Some of the most popular video games in the market are undoubtedly ones that boast an expansive, open world. As games consoles improve and push the boundaries of what we already might call an absolute joy, there are now more brilliant open world games available than you could shake a joystick at.
The size of the worlds that we are now able to manipulate is staggering; just have a gander at the maps taken from GTA V and Just Cause 2.
With the replay-ability that comes with open world games, is it possible to single out which are the best? Yes. Or at least I hope so, or I wouldn’t be writing this article.
I’d just like to preface this list by clarifying that these are my top 10 picks and are by no means the definitive best open world games on the market, I mean one of the inclusions is a game released over a decade ago! Goodness, I’m getting old.
10 – Saints Row 2 (PS3/XBOX 360/PC)
Before you were able to kill your enemies with dubstep, Saints Row was a very similar series to Grand Theft Auto in that you are set loose in a populated city where a crazy criminal, Johnny Gat in this case, and his gang are trying to seize power with you at the helm.
Being the ultimate hipster and all ‘round badass that I was at age 13, I got an older relative to buy the game for me to play on my PlayStation 3, and was I in for a treat? I was introduced to a Technicolor-inspired world that made me forget about the depressing state of Liberty City in GTA III.
From souping up your car to using improvised weapons such as the pimp cane which doubled up as a shotgun, there was a plethora of customisation in an interesting world that I just hadn’t come across up to that point.
9 – Need for Speed: Underground 2 (PS2/XBOX/PC, et al)
I’m on the fence as to whether or not this is precisely an open world game but I do consider it to be closer to that than any other genre… Apart from racing… Obviously.
You don’t need to be a lover of mechanics, nor a lover of racing to enjoy the Need for Speed series and that much is clear in NFSU2. The 2004 street racing game came around in time for Christmas, being released just a month before you give the dog a lion’s share of your sprouts.
Underground 2 plays out the same way as you’d expect any game in the series; you buy a car, you upgrade the car. You buy a new car and then you upgrade that. It’s pretty straight forward, really, and that mechanic allows you to enjoy driving around Bayview and completing a variant of races.
There is decent replay value in the post-game too, as you can drive around and just admire the beast of a vehicle you’ve created during your campaign and enjoy being, again, the greatest driver in the city.
8 – Dark Souls II (PS3/XBOX 360/PC)
Pretending doesn’t get you far and the same can be said for the digital world – no, stop thinking about Ty and Agumon – and I’m not going to try to do the same here.
I’m a novice in the realm of massive action RPGs, such as Dark Souls and Skyrim, but I have had a run about the world of Drangleic and there is a cracking game to be had there if you’re ‘ard enough to give it the attention it deserves.
You are mercilessly dropped into Dark Souls. There is somewhat of a tutorial in the form of combat with a few weak enemies but, besides that, you are left to discover everything Drangleic has to offer in way reminiscent of the Fallout series (more on that, later) and it’s not an easy ride.
There has been some criticism that, when compared to Skyrim, the exploration of the map in Dark Souls II isn’t as impressive. But that’s like saying the Tower of Pisa isn’t as impressive at The Colosseum; a back-handed compliment, at worst.
7 – Bully (PS2/XBOX 360/PC)
I don’t know about you but, when I was in high school, I always wanted a Grand Theft Auto game that was based on one of two things: the city I lived in and my high school.
And while Rockstar didn’t bless us with GTA: Liverpool, they instead gave us the gem that is Bully (or Canis Canem Edit, as it was called outside of the US). Bully doesn’t have the most expansive map, as was the trend for most games in 2006, but being able to freely explore Bullworth Academy and all of its factions was an absolute delight.
Going from delight to pure euphoria was being able to explore the fictional town of Bullworth, providing you didn’t have a lesson, by using Jimmy’s skateboard, bike, go-cart and even an engine-powered scooter.
Like with other Rockstar titles, there were many rumours that circulated on the school yard back in the mid-noughties and it was exhilarating going home to look for any suggestion that these myths were true.
6 – Red Dead Redemption (PS3/XBOX 360)
Two for two by Rockstar. Red Dead Redemption ticked every single box for me; it had brilliant game play, the story was both engaging and, eventually, devastating but the wide, wide world that was put before gamers was- like a volcanic eruption – something to admire from a monitor screen.
Released in 2010, the game allows the user to take control of John Marston, a former outlaw who is trying to change his ways. While old Johnny ends up doing the exact opposite, he does have the splendour of living out his days in a visually stunning mash-up of the American Wild West and Mexico.
Via the medium of horseback – or on foot, if you’re a psychopath that enjoys the torture of lightly jogging through a truly titanic map made up of mainly dust, tumble weed and death – the player is able to discover the beauty of the land they find themselves in and, coupled with the soundtrack, it’s an unforgettable gaming experience.
A sequel is slated for release in late 2017 and, in preparation, I will be replaying Red Dead Redemption at least once or twice and I would suggest you do the same.
5 – Fallout 3 (PS3/XBOX 360/PC)
When we think of video games with huge open worlds, there is a very good chance Fallout is brought up in conversation. Fallout 4, while a very good game in its own right, and New Vegas going down extremely well with the critics and fans alike, it has to be Fallout 3 for me.
Perhaps it’s the on-again, off-again relationship I had with the game since its release. As mentioned earlier, the young teen that I was in the mid-to-late 2000s, able to be fascinated by a colour scheme, wasn’t the most hard-core gamer. This meant that I found Fallout a bit too complex for my feeble mind, which could just about comprehend the latest instalments of FIFA and Call of Duty.
Fast forward a couple of years and everyone is talking about Fallout: New Vegas; I suddenly remember my copy of Fallout 3 and decide to give it a whirl. To my surprise, I found the game ridiculously enjoyable. Who’d have thought travelling around a post-apocalyptic wasteland on your lonesome could be so much fun?
I found myself falling in love with video games – proper video games – again. I couldn’t wait to be done with my responsibilities of the day so I could get home and carve up some deathclaws in the Capital Wasteland.
There is a sense of freedom found in Fallout 3 that hasn’t yet been replicated in other series; not only are you exploring an alien land, you know that almost everything you encounter will want to kill you and it leaves you in a constant state of hyperawareness. Brilliant.
4 – Far Cry 3 (PS3/XBOX 360/PC)
You could spend hours contrasting and comparing the Far Cry series with Fallout and I did just that when preparing myself to write this article.
There is a familiar sense of freedom and isolation in Far Cry 3 as found in Fallout 3, but the fear of anything and everything doesn’t come from the unknown, it comes from what you’re probably already aware lurks in the jungle- lions, tigers and bears, oh my!
You’re thrown onto a topical island between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, your friends have been kidnapped by pirates and you are the one that must save the day.
Along your journey, you discover the broken politics on the island you now call home and are tasked with neutralising the corrupt camps, restoring order. A favourite tactic of mine was to locate a camp, scout the place from a distance and plan my attack. I’d approach the camp, sneak in, and take people out one by one with my bow. There’s not a pleasure in gaming quite like it.
It’s actually absurd how many camps there are throughout the map in Far Cry 3 and there is a joy in seeking out every single one and taking each of them from the criminals on the island. With the customisation and vast array of available weapons, there are almost limitless possibilities in how to plan and execute your attacks.
3 – Spider-Man 2 (PS2/XBOX/Mac/GameCube, et al)
You mightn’t have expected to see a superhero game on this list, eh? Well this isn’t just any superhero game; it’s perhaps the best of its genre and has stood the test of time. Admittedly, that might be due to the lack of good games featuring our favourite caped crusaders.
Spider-Man 2, loosely based on the storyline of the movie, does have a good story but most of the fun can be had by simply swinging around Manhattan and intercepting criminals, collecting balloons for children, taking photographs for the Daily Bugle and even delivering pizza for the restaurant Peter Parker works for.
The world you’re put in isn’t as expansive as many of the others that appear on this list but the way that you can travel around the area you are given is simply sublime. The ‘web physics’, as they’ve been fondly called, have never been better than they have in Spider-Man 2.
The requirement to be near a building or tree to sling a web was both frustrating but also offered the player a feeling of urgency when swapping web swinging for running. Removing it, by having web attach itself to thin air wasn’t a great alternative in later instalments of games featuring the web head and fans simply haven’t had a game as good as Spider-Man 2 since.
2 – GTA V (PS4/XBOX One/PC, et al)
If the last one wasn’t obvious, this one sure as hell should have been. Never mind Rockstar, the Grand Theft Auto series alone could have occupied half of this list as they’ve been delivering massive city map after massive city map.
Before the release of GTA V, I’d have selected San Andreas or Vice City to take the second spot in this list but the world that players were given in the return of Los Santos and San Andreas blew apart every expectation I had, especially after the underwhelming experience of GTA IV.
GTA V offers two different landscapes; the city of Los Santos, based on Los Angeles, where the three characters the player is given control of explore every aspect of the city, and the open countryside of San Andreas, based on Southern California, where the troublesome trio help us experience the more rural side of the US.
Following the storyline of Franklin, you see the world from the streets. The characters that surround Franklin are negative influences and try to pull him back down to their level. As the attention is shifted to Michael, we see the bright lights of Los Santos, even if his entire family hates him and he has no friends.
We really feel the difference in the two locations offered in GTA V as, later on, we are introduced to Trevor, an old friend of Michael, who lives in the desert. He adores the caravan park he calls home and hates the big city, the complete opposite can be said of Michael and it’s interesting to discover, for yourself, which of the places you prefer. I think both locations have their perks but driving around vehicles carelessly is much more enjoyable in San Andreas.
1 – Just Cause 2 (PS3/XBOX 360/PC)
The grand-daddy of them all; Just Cause 2 has a gargantuan map and a diverse landscape to traverse. There is a twist though; while you could travel around in a car – like a simple peasant – it is much more fun to use Rico Rodriguez’s grapple hook to slingshot yourself into the air with a parachute. While in the air, Rico can soar about and, from this position, you’re able to grapple onto more objects in the world to fling yourself in that direction.
This was improved upon in Just Cause 3, as Rico is able to travel around using a wing suit, essentially turning him into a Texan Superman but Just Cause 2 set the pace for its predecessor, so back to the slingshot; it’s not just a means of traveling around, you can actually grapple anything to anything. Rico is able to attach any enemy – or pedestrian – to a car, helicopter or – if you’ve got no heart, like me – a soon-to-explode gas canister.
The design of the world that you’re thrown into is stunning. Inspired by Hawaii and New Zealand, there are areas of grand mountains and dense towns, both of them have camps that, like in Far Cry, you have to overpower and give back to the people of Panau.
Speaking of Far Cry, besides the lack of some serious wildlife, there are a lot of similarities between the two games but some differences too: Where Just Cause has the upper hand is travelling around the world. It’s actually fun and the biggest win in games with a massive open world is to make the travelling around fun, intriguing or constantly terrifying.
I can’t give this game the justice it deserves, it’s like GTA V and the Batman games had a baby which grew up and wanted to become Far Cry. It’s an experience that you have to have for yourself. It’s the ultimate game.
This list article was written as part of an application for WhatCulture Gaming.