will cause all cops chasing you to appear in front of a building.
- There are instances in GTA San Andreas where if you do not stop moving while your 2-star wanted Level changes into 3 stars, a police chopper can appear on the ground as if its rotors are the only thing revealed.
- In GTA San Andreas, if you have a 4-star wanted level or higher and use the "turndowntheheat" cheat and get another wanted level under 3 stars, any SWAT, Army or FBI in the area will not go after you or shoot you unless you attack them.
- In GTA San Andreas, at a 3-star or higher wanted level, officers who come out of a Police Car or Ranger will occasionally wield shotguns. Even if an officer does wield a shotgun, entering the car the officer came out of will still add 5 shells to the players' shotgun ammo and will still result in the player obtaining a Pump Action Shotgun provided he already doesn't have a shotgun.
- In all GTA III Era games, if the "Pedestrians have weapons" cheat is on, and a cop or law enforcement officer opens fire first at the player, some pedestrians that are armed with guns will retaliate against them, just like with anybody else who has fired a weapon.
- Also, in all GTA III Era games (except GTA San Andreas), if the player uses the "Play as Pedestrian" cheat to play as a law enforcement officer, they tend to receive higher wanted levels much more quickly.
- In GTA III, there is a glitch where even if the player has unlocked Shoreside Vale, their maximum wanted level will still be capped at 5 stars. Completing the Decoy mission fixes this.