I’ve personally started hating the “open world” marketing ploy over the last several years. It seems like everything has to be an open world nowadays, even if that’s just simple padding to artificially extend a game’s life.
Metal Gear Solid V, for example, is part of my favorite franchises. When I found out it was going to be an open world, I was excited to see what could be done with the awesome stealth and vast map. But it turned out that most missions were just as linear as before, with little variety to speak of in the Afghan desert or African savanna.
What casual gamers don’t realize is that open world games can be so much more than just empty sandboxes filled with shiny graphics and a whole bunch of absolute nothingness. Anyway, enough ranting. Here are my top 17 best open world games that don’t feel empty.
How We Chose the Best Open World Games
What we took into consideration when ranking these titles:
- Fun side quests
- Random activities and encounters
- World interaction
- Keeping you busy without feeling tedious
17 The Godfather
|Initial Release Date||March 21, 2006|
|Developer||Page 44 Studios, Headgate Studios, EA Redwood Shores|
Francis Ford Coppola’s classic comes to life in this immersive open world mafia simulator. You play as a new, nameless character as you jump into the Corleone family. While the game does take a few liberties with the story here and there, it’s mostly a genuine one-to-one recreation of the famous Hollywood series.
Ask anyone who’s played it, and chances are they’re gonna tell you it’s one of the best open world games that were overlooked during the Playstation 2 days. While there are a few roads and boulevards here and there that don’t offer many things, it’s otherwise packed with action and plentiful side quests.
You’ll get a slightly new perspective on the classic story, intimidate shop owners to pay protection fees, take over other families’ rackets, and, in time, take over their compounds. All of this with the goal of becoming Don of New York City. Digital copies of the game are kind of hard to come by and don’t expect to find a new physical copy any time soon. But if you get the chance, play it. You’ll probably like it.
|Initial Release Date||June 9, 2009|
Mayhem ensues in this fantastic rendition of Manhattan. You play as Alex Mercer, a shapeshifting powerhouse set to contain the Blacklight plague that’s turning the Big Apple’s resident into hideous monsters. You can fly, run on walls, slice and dice anyone that comes in your way, throw vehicles, and much, much more.
The game is filled with side quests and an engaging story that will keep you occupied for hours on end. While it’s more than ten years old already, it still manages to surpass many other sandbox games of today. And you can go full maniac mode against anything and everything. It doesn’t matter if it’s the police, military, civilians, or monsters.
Furthermore, with its recent port to current-gen consoles, it has also become one of the top open world games for PS4 that you can download directly from the Playstation Store.
15 Burnout Paradise
|Initial Release Date||January 22, 2008|
Probably the best open world game from the racing genre that’s available on all major platforms. Where do I even begin with this one? Tight controls, high-speed races, tons of billboards to destroy, customization options, and lots of challenges. There are no pedestrians to speak of in Paradise City, but it sure as hell doesn’t feel empty.
When I first played it back in 2008, I just couldn’t put down the controller for hours on end. Now that it’s got a remaster, I think it’s the perfect time to experience it once more and get new people to play it as well. If you get the remastered edition, you also get to enjoy it in full 4K glory.
But let’s say that you only opt to get The Ultimate Box from Steam. While it’s only the original game with all add-ons included, it still manages to hold up well from a graphical standpoint, making it one of the rare open world PC games that have managed to stand the test of time
14 Dying Light
|Initial Release Date||January 28, 2015|
|Publisher||Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment; Techland Publishing|
Let’s turn things up a little. Zombies! Yeah, ok, there have been tons of zombie games over the past decade, and even before that. But none seem to have the charm of Dying Light. It’s got a dynamic day and night cycle, much like the GTA series. But it’s not just the look that gets changed once the sun fades away.
More dangerous creatures lurk around the corners at night, and you have to do your best to avoid them and get back to your safehouse alive. With parkour mechanics similar to Mirror’s Edge and plenty of scavenging to do, you’ll have no time to be bored. You can craft numerous weapons to defend yourself and attack the flesh-eating creatures as you please.
And if the single player campaign is too boring for your liking, you also have a four-player co-op mode and a heart-pounding multiplayer where one player controls the Night Hunter and the rest of you try to take it down by any means necessary. It’s one of the best open world games that still receives support from the developer more than five years after its release date.
13 Don’t Starve
|Initial Release Date||April 23, 2013|
While this open world survival spectacular debuted all the way back in 2013, it has received DLC all the way up to 2018 and even an extensive expansion called Don’t Starve Together. The game is even supported by the developers up to this day with the addition of new characters, dangers, and mechanics to play around with.
This point and click adventure has intrigued players from the get-go. The seemingly randomly generated world will always keep you on your toes because you never know what’s coming next. And depending on which character you choose to play as, the game can differ immensely. Wilson can grow a beard which he can later use to craft certain items, while Willow is immune to fire and burns things once she gets nervous.
If you get all the DLC for the game, you will enjoy playing with 22 different characters, each with their own quirks and abilities. The fact that people still actively play it to this very day is a testament to how the best open world games can impact the gaming community despite lacking the latest tech in graphical fidelity.
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12 Batman Arkham Knight
|Initial Release Date||June 23, 2015|
|Publisher||Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment|
I think I’ve played this game for more than 70 hours in total, including its DLC and New Game Plus mode. It’s just that good as an action, stealth, and open world game in a single package. Do you know that meme that keeps popping up on 9gag and Reddit from time to time? Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman.
Then be Batman.
Well, this game lets you do just that. And don’t get me wrong, I loved Arkham City. I’ve also played that game for about as much as I did this one. However, Arkham Knight has so many new additions and side missions thanks to the Batmobile that the two games seem worlds apart once you get used to the slightly different controls.
Even just exploring the streets, you’ll stumble upon numerous encounters with foes that can play out differently every single time. Once again, you can interrogate Riddler’s allies, beat the crap out of everything with a pulse, solve riddles and sidequests, and glide above the high-textured skyscrapers and deprecate buildings.
11 Saints Row IV
|Initial Release Date||August 20, 2013|
The Saints Row series has been compared to Grand Theft Auto numerous times. But if you ask me, they are two completely different beasts. While GTA focuses more on gritty realism and intense stories, Saints Row IV goes full bonkers. You get to play as the president of the United States, and it’s neither Orange Man or Killary. Or it can be if you want.
You can customize your character however you want. And, yes, I do mean however you want.
Purple skin? No problem.
Running around fully naked with a pixelated crotch? Check.
Selecting from three different male or female voice sets? You got it. And it doesn’t stop with the customization.
You can also do whatever you want within the game world.
Hijack a car, plane, motorcycle, or glide, super jump, and wreak havoc to your heart’s desire. And because 2013 was a simpler time, you also get a dubstep gun. It’s like a gun but instead of bullets, it shoots dubstep waves that knock everything into the air. It’s by far one of the best open world games that lets you go crazy instead of feeling repetitive or restrictive.
10 The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
|Initial Release Date||March 20, 2006|
|Developer||Bethesda Game Studios|
|Publisher||Bethesda Softworks; 2K Games|
While everyone seems to talk about Skyrim or reminisce about Morrowind, many forget that the game between these two was just as good, if not better regarding certain aspects. I put over 100 hours into Oblivion (pun intended), and apart from the beginning hour, I never felt bored.
There was so much stuff you could do in that game that it blew my then 15-year-old mind to bits.
Even now I still fondly remember some of the extensive quests in that game, especially the Dark Brotherhood storyline. I put all of my ability points into stealth and stealth and stealth. I would go lockpicking every house and chest that I’d stumble upon.
A friend of mine played the exact opposite. He would go heads-on into battle with his sword and shield. Another put his skill points into magical abilities. We used to talk about the game relentlessly and I couldn’t believe how vastly different our experiences were.
And I don’t mean to discredit people’s love for Skyrim at all. It’s a fantastic game in its own right. Maybe I’m just looking at it through nostalgia goggles, but I used to play Oblivion without any of the mods that Skyrim has and I still found it extremely engaging. In any case, whatever Elder Scrolls game is your favorite, it’s worth putting on the best open world games list.
9 Mad Max
|Initial Release Date||September 1, 2015|
|Publisher||Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment|
Released in 2015, yet having numerous players partake in the action even today, Mad Max is a solely single-player experience set in a post-apocalyptic world full of brutal ugliness, memorable characters, and some of the most fun races you’ll ever experience even in racing games.
You have a plethora of customization options for your vehicles, tons of side quests that involve shooting, sneaking, and heart-throbbing fistfights.
The combat system seems to be ripped straight out of the Batman Arkham series, like many games have done from 2009 onwards. As you can imagine, it’s an engaging clash of brutal hits and well-timed counters that turn into free-flowing actions.
But by far the most fun you’ll have in this open world game is with the ridiculous races. They involve you and an NPC cruising along in a vehicle. You drive and the NPC can shoot other enemies or vice-versa.
8 Fallout 4
|Initial Release Date||November 10, 2015|
|Developer||Bethesda Game Studios|
Sticking to our post-apocalyptic nightmares, Fallout 4 takes you on yet another journey through the wasteland. This time, with even more quests, characters, and locations to explore. But what’s even more engaging is your new partner: a dog by the name of Dogmeat. Ok, you won’t get it from the start. You have to get to the Red Rocket truck stop and befriend the dog.
But let’s not get sidetracked here. What can you do in Fallout 4 that wasn’t already included in Fallout 3 and New Vegas? Settlements. You can fill the map with all sorts of constructions that come to your mind. Imagination is your only limit. Ok, there’s the inventory space too.
Through my playthrough, I don’t remember ever walking for more than two minutes without stumbling upon something to do.
7 Far Cry 3
|Initial Release Date||November 29, 2012|
There have been two other mainline entries and several spinoff titles in this franchise since the 2012 classic’s release. And yet, none of them have managed to recapture that same spirit. Far Cry 3 is just as cinematic as it is open world. Threats are nearly everywhere and you can tackle them in all sorts of creative ways.
The side missions are bonkers, with drug-induced hallucinations, burning a weed plantation while Skrillex and Damian Marley’s song plays in the background, vividly remembering a night out with your friends on Die Antwoord’s freaky track… you get it. It’s creative and it was sure as hell daring through and through.
It was one of the best open world games to come out that year, and it was miles ahead of its prequels, Far Cry 2, which seemed so vast yet empty that it disappointed numerous fans of the first game.
|Initial Release Date||March 26, 2019|
|Developer||Nine Dots Studio|
An open world survival RPG where even things such untreated wounds can have a lasting impact on how you will play the game. Inevitably, there are gonna be people who will compare it to Skyrim, but this is a completely different game. Apart from the insanely moddable features, you get many extras right out of the box.
For example, you can play this game as a split-screen coop. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other open world game that does this. I played this for a few hours with a neighbor of mine and we were both hooked. The map is vast and filled with sidequests, interesting characters, intriguing storylines, and danger lurking around almost every corner.
The best open world games immerse you into their world and don’t let go until the very end. And trust me, you’ll be spending lots of hours in here. With such variety and so many factors affecting everything, it also has tons of replay value. Unlike Telltale Games, your dialogue choices impact the world noticeably. I refuse to give you spoilers, so give it a shot.
5 GTA San Andreas
|Initial Release Date||October 26, 2004|
No best open world games list would be complete with the smash hit that was and is Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. It wasn’t my first nor my last GTA game, but it’s the one that managed to impress me the most up until my very next visit to Los Santos in 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V.
While it suffers from some of that PS2 era quirkiness and numerous examples of absurd video game logic, it’s tons of fun to play even when compared to many games today. Does it feel empty? Not one bit. You can respond to many NPCs that are walking around, get ripped at the gym, get fat at Burger Shot, participate in racing tournaments, pimp out your ride, partake in a gang war, fly a plane, or a helicopter, drive a boat, and… did I miss anything?
I’m pretty sure I’ve missed at least a dozen activities that you can do in this classic open world game. If you’re one of the 5% of people who still haven’t played it, do yourself a favor and have a go at it.
4 Nier Automata
|Initial Release Date||February 23, 2017|
Nier Automata is… weird, to say the least. And I mean it in a good kind of way. One moment it acts like an RPG, then like an exploration game, then it shifts to a text adventure, and while you were blinking it turned into a brawler and a shoot-em-up.
It’s a hybrid game that mashes many genres into a single package and breaks the fourth wall even more so than Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2.
It’s got so many locations to explore and such an intriguing and mind-boggling plot that you won’t forget it any time soon. Without giving any spoilers (because I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself), the story will turn you on your head when you don’t even expect it. By the end, you’ll reach the credits only to realize that there’s actually more to play – from a different perspective. Inception, Memento, Se7evn… eat your hearts out.
3 Grand Theft Auto V
|Initial Release Date||September 17, 2013|
In the beginning, I’d promised myself not to include two titles from the same franchise in this countdown. But who am I kidding? Grand Theft Auto is the grand-daddy of them all, and it would’ve been foolish of me not to give it the praise it deserves, especially when you consider all the improvements that came along with this best-selling blockbuster.
With an uncompromising level of detail, three characters that you can switch to instantly at almost any given time, numerous side quests, secrets, and locations to discover, you’ll have a blast playing this gem.
My favorite thing about GTA V is Trevor Philips. This sociopath is so unhinged in his language and mannerisms that you can’t help but admire him throughout the entire plot. Once, when I switched to him, I found him dressed in a woman’s clothing, sleeping under a rock on the beach. Yeah, we’ve all been there, Trevor.
2 Red Dead Redemption 2
|Initial Release Date||October 26, 2018|
One of the best games of the 2010s and one of the best open world games of all time. Red Dead Redemption 2 pushed the limits of the soon-to-be previous generation of consoles, and it still makes even a Titan Ti graphics card struggle at max settings.
The level of detail is spectacular, with footprints left in the snow, horse testicles shrinking in cold weather (yes, that’s a real thing they unironically added in), high-res textures on every bullet, and so much more.
You can hunt, fish, start a campfire, explore towns, and get immersed in the Wild West setting with every detail – including the mentality of that era. For example, you can tie a women’s rights activist and set her on the train tracks, and barely anyone bats an eye.
But leaving aside the sensitive matters, you’ll have tons of fun going on side missions, reading through old books, collecting treasure, being chased by the sheriff, and… it would take me at least a few hours to list everything you can do in this game, so let’s just leave it at that.
1 The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
|Initial Release Date||May 19, 2015|
|Developer||CD Projekt Red|
What’s more to say about this game that hasn’t already been said? It’s my personal favorite best open world game.
I’ve never seen a game blend the cinematic experience with all the characteristics of an open-ended RPG so well as this one. And I’m not even a huge fan of fantasy RPGs in general, with just a few exceptions here and there.
And with the recent release of the Netflix adaptation, the game has seen a rise in popularity once more. And I think that’s a good thing because many more people need to play this game. And other developers should take note of CD Projekt Red’s consumer-oriented practices, such as releasing the game without any DRM and being truthful regarding every announcement they make.
This concludes our list of the best open world games. Of course, every list is subjective and this one is no exception. Let us know in the comments if we missed any of your favorite open world games.
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