As hardware continues to improve and bring video games to life on our high definition television screens, gamers expect more and more out of developers. Ironically, however, developers seem to be releasing more half-baked video games that require numerous post-release patches in order for them to function as intended. But that’s a topic for another day. Video games have come a long way from their two-dimensional past and there are now countless genres within the medium churning out titles month after month. Open-world video games seem to be all the craze nowadays as players jump into highly-detailed sandboxes full of erratic actions and possibilities. The increasing power of consoles and PCs has only extended the possibilities within these worlds and we now have a plethora of open-world titles at our disposal.
While linear experiences still have a place in gaming—some prefer it, in fact—there’s no denying the sense of freedom and personal expression an open-world game can provide if done right. Want to drive on the sidewalk and release your inner demon? Sure, go right ahead. Want to step in the shoes of a hero and save some lives? Well, sure, you can do that too, I guess. Open-world games are all about choice and feeling as though you’re in control.
With that in mind, this list will count down the top 15 open-world video games and what makes them such memorable titles. So sit back and prepare to yell at the computer screen for having your favourite video games snubbed from the list. Let us know your selections in the comments section below!
15 Assassin’s Creed II (2009)
Assassin’s Creed II marks one of the highest points—for many, the highest point—in Ubisoft’s open-world series. Set during the Renaissance in the 15th century, players control Ezio Auditore da Firenze, perhaps the most likeable of all playable assassins in the series. Florence, Venice and Rome are just some of the beautifully realized locations players can freely explore. The shift from Altair to Ezio represents a stark contrast in personality, as players never got to relate with the man under the hood in the first Assassin’s Creed. Ezio, on the other hand, is the main cog in this story and his arrogant but charismatic demeanour endears players to his resolve.
14 Infamous 2 (2011)
Infamous 2 is one of the PlayStation 3’s finest achievements. The open-world action adventure video game places players in the shoes of Cole once again, who is either a stoic hero or a ruthless villain depending on your past choices, in the fictional city of New Marais. Utilizing the protagonist’s electrical abilities, players can glide, slide or dash their way across the gloomy city leaving vibrant blue sparks behind them. The comic book style gave the title a refreshing aesthetic during cut scenes and a compelling story to pursue until the end, with plenty of personal choices to shape the outcome.
13 Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
The critically acclaimed Grand Theft Auto IV is beloved for good reason. The lovable Eastern European Niko Bellic serves as one of the series’ best protagonists and his backstory drives an interesting plot full of revenge and general badassery. The redesigned Liberty City, essentially modelled after New York City, proves to be a setting ripe with activities and brimming with life. Rockstar Games upholds their elite reputation with a location begging to be explored, colourful characters at every turn, and chaotic gameplay likely to bring out the worst in you—you’re bound to lay down senseless beatings on innocent bystanders for a couple bucks, or maybe fire a rocket into the middle of a traffic jam.
12 Infamous Second Son (2014)
The third entry in the Infamous series marks a shift in protagonists for the first open-world game to have hit the PlayStation 4. Delsin Rowe is the new hero, or villain, of the series, bringing a punker personality to the fold with a touch of anarchy. Whether he is more likeable than Cole is debatable, but utilizing various powers in the open-world of Seattle is a gorgeous and addicting endeavour. Whether it’s running along walls with the vibrant and mesmerizing neon powers or simply transforming into a billow of smoke, Infamous Second Son is a feast for the eyes that successfully harnesses that sweet, sweet next-gen power.
11 Spider-Man 2 (2004)
When I first picked up the Nintendo GameCube’s perfectly formed controller—the best ever in gaming—and popped the disc for Spider-Man 2 into the blue cube, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Video games based on movies have a bad reputation, after all, and Activision undertook a daunting task in bringing Spider-Man to an open-world sandbox set in New York City. But they pulled it off—sadly, a Spider-Man title of such quality has yet to be replicated to this day. Swinging through the streets, controlling both arms individually, requires skill, but it pays off in the form of an exhilarating experience that provides hours upon hours of fun. The story is strong, too, which essentially builds off the events in the movie. Players can upgrade their skills and progressively turn Spider-Man into the free-flying, quip-delivering superhero we all know and love.
10 Far Cry 4 (2014)
Far Cry 4 is the crowning achievement of Ubisoft’s series. While it doesn’t offer a major leap from its predecessor, it tweaks the gameplay just enough to provide a superb gaming experience. It’s impossible to walk a dozen feet or so without some random event taking place, whether it’s an elephant running rampant or a rhino freely flipping jeeps into the air. Far Cry 4 is full of life and while its colourful villain is criminally underused, the story is strong and there are enough side missions to keep you busy for hours. There’s nothing quite like riding an elephant into an enemy stronghold and simultaneously firing bolts into their chest while your new friend uses its trunk to squeeze the life out of your foes and recklessly flip vehicles.
9 Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
Simply a classic.Set in the fictional location of Vice City, albeit heavily modelled after Miami, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City revolves around Tommy Vercetti as he tries to build a drug empire upon leaving prison after 15 years. The streets of Vice City are littered with people, landmarks and vehicles reflecting all the glory of the 1980s. And therein lies the game’s most attractive trait, a lively city brimming with neon lights and 80s nostalgia. That the story resembles classic films such as Scarface and Goodfellas only adds to the undeniable appeal. For better or worse, you actually feel like the kingpin of the criminal underworld when you play this game.
8 Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag provides a much needed change for the series. Centered on Edward Kenway, Black Flag invites players to explore the seas as swashbuckling pirates, engaging in naval combat as well as land exploration on tropical islands. Kenway stands as one of the series’ most likeable protagonists and the story is only bested by Assassin’s Creed II, which represents one of the better storylines in all gaming. Black Flag felt like more of an open-world experience than its predecessors and it required countless hours to delve into every nook and cranny. Here’s hoping Ubisoft takes another swig of pirate lifestyle in the future.
7 Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
Easily the best entry in the series, Grand Theft Auto V provides an online experience that, horrifyingly, adds even more replay value to a game that already boasts hundreds of hours of gameplay. The story is one of the game’s strongest traits as well, as all three of the playable characters have their own set of quirks to make them memorable additions to the series’ extensive cast. Once you’re finished with the story, you can jump into the online world and build your empire against competing players, each owning their own apartments and vehicles that can be upgraded. Riding with friends and causing chaos on the streets of Los Santos is an experience that can’t be missed if you’re a gamer.
6 Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Controlling the caped crusader in the open world of Gotham City was a dream come true for avid DC Comics fans. Batman: Arkham City boasts an impressive rogue gallery to provide memorable and well-designed boss fights and Rocksteady Studios shrewdly left the gameplay mostly unaltered besides a few tweaks. Gliding through the air as Batman with countless gadgets at your disposal is an experience that remains one of the best in gaming. That Arkham Knight promises to best its predecessor with the addition of the Batmobile and more gameplay tweaks has us giddy with anticipation…Cruel, long-winded anticipation. Is it June yet?
5 Arma II with DayZ Mod (2012)
The DayZ Mod is far from the perfect game. The graphics are mediocre, the gameplay can be buggy, and your progress will be impeded more than once, whether you’re being robbed or the game decides to have your precious house full of resources disappear. And yet, most of us keep coming back to the unforgiving open-world. Why? Well, it’s just plain ol’ fun. Once you accept that you have no control in this world, the infuriating bugs become part of its charm, and it speaks to the game’s addictive nature when you keep coming back for more. There are few experiences in gaming that provide moments more tense than the ones in DayZ. Hearing the clack of bullets around you as you run through an open field with a backpack full of supplies you spent hours collecting is both exhilarating and gut-wrenchingly terrifying.
4 Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
While Fallout: New Vegas couldn’t quite match the standards set by its predecessor, the Bethesda video game, this time developed by Obsidian Entertainment, still managed to provide hours of gruesome fun and unpredictable gameplay. What it did improve upon, however, is the story. You take control of the Courier, who is sent to deliver a package before being shot down in the process and subsequently rescued by a robot named Victor. It’s a simple, if not wacky, tale of revenge, and the numerous decisions you must make along the way are what makes the Fallout games such a special breed. You can truly do just about anything in this post-apocalypse setting.
3 The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2013)
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is probably the consensus selection for the best open-world video game—we only place two titles ahead of it, and by a slim margin. While the story is nothing special, you can essentially form your own narrative in this living, breathing fictional world full of dragons and bandits. Players have a bevy of customization options both aesthetically and in the way the game is played. Want to be an archer? Go for it. Want to wield elemental abilities and conjure magic bows? Hey, you can do that, too. Skyrim is a game that keeps on giving and it seems virtually impossible to explore every nook and cranny in this beautifully designed world. And that’s ultimately what keeps you coming. It’s clear an inordinate amount of work went into the game and it just begs to be explored. Have fun sinking thousands of hours into this one.
2 Red Dead Redemption (2010)
Finally, a video game set in the Wild West complete with lassos, revolvers, horseback riding and duels. Rockstar Studios absolutely nailed its first attempt in the Western genre, to the extent that many are still clamouring for a sequel. The combat is deep and responsive, the story is among the best in gaming, and the graphics remain gorgeous to this day. John Marston is a relatable protagonist struggling to outrun his past and it quickly forms a relationship between the player and Marston that adds a sense of tension and emotion to it all. Your actions matter here. And riding into the sunset with a holstered revolver by your side truly makes you feel like a badass.
1 Fallout 3 (2008)
Not only does Fallout 3 provide the best open-world experience, it’s one of the best video games ever, period. The game begins in Vault 101, an isolated underground facility where the player must create their character and assign him or her traits and specialties to form the base of the gameplay experience. Fallout 3 is all about choice, and choosing sides among factions and making impactful moral decisions have consequences in the vast wasteland. Will you be a ruthless killer or the hero this wasteland needs? It’s up to you, and ultimately the game caters to both sides in a natural way through its side missions and responsive open world. If you selfishly mow down all in your path, for example, be prepared to have bounties on your head and to experience a more difficult and forsaken path.