Open world games. This term is always being thrown around in the landscape of video game releases. “It’s got a great open world!”, or “The open world system really makes it feel like you’re living there”. What is an open world game exactly?
What is ‘Open World’?
The open world doesn’t refer necessarily to a living, breathing game world, but rather a more nonlinear approach to level design and player interaction to the world. Playing through Final Fantasy X will have you and your party trudge along with the monster-infested Mi’ihen Highroads, battling tough foes all along the way. You move in a straight line until you get to the end, point A to point B.
Compare that to the most recent Final Fantasy XV, in which you and your party can tackle main game missions or side quests at your own leisure. You can take time to both literally and figuratively go off the beaten path and play the game your way.
This can benefit the player greatly, as they can choose to take on a tough mission when they’ve leveled up, instead of feeling stuck, unable to beat a difficult boss.
Open world games have often become tied closely with games with literal wide-open worlds like the featured cities in the Grand Theft Auto franchise and the rich world of the Witcher series.
First Open World Game
Unbelievably, open world games go back a lot farther than you would think. I believe many gamers were introduced to one of the most famous open worlds, that of Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto III in 2001. What if I told you that the first modern open world game came out in the mid-1970s?
Of course, you have classics like the first Legend of Zelda title in which the player controls Link around the wilderness, with the player ultimately deciding where their adventuring takes them. Even before Zelda, there was Dungeons & Dragons.
You and your friends would create adventurers and dungeon crawl, relying heavily on imagination and party dynamics with those you were playing with.
It can be great fun precisely because of the freedom the players have in the world they themselves create. You and your buddies are in a haunted crypt and everything is going well, that is until the dungeon master decides to throw a curveball at you and decides to summon high level giant French snakes wearing birthday party hats. It can truly be an unforgettable experience.
Best Open World Games
Okay, the history of such an iconic aspect of gaming is great and everything, but what are the best titles? What is the best open world game ever? Wait no longer, I’m here to tell you what the best worlds are to immerse yourself in fully.
50. Mount & Blade (and its expansions)
This is a great little gem of a game that I’m surprised doesn’t have more of a splash in the gaming world. Released for Windows, Linux and MacOS in 2008, M&B puts you in the boots of a lone adventurer who has journeyed to a fictional war-torn medieval kingdom. The player is basically given scant supplies and told by the game ‘make a name for yourself‘.
Want to join the kingdom of Swabia and bring cold steel to the enemy kingdoms? Or are you more of a bandit, robbing caravans and sacking villages with impunity? You can do these and much more. The game is what it means to be open world and nonlinear. It drops you in and says, ‘have a go at it’.
49. Mad Max
To be honest, when this game came out, I wasn’t even aware that there was a Mad Max game in development. Needless to say, I was surprised when I bought it on a whim and booted it up. In the 2015 title by Avalanche Studios, you take control of our beloved post-apocalyptic tough guy Max Rockatansky as he works towards his goal of beefing up his car into the ‘Magnum Opus’.
Woe to those who try to come between old Max and his dusty desert drag racer. The game is similar to previous titles published by Warner Bros., namely the Batman Arkham games.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the combat is fluid, the driving is great, and you really feel like you’re duking it out in the desert with a bunch of bloodthirsty gangs. It is available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Starbound tells the simple story of the player character who has just graduated from the academy. Out of nowhere, aliens come and destroy the planet, forcing the player and others to escape in a ship. This leads you to explore space, landing on planets, and building countless resources.
Not only do I love the story, but it really feels like you’re trying to survive when you start digging for resources on a hostile alien world. It reminds me a lot of a mashup of Terraria, Minecraft, and Stardew Valley. It respects the player’s creativity, basically saying, ‘come do this quest later if you want’.
With beautiful pixel visuals and a great soundtrack, this 2016 title is a great open world title. It’s currently on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows, OS X, Linux, and the PlayStation Vita.
47. Assassin’s Creed Origins
I’m a huge history buff, especially for ancient Egypt. That’s why I’m proud to say Assassin’s Creed Origins is a great open world game. Like treasure hunts? Climbing pyramids? What about hunting? Ancient cults controlling the world and you’re caught up in the middle of a bloody and stealthy plot for world domination?
All sound good? Good, because that’s the bread and butter of this historical fiction title released in 2017. The customization, combat, and visuals are unreal compared to the previous release in the series, Syndicate. It can be found on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows.
46. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
I couldn’t decide which of the most recent Assassin’s Creed titles I loved the most so consider these tied. I can’t tell you how many hours I sunk into this one. Like in Origins, Odyssey throws you back into time, like WAY back, (431 B.C. Greece to be exact), and as you become nothing short of a Greek god.
The cult is back, the great combat is even better, and you’ll be surprised at how varied and more fun the side quests can be over the main quest. Ubisoft really tweaked everything to a great level.
Anyone who is a fan of mythology, the Assassin’s Creed series, and just a beautiful and rich open world will love this. It was released in 2018 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia and Windows.
45. Assassin’s Creed II
I really enjoyed the first Assassin’s Creed, but the second entry in the series really upped the ante and showed that Ubisoft really knew what they were doing. Dropped into Renaissance Italy in the late 1400’s, the player is introduced to great characters and even better honed gameplay.
Assassin’s Creed could have easily been a one-hit wonder, but the series rightly solidified its place in gaming history with this second entry. The open world is beautiful, painstakingly detailed, and just downright fun to explore on your own. It was released in 2009 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows. It was remastered and released for the most recent gaming systems.
44. Kingdom Come: Deliverance
Warhorse Studios really took a lot of people by surprise with their 2018 medieval title. Introduced to our young protagonist Henry, the player is basically dropped into the deep end of an uncaring and daunting medieval Bohemia.
When I say daunting and uncaring, I mean it. I remember running to town late at night, only to be stopped by guards and punished for not having a torch equipped.
You’ll also be penalized for not eating, showing your sword in public, and a multitude of other things that players will probably take for granted.
I once got into a fistfight with the village drunk, (it’s a long story), and it was so difficult as a first-time player, that when I finally, (narrowly), won, it was a rush of accomplishment. That’s what the majority of the game feels like.
Once you get over this hump, the game’s world opens up to you and is extremely rewarding. It is utterly and completely immersive. You can find it on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows.
43. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
The fifth entry of the Metal Gear games, and final written by the game’s creator, Hideo Kojima before his dramatic departure from Konami, was a beautiful example of nonlinear gameplay.
It’s 1984, and Big Boss has awoken from his nearly decade-long coma after the events of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. You’re now tasked with getting revenge, all the while building a huge base of mercenaries not bound by the governments of the world.
You need to complete missions in the mountains of Afghanistan and the jungles of Africa to find, explore, and carry out missions. There are literally hundreds of ways to complete missions. Want to sneak in like a ghost and leave no one the wiser? How about going Rambo-style, leaving no one left alive?
These and all methods in between are valid options for completing your quest. It was released in 2015 on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Windows.
42. Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl
Yikes, this game gives me the creeps, but in the best way. In 2012, the infamous Chernobyl zone experienced a second nuclear meltdown and is now inhabited by mutated animals, scientific anomalies, and roving bands of bandits and soldiers, all looking for the lost secrets of the ‘zone’. Upon its release in 2007, it was praised as being a great open world game.
You can complete the main quests or explore and gun down bandits. The quests themselves are great too, with some truly memorable and hair-raising adventures you won’t soon forget. It can be extremely difficult for first time players, but once you get more comfortable, you may feel very comfortable in the ‘zone’.
This is very similar to the Metro 2023 game series, except Metro is nearly all linear. You can find Stalker on PC.
41. The Witcher: Wild Hunt
This may be my favorite game from 2015. A sterling example of role-playing games done 100% right, the third entry in the Witcher series of games takes everything that CD Projekt Red did twice before and absolutely knocks it out of the park. You’re back as Geralt of Rivia, back to slay some gross monsters and some devious people.
My favorite moment of the game may be in the first 30 minutes, in which you get into a bloody, and (ultimately deadly), tavern fight. You win, and in normal games, the people would be grateful. In this instance, however, the people are hateful and scared of you. You did, after all, just murder their neighbors.
That’s the kind of experience you get every time you boot it up. The choices aren’t black and white anymore, and it’s a great introduction to the Witcher’s open world. It’s currently on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
40. Assassin’s Creed Black Flag
Now this is a fun romp in the Caribbean. You’re Edward Kenway, the Assassin-in-training as he sails the high seas alongside his first mate, Adewale, and real-life historical pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. This was a big shift for the series, as a majority of the game takes place on the deck of your ship, the Jackdaw.
Ubisoft, I believe, really outdid themselves taking this gamble on a shift in gameplay. You can spend hours doing just ocean-based side quests. In my case, it took me forever to finish the main quest because of how addicting it was to upgrade the ship, get into exciting sea battles, and hunt for the elusive white whale.
I’ll never forget going up against a giant British man o’ warship, the biggest in the game. It was truly an exhilarating experience. It was released in 2013 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, Windows, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
39. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this seminal classic from powerhouse Bethesda? Morrowind was Bethesda’s big jump to modern consoles. And what a jump it was. Fully rendered 3D worlds filled to the brim with unique towns, quests, and NPCs that put you right in the world of the Elder Scrolls.
Different noble houses warring with each other, an ancient prophecy coming to life, it’s all there.
The best part is, you can choose to do all of that or none of it. You can just traverse the wonderful world of Morrowind without any intention of completing the main game. This was an important step into what we are more familiar with nowadays.
It was released in 2002 for Xbox and PC.
38. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Just like Bethesda’s jump to consoles, this was another big step for them. This was the first Elder Scrolls game to be released on the seventh generation of home consoles. It landed with a huge splash, making the Elder Scrolls a staple in role-playing spheres as well as games in general. It was released in 2006 for the Xbox 360 and the PC, and eventually the PS3.
They capitalized on the creativity of Morrowind, added amazing visuals for the time, new features like fast traveling, and more. Oblivion was the first introduction many gamers of today had with RPGs and fantasy.
It’s considered a staple of the genre and is nearly always spoken about with reverence or respect. This success with Oblivion would lead to good fortune down the road for Bethesda.
37. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Of course, where would any open-world list be without the powerhouse that is Skyrim? Since its release on major consoles in 2011, Skyrim has taken the gaming world by storm. Released to critical and user acclaim, Skyrim redefined open world with its dynamic features, colorful world, and deep customization.
It didn’t hurt that you could battle huge dragons now, either. Bethesda took everything they’ve learned and cranked it up full blast.
The most recent console release of the many iterations of Skyrim was for the Nintendo Switch in 2017. There’s even a VR version that was released in April of 2018. Now you’re able to battle in the deep, snowy crypts of Skyrim as if you’re actually there.
With the success of Skyrim, one can be confident in Bethesda’s next Elder Scrolls game, tentatively titled The Elder Scrolls VI.
36. Grand Theft Auto III
Released in 2001 to great fanfare, GTAIII was possibly the most important open world game. The third installment of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto Series took the camera angle and made it third person instead of an overhead view.
This opened up so many possibilities gameplay wise. It made the series more authentic, and something beautiful emerged from this simple change in camera: story.
Rockstar knows how to tell a great story. While GTAIII’s story may be a little generic, (basically check out any mafia movie), this was the first step in a long line of great narratives that the company would undertake. Blood, cursing, gunplay, and mayhem were all increased tenfold to usher in a golden age of gaming in the early 2000’s.
This game inspired countless other open world games like Saint’s Row and the Godfather game. Liberty City was a living, breathing city, with people living their lives, and you being just a small part of it.
35. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
We’re back again with Rockstar’s most famous series. Vice City takes the mayhem and chaos of GTAIII and adds pastels, neon, and a rocking 1980s soundtrack to it. You’re Tommy, carving a swatch out of the sun-drenched beaches of Vice City, (a play on Miami). This game is truly special. It took GTAIII and made it better.
The story was a little more refined, now featuring a voiced protagonist, and of course, new weapons and vehicles. You truly felt like you were in the 80s by the way the game totally immersed itself in the culture, time, and vibe.
I’ll never forget cruising down the beach, cranking ‘Bark at the Moon’ by Ozzy Osbourne, while being chased by two different gangs. It piled on what the third game did and made it stylish as hell.
34. Grand Theft Auto IV
After the success of the San Andreas, Rockstar moved onto the newer consoles. Released in 2008, GTA IV was a bit of a different bag than San Andreas was.
GTAIV was more grounded in realism than its predecessors, for both good and bad. The story was gritty, with the player controlling the likeable, if morally ambiguous Niko Bellic, and had a much more dramatic shift.
This, as well as the new look of Liberty City was amazing. Tons of new features were included, along with two full-fledged expansions being released soon after. Liberty City wasn’t just a living breathing city again, but it was extremely realistic. It was modeled off of New York City, adding something that players could actually tie to real life.
33. Grand Theft Auto V
Where would an open world games list be without this behemoth? Rockstar took the narrative skills that they’d built up, and mixed both the seriousness of GTAIV and mixed it with some of the more unbelievable things included in San Andreas. Playing as three different main characters was a brave choice and one that paid off well.
This game also included GTA Online, the wildly popular online mode of the game was absolute mayhem takes place between a huge number of players on the GTA map. It was released for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, with ports to Xbox One, PC, and PS4.
32. Red Dead Redemption
I still have great memories of booting this game up back in 2010, but ultimately thought it couldn’t be a better open world game than the previous GTA games in the Rockstar repertoire. Boy was I wrong. Red Dead Redemption blows all of the narrative gravitas any of the previous Rockstar games had right out of the water.
John Marston is constantly being lauded for some as gaming’s best or most liked protagonist. Even if you’re not a fan of westerns, Red Dead throws you into a believably real world. It’s not like cowboy movies; it’s much grittier and more unforgiving. It was released for all major consoles in 2010, paving the way for the sequel we all know and love.
31. Red Dead Redemption II
Wow, what can I say about the most talked about game in recent memory? It really stands on its own as a narrative achievement and is a shining example of the narrative leaps and bounds I discussed regarding Rockstar.
This prequel to Red Dead Redemption puts you in the saddle of Arthur Morgan and his day to day life with the Van Der Linde gang headed by the insane, yet charismatic, Dutch. You know what I said about John Marston being liked by nearly everyone?
Arthur Morgan proved to eclipse John with that honor. Aside from being in a gang, Arthur is a pretty nice guy, and seems so real as a person. That’s what this game does so well. You truly believe these people could be real people. The places too, are detailed and have such a rich narrative history.
You feel like this world has always existed and you’re just merely passing through it. This hulk of a game was released in late 2018 to amazing critical acclaim for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
30. Gothic II
Developed by European company Piranha Bytes and released in 2003, Gothic II is the second in the series of RPG fantasy games. Players of Bethesda’s games will be right at home here with the tone and vibe of the world.
This world does not care about you. It will see you; it will kill you, and it will take full advantage of you. I remember being early on in the game, and a guy asked me to do a favor for him.
I thought it would be easy gold, so of course I said yes. All I had to do was plant weapons on a rival stall in the marketplace. Okay, so I did. He gave me my reward, but to my irritation, days later he came back and pinned the crime on me. It felt so real that I honestly couldn’t be angry. I was amazed.
The world was taking me, chewing me, and spitting me out on the cobblestones of the big city. And I loved every minute. This game is on PC.
29. Just Cause 2
Although I wasn’t exactly a fan of the first game in the series, Just Cause was just absolute insane fun. I will never get the same rush in a different game as I do when I pilot a jet thousands of feet up, jump, and proceed to skydive to see if I could grapple hook back onto it.
Yeah, I did that for hours, so what?! Situations like that are rife in this 2010 release for major consoles.
This is a case of the sequel absolutely killing the first game in the series. You’re tasked with overthrowing a corrupt tyrant on an island nation, and you have free reign to do basically anything to achieve those goals. Varied environments, organic AI, it’s all here.
28. Saint’s Row 4
Okay, this one is just insane. The first Saint’s Row was a more serious game about gang life. By the fourth iteration in the series, all of that is gone out the window. In this 2013 game, you’re the leader of the 3rd Street Saints. Add to that, you’re character has also been elected president.
Yep, not making it up. Everything’s great until an evil alien overlord invades and throws all of humanity into a simulation. It’s up to you, in an extremely blatant but humorous nod to the Matrix, to destroy the overlord’s plans.
This is the polar opposite of GTAIV’s gritty realism. This game has you using a bazooka while dressed as Uncle Sam. Or dressed as a hot dog using a dubstep gun, forcing all enemies to start dancing, ultimately exploding. The possibilities are endless, and all of the weird and, sometimes unnerving.
There are many wild laughs to be had while trying to save the world, and Saint’s Row 4 does this open world concept and flips it on its head. It was released for Xbox 360, PS3 and Windows.
27. Saint’s Row 2
The second game in the series has the developer Volition, turning up the humor factor on this one. It was released in 2008, not long after GTAIV. The first game was a more realistic take on modern gang warfare, Saint’s Row 2 capitalizes on that, and makes it boatloads of fun. I was absolutely addicted to this game.
A friend of mine told me he hated GTAIV but loved this, because he said when he plays a video game, he wants to have unbridled fun, not dreary storylines. We can agree to disagree, but I’m willing to see his point of view after I dress like a mascot and use a samurai sword to kill a gang leader to a-ha’s ‘Take on Me’.
26. Saint’s Row
Compared to the rest of the games in the series, Saint’s Row is more serious in tone, and attempts to tell a serious story about betrayal, blood, and gang violence. Although its humor is a little more juvenile, the game was solid, and offered players an alternative to Grand Theft Auto’s monopoly on the open world market.
At this point, I respect what Saint’s Row did in terms of transforming itself from its first game into what it is now. If they kept up this style and tone, I’m not sure if they would’ve made it out of the mid-2000s. It was released in 2006 exclusively for Xbox 360.
25. Fallout 4
The newest Fallout release came out for Xbox One, PS4 and PC in 2015. It changed the setting from past games by setting it near a post-apocalyptic Boston and the nearby surroundings. It introduced dynamics to the series like base building in which you could build an outpost of survivors, including farming, lighting, turrets, and more.
The graphics were beautiful, and the gameplay was tight as ever. It was criticized for its lack of dialogue options, but I still consider it a significant step for Bethesda and the Fallout series. It had a great companion system, with one of my favorite characters, the android Nick Valentine.
24. Fallout New Vegas
This is a personal favorite of mine. Left for dead in the Mojave Desert, you play a nameless courier who has to find out who double-crossed them. The setting is prime Fallout: unforgiving desert filled with bloodthirsty gangs and mutants.
It is all based around the conflict of the remainder of the U.S. government, the New California Republic and Caesar’s Legion, a brutal army of Roman-inspired warriors deadest of ruling the Mojave.
Relationships with factions in the game, the branching story, and the hundreds of different combos of the story you can undertake is, frankly, brilliant.
It kept me coming back for more repeatedly. It was released in 2010 for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.
23. Fallout 3
Bethesda’s first attempt at the beloved PC franchise was a success. They nailed the look and feel of the irradiated wasteland that the first two games did so well. You’re tasked with finding your father around a ruined Washington D.C., with a whole bunch of super mutants in between.
It’s one of those titles where you believe that this world exists long after you’ve shut off your console. IT was released in 2008 for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.
22. Fallout 2
This is considered the high watermark in post-apocalyptic gameplay. I couldn’t fathom how many choices I had as a gamer in this game. You could pretty much do anything you wanted. Once you got unleashed on the wasteland of America, all you had to do was make sure you survived. This highly acclaimed sequel was released in 1998 for PC.
21. Wasteland 2
I bought this crowdfunded game on a whim. It was from the grandfathers of the Fallout series, so they had to know what they were doing, and boy did they. I don’t remember spending that much time with a PC RPG like that in years. It reminds me of the first two Fallout games is they had a modern reboot, which I would love.
You travel along the desert with your fellow rangers, defeating gangs, uncovering plots, and saving what remains of the world. It was released in 2014.
20. Mario 64
One of my favorite games that formed who I was as a gamer was Nintendo’s 1996 work of art, Mario 64. Mario jumped into the fully 3D 64-bit world, allowing the player to control him in all his silly and heroic glory.
Secret passageways, different worlds, and hours upon hours of gameplay await all who want to explore Peach’s castle.
Another favorite of mine, Banjo-Kazooie introduced us to the loveable combo of platforming animals. Banjo the bear is going to battle the evil witch Grunty, and there’s a bunch of creatively designed levels in between. This game has honesty and sly humor all throughout. This was released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64.
18. Donkey Kong 64
The DK crew returns to take on the 3D world. This game, along with Rare’s other titles, were such pivotal platforming games in the 90s, that their legacy will never be overshadowed. You have access to 5 different Kong’s, all with their own unique abilities and play styles, making you think strategically about how you get certain items or get to certain areas.
This game is long, and it’s detailed. I guarantee that you won’t be able to collect everything, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!
So, this one might have some controversy. Developer Peter Molyneux promised a lot of this game. Although it is a great and solid open-world RPG, Peter and his team promised almost impossible features that were captivating to hear about.
Although the game didn’t deliver on some specific promises, it was still a great narrative, and a good play on the hero’s journey. It was released in 2004 for Xbox exclusively.
16. Fable II
I think that this is what Peter Molyneux had in mind for the first Fable, as it’s a much more fleshed out and versatile title. You really feel a crucial part of the world this time around. Set hundreds of years past the first game, you’re an orphan who’s out to seek revenge on the man who tore your family part.
It introduced owning a furry companion in the game: a loyal dog that would find items, help attack, and other things. This was a very addicting game, much more so than the first game. It was released in 2008 for Xbox 360
15. Deadly Premonition
Okay, so you might not find this on many lists, but this may be a personal favorite of mine that’s near and dear to my heart. This kooky Twin Peaks-inspired murder mystery takes twists and turns with a silly veneer that is amazingly endearing to the player.
These characters are so weird, you really can’t help but love them. It was released in 2010 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. It’s a third person shooter, driving sim, survival horror, and life simulator all in one.
Where would we be without Notch’s geometric hit? This is a game that fuels creativity. I’ll never forget seeing someone who recreated scenes from The Lord of the Rings, all in-game. You just start with basic resources and blocks, and you can end up in countless different wild situations an hour later.
I personally loved mining deep in the earth, setting up the mine to better productivity, eventually getting burnt alive by an unexpected lava spill because I dig too dig and too greedily. This classic was released in 2009 and has been popular ever since.
13. The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild
This game is truly special and is often referred to as a significant change for the genre. It’s a game that values your exploration over story progression. See some ruins over there? Go climb them! I believe more games should be utilizing this method.
The Assassin’s Creed series has shifted itself in this direction, but I think it needs to take a long look at Breath of the Wild for some serious pointers in what to do exactly right. It was released on the Nintendo Switch and Wii U in 2017.
12. The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker
I can’t help but draw some parallels to Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. The wide-open seas, being captain of a ship, intrepid adventures, unsavory rogues. Okay, so maybe they only share a few things, but I like to think of Black Flag as R-rated Wind Waker.
True to form, Wind Waker is just as addicting and inspiring as other Zelda entries. Much like Ocarina of Time, Link has a musical instrument that can serve many functions. The music, visuals, and adventure all hold up to today, I can confidently say. It was released for Gamecube in 2002.
11. Shenmue II
This game is celebrated by dedicated fans the world over. Its recent development of a third game in the series has people talking about Shenmue again. You play as Ryo, searching 1980s Hong Kong for his father’s killer, Lan Di.
You’re led on many different twists and turns, all while working different jobs, gambling, eating food, and more. Hong Kong feels real, and the gameplay is still satisfying years later. It was released originally for Xbox in 2002.
Think of this as Shenmue with attitude and no holds barred. Betrayed by his boss, Kazuma goes to jail and is released 10 years later. What ensues is a crazy, action-packed romp that’ll leave you begging for more. As Kazuma, the player engages in a beat-em-up that has yet to be capitalized on by any other series. It was released in 2005 for PS2.
9. Yakuza 3
Flash forward to 2009, our badass Yakuza protagonist, Kazuma is now running an orphanage. Yes, you read that correctly. He’s running an orphanage, and he’s doing it well. Of course, as with these stories, he has to come out of retirement to beat on some baddies, and he does so with style and panache.
You’re free to roam Osaka and Tokyo but beware the roving bands of street hoodlums and other gang members! It was released to positive reviews on PS3.
8. Wing Commander: Privateer
Thanks to GOG.com, I was able to discover this gem. The Wing Commander series is a flight simulator-centric franchise that was popular in the 1990s. Privateer is a spin-off, not having to do with the Wing Commander story. It was a great first foray into doing whatever you wanted. You could join the militia space force, hunting down pirates of religious zealots.
Or you could do a 180 turn and become a slave or pirate yourself. Choices like these made the game addictive and having you be able to replay it a hundred different ways. It was released for PC in 1993.
7. Stardew Valley
One that’s near and dear to me, Stardew is just plain fun. You can do anything in this game: farm for the best vegetables, cultivate relationships, mine, and defeat monsters. You can truly play this game repeatedly, precisely because of the freedom you have. I didn’t even realize that there were story missions until a friend of mine actually had to tell me straight out.
Even then I didn’t believe. Stardew Valley is beloved and was released in 2016 and is on nearly all platforms. I own a copy on PC and Xbox One.
6. World of Warcraft
WoW is a name that does all the heavy lifting for me. Raids at 2 AM with your best friends, riding on a mount through the sky. So many memorable things about this game and its expansions that I can’t even get into it all here.
If you’re a gamer, you already know all there is to know about the wide-reaching impact of WoW. Released in 2004, it has been the absolute golden standard for modern MMORPG’s.
5. Fallout 1
The one that started it all. This game introduces the player to the vaults that house the human race after nuclear bombs are dropped. You eventually need to quest outside of the vault, and you experience some truly dynamic gameplay online the way.
I’ll never forget targeting a guy’s legs and blowing them off. It’s the origins of the iconic V.A.T.S. system in the more recent Fallout titles. It was released for PC back in 1997.
4. Final Fantasy XV
As I explained before, FFXV grants the player freedom in which FF players before weren’t used to. You and your squad of trusty best friends are on a quest to get Prince Noctis to the neighboring kingdom to marry the princess there. You can cook, camp, fight monsters, race, and customize your car.
The visuals are stunning, and it really feels like a Final Fantasy game, but more mature somehow. It was released in 2016 for Xbox One, PS4, and PC.
3. Black & White
Made by Lionhead Studios in 2000, Black & White puts you in the unique position of being a god ruling over a civilization. Your task is to either rule over the people and help or hinder them in their everyday lives. It stresses choice, much like Peter Molyneux’s other games.
It’s amazing, as you actually feel like a god, be able to do anything to the people of the island. The dynamic choices were a great part of the game. You also owned a pet that acted as a guardian on earth, adding a pet element to the game.
2. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
As I said before, Rockstar started a narrative push in their third game, adding onto it in Vice City, and perfecting it in San Andreas. Released in 2004, you play as CJ, returning back to the west coast in the early 90s. Rockstar went absolutely nuts in terms of adding cool new features, weapons, characters, and most important, locations.
The locations in this game had me floored. You go from the smoggy Los Angeles equivalent of Los Santos, the California wilderness populated by unsavory characters, to the Las Vegas-inspired Las Venturas.
Each area has its own personality, feel, and style. I couldn’t wait to progress through the story to be able to explore every area, something the game gives you a little at a time.
The game ramps up everything. In hour one you’ll be doing a drive-by and working out at the gym. In hour 30, you’ll be piloting a jet in the Las Venturas desert while being pursued by the government. It’s both parts wacky and serious. The story is more mature, with loveable and absolutely detestable characters throughout.
You can easily lose yourself by simply driving the roads and highways connecting the major cities. It’s actually very relaxing to put on your favorite radio station, pick a destination, and enjoy the ride. I’ve never experienced anything close to that in another game, and I believe that encapsulates what the very best open world game is and should aspire to do.
It was originally released on PS2, with a release soon to follow in 2005 on Xbox. It’s now on Steam, and easily accessible.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
This is it, the best open world game ever. I’m calling it now. What Ocarina of Time did for open world, adventure, and action games is never going to be topped.
In my opinion, Majora’s Mask doesn’t measure up. This living, breathing world is yours to explore. I remember just hanging out at Lon Lon Ranch, getting to connect to these silly characters, and when everything goes to hell in the second half of the game, I really felt for everyone in the game world.
It had such an amazing resonance story-wise. It still holds up too! It was released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64.
References: (Darkstation, Playstation, Microsoft, Digitaltrends, Ubisoft, PcMag, Microsoft, Digitaltrends, PcMag, Kotaku, Justcause, Gamespot, Microsoft, Kotaku, Nintendo, Forbes, Polygon, Polygon, Gog, Gamespew, Nintendo UK)