If you are a gamer with a pulse and have been anywhere near a TV or computer, then you are probably at least vaguely aware that Grand Theft Auto 5 is coming soon. Rockstar’s open world crime/satire series is expected to push the current generation of consoles to their limits with its representation of the city of Los Santos and the surrounding areas. In terms of open world gameplay, it will at least be memorable, and might end up having an influence on all open world games that come after it.
So with GTAV on the horizon, we look at some of the best open world games out there, past and future. The majority of these games are on this generation of consoles (and PC, of course). There’s an obvious reason for that: this generation of consoles has seen open world games expand in new ways thanks to the more powerful technology at its disposal. It isn’t just the processing power though, it’s just that developers can do so much more now, which is especially effective for creating better open world/sandbox games.
With that in mind, here are our picks for the best open world games around.
Assassin’s Creed III
This was possibly the toughest call on this list. There is no question that the Assassin’s Creed series belonged, but the question is which one? You can probably cut out Brotherhood and Revelations – they both add a few new tools and locales, but it’s tough to claim that they are better than the game that spawned them, ACII, which was revolutionary. They felt like spinoffs – admittedly excellent spinoffs, but spinoffs nonethless. AC3, however, was a completely new game. Connor may not have had the panache of Ezio, and the choice of Renaissance Italy versus Revolutionary America is mostly down to preference, but there were some undeniable improvements to AC3 – a better Desmond storyline, more world to explore, the introduction of tree-running – that gave it the upper hand and earned it a spot on this list. It was very, very close though.
Batman: Arkham City
Batman: Arkham Asylum was arguably the best video game based on a comic book ever made – at least until Arkham City was released. The prison city of Arkham is massive, and exploring it unlocks new missions, challenges, and more. Trying to collect all the Riddler trophies alone can be a massively time consuming task; introduce the Catwoman sections on top of it all and the game is immense. Throw in solid combat, a variety of missions, and the fact that you’re Batman, and Arkham City is a must play for open world gaming fans.
Borderlands 2 isn’t a traditional open world game in the same way that many others on this list are – partly because areas a coontained, but also because it is a truly cooperative experience. It can be played alone, of course, but it is more fun with others. It is also designed to be played again. And again. And again. It takes RPG elements, but it also is the only pure FPS on this list – and with good reason.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
In many ways, Skyrim is the ultimate open world game. There are so many options on where to go and what to do that it can actually be overwhelming – and that’s before you even touch the DLC. You can play for dozens of hours and only scratch the primary storyline. At times it’s tough to even classify what is a primary mission without the game specifically noting it because the various quests can be so intricate. Skyrim is an evolution of open world games, and it will likely influence RPGs and open world games for years to come.
You could also make a case for Fallout: New Vegas, especially since that game took the building blocks of Fallout 3 and then added to them, but Fallout 3 was one of the games that solidified the shift in RPGs from the traditional Japanese, turn-based RPGs to the more free-form Western RPGs that now dominate the genre. (Plus New Vegas was plagued by glitches.) Fallout 3 is also was a pioneer when it came to the rise of console DLC. It wasn’t the first, but it made a huge impact on the digital distribution scene and helped to further legitimize console DLC as worthwhile (read: profitable) for publishers. It was also an amazing game filled with content, atmosphere, and the freedom to do what you want when you wanted.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
This was a tough one. Not adding a GTA game – that was never a question – but narrowing it down to just one. GTAIV and its DLCs-turned-standalone games, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, are better games technologically. Vice City was something completely unexpected and amazing. Even GTAIII deserves a mention for being groundbreaking. But San Andreas not only pushed the boundaries of what an open world game could do, it was a game that never stopped impressing players from the start to the very end. It was one of the best games on the last generation of consoles, and if Rockstar releases a remastered HD version on this gen or the next, it will be one of the best games on that generation of consoles too.
Mass Effect 3
It’s difficult to separate the individual games within the Mass Effect trilogy, at least in terms of story. Each game has its own start and finish, but they were all really just one long storyline. Of the three though, the third stands highest. Sure, Mass Effect 3 had some detractors over the finale, but the gameplay was improved over the others and the content was impressive. The inclusion of the co-op multiplayer added a lot as well, and the DLC further improved the story and the gameplay.
Red Dead Redemption
There are few developers better at open world games than Rockstar, and if you need proof that it isn’t just Grand Theft Auto, look no further than this game. Red Dead Redemption is not Grand Theft Auto in the Wild West. Sure, there are a lot of similarities both in gameplay and the tone of the story, but t doesn’t take much playtime to realize that the games are very different. Red Dead improves on the technical side of the GTA games, but then crafts a completely different type of story, set in a different world.
The inclusion of this game may surprise a few people. Sleeping Dogs had all the trappings of a familiar open world game: multiple missions to choose from, upgrades, hidden items, etc. It was actually a fairly traditional game in that sense and didn’t revolutionize the open world genre. It did, however, offer an incredibly compelling story revolving around the world of the Chinese Triads in Hong Kong. The plot is inspired by Hong Kong crime fiction and action movies like Infernal Affairs and Hard Boiled, giving it an original and mature feel. It took an Asian flair and turned it into an international game – and a very good one at that.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
There’s more of a linear story in Skyward Sword than in most of the others on this list, but there is still a huge world to explore, with multiple things to do. Plus, it is one of the best games on a system that sold close to 100 million consoles. So there’s that. Skyward Sword not only managed to make the most of the Wii’s unique nunchuck controllers, it pushed the system further than many thought it could go. Sure, it featured SD graphics, but it also allowed players to explore the world of Hyrule (and Skyloft) like never before.