The Wanted Level system is, in some ways, the heart and soul of GTA.
A player's chaos is balanced by this system, as limitations are often needed for a more realistic gameplay experience.
Some players hate the Wanted Level system for limiting their carnage, especially if it occurs in a mission where players randomly get a Wanted Level.
Of course, there are other ways to get a Wanted Level throughout the GTA series, with some ways being more unique than others. Likewise, the method of getting rid of a Wanted Level has also changed throughout the series.
The Wanted Level System in GTA: The Origin
The Wanted Level system has existed since the very beginning. In GTA 1 and its expansion packs, players would receive a Wanted Level if they perform a crime near a police officer; missions would also sometimes invoke a Wanted Level. Here, Wanted Levels only go up to four levels. Players can also get busted starting in GTA 1.
The first level sends a single cop car to the last known location of the player's crimes. By comparison, the fourth level has pedestrians vanish from the streets so more cops can spawn aggressively. Cops will also use machine guns instead of their usual weaponry from the earlier levels. Hiding can get rid of most Wanted Levels, although level one requires bribes and respraying one's vehicle.
The most noteworthy thing about GTA 2 is that it introduced six levels to the infamous Wanted Level system. Like in GTA 1, it's displayed with heads as opposed to the more popularly known stars.
Otherwise, GTA 2 is similar to GTA 1 in its approach. Completing missions also get rid of Wanted Levels here. SWAT also shows up for the first time when the player has a Wanted Level of four heads.
The 3D Universe
Most players are familiar with the 3D Universe's approach to the Wanted Level System. The 3D Universe encompasses games from GTA III to GTA Vice City Stories, six games in total. Like in GTA 2, Wanted Levels go up to six levels. GTA III is the first game to use stars as the symbol for this system, and every game thereafter continues using stars.
To get a Wanted Level, a player just has to commit a crime near law enforcement. Sometimes committing too many crimes away from their prying eyes will still summon them. Likewise, flying over restricted areas may invoke five stars. Going to another island pre-emptively in GTA San Andreas gives the player four stars.
Getting rid of one-star Wanted Levels is easy, while two-stars often requires the player to drive around for long periods of time. Pay 'n' Spray is easy to use, as it only costs $1000 in GTA III and Advance, while it costs $100 in the other games within the 3D Universe. Bribes still exist and are scattered around the map.
Cheats also exists to raise and lower Wanted Levels, which predictably varies based on the console that the player plays on and which game of the GTA series it is. Interestingly, some games limit the maximum Wanted Level to four stars at the start of the game, only raising to five stars once the player unlocks a new island and then six stars for the final island.
Unlocking additional Wanted Levels only exists in GTA III, GTA Liberty City Stories, and GTA San Andreas. For these games, the player can get up to four Wanted Levels at the start, with Stanton Island & San Fierro unlocking five stars and Shoreside Vale & Las Venturas unlocking six stars.
New law enforcement vehicles
Law enforcement is more dangerous in the 3D Universe games compared to GTA 1 and GTA 2. Typically, three-star Wanted Levels introduce roadblocks and helicopters that can drop down officers. Four stars have SWAT driving the Enforcer, five stars have FBI agents (for the first time), and law enforcement is more aggressive riding a Predator in bodies of water.
Six stars have the military driving Rhino tanks and Barracks to deter the player. The Rhino is one of the best vehicles in the 3D Universe, making it dangerous for players who are driving regular vehicles into it.
GTA IV and its related episodes
The biggest change to GTA IV is how players can get rid of Wanted Levels. First, there are no bribes to pick up anymore. Second, players can drive outside of law enforcement's search radius on the minimap to evade them (Pay 'n' Sprays still exist as well).
The player can do some fancy tricks to get out of their search radius. Swapping vehicles, especially those without visible damage, can help the player be more transparent. Saving in safe houses also completely removes Wanted Levels, as not all of the 3D Universe games had that system. Likewise, completing missions and sending male friends back to their home clears Wanted Levels.
Players in GTA IV can also call either Kiki Jenkins or Francis McReary to get rid of a maximum of three stars from a player's current Wanted Level.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is how players can acquire Wanted Levels. Civilians may call police if the player harasses them.
GTA IV vehicles
GTA IV's more realistic approach means that there is no military presence for players with a high Wanted Level. Instead, NOOSE Enforcers and FBI Buffaloes are prominent at six stars.
LCPD officers also have PSG-1 Sniper Rifles at higher levels. Other NOOSE vehicles such as the Patriot and Cruiser show up in the earlier Wanted Levels.
GTA Chinatown Wars
Despite GTA Chinatown Wars being a part of the HD Universe, its Wanted Level system is more similar to the 3D Universe's method.
Players can lose Wanted Levels through Pay 'n' Spray or by disabling police cars. Unlike GTA IV, Rhino tanks return at six stars, as the overall system is highly similar to the 3D Universe's method of handling Wanted Levels.
GTA V & GTA Online
Both GTA titles feature five stars as the maximum level instead of the six stars players were used to. Likewise, it follows GTA IV's format of evading law enforcement, with the key difference being that there is no Pay 'n' Spray in GTA V or GTA Online. On a similar note, the military does not chase the player for getting five-stars.
The main difference between the two games is that GTA Online has more content, which means more ways to attract pesky law enforcement. For both games, the military is only involved if the player commits a crime near Fort Zancudo.
Evading law enforcement
An Akula's stealth mode will reduce any Wanted Level above two stars to just two stars. In both GTA games, changing one's appearance reduces the Wanted Level by one star. Likewise, the railway system makes it easy to evade law enforcement, as players won't have to worry about police driving through it.
In GTA V, Wanted Levels do not vanish when a player saves the game. For GTA Online, evading Wanted Levels gives the player 100 RP per star.