For as long as technology has allowed it, video games have been designed with open worlds. Rather than limit players to set paths across multiple levels, open-world video games present themselves as playgrounds, filled with secrets to discover, quests to complete, and new enemies to defeat.
These are worlds you can get lost in, delivering immersive experiences that simply weren’t possible in the early days of the medium. For our list of the best open-world video games, we considered not only the quality of the games as a whole, but how they use their open worlds to make them even better.
‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’
The standard by which other open-world games have been measured since its release in 2011, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the best game Bethesda Game Studios has ever made – and given the number of ports it has received on everything from the Nintendo Switch to PlayStation VR, the company knows it.
Set in an unforgiving and often frozen world filled with undead creatures, giants, and plenty of fire-breathing dragons, Skyrim is so packed full of memorable lore and quests that it’s almost impossible to see the game in its entirety. Of course, that hasn’t stopped players from trying.
Read our full The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim review
‘The Witcher III: Wild Hunt’
CD Projekt Red has a knack for telling intimate and grounded stories despite magic and fantasy elements so prevalent in its work, and this has never been more apparent than in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. Set in an absolutely enormous open world filled with countless quests, The Witcher III somehow avoids having any filler.
The characters you meet are all interesting, the smallest side quests have unique and often funny twists and turns, and the environments are stunningly realized. It can be rather overwhelming, but those who only plan on playing one game for the next few years can do a whole lot worse.
Read our full The Witcher III: Wild Hunt review
‘Batman: Arkham City’
The best-realized version of Rocksteady Games’ Batman adventure, Batman: Akrham City has everything a fan could want in a video game. Gotham City’s closed-off prison has expanded into the streets, with gangs and famous villains free to commit heinous crimes with little repercussion.
The odds are stacked against the Caped Crusader, whose battle with the Joker reaches a climactic boiling point. Soaring through the air, throwing gadgets, and just pummeling enemies into oblivion feels amazing, and there are a ton of collectibles hidden in the city’s many nooks and crannies.
Read our full Batman: Arkham City review
‘Horizon Zero Dawn’
Take robot dinosaurs, futuristic bows, and a civilization fractured to the point of being unrecognizable, and you get Horizon Zero Dawn. A full-fledged role-playing game and one of the best action titles of the generation, Horizon Zero Dawn gradually presents you with even more terrifying and difficult threats as you explore its destroyed post-apocalyptic world, and the mix of overgrown foliage and cold, sharp metal is nothing for of stunning.
With plenty of points to climb and multiple ways to approach combat scenarios, it makes the most of its space to deliver as a stealth game or an all-out action-packed shooter.
Read our full Horizon Zero Dawn review
‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’
The groundwork for Middle-earth: Shadow of War lies in its predecessor, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, but the sequel expands its massive Middle-earth setting with varied areas that show off the fiery, twisted mountains as well as the (slightly) more tranquil plains.
With the Nemesis system, you can run into a previous duel partner at nearly any moment, and they can strike you with an ambush attack in the middle of a different mission. Have your own supply of allied orcs, however, and you can strike fear into the heart of Sauron’s army and take the land for yourself.
With satisfying combat inspired by the Arkham series and plenty of gear customization options, it’s a can’t-miss open world game.
Read our full Middle-earth: Shadow of War review
‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’
The illusion of immersion can often be broken in games that show their limits too clearly, such as locking off certain areas until you’ve reached a certain level or acquired a certain tool. In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo hardly ever says “No.”
If you want to blow past the majority of a dungeon by performing an odd trick with your bombs, or you want to circumvent the “correct” way of solving a puzzle by lining up your metal weapons and running electricity through them to complete a circuit, you can. If you even want to skip the entire game and just jump straight to the final boss, you can do that too, and Nintendo manages to do all of this without losing the heart and soul that made the series so popular.
Read our full The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild review
‘Grand Theft Auto V’
Rockstar practically invented the modern open-world game with Grand Theft Auto III, and the series was never better than it was in 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V. Set in the gorgeous Los Santos and surrounding metropolitan area, Grand Theft Auto V features everything from bank robberies to a full-scale tennis simulator, and you can do any of them for hours on end.
With three protagonists to switch between at nearly any time, you can jump from destination to destination in a hurry, and the game’s online component lets you cause mayhem with your friends, as well.
Read our full Grand Theft Auto V review
‘Red Dead Redemption II’
It’s reductive to call Red Dead Redemption II a western version of the Grand Theft Auto series, but that’s only because you get even more freedom in Rockstar’s latest open-world adventure. The prequel offers a massive southwestern world to explore on horseback or foot, with different quest lines emerging naturally as you interact with locals or spot a dangerous outlaw in the wild.
Simply heading off in any direction almost always results in finding something interesting to do, whether it be a new animal to hunt, a bounty target to bring in, or a house to burglarize.
Read our full Red Dead Redemption II review
‘Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’
Wildly different from every preceding game in the series, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is ostensibly a game about the ongoing war between the Assassins and the Templars, but it’s actually the best pirate game ever in disguise.
With a ship loaded up with crew members, you can sail into the sea and ambush passersby, launching cannonballs at their hull before hopping aboard yourself and picking apart their measly fighters. Small island villages are surrounded by trees, creating unique stealth scenarios when taking out targets on land, and buried treasure gives you reason to explore the entire map.
Read our full Assassins’ Creed IV: Black Flag review
An open-world so large, you’ll never see the entire thing, Minecraft became every child’s obsession because its gameplay loop is so engrossing and addictive.
Finding resources while trying to fend off the elements and a variety of spooky monsters, your goal is to continue building a larger and more formidable home for yourself, and just when you thought you couldn’t make it any fancier, you discover a new element or construction technique to take your architectural abilities a step further.
Fun by yourself but even more enjoyable with a friend, Minecraft can become your only game – and it will if you let it.
‘Forza Horizon 4’
Yes, you’re in a vehicle for the entirety of Forza Horizon 4, but the latest game from Playground feels much more like an open-world game than a racing simulator. Rural England is filled with drifting challenges, ramps to jump, speed traps, and hidden cars to collect, and when you do finally try out a race, many of them take you on cross-country journeys through the woods, rolling hillsides, and even beaches. Friends can drop into your game at any moment, as well, and you can drive around tackling the many challenges together.
Read our full Forza Horizon 4 review
‘Far Cry 4’
Far Cry 3 reinvented the fish-out-of-water shooter series with its focus on charismatic villains, hunting and crafting, and all-out chaos, but it was its sequel that perfected the formula. Set in a fictional Himalayan country called Kyrat, the world of Far Cr 4 is similar in size to its predecessor, but it’s packed full of content like enemy outposts, climbable towers, hidden caves, and side missions.
With the series’ fantastic shooting controls, a worthy villain in Pagan Min, and a more personable protagonist, it’s an emotional and brutal journey for those willing to see it through to the end.
Read our full Far Cry 4 review
‘Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain de-emphasizes the best aspects of previous games in the series will emphasizing the things no one liked in those games, and it somehow works.
An open-world stealth-action game with dozens of ways to approach any situation, Big Boss can sneak into a base completely undetected to steal some intelligence, or he can call in an attack helicopter to support him as he floors it through the front gate on a truck filled with C4. The story is almost nonexistent at points, but the level of freedom Hideo Kojima and his team give to you makes it one of the best stealth-action games ever made.
It can often feel like you’re entering completely separate environments, but Dark Souls is indeed an open-world game, its labyrinth-like structure folding in on itself as you unlock its interconnecting paths and make your way back to its hub area.
Filled with some of the toughest challenges in video games, Dark Souls demands you full attention, but those willing to put in the time and effort will be rewarded with one of the best action-role-playing games ever. Endlessly replayable – and never any easier – it’s even better with the enhancements in Dark Souls: Remastered.
Read our full Dark Souls review
Insomniac Games not only nailed the web-swinging movement in Marvel’s Spider-Man, which is undeniably the most important part of the game, but the studio also delivered a heartwarming and hilarious tale with a large roster of Marvel characters.
Soaring across New York City, Peter Parker is always ready with a silly quip, and when you find baddies in need of a butt-kicking, the game gives you a ton of acrobatic abilities. You can tie enemies in webs or send them flying with powerful kicks, and with several optional suits to wear, you can do it looking like classic comic book Spider-Man or some terrifying Iron Man crossover.
Read our full Marvel’s Spider-Man review
‘Watch Dogs 2’
The first Watch Dogs was set in a dark, rainy, and depressing version of Chicago with an equally dark and depressing protagonist. For the sequel, Ubisoft doubled down on the humor and lightheartedness as it moved to San Francisco, and its story of hacktivists fighting against a Google-like technology company was much more interesting than a simple revenge story.
Using your in-game phone, you can half people’s computers, mess with traffic lights, and control security cameras as you sneak by and eliminate guards, and it’s all done with a sense of style and flair that the original game completely lacked. Invading other players’ games is just the icing on the cake, but it’s still endlessly amusing.
Read our full Watch Dogs 2 review
Part first-person shooter and part loot-obsessed dungeon-crawler, Borderlands 2 is all about acquiring the best weapons possible on a larger-than-life planet filled with bandits, mutant creatures, and natural hazards waiting to destroy you.
Villain Handsome Jack and the rest of the game’s dastardly bosses offer significant challenge, whether you’re alone or with friends, but there’s always the draw of getting a slightly better or more unique weapon that keeps players coming back years after they finished the main storyline. Until the long-awaited follow-up is actually released, Borderlands 2 is just fine for us.
Read our full Borderlands 2 review
Many open-world games throw a billion objectives onto a map and hope you’ll want to mindlessly complete them, but Nier: Automata uses much of its space for pure observation. As you explore its desolate, strangely peaceful post-apocalyptic world, you’re left to wonder if Earth is actually better off with humans gone, and the machines you encounter are often non-threatening until you actively engage them. It presents a moral dilemma before the game even dives into existential territory later on, and it helps to create one of the most fully-realized visions in a game or any other medium.
Read our full Nier: Automata review
A classic Hong Kong crime tale of deceit and undercover investigation, Sleeping Dogs is far more than a police-themed Grand Theft Auto game. Hong Kong is filled its own unique set of activities, including gambling on cock fights, and the game features a deep martial arts combat system that goes beyond the simple melee attacks seen in other third-person shooters.
A stellar voice cast, including an early appearance from Oscar-winner Emma Stone, make Sleeping Dogs a gripping crime tale that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Read our full Sleeping Dogs review
‘Infamous: Second Son’
Released early in the lifespan of the PlayStation 4, it can be tempting to overlook Infamous: Second Son as a simple technical demo, but Sucker Punch’s game is a stunning superhero adventure that gives you remarkable levels of freedom to choose how you fight.
With multiple strains of powers to choose from, including smoke and neon, you can fly through the air, sprint alongside walls, and fire smoldering bolts at your enemies, all with a sense of fluidity that we’ve rarely seen since. As with all Infamous games, the choice is yours to play as an upstanding citizen or a ruthless killer, and the story changes significantly based on the path you take.
Read our full Infamous: Second Son review