Since the 2001 release of Grand Theft Auto III, gamers have been enthralled by the freedoms afforded by open-world video games. They give us the opportunity to make the game our own; sure, completing missions may be the point of a video game, but who doesn’t love to take time off to explore the nuances of a well-designed setting? Of course, some open world games are better than others. Here are what we consider the best open-world video games.
Note: We will not be listing more than one game per series. This is mainly to prevent Grand Theft Auto titles from completely dominating the list.
The concept of an open-world Spider-Man game is nothing new. The 2004 movie tie-in Spider-Man 2 even sort of got it right. However, 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man is not only the definitive Spider-Man game, but it is one of the best open-world video games of all time.
The Manhattan sandbox is incredibly immersive; just like the real Manhattan, it never leaves the player bereft of things to do (though the game’s swinging mechanics are so addictive that oftentimes the simple act of swinging will suffice). It closely mirrors the real New York City, giving the player an authentic experience. Playing Marvel’s Spider-Man is the closest you can come to feeling as though you are Spider-Man himself.
Released in 2022, Elden Ring is already a classic. Developed by FromSoftware—best known for Dark Souls—ER is the company’s most ambitious project to date. Split into six different zones, each with its own story threads and dungeons, the map is massive.
According to Magnetic Mag, “To fully explore its vast map and complete its eclectic range of side quests, Elden Ring could take upwards of 150 hours to complete. The developer is known for locking entire quest lines, or even areas of its maps, to very specific requirements that could take hours themselves just to find, let alone complete.”
Clearly, Elden Ring is not a game you play casually. However, doing so would be next to impossible anyway, as it is so incredibly addictive. Everything is of the highest quality: an intricate, yet easy-to-understand battle system, gorgeous landscapes, an engrossing plot, and fantastical monster design.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
While there’s yet to be a bad Assassin’s Creed game, the fourth installment is thought to be the pinnacle of the franchise. Developer Ubisoft is known for the painstaking effort they put into crafting sandboxes that accurately reflect historical periods. And Black Flag is a prime example.
Taking place in the West Indies during the Golden Age of Piracy, the game puts you in the shoes of Edward Kenway, a Welsh pirate with a penchant for sailing. In your pirate ship—the Jackdaw—you’re free to explore the Caribbean, seeking treasures in jungles, forts, ruins, small villages, and underwater. About 60% of the map is oceanic, allowing for exciting ship battles and underwater exploration.
The map also features an abundance of islands and three cities: Havana, Kingston, and Nassau, residing under Spanish, British, and pirate reign, respectively. Each city is unique and historically accurate. With such an immense and drive etailed sandbox, the player will never run out of things to do. (And they might learn a thing or two about history.)
Red Dead Redemption 2
The primary appeal of open world games is the amount of choice they give the player. Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2 fits this bill arguably better than any other game in history. Whether you want to hunt for dinosaur bones, solve murder mysteries, or even summon a vampire, RDR 2 has you covered. Of course, you can also follow the main storyline, which completely shatters the, “Video games don’t tell good stories” argument.
Telling the tale of bandit Arthur Morgan, Read Dead Redemption 2 details the decline of 19th-century Wild West outlaws as industrialization rears its head into civilization. As is the case with any great Western, the plot is filled with tragedy, even bringing some players to tears.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
You probably predicted that the number-one spot would be occupied by a Grand Theft Auto game. And how could it not be? Not only did the series introduce the open world formula to the mainstream, but it has maintained its quality over the course of more than two decades. Of every superb GTA game, we feel that 2004’s San Andreas best represents everything that makes an open world video game great.
Taking place in three major cities—with plenty of rural land in between—San Andreas gave the player more to do than any GTA game that preceded it. Sure, the missions were tough, but you could always take a break and buff up protagonist CJ, dance at the club, ride BMX, date, drive stunt cars, etc… And that’s barely scratching the surface.
San Andreas set a new benchmark for the series and open-world video games in general. It is not an action game; it’s an RPG, just a different kind.
What, in your opinion, are the best open-world video games? Let us know in the comments!