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Over the decades, we have seen a significant improvement in the world of video games. With the emergence of the open-world concept, gaming has become more powerful than ever before. Unlike the usual linear approach to gaming, this design is more immersive and addicting. In an open-world game, gamers are not restricted to one path alone. Instead, they have the power to choose from a myriad of quests and bosses.
Thanks to outstanding video games such as Grand Theft Auto III and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, gamers have become hooked on open-world games. The (relatively) new genre has seen so much success that other video games started to follow suit.
The best open-world games have become such a hit to gamers all over the world. That’s why it is no surprise to see more RPGs adopting this non-linear approach in gaming. For instance, The Witcher game series, which started as a narrative-based game, has recently transitioned to the open-world (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt).
Another game that has adopted the open-world design is Final Fantasy. In Final Fantasy X, gamers must follow only one path. After defeating monsters and bosses that cross your way, the game is done. But, in Final Fantasy XV, players have the choice of which mission or side quest they wish to pursue. With this new design, players can play the game however they want.
Following the non-linear design, open-world games give players tons of paths to choose from. These games are so immersive that it is easy to lose track of time when playing. As such, gamers should prioritize only the best of the best. That is why we have created a list of the best open-world games for you. If you want to immerse yourself in only the most outstanding open-world games, then we suggest that you stick to our list.
What are Open-World Games Exactly?
An open-world (or free-roaming) game is a genre in video gaming where players have the freedom to explore a virtual world. Unlike structured video games, free-roaming games do not have invisible walls that stop players from exploring certain areas. Also, an open-world game lets you choose what missions to take and when to take them. In doing so, it allows players to develop their characters depending on the decisions they make. Open-world games, in general, follow one primary storyline but do not necessarily have specific objectives and endings.
So, what makes open-world games a cut above the rest? The following components present in the best open-world games make them so addictive.
- A free-roaming virtual world. Unlike structured games, open-world realms have minimal restrictions in terms of exploration. A player can go in whichever direction they please without being blocked by invisible walls.
- An outdoor setting. A massive chunk of the game takes place outdoors. This is a direct contrast to linear games that hold quests indoors (i.e., dungeon, building, cave, etc.).
- An expansive realm. At a minimum, the size of a kingdom is as big as an island or a vast city. These mammoth worlds are a far cry from the small environments found in linear games.
- A realistically-scaled virtual world. Unlike games that make use of an overworld, the best open-world games have worlds that are fully scaled. These worlds have a constant scale relative to the characters and vehicles, as well.
- Explorable by foot. The majority of the universe may be traversed on foot, unlike worlds that are only explorable by vehicles.
- Observes time. Meaning, the world is in motion regardless of your actions. The enemies and other characters move independently of the player.
- 3D Environment. The realistic graphics and 3D settings allow players to navigate through the world in either a first- or third-person perspective.
The Struggles of Creating an Open-World Game
While the best open-world games have vast realms and options to choose from, they still do come with certain restrictions. For instance, because of technical limitations, complete autonomy is not yet achievable.
The free-roaming aspect of open-world games is also a challenge for creators in producing a dramatic storyline. Writers are challenged to create a good storyline that does not disrupt the freedom of the player.
One approach to deal with the challenge is to break the main story into smaller quests. Some writers create side missions that do not interfere with the game’s main story. And, since it is difficult to predict how players will solve a game, most games follow open-ended storylines.
Another pain point is the possibility for players to get lost in the vast realm. As such, designers tend to break down the open-world into smaller and more manageable segments. Other games won’t allow players to see the world’s entire map on the get-go. A player may only obtain a portion of the map after completing a specific mission.
Open-World Games: A Brief History
Many think that open-world gaming was introduced in 2001 care of Grand Theft Auto III. But, in reality, the genre goes way back. Its origins go as far back as 300 BCE when the game “Go” was invented. But, it was only in the 1970s that it truly started to take off. Here is a brief look into the history of open-world gaming.
Go (300 BCE) was the very first game that followed an open-world concept. It was an ancient Chinese-Japanese board game that required strategy. Its board represented an overworld map composed of various territories. It was followed by Chess (400 CE), and Indian-Persian tactical board game. Both games evolved in the 19th century into wargaming with more realistic maps.
SEGA created the first open-world arcade game in 1970. Jet Rocket allowed players to fly around and shoot at various objects in a 3D world. It became the inspiration of similar video games such as Flotilla and Target Zero.
The first open-world video game was created five years later by Taito. In its original Japanese version, Western Gun involved two cowboys who tried to shoot at each other. Both cowboys had the freedom to roam around a world filled with mountains and cacti. However, in the American version (Gun Fight), players’ movements were limited to their side of the screen. Also, the environment was reduced to a smaller scale.
In 1979, the very first open-world video game with an overworld was introduced. Heiankyo Alien, another Japanese masterpiece, was a chase game that inspired Pac-Man. The primary difference, however, is that the game’s maze comprised of a whole city (Heian-Kyo).
The first open-world driving game was introduced in 1980. Namco’s Rally-X involved a vehicle that drove around a virtual world. This game served as the inspiration for Miami Vice (1986) and Grand Theft Auto (1997).
In 1984, the first authentic open-world video games were born in the forms of Hydlide and Courageous Perseus. They involved full-scale outdoor explorations of expansive virtual worlds. The two were a departure from outdated game designs where explorations were limited to dungeons.
Perhaps the most influential open-world game to ever be created is The Legend of Zelda (1986). Inspired by both Hydlide and Courageous Perseus, Zelda followed a similar concept, albeit on a much larger scale. The majority of open-world games today trace its roots to this classic game.
The Metal Max RPG series emerged in the early ‘90s. These post-apocalyptic games uniquely had open-ended gameplay that did not have a fixed story path. Instead, the player had the freedom to pick what missions to pursue. The player’s decisions determine the ending of the game. In certain games, a player may complete the game in a matter of minutes.
The release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 is a noteworthy event in video game history. Because it comprises of elements from classic open-world games, it is described by its creator as a hybrid between Zelda and Goodfellas.
In 2017, we saw the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It marked another significant milestone in gaming history with its sandbox approach to game design. In the technologically advanced game, players have the full power to explore the virtual world with intuition.
Why We Love Open-World Games
To this day, open-world games continue to evolve, giving us more gigantic playgrounds to discover. There are many things to love about the best open-world games. Here are some of them.
You Write Your Adventure
Open-world games have, in the last decade, shifted away from simply telling you what you need to do next. They now have a more dynamic way of delivering the narrative of the game. Gone are the days when the open-world map is full of instructions, icons, and colored objectives. These days, the events happening in the world may be dictated by your actions or are totally random. Sometimes, they are influenced by the game to a degree.
For example, in Hope County, a fictional area in the game Far Cry, you will find dozens of sites with their secrets. In one game, you could wander in a forest, see a storm drain near a river, only to find a makeshift camp within. It could contain valuable equipment and loot just beyond your reach that you can only access later in the game. This is one of many “Prepper Stashes” in the game, and gives you a reason to come back even if you have progressed further out.
What you will find in this game, however, is that it is not as simple as finding the key to a lock that holds the goods. Often, you will see clues, like trails of blood that lead to yet another clue, and so on. And when you do find the key to the stash, this will trigger another event or part of the game that can surprise you. The best part? You could end up finding a mystery key first, and not know what it is for until you actually explore and discover the stash after.
This kind of dynamic storytelling found in many modern and AAA open-world games is what sets them apart from the more traditional linear adventure games of the past. The game is there for you to explore the way you see fit.
Experimentation And Exploration Are Encouraged
Want to head east and see what you find the moment you exit the tutorial area? Sure. Want to see what happens if you hit an enemy and let it chase you back to town? Why not. How about driving on a bridge that says “road closed” and see if there’s a secret below? Go ahead! The thing with open-world games is that experimentation and exploration are encouraged. And in some cases, greatly rewarded.
For example, let’s take a look at The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Many players hail it as the golden standard in this regard. It is built with different layers of systems working together to make the world as immersive and interactive as possible. For example, if a piece of metal is sticking out of something in a lightning storm, you know it’ll attract lightning, correct? In the game, you can use this tactic by throwing a metal weapon at an enemy while a thunderstorm is ongoing. And lightning could hit it.
Also, if you explore early on, you can get your hands on some pretty powerful gear that will make your life a lot easier. It will require some out of the box exploration, and a lot of effort, but if you pull it off, it is worth it.
Travel In Style
Since you’ll be spending hours on end in the game world, most open-world games will give you options on how you can get around. For example, the Grand Theft Auto games give you different stylish vehicle options. In Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim, different horses with different looks and stats are available for your taste. Then there are games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV, where your mount serves as a status symbol. And there are dozens, if not hundreds to choose from.
But a ride or mount is not just for you to enjoy visually as you go from point A to point B in the game. In some cases, the perfect whip can lead to fabulous finds when you explore the right area. Games like Grand Theft Auto are known for this, with numerous easter eggs and treasures that can only be found by traveling using the right vehicle.
Quests Are Memorable
Open-world games need to have quests, and these quests often have their own stories. Without these, you’ll have much less engagement with the world, and this can lead to the game feeling very bland. So, AAA games have made it a point to have quests and side-quests that are engaging and could lead to more meaningful, grander stories. And in some cases, it could rival the main story.
One famous case is found in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. As you play the game, you’ll eventually end up in Velen, and encounter the Bloody Baron. We won’t spoil it for you, but what will come is a story that will have you look for his missing family members. The ending will depend entirely on your actions and the order in which you do them. It is hailed by many as one of the most well-written and emotionally charged quests not just in open-world games, but video games in general. It even won the Golden Joystick Award for Best Gaming Moment in 2015.
The quests found in open-world games are an essential element that could either make or break an AAA title. Or, it could turn a small, unknown developer into an industry star. Warhorse Studios and their flagship title, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, is an example of this. Taking the risk of making an open-world game strictly adhering to actual historical events has paid off. Buggy as it is, the game has carved a niche of its own in the gaming player base that a sequel was quickly announced.
Get Lost In The Environment
One other important element in open-world games is, well, the world itself. A vast and immersive world, whether it is a modern city, or the open plains of 15th century Bohemia, can satisfy a gamer’s wanderlust. Often, if a world is crafted beautifully, with lots of opportunities and incentives to explore, the quests can be left alone. Just hop on a horse or a car, and start getting lost.
The aforementioned Grand Theft Auto series is famous for its large, sandbox-style worlds with nearly no boundaries. Even to this day, Grand Theft Auto III, released in 2001, is still considered the gold standard in open-world sandbox-style environments. It is such a popular trend for games and developers that some formerly linear franchises ended up being open-world ones. Series like The Witcher (1 and 2) and Assassin’s Creed (previous titles) ended up making their final installments, Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey respectively are open-world sandbox games. And both have become highly successful titles.
And then there are titles like No Man’s Sky, the sole premise of which is getting lost and exploring space and the nearly countless planets and stars in it. The procedurally generated universe is ripe for the picking, and while it can be daunting at first, fortune favors the bold who will take to the stars.
It’s not hard to understand why developers would take this route. A vast open world that is just there begging to be explored will provide hours of gameplay. Done correctly, and it can turn a title into a gold mine. Done incorrectly, however, it could feel like it was slapped on with no rhyme or reason. It can turn off the player from ever stepping foot into the wilderness or the random city streets.
Enjoying Open-World Games
At first glance, especially after what is said above, an open-world game can be too daunting for the average gamer. It might not even be a cup of tea for many. However, it is merely a different kind of game that offers a different type of experience and is meant to be played differently. They aren’t like fighting or sports games that are intended to be quick bursts of action and excitement. They aren’t like linear action games meant to be binged and finished in one sitting, like the games of the past.
Open-world games are like novels. Sure, it is possible to read something like the entire Harry Potter series in one go. That is if you have enough energy, food, and time to stay up for days on end. But will it be enjoyable to do so? Is it practical? Just like books, open-world games are meant to be played at a pace where you can truly absorb and enjoy every bit of experience. There’s no clock to beat, no record to break (unless it’s a competitive MMO open-world game, but even in this case, it’s not mandatory.) Just you and the world.
Truly AAA titles in this genre are made carefully with great care not to litter the world with meaningless things. The best games are designed in such a way that, by taking the time to explore and immerse yourself in the world, you get the best experiences possible.
For example, despite its reputation for being a challenging game series, the Dark Souls franchise has placed heavy emphasis on exploration, mystery, and details. Unlike many open-world games that have some form of a roadmap for you to follow, if you wish, Dark Souls will leave you to it without holding your hand. This results in a gaming experience so compelling (and in many cases, rage-inducing) that you’ll end up clocking in countless hours without even realizing it.
These games are meant to grow in your mind, making you excited to continue where you left off. But not upset when you have to power down and return to the real world. Mainly because you know that, when it’s time, you can boot up the game, and be transported to another world that’s waiting for you.
The 7 Best Open-World Games
And without further ado, it is now time to present the best open-world games for 2019.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance
- Developer: Warhorse Studios
- Online: No
- Genre: RPG
- Setting: Medieval History
- Platform: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Based on a slightly modified medieval Bohemia, Kingdom Come: Deliverance puts you in the shoes of Henry, a protagonist who finds himself right in the middle of a war for conquest. But you will do more than fight Cumans in battle. You will also go on long and arduous quests on an open-world landscape that looks like 14th century Bohemia.
The nature landscapes look stunning with open fields, lush forests, and towns that are made adequately proportioned to the character. Developer Warhorse Studios took great care in creating the open-world, with NPCs that behave correctly, depending on their roles. It also includes a day and night system that gives the feel of bright sunlight and crippling darkness. And a combat system that is based on Historical European Martial Arts, hailed by many as the most realistic combat system in an open-world game so far.
The world is so vast that simply walking around will be a tedious task. And while fast travel option does exist, getting on a horse and riding from one point to another is a more immersive experience. Not to mention, you get to enjoy the beautifully crafted world.
As a pilot game from a new developer, it is not without its share of bugs. Fortunately, they have mostly been dealt with by both the developer and the modding community. With multiple DLCs and lots of custom content by modders, this game will give you hours of immersive fun.
- Developer: Re-Logic
- Online: Yes, multiplayer co-op
- Genre: Survival/Sandbox
- Setting: Fantasy
- Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch, PSVita
It’s hard to nail down this game as merely an open-world game fully. Because its sandbox elements with nearly boundless possibilities almost put it in a class of its own. Harkening back to the days of 2d pixelated goodness of the 80s and 90s games, Terraria is both nostalgic and modern. It allows you to build your own home, explore the bowels of the world, fight monsters, and craft weapons and armor. And you can also do this with a friend!
The game also randomly generates the game world, which means the replay value is very high. You won’t know what’s going to happen next, and you are kept on your toes the entire time.
With over 3 million copies sold and free content updates, Terraria shows no signs of slowing down. Especially with the multiple platform availability and low price.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
- Developer: Ubisoft
- Online: No
- Genre: RPG
- Setting: Historical Fantasy
- Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One
This game is the latest and currently the last installment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise for the foreseeable future. Set in a fantasy version of Ancient Greece, you take on the role of either Alexios or Kassandra, a mercenary. From there, the game lets go of your hand, and you can do nearly anything you want.
The game continues the popular style of the entire franchise that made it one of the most enduring titles in video game history. However, it went a different direction when it came to the gameplay. Some gameplay mechanics were removed to provide a more open-world and immersive experience. This resulted in the game feeling so familiar, but at the same time feeling different for fans.
The risk paid off, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is now hailed as one of the best open-world games in video-game history. Its gameplay makes it an open-world game that you’ll find yourself exploring even without doing anything else. Coupled with gorgeous renderings of ancient Greek landscapes, it becomes all the more immersive.
No Man’s Sky
- Developer: Hello Games
- Online: Yes, multiplayer up to 32 for PC and 8 for consoles
- Genre: Exploration/Action
- Setting: Sci-Fi Outer Space
- Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One
When No Man’s Sky first came out, it was mired in controversy. The game was said to be buggy, unfinished, and didn’t deliver on its promise of a genuinely open universe exploration experience. It was received very poorly by fans and critics alive, that many were sure that the game would die out and fade to obscurity. However, creator Sean Murry and the teams at Hello Games were determined to fulfill their vision. They kept fixing and finishing the game until, to everyone’s surprise, it found its niche and became a hit to sci-fi fans.
Inspired by the space exploration shows and movies of the 70s and 80s, No Man’s Sky is not just an open-world game, it’s an open-universe one. It allows you to explore different planets and star systems. You can do almost absolutely anything you want, especially after the latest update, which added VR support, and tons of other content.
Want to terraform a planet? Sure. Ride aliens? Yes, you can. How about exploring the game-generated stars and planets on your very own ship? Absolutely.
If you’re a space sci-fi fan, No Man’s Sky is the game to get.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
- Developer: CD Projekt Red
- Online: No
- Genre: Action RPG
- Setting: Medieval Fantasy
- Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Based on the books of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the 3rd and currently, the final installment of the Witcher game franchise. It is also the first genuinely open-world game in the series. Short of a few story scenes and tutorial areas, the game allows you to go nearly anywhere and do anything you want, even skip the main storyline. It is so popular, having won multiple Game of the Year awards, that if you’re reading this as a gamer, chances are you’ve already heard of the Witcher 3.
Playing the role of Geralt as the titular Witcher, you explore a fantasy version of a medieval Slavic world. You take contracts to fight monsters, play cards, drink, go on multiple quests — all while looking to save the world from various threats.
The decisions you make throughout the game will impact the final ending of the main storyline, as well as how the other NPCs will see you. Oh, and if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones killing off essential characters you’ve come to love, that risk is ever-present here as well.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt continues to be at the top tier of open-world games.
- Developer: Gearbox Software
- Online: Yes, four-player co-op
- Genre: Shoot-em-up Action-Comedy
- Setting: Sci-Fi Space Cowboy
- Multiplayer, online and split-screen
- Platform: PC, Xbox One, PS4
If there is one word to describe this game, it’s guns, because there are lots of them. But that’s not all. The game lets you play a Space Cowboy in every sense of the word, complete with lots of tongue-in-cheek comedy, one-liners, and of course, action. All of this can sometimes distract the player from the fact that this is a sci-fi open-world game, where you are free to explore (and shoot) the world around you as you see fit.
It is a proper blend of traditional cowboy elements coupled with a lot of sci-fi stuff we have known to love. Plasma and energy guns? Check. Finding a treasure to loot and keep for yourself? Check. Rivals that want to kill you? Check check check.
But don’t take the game too seriously, because that’s not the point. Borderlands 2 is so over-the-top that to try and truly make sense of it is shortchanging your experience of the game. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy all of the explosions, gunfire, and comedy you’ll encounter in this rollercoaster ride.
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition
- Developer: Bethesda Software
- Online: No
- Genre: Action RPG
- Setting: Medieval Fantasy
- Platform: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch
Skyrim is a game so popular that is has been remastered, given a VR version, and ported to a mobile console over its now 8-year lifespan. It is considered by many to be the game that brought the open-world RPG genre to the mainstream. It set the bar high for many developers and games who cite it as the golden standard for the open-world experience. Bethesda has created a world so alive that even if you don’t do anything, events and activities will be happening. NPCs wake up, ply their trade, cook and eat, do chores, and sleep. Animals fight one another. An evil mastermind is coming up with a plan to raid a town. And so on. All while you go about your business as you see fit.
The world is so ridiculously large and full of things to do, especially once the DLCs are added that it’s rare for the average player to accomplish everything in one playthrough.
That’s because there are so many things that can distract you from the primary task at hand. Such as hunting, making food, mining, being a mercenary, fishing, hiking, and so on.
Yes, the game is quite old compared to the others on this list. But the fact that it is still being sold to new players daily is a testament to its legacy. And if you haven’t played it yet, now is as good as any to do so.
Our Final Thoughts
Now more than ever is the golden age of open-world games. With the full range of games to choose from, you need to know what the best open-world games are. Use your time wisely and put your attention on nothing but the most excellent games out there. We hope that this article has helped you in that regard.