Open-world games; the very name of the genre conjures images of freedom and exploration. With their non-linear gameplay, the best open-world games appeal to the explorer in all of us.
Open-world gaming, as a concept, arguably began with the game Mercenary, released in 1985. By today’s standards, the look of this particular open-world was very crude, consisting entirely of wire frame 8-bit graphics. But by all measures this truly was an open-world game; the player explores a 3D environment, carrying out non-linear tasks in service of the main objective. It’s from these humble beginnings that the concept of open-world gaming was born, and to say that the concept has come a long way since then is quite the understatement.
But what makes a truly great open-world game? Is it the immersion of wandering through an impeccably rendered alien world or the sweeping vistas of the Old West? Or is it the ability to take gameplay at your own pace? Maybe it’s the option to craft items from found materials? Is it side-quests that branch off from the main narrative? Perhaps it’s some combination of all of the above. With these traits in mind, here are the 10 best open-world games the genre has to offer.
Saints Row IV
The Saints Row series is not exactly known for restraint, but Saints Row IV is pretty over the top even by the series’ standards. As a former leader of the Saints street gang, which has become the most popular and powerful organization in the world, the main character is elected President of the United States, acquires superpowers and has to stop an alien invasion. Along the way, the game parodies The Matrix , side-scrolling fighting games, Mass Effect, and various other sacred cows of nerd culture.
This is a very silly game. While the plot itself seems like something of an afterthought, the amount of freedom you have, the surprisingly well-drawn characterizations, and the sheer amount of fun you can have with each superpower you gain more than make up for any narrative deficiencies.
Dragon Age: Origins
The realm of Ferelden is under siege from the Darkspawn, fearsome demonic forces whose aim is to bring about another period of Blight to the kingdom. As a Grey Warden, it’s up to the player to stop these forces and save Ferelden from certain doom.
Dragon Age: Origins is full of rich mythology, political intrigue, and diverse, compelling characters. The land itself is immense and incredibly well realized and detailed. Ferelden truly feels as if it could have existed, so fleshed out is its history and stunning imagery. The character customization is also detailed and flexible. Billed as a “spiritual successor” to Baldur’s Gate 2, Dragon Age: Origins is as immersive and captivating as an open-world game comes.
Fallout: New Vegas
Yes, Fallout 4 is an impressive feat in game design and the sheer size of the world can be stunning, but it’s also quite frequently a bit of a slog. It often seems like a whole lot of nothing is happening. By no means is it a bad game, but versus the relatively sleeker Fallout: New Vegas, it suffers a bit in comparison.
Fallout: New Vegas is just plain fun. Exploring the post-apocalyptic ruins of Nevada as an unnamed Courier tasked with delivering a package to the titular New Vegas is, no nuclear bomb pun intended, a blast. There’s almost always something to do, be it one of the seemingly countless side-quests, talking to random strangers, killing Nightstalkers or Cazadors. It’s fairly difficult to become bored while wandering through the wasteland of New Vegas and its environs.
The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker
There’s some disagreement as to whether the latter day Zelda games, from Ocarina of Time through the not-yet-released Breath of the Wild are truly “open-world” video games. However, if you define “open-world” as a game wherein “a player can move freely through a virtual world and is given considerable freedom in regards to how or when to approach particular objectives” as it’s defined in Wikipedia, then The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker certainly fits the bill.
Upon its release, long time Zelda fans took issue with Wind Waker’s art direction, specifically the cel shading and character design appearing too childish or cartoony. Upon playing the game, most naysayers quickly went silent. Few games are this charming while still maintaining a high level of complexity and challenging gameplay. It’s also gorgeous. To think that folks had issues with the design upon its release seems laughable today as the game’s legacy and iconic status has far outshined any minor quibbles about cel shading.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag truly accomplished the impossible: It made sailing-based exploration and ship-to-ship sea battles in a video game actually fun.
Who doesn’t love pirates? (Well, probably anyone who actually had to live in the era of real, honest-to-god pirates, since they were by and large not loveable, rum-drunk Jack Sparrow types and were more akin to filthy, murderous Black Bart types, but that’s beside the point.) Setting the next Assassin’s Creed entry after the oddly paced, Colonial America-set Assassin’s Creed III in the Golden Age of Piracy was a masterstroke on behalf of Ubisoft.
The sailing mechanics are remarkably intuitive and engaging in a naval battle is way more enjoyable than it has any right to be. Black Flag can also be breathtakingly gorgeous. Watching a humpback whale breach off the bow of your ship might actually put a lump in your throat.
Batman: Arkham City
Games based on existing superhero properties can sometimes go horribly, terribly wrong. Anyone remember Superman 64? 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum is a prime example of a complete refutation of that scenario. It wasn’t just a great Batman game, it was a fantastic game. Period. End of story. Full stop. Indeed, it was so good, it was hard to imagine another superhero game ever matching it, much less topping it.
Enter 2011’s sequel Batman: Arkham City.
Anyone who’s ever read a Batman comic, seen one of the Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan (or even Joel Schumacher… as insanely lame as his movies can be, his Gotham still looked fairly cool) Batman movies has entertained the idea of exploring the streets of Gotham as the Caped Crusader. Arkham City allows you to do just that. Gotham, or rather, North Gotham, is a living, breathing character in the game, its streets filled with menace and danger. Arkham City brings Gotham to life in a way that no other game has ever done.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
The first thing you’ll notice upon playing The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is how incredibly beautiful it is. It may lull you into a sense of revelry at its lush, detailed and colorful gorgeousness, which would be a grave mistake as this world is a brutal, violent and unforgiving world.
Playing as Geralt of Rivia, the game tasks you with finding and rescuing Ciri, Geralt’s ward and heir to an ancient Elven bloodline of immense power. Traveling through the world in the game, which is immense, full of lush scenery, dense forests, verdant fields, and scurrying wildlife, it’s hard not to get distracted from the main quest and just explore the towns, talk to villagers, gather herbs, or play a game of Gwent in a tavern.
Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption, the sequel to the lesser-known Red Dead Revolver, is widely considered one of the best open-world games ever made and with good reason. As well as providing an incredibly compelling narrative surrounding main character John Marston, the game also gives players an immersive, highly detailed world like no other.
Set in the American Old West circa the early 1900s, Red Dead Redemption takes place in the waning years of the cowboy. It tells a story that’s not only relevant to its era, but also manages to speak to broader issues of racism, immigration and personal freedom that ring true today. But aside from those heavy topics, riding your horse through towns like Armadillo, Thieve’s Landing and Tumbleweed truly makes a player feel as though they’re experiencing the Old West firsthand.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
The Grand Theft Auto series had been pushing the boundaries of what people considered acceptable in video games for years, so when time came for the fifth entry in the series, it wasn’t much of shock for controversy to surround its release. The controversy this time involved a downloadable modification of the game called the “Hot Coffee Mod” that allowed the protagonist of the game to engage in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend.
Aside from providing a sizeable amount of publicity for the game, the controversy also brought attention to another of the series’ hallmarks: raw, unflinching, graphic, and incredibly enveloping gameplay. San Andreas takes place in 1992. It concerns Carl “CJ” Johnson‘s return to Los Santos after a 5-year stint in Vice City prison. The storyline is propulsive and fascinating. The settings of Los Santos and San Fierro (analogues of Los Angeles and San Francisco) are vibrant and alive. Additionally, the soundtrack of early ’90s hip-hop, funk, alternative rock and Chicago house ensures that almost every sense is firing.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
It’s totally possible to play Skyrim, the fifth entry in the Elder Scrolls series of games, without completing either the main quest or any of the side quests and still have a completely fulfilling gaming experience. Such is the magic of Skyrim.
This is a game that you can literally relax with. It doesn’t demand much of you. Of course, you can battle giants or dragons, or engage in any of the tropes you’d expect in an epic fantasy RPG. But you can also just…walk around. Or ride a horse, talk to villagers, hike up to a snowy peak and take in the surroundings. And you’d still likely find yourself having lost a few hours doing just those things. Skyrim is relentlessly beautiful, especially the recent Skyrim Special Edition. It’s one of the few games where it’s rewarding to actually stop and take in your surroundings. You’re not just playing a game here, you’re a tourist of this incredible world of sword, sorcery, dragons and magic.