A Wanted Level tells the player how much they are wanted by the law enforcement. As the player's wanted level increases, more powerful forms of law enforcement will pursue them. In 3D Universe, a wanted level is measured on a six-star scale. Committing several minor crimes in a quick succession – such as beating pedestrians up, destroying cars, etc – will earn them one star. Continuing to commit crimes will often lead to a second star. Serious crimes (for example, throwing a grenade into a large crowd of bystanders) often earn the player multiple wanted stars outright. A wanted level is cumulative and it is possible to reach a six-star wanted level by simply shooting a lot of pedestrians.
If the player has one or more wanted stars, nearby police will give chase and attempt to arrest the player. An arrest is executed by either knocking the player onto the ground or by opening the player's car door and then holding him at gunpoint. In both cases, the player has no choice but to give up. If the police have successfully arrested you, a message "Busted" will pop up, the player is transported to the nearest police station and is released 12 hours later. After the player is released, his cash will decrease about $100($1,000 in Grand Theft Auto III) and his weapons will be confiscated (unless in GTA: San Andreas after dating Barbara Schternvart, the player's weapons will not be confiscated and in GTA: Vice City Stories, the player can buy back the weapons but they will need $2000 to purchase them.) Any mission the player was on will be failed, the same as being Wasted.
The wanted level can be decreased various ways. It will slowly decrease on its own if the player is out of sight of the police or "lies low". Driving around will make it happen faster. A one-star wanted level will disappear this way rather quickly, while two stars might require the player to travel across the whole map. The wanted level does not decrease if the player is driving a law enforcement vehicle or an aircraft in San Andreas.
Higher wanted levels can be lost more quickly 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 saving the game while in a Safe House. See the Tips section below for more ways of lowering your stars.
- It is notoriously difficult to survive higher wanted levels without the use of cheats or modifications. In all 3D Era games, there are cheats to raise and lower wanted levels. In GTA San Andreas, there is a cheat to prevent the player from ever obtaining a wanted level. However, the player can still get attacked at police impound stations.
Liberty City Stories and San Andreas treat wanted levels slightly differently; for the first part of the game, the maximum level attainable is four stars (with the exception of entering "5-star" no fly zones); later, when the player can access Staunton Island/San Fierro, a five-star level can be attained. The "coveted" six-star level does not become available until much later in the game, or until you can access Shoreside Vale/Las Venturas respectively.
- At a one star wanted level, any police officer that spots the player will give chase and attempt to arrest him. In all 3D Era games except for Advance, only one officer at a time will actually pursue the player. Any other officers in the area will simply walk or stand idly until the pursuing officer is either killed or out of the player's range. The police will attempt to knock the player down with their fists (in GTA III and GTA Advance) and nightsticks (in other 3D Era games). They also do not shoot unless they are threatened by the player. 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, he will pull out his gun and start shooting (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 without killing him, on the other hand, standing out of the officer's access will not make him fire).
- Police cars will follow the player, but they can be easily outrun. If the player stays out of sight and does not commit any further 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. However, if the player's muscle mass is low or if their fat level is high, Law Enforcement can easily catch up and run the player down, costing them valuable time and health to draw and aim their weapons. In GTA San Andreas and GTA Vice City Stories, police bikes also chase the player, their drivers shoot at the player in GTA San Andreas. Also in GTA San Andreas, Rangers chase the player instead of police cars/bikes when you're in the countryside.
- 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 is around to witness them or multiple offenses are committed in quick succession.
- Planting a Satchel Charge in public (GTA San Andreas)
- Attacking and/or killing pedestrians in public.
- Attacking a police officer without firearms, or knocking them over in a car without killing them.
- Damaging and/or destroying a vehicle in public.
- Attacking or shooting a police vehicle (always results in a wanted level even when out of sight, doesn't trigger with the Police Maverick or FBI/Army vehicles)
- Crashing into a police vehicle (crashing a parked police vehicle will not result in a wanted level)
- Discharging a firearm in public (including drive-by shooting)
- Revving a chainsaw in public (except GTA San Andreas)
- Using a Molotov Cocktail in public
- 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). This includes the vehicles used for the courier missions.
- Attempting to steal a police vehicle with an officer inside
- Driving a vehicle with the alarm going off near an officer
- Robbing stores for the minimum amount of cash (GTA Vice City)
- Upon completing the Dam and Blast mission (GTA San Andreas)
- Attacking a casino guard (GTA San Andreas)
- Running over a police officer with a vehicle (GTA Vice City gives 2 stars)
- Stealing the Washington Parked outside Mike Toreno's Ranch early in the game though this was eventually fixed. (GTA San Andreas)
- After killing Mike Forelli in the GTA III mission Mike Lips' Last Lunch (only if there is a nearby Police Officer)
- 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 only one star)
- Injuring and/or killing 2 or more police officers (even killing only one is usually enough)
- Destroying many cars at once
- Killing many people in a short period of time
- Crashing into a fuel pump in gas stations, (in GTA San Andreas you will get only one star)
- 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, sometimes gives 3 stars right away
- Continuing to rob a store, after the store employee drops three money packs. (GTA Vice City)
- Trespassing in the Washington Beach Police Station (GTA Vice City, unless wearing the cop uniform)
- Attacking a police officer with a knife, machete, katana, chainsaw, gun, flame thrower, or explosive (GTA Vice City)
- Continuing to beat, shoot a dead officer or detonate explosives next to his corpse. Running over the corpse with a car may also contribute to this.
- Transporting a criminal during the Taxi Driver mission (GTA Vice City Stories)
- Can happen while smashing a shop's stock for the Protection Racket side mission. (GTA: Vice City Stories)
- Attempting to steal a Money Truck for the Robbery side mission (GTA: Vice City Stories)
- Entering "YOUWONTTAKEMEALIVE" or similar cheat codes in other platforms in GTA: Vice City
- After collecting at least three crates on, or if the player fails the mission Home Invasion (GTA San Andreas)
- 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. Police bikes don't chase the player anymore and a police helicopter is also called in to assist and its crew follows the player, putting a spotlight on the protagonist, shooting at the player via an invisible machine gun on the fuselage if they get a clear shot and hilariously addressing the player over a loudspeaker, as well rappelling down four SWAT officers. In GTA San Andreas, if you are on foot and a police car spots you, one of the two officers will use a shotgun instead of a pistol. Additionally, in GTA Vice City and GTA Vice City Stories, undercover 'Vice Squad' detectives armed with Uzis and driving Cheetahs also give chase. In GTA Vice City, GTA Liberty City Stories and GTA Vice City Stories, police officers will deploy Spike Strips from the side of the road, intent on puncturing your tires.
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 by any means)
- Robbing stores for the maximum amount of cash (GTA Vice City)
- Blowing up an AI controlled full-winged Dodo in GTA Vice City
- Entering police impound garages (GTA San Andreas) (Note: The player can avoid having a 3-star wanted level if they try to sneak through it by jumping through a wall where the guard can't see the player, or by driving a police vehicle.)
- Driving the decoy van during the mission Money for Nothing (GTA Vice City Stories)
- Trafficking drugs in the Drug Running side mission (GTA Vice City Stories)
- Being caught robbing homes during the Burglary side mission (GTA San Andreas)
- Killing the bank guard during the Small Town Bank mission (GTA San Andreas)
- Stealing a Tank during the Sir, Yes Sir! mission (GTA Vice City)
- Delivering goods during Mission 3 & 6 of the Trucking side mission (GTA San Andreas)
- Driving the Feltzer with Johnny Sindacco tied to the Hood on the expressway surrounding the Four Dragons Casino during the mission Fender Ketchup in GTA San Andreas.
- At a four-star wanted level, the police will drive more aggressively and even attempt to run you over if you are on foot. Police officers spawn everywhere at this level and run towards you shooting. SWAT teams will now join the case. SWAT members wear body armor and are armed with Uzi sub-machine guns. 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 joined by a News Chopper (which is replaced by another Police Maverick when shot down), and up to two military jets that will pursue and attempt to shoot down the player if he is flying an aircraft or an helicopter.
- Four wanted stars are attained by:
- Continuing to retaliate against law enforcement
- Continuing to cause collateral damage
- Planting a Satchel Charge on a Police Helicopter
- Entering or flying over a city that has not yet unlocked in the storyline in GTA San Andreas
- Blowing up an AI controlled full-winged Dodo in GTA III
- 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
- Engaging in the Smuggling side mission in GTA Vice City Stories
- Trucking very hot goods (mission 8) in the Trucking side mission in GTA San Andreas
- Blowing up all police cars and kill all officers that appear in a Roadblock
- 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 them and police officers on foot keep spawning when the player is on foot in San Andreas) 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 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.
- At five stars, little to no police cars will appear on the road.
- Five stars are attained by:
- Continuing to retaliate against law enforcement
- Continuing to cause collateral damage
- Entering or flying over the Easter Basin Naval Station in GTA San Andreas
- Entering or flying over the Area 69 research base in GTA San Andreas. Doing this will result not only in the wanted level, but also attack from SAM Sites. (Note: The player will only earn a five star wanted level if they fly low enough to the base.)
- At six stars, the military will take over from the FBI, and all civilians will be replaced with military officers 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.
It is difficult to attain a 6-star wanted level without cheats, given the difficulty of surviving the 4 and 5 stars levels for any length of time. In Liberty City Stories, the 6-star wanted level isn't unlocked until later in the game.
- Six stars are attained by:
- In most 3D Era games, it is not possible to attain a 6-star wanted level until the final region of each game is unlocked.
- In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, the Rhino tank that spawns cannot be driven or entered until the mission Over The Top is completed, except if a cheat is used. (Assuming it is accessible as in previous games can be a fatal mistake).
- In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, regular police will continue to attack during a 6-star wanted level, alongside the military.
- How to lower your stars:
- Go to any nearest safehouse or save point and save the game. In GTA III and GTA Vice City, the game will need to be loaded again for losing your wanted level to take effect.
- Find and collect police bribes.
- Respray your car in any Pay 'n' Spray garage. (Does not work for certain vehicles, however such as Emergency Vehicles.)
- If the player has one wanted level star, go to any alley 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 rating in this part of the game while in that city is to use a safehouse, Pay 'n' Spray or head for the country.)
- Enter a safehouse and change your outfit. (GTA: San Andreas, GTA: Vice City) Note, however, that this does not work in Vice City if you get a have a 3-star wanted level or higher; more likely you will exit the safehouse to find it surrounded by police.
- Go to a clothing shop and change your clothes. (GTA: San Andreas)
- In GTA San Andreas, you can modify your car in TransFender, Loco Low Co. and Wheel Arch Angels; one modification (such as one respray) will make the stars flash. Any other modifications done while the stars are flashing will make them disappear.
- In GTA San Andreas, start the freight train challenge and your wanted level will instantly disappear.
- In GTA San Andreas, if you enter a region that has not yet been unlocked, receiving the 4-star level, and then re-enter the unlocked region, it drops to 3 stars and can be reduced further using bribes, saving, etc. However the wanted rating cannot be reduced if you stay in the locked region: picking up a bribe will briefly drop the rating to 3 stars, and taking a vehicle to a pay n' spray will reduce the level, but then the game re-registers your trespass and reinstates the 4-star rating; safehouses are not available until a region is officially unlocked.
- In GTA San Andreas, you can lose a star by going through the rural/desert regions, even on a higher wanted level.
- In GTA San Andreas, by going to an airport and buying a plane ticket to another city.
- After completing a mission, all your stars will be gone (all of the GTAs, however there are some exceptions in some missions, such as Messing with the Man and Outrider).
- Starting a Gang War in the remastered edition of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. (Likely a glitch, as this does not occur in the PlayStation 2, Xbox, or PC versions)
- Your getaway vehicle you're driving in is important:
- On a 2 to 4 star wanted level, a sport (also a muscle or a tuner) car is a better vehicle to be used as its speed easily outruns any police vehicles or you could go into any restaurant or any other building you can enter and lay low for a while.
- On a 5 star wanted level, where FBI Ranchers tend to knock you off the road, large vehicles like Dumper, Bus, Barracks, the Rhino or other large vehicles are recommended since its size means it isn't easy to push around.
- On a 6 star wanted level, a Rhino is your last hope of running away from being "Busted" since any vehicles that runs into it will simply explode and its cannon can destroy anything (including Rhinos; if shot repeatedly, it usually takes 1 or sometimes 2 shots to destroy it, depending on where you shoot at). In order to make the game more balanced, the AI will make Rhinos and the Barracks match your top speed as you escape, meaning that precise braking, rather than attempting to outrun the army alone, is critical.
- A slow vehicle is not, for obvious reasons, recommended for a 2 to 6 star wanted level.
- If you are skilled at driving a motorcycle, however, using a PCJ-600 or, in 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.
- In GTA Vice City if Tommy shoots down a pursuing Police Maverick and is busted or wasted near the same moment the Maverick explodes, Tommy will sometimes automatically regain a 4 star wanted level if he respawns at a Police Station or Hospital in the vicinity of the wrecked Maverick.
- In Vice City Stories, sometimes you can get arrested without having any stars; punch the air in front of a cop, and he will think you hit him. While no stars appear, the cop will kick you to the ground and bust you (Note: This will not always work.)
- In GTA Vice City, if you enter a building, exiting it will cause all cops chasing you to appear in front of the building.
- There are instances in San Andreas that if you do not stop running while your 2-star Wanted Level changes into a 3-star, 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. Although if you attain a 1 star wanted level, the closest law enforcement officer will try to take you down with their fists even if CJ is displaying a firearm.
- The police officer that is spawned at 2-4 star will usually continue to drive in their vehicle even if the car catches fire, which can be dangerous to the player.
- The police officers of the LCPD in GTA III will come at the player with fists instead of a nightstick at a one star wanted level, making them the only police force in the 3D Universe to do this.
- In the mission Decoy in which the player obtains six star wanted level, Rhino tanks and Barracks OL trucks do not pursue the player as Police cars and SWAT vans will pursue the player instead. This is most likely in order to make the mission easier to complete as the van needs to be kept intact for as long as possible. However Barracks OL trucks will still appear as roadblocks.
- Sometimes if Tommy Vercetti gets arrested, Ken Rosenberg can be heard saying "Tommy Vercetti is an innocent man".
- While inside a restricted area, the wanted level acquired cannot be lost; when triggering a cheat to lower it, the player will instantly re-acquire the wanted level. The only way to lose it is to use the "Lock Wanted Level" cheat. Also applies to the HD Universe.