Update: Hop in your spaceship, throw on some headphones and get comfy because because the latest entry on our list would take you over 500 billion years to truly complete. Read onto number 11 to find out more!
2015 was the year of the open world game. Every game franchise iteration that came out shoehorned an explorable environment into its hyper-polished murder simulation. often they added a bit of base construction and squad management too. Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V, The Witcher III…
They joined a line-up that contains the best games around. Look at S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, Shadow of Mordor, Batman: Arkham City, or the Far Cry series… all abandoned the traditional AAA linear level structures and emigrated to the wide uplands of the open world.
Even weird indie games have clasped the explorable environment to their bosom. The Long Dark, Neo Scavenger, Rust, Factorio, No Man’s Sky, Subnautica, even Euro Truck Simulator – all of these would have had a shout in our list, if we’d had room for more than 10.
But we’ve picked our favourites out of the best wide worlds gaming has to offer. Disagree? Tell us about yours in the comments.
Gabe Carey has also contributed to this article
I mean, you know what this is about. There isn’t a gamer reading this today who isn’t aware that Minecraft consists of; exploration and crafting in a blocky, bright 8-bit world. And when night falls or when you go deep underground, monsters come out… and that’s not just on the multiplayer servers.
Though it’s now on every last platform going, from iOS to Linux and even to Amiga, its fundamentals are the same – a large open world to explore, with no purpose beyond the one you which you create yourself. If you want to create a moving replica of Mark Hamill’s face or the hanging gardens of Babylon or just a suburban house built exclusively of dynamite, Minecraft can do it.
If you’re bored of Minecraft, you’re bored of life. But if you really are bored (of Minecraft and/or life), either try the 2D Minecraft Terraria, its sci-fi sibling Starbound, or wait for Subnautica or No Man’s Sky to land. They’re lifesavers.
2. Fallout: New Vegas
Yes, Fallout 4 is the newest, most mechanically-complex and least ugly of the series, but Fallout: New Vegas is, for me, the best of the games. It brought back the weirdness and smarts of the original titles to post-apocalyptic America – perhaps because as many of the team members from developer Obsidian worked on Fallout 2.
The series always drops the player in an open world wasteland, where you must fight and talk to survive, often exploring the bizarre vaults beneath the desert or battling the mutated creatures that scrape by. Its combat system called VATS is divisive (i.e most people think it’s rubbish), but it introduces tactical flexibility to an otherwise brutally-hard game.
In Fallout: New Vegas, you play as an anonymous Courier. Left for dead, you roam the strange wastes around Arizona, Nevada and California, hunting for your killer, or exploring weird side quests. Turning on the hardcore game mode also means that food, water and sleep are essential, making it into a classic open world survival game, like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
3. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The first two Witchers were compelling and strange, but only mildly popular. The Witcher 3 was an absolute step up in quality, and probably the best all-round game of last year. You take the part of Geralt, a mutated monster hunter, searching for his adoptive daughter in a medieval world devastated by war.
The open world setting of the game is uniquely well-realized, knocking that of previous fantasy favorite Skyrim into a viking hat. Geralt can walk, ride or sail across the green, war-ravaged lands of the South or sail between the monster-riddled lands of Skellige in the North. He can forage for herbs, explore under the seas or the back alleys of cities, and encounter all sorts of folk tale creatures (and mostly kill them).
And the other elements of the game are spectacularly polished as well – limber, agile combat, a deep levelling system, and a storyline with some unusually-smart storylines.
4. Saint’s Row IV
We know that Grand Theft Auto V is one of the best open world games out there. It’s a huge pastiche of L.A. that you can drive across, or hop on a train, or a boat or a plane – an amazing achievement, and the fact it works in multiplayer is astounding.
Saint’s Row IV is more limited, we accept. But where GTA V seems to have a dislike for all its characters, Saints Row IV manages to love its cast. It’s also uproariously funny throughout, with throwaway jokes about Mass Effect, Prototype, Crackdown, The Matrix, and Metal Gear being built into ridiculous missions.
As the (criminal) President of the United States, you receive superpowers, fail to fight off an alien invasion, and end up exploring a simulation of your giant home city of Steelport where you must rescue your pals from their own personal hells.
5. Metal Gear Solid V
The plot may have made less sense than a mumbling monkey with a mouthful of marbles, but Hideo Kojima’s swansong was a masterpiece of layered open world mechanics.
In its twin deserts of Afghanistan and Angola, your character Big Boss has a range of objectives to achieve. He traverses these areas on foot, horseback, or in a variety of ground vehicles. You can take either lethal or non-lethal weapons, and a variety of strange AI companions.
The world itself is believably bleak, weather-torn and heavily-guarded. Uniquely, it learns from your behaviour – overuse a particular tactic, and enemies will adapt. For example, rely too much on headshots and they’ll start to wear metal helmets.
Away from the frontline, you can develop Big Boss’ base, by building new facilities and airlifting enemy soldiers, prisoners, resources, vehicles, animals and anything else you want to from the battlefield.
6. Don’t Starve
Klei’s indie survival horror game takes the drawing style of Edward Gorey, the twisted monstrosities of the Binding of Isaac, and the crafting mechanics of Minecraft and creates an unholy, dark 2D world for players to explore. Suffice to say, it’s a joy.
As players explore the world, they encounter (and die at the appendages of) its various flora and fauna. Eventually, the player might have enough knowledge to not die from starvation, not to be eaten by monsters, not to die of thirst… and then they might learn how to survive winter.
Beyond that, Don’t Starve has tremendous replay value from unlockable characters, the Together expansion that allows for multiplayer survival, and the Shipwrecked expansion which introduces a whole new area to be eaten by monsters in.
7. Dwarf Fortress
The inaccessible indie open world game par excellence, Dwarf Fortress’ world is open in space, but more importantly in time. Before you even start playing, the game’s engine generates thousands of years of history for its huge fantasy world, then narrows in on a tiny slice of its history and geography.
Players can then either take control of a single adventurer, exploring this generated world or a caravan of dwarfs, setting off to found a colony in the history-saturated wastelands. Taking the latter mode, you have to establish supplies of food, beer, weaponry and a hundred other essentials for a comfortable dwarf dwelling.
Inevitably, they come under attack by hideous monsters, either wandering through the world or having been unearthed by Digging Too Deep. And then they all die or go insane.
If you’re looking for a much more accessible version of the game, you could try Keeper RL – which allows players to take control of dungeon full of monsters attempting to wipe out humans, dwarves and elves.
8. Sunless Sea
An entirely text-based open world? In 2016? Well, sure. Failbetter’s Fallen London story world has been developing for seven years and by now probably has more text in it than the Bible. And it’s better written too.
Despite that, it was the Fallen London spin-off, Sunless Sea, that has won the studio plaudits. Failbetter has taken the same choose-your-own adventure model and built it into a game where you’re exploring an underground sea adjacent to Fallen London.
The shipping and combat is so-so, but the game is driven by its amazingly rich storyline, full of charming devils, malevolent icebergs and soul-filled great apes. There’s no peace in Sunless Sea’s dark waters, just endless storylines to explore – and you will.
9. Dark Souls III
From Software may have started their action-RPG series on the Playstation (with Demon’s Souls), but the best editions have been on the PC (though we accept that the PS4-exclusive Bloodborne is the best of the lot).
It’s an unusual open world in that, though you can roam across it, it often bottlenecks your options to gate access to later areas. And those bottlenecks tend to be manned by giant monstrous bosses that can kill you in two or three hits.
So, yes, roaming in Dark Souls is not really something you do, given the lethality of even the lowliest enemy, until you’re very, very confident in the game. And that’s exactly when your game gets invaded by a max level idiot with a giant sword…
10. The Witness
Jonathan Blow’s game is unlike any other on this list. It’s a pacifistic, smart puzzler that breaks the frame every time it can. At core, it’s a simple set of logic puzzles that get progressively more complex as they layer on each other. These are represented as panels throughout its open world.
And what an open world. Players amble around a landscape that’s rich with history, with several generations of ruins and repair visible in the buildings and hills. Everywhere you go, there are strange figures, some hidden in the landscape.
Get on and strange secrets reveal themselves. Audio recordings, those strange statues, images in the world that can only be seen from one angle, under certain circumstances… The more panels you unlock, the stranger the game gets – and you will never forget that it’s a game.
11. No Man’s Sky
No doubt a divisive entry considering the legal controversies surrounding it, No Man’s Sky is still a game that resonates with us enough to justify its inclusion on our list. In fact, with over 18 quintillion planets to explore, No Man’s Sky exhibits one of the most fully-realized open worlds even if the “game” component is notably lacking.
No Man’s Sky is all about survival and exploration, giving you the power to name and document new species across, well, all the planets even though – as the developer puts it – “it will take you 585 billion years to see them all.” Although there isn’t much of an online portion of the game so far, there’s more than enough content to keep you occupied for years in the single-player mode alone.
The experience is only bettered by the ambient soundtrack (courtesy of 65daysofstatic) setting the tone of the atmosphere. Sure, it gets repetitive from time to time, but No Man’s Sky is a technical marvel if nothing else, and that alone may be worth the price of admission.