Best Sandbox Games

Last Updated on by Nicholas Frost

The terms ‘Sandbox’ and ‘open-world’ seem like they are talking about the same type of games, but they are describing two different game types. You won’t find a 100% pure sandbox or open-world game because they appear with some other game type – like medieval warfare or space exploration. Some sandbox games have elements of open-world and some open-world games have elements of a sandbox. The differences are not clear cut. The boundaries are blurred.

Ten Best Sandbox Games

Minecraft – Best for Creativity and Any Age

Minecraft is the sandbox game sensation, even if you have never played it, you will have heard it mentioned. It has a cult following and is available in all formats.

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  • The World is block-shaped and infinite(virtually). There are many biomes with natural features to traverse and mine for resources. A day and night last about 20 minutes. Your character will need to eat to stay alive. There are dangers (especially at night).
  • The interaction is detailed. You are going to build your world from blocks and fluids that you will arrange in your design, to achieve whatever you want. You can craft, cook food and trade.
  • The People. You can play as a character, or you can opt for a third-person play. You can interact with a variety of NPCs (Non-player characters), both friendly and hostile.
  • The Purpose: This is a real sandbox game – you decide what you want to achieve. If all that freedom is a little too overwhelming, then you can opt to have a goal set for you. You may find having a goal helps you to learn how to operate in the Minecraft world.
  • The Tools: You build using blocks and fluids. You can also craft items such as weapons and tools from things you hunt and find or trade. There is magic – so you spell cast to improve your possessions.
  • Activities. There is so much to do. If you only want to build things, you can opt for creative mode and ignore all those pesky gaming problems like starving or being overrun by zombies. Otherwise, you can mine and process ores, hunt for emeralds, farm, cook, craft, and trade. You can learn magic to make your possessions last longer and do extraordinary tasks.
  • Compatibility. Whatever you play games on, you can play Minecraft on it. That includes a board game version. Yes, first there was the video game, and then there was the board game.
  • Longevity. This game has a cult following. The premise is so simple but has so many variations that it continues to delight players of all ages.

Editors Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Garry’s Mod – Best Game for Wild and Wonderful Experiments

You can’t break the laws of physics, not in this game.

  • The World. The world of a mad inventor or crazy film director. You build the sets, construct your toys, and modify the characters. Then see what they do.
  • Interaction. You can create NPCs and objects. Then you can manipulate them and see what happens. You can pull in objects and characters from other games you own (with a source engine) and mess about with them.
  • The People. In this game, you are the master manipulator rather than a character.
  • The Purpose. Whatever you build will obey the laws of physics. There are no set objectives.
  • The Tools. There is a tool to let you manipulate objects. You can pick them up, turn them about, and when you are happy, freeze them in position. There’s a tool that will let you do anything from putting a frown on an NPC or welding one object to another. You can build with electronic components.
  • Activities. If you can think of it, you can build it. Then you can share footage of your creation on YouTube or streaming platform of your choice. Think of this game as a virtual laboratory or design studio. If it works here, it should work in the real world.
  • Compatibility. Windows, Linux, and Mac.
  • Longevity: Released in 2004. It is a game that is popular and continually being modified with player content. The concept of being able to tinker about with characters and objects is endlessly engaging.

Editors Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


The Sims 4 – Good for those Who Want to Rule the World

Ever thought that life should be better? It would be great if people were more organized? Well, this game is your chance to show how much better it would be if people just did things your way.

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  • The World. You create people, house them, see to their lives, and generally interfere.
  • Interaction. You set the tasks for your people, and then you watch them get on with it. Was the outcome what you expected? You can’t leave them alone, though, they will fall into a decline of despair and poverty.
  • The People. You create the people, their characteristics, their homes, and their hopes and fears.
  • The Purpose. You decide what each character is supposed to achieve. Then you assist or hinder your character’s progress through virtual life.
  • The Tools. You build houses. You construct the characters. You design and build the community
  • Activities. You are responsible for your characters day to day life — everything except their working day.
  • Compatibility. This game will play on almost anything, but not Linux.
  • Longevity. The Sims is a popular game that has stood the test of time. You will get involved with your character’s life and virtual woes.

Editors Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Eve Online – Best Massive Space Game

A massive game with a multitude of real people crashing about doing their own thing, and you can join them. Think of it not so much a game as time spent in an alternate universe.

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  • The World. There are 7,800 systems for you to explore. The virtual universe is your playground. There is a narrative history explaining the background to the colonization of space and the political factions you will encounter.
  • Interaction. You interact with other players and with the environment. You can trade with NPCs. You can choose what your profession is, but you can’t control how other players react. The best and worst of human behavior occurs in this universe. There are not just thousands of players but tens of thousands of players.
  • The People. You can create up to three characters. You play the game as one of these characters.
  • The Purpose. In this vast and complex universe, only you can know what your objective is. Do you want to dominate the galaxy or be a modest trader in an underpopulated star system? When you start, not losing your spaceship is probably the first objective.
  • The Tools. Spaceships are your means of travel and combat – this is a space game. It is your human interactions that are likely to be your most useful tool.
  • Activities. You can go off exploring, mine for precious resources, manufacture goods, and weapons or engage in trade. If you prefer, you can indulge in a little piracy or selling your combat services. You can work with others or against them.
  • Compatibility. Windows, macOS
  • Longevity. A massive game and difficult for newcomers to access (risk of death and complexity), but there are new resources and help guides to assist beginners in learning to know and love this multi-layered and textured game. And when you lose your first ship – a grief counselor will give you a shoulder to cry on and a nudge in the right direction.

Editors Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Grand Theft Auto V – Best for Crime and Fast Car Chases

Lawlessness, violence, and bad behavior are the trademark of this game. If you have to hi-jack a car and drive like a lunatic, then this is the game. Now you can immerse yourself further into this world with a VR headset.

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  • The World. The action takes place in the city of Los Santos in Blaine County. The city and country have a feeling of real-world locations.
  • Interaction. You can play as a single or join in a multiplayer game. You can choose to play as a first-person or third-person perspective.
  • The People. As a single-player, you operate three characters. You will need assistance from NPCs to complete the more complex missions.
  • The Purpose. You are assigned a mission, but you can roam freely around the world. It is necessary to progress through the storyline to access more gameplay, but the world is open.
  • The Tools. Weapons and vehicles are the tools of your trade.
  • Activities. When generally wandering around, there are some activities to try scuba diving, trading on the stock market or maybe getting a tattoo. The main activities are fighting with others and stealing cars.
  • Compatibility. Windows, X Box One, X Box 360, PS3, PS4. VR Headset compatible
  • Longevity. It is a popular game with a long history.

Editors Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Best for Fantasy Roleplay and VR

A game for those who like their alternate universe to be fantastical with a hint of realism. This game is one of the first to be compatible with a VR headset.

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  • The World. A fantasy land filled with cities, villages, forts, and wilderness. And of course, there are dragons and magic.
  • Interaction. You interact either through the character’s eyes (first person) or pull strings (third person) as you move around the world.
  • The People. There are plenty of NPCs to meet, but if you kill some of them, you may be unable to complete the quest. Bad behavior will attract punishment – if they can catch you.
  • The Purpose. A quest to defeat the world eating dragon. You can completely ignore the journey and go and find your adventures.
  • The Tools. You will need to acquire weapons.
  • Activities. You can work on improving your character throughout the game. You can craft weapons (or buy or find them) and work on acquiring spells.
  • Compatibility. Windows, X Box 360, X Box One, PS3, PS4, Nintendo Switch
  • Longevity. A world with many stories, secrets, and history to explore. Many hours of involving gameplay make this a world you will often visit.

Editors Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Mount and Blade, Warband – Best for Medieval Combat

As the name suggests, this game features horses and sharp weapons. A game for those who like their history with a helping of blood and gore.

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  • The World. A medieval land with a feudal system. There are six warring factions.
  • Interaction. This combat game gives you a character that fights others. You can play a single-player or multiplayer version.
  • The People. You play a character in this medieval world. You meet other characters to help or hinder you. If you lack weapons skills, they will kill you.
  • The Purpose. There are battles to be fought, deals to be made. You choose your objectives. Are you happy to be a merchant, or would you rather fight your way up the ranks to become a lord?
  • The Tools. Mainly weapons as this is a combat game.
  • Activities. Fighting, trading, and more fighting.
  • Compatibility. Windows, X Box One, macOS, Linux, Android, PS4.
  • Longevity. This game has been popular for a long time. It is interesting if you enjoy medieval combat with a bit of strategy thrown in. The graphics are neither the best or the worst that games have to offer. As long as you enjoy killing your enemies with bladed weapons and trying to build an empire, you will keep coming back for more.

Editors Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Scrap Mechanic – Good for Engineering

This game has simple graphics and no enemies. The focus is on unleashing your creativity. An excellent feature is the addition of moving components.

  • The World. There is a settlement in which you live. You can build a fortress, castle, or house which can incorporate moving components. You can build machines. This world is all about what you make.
  • Interaction. The only way to play is to create mechanical marvels and then, if you wish, share pictures with the real-world. This early access game will continue to develop.
  • The People. There are no people: just you and the things you build.
  • The Purpose. The only purpose is to have fun creating.
  • The Tools. You can hoist objects up in the air so you can get underneath using the lift. If something tips over, you can use the lift tool to put it in the right position. You can join objects together using the connector.
  • Activities. You build places to live and objects to ride about on.
  • Compatibility. Windows.
  • Longevity. The length of time you can spend playing this game depends on how much you enjoy creating moving vehicles and strange buildings.

Editors Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Arma 3 – Best Sandbox Shooter Game

This first-person shooter has tactics and strategies and a strong creative element.

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  • The World. The action takes place on islands in the Aegean Sea and the South Pacific. The graphics are realistic with the quality of photographs. It is a war zone.
  • Interaction. You are operating in a war zone. Your actions and interactions are combat-related. You influence and impact the world in a very human way. In the multiplayer mode, other players may help or hinder you.
  • The People. You play as an individual character. The world is populated by NPCs and in the multiplayer mode other players.
  • The Purpose. The mission sets out the objectives for you. You are free to move around the world.
  • The Tools. Weapons of modern war.
  • Activities. It is a military simulation, and you can try out various activities. You can play as a sniper, a tank commander or pilot a plane. You can change the world and be creative. It’s not your standard shooter.
  • Compatibility. Windows.
  • Longevity. It’s a long-running game, but it has plenty to keep you interested if you enjoy a military setting. You can go on the set missions or craft your own. You can play alone or with others. A game you will enjoy for a long time.

Editors Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Stormworks Build and Rescue – Best for Messing About on the Water

  • The World. An ocean and many small islands.
  • Interaction. You are running a small coast guard station. You will interact with NPCs and other players in multiplayer mode. You are providing a sea rescue service.
  • The People. You play as a character, and you will go on rescue missions. The game is more about the boats and helicopters rather than the people.
  • The Purpose. The aim is to go out and rescue people. You are free to explore and create. The missions are a way of earning currency to continue your activities.
  • The Tools. You build your rescue vehicles with the materials and tools available.
  • Activities. You spend time creating boats and helicopters. You are running a sea-rescue service and saving lives at sea. You earn and spend currency.
  • Compatibility. Windows, macOS.
  • Longevity. This early access game is still under development. An exciting concept as most seafaring games involves piracy and combat. This gentle game concentrates on the acts of creation and helping others.

Editors Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Choosing a Sandbox Game

The World

A characteristic of sandbox games is the ability to roam free and explore the game-world. If you are going to spend your free time there, then the world must appeal. Whatever your taste in the scenery there is bound to be a game to suit. You can choose from the wonders of the galaxy, a historical or fantasy world, or a world you build from the ground up.

Level of Interaction

Depending on the game, you can either act directly in the game-world through the control of an individual character or you can be the mysterious force that influences how the game people thrive. In the first scenario, you are part of the action in the second you are the observer and enabler. Both types of play are available as a sandbox game.

People

Am immense open world with the freedom to explore in any direction requires a decent amount of processing capacity. Generally, these games will be found online and be available to many players. There is a whole new genre of MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing games) that provide these vast spaces for people to drop in and interact.

You can choose to play as a lone wolf, just getting on with your own goals or as part of a team (people you know and people you have yet to meet) working towards a shared objective. The people you meet can be both real people piloting a character or NPCs (Non-Player Characters) controlled by the game AI and responding to your behavior.

Your personal preference will determine if you want a game that allows you to meet and interact with other people or if you prefer a game in which it is just you and the machine. The more vibrant and detailed worlds with realistic three-dimensional scenes will be mainly online. Other people will respond unpredictably to either help or hinder you. That element of uncertainty adds another layer of realism to the sandbox and open-world games.

The Purpose

The primary purpose of any game is to provide fun and entertainment. Most human activities are usually more fun if there is a goal in sight. It’s all very well to mess about in a kitchen throwing random ingredients into a bowl, but generally, you would be disappointed if the result was inedible. It could be a good learning experience, but the next time you would avoid doing the same thing. The goal, as well as having fun, is to be able to eat and enjoy the result.

A sandbox game is not unstructured all the time. There tends to be a bit of potential narrative – build a city, stay alive or find the lost land. The game will allow you to solve your problems and meet your objectives in your way. You are still going to want a sense of purpose; otherwise, why would you bother with it?

The Tools

While a small child can enjoy playing in a sandpit with their bare hands and nothing else, for a while, eventually, that becomes boring. There needs to be extra tools or objects to allow new gameplay and creation. A sandbox game is no different.

In gameplay, you manipulate and change the world around you. The game will provide the tools that let you interact and make and do whatever you need to do to achieve your goals. Or you may have to build your tools from the available materials. The tools available will impact on your enjoyment and the amount of time you are going to want to spend playing.

Activities

A good range of available actions that you enjoy taking part in without the risk of boredom. Repeating the same operation (grinding) can become monotonous, except when it is necessary to produce the desired result. A decent sandbox game will provide a varied range of options for activities.

Depending on the game, you could be crafting new objects or repairing old ones. There may be planting and growing or hunting and finding. The game may require you to trade with others to obtain the resources you need.

Compatibility

The game must be in a format that will play on your gaming rig – whether that is a PC or a console. Many games will also be playable on a portable device as well as the main machine.

Longevity

A sandbox game doesn’t have a defined endpoint. There is no winning in this type of play. Many are updated and modified by the gaming community, and this may be a feature that attracts you. The ability to create and share modifications. Developers may also issue regular updates or new sections to provide additional interest. An excellent sandbox game should provide years of enjoyment.

What is Unique About a Sandbox Game?

Sandbox games blend with other genres, such as role-playing or battle, but some elements make a sandbox game unique. Named after that favorite toddler toy – the sandbox. A blank canvas to be shaped and formed by the imagination, with the aid of a few extra toys or tools. A sandbox game is different from an open-world game by the freedom a player has to shape the world. An open-world game gives a player the freedom to explore and interact with a world. The differences are subtle, but they are still there.

Exploration

Games other than sandbox games can offer the ability to explore a strange new world. The attraction of many RPG’s (Role Playing Games) lies in the ability to cross new lands and encounter curious people and places. This exploration element would give the RPG sandbox elements. Alternatively, you could say it is a sandbox game with RPG elements. There are very few “pure” sandbox games but instead a wide variety of games that have robust sandbox elements built-in.

If you can go anywhere in the game and don’t have to unlock certain areas, then you are in a sandbox game (probably). The whole world is open to you right from the start. Of course, the structure of the game may mean that you need to build or buy a boat to cross the sea, but that doesn’t stop it from being a sandbox game.

Freedom to Choose

Most non-sandbox games are linear. They follow a script. Go through this door, fight all the monsters, kill the boss and gain the loot. Then you buy better weapons and go through the next door. There is an expected progression through the game until you achieve the desired objective. And, you keep repeating the level until you can progress to the next one. Your destiny is predetermined.

A sandbox game or world is built to react to you and your choices. And all options have proper rewards. You don’t hit a blank wall – or if you do, you can build a ladder and climb over it. And there will be something on the other side. You can travel in any direction, and you can do (within practical limits) anything. World parameters set restrictions. Unless you are a fish, you can’t breathe water, so if you walk into the sea and cannot swim, you will drown.

The main point is that you are free to choose what you do and achieve. The game will respond to your actions. Be aware that the game will have a built-in morality – if you steal from all your neighbors, then they may gang up on you. Actions have consequences.

Creativity

There are worlds in which you can build fantastic structures and objects, not just for yourself but for others to enjoy. Sandbox games unleash creativity, allowing you to change and shape the world if you can. These games allow for emergent behavior – you reap what you sow. The game reacts to your interactions with it.

Before you start worrying that there is some creepy AI in there plotting world domination, the game reacts because of programming. The game AI has been structured to respond in realistic ways, using physics engines and other subroutines. The NPCs will respond to you, but they are not real people. If you drop an object, it will either bounce or break. It won’t turn into a butterfly and escape – but if you want that to happen, you could build a mod for just that effect. The world will react naturally.

Sandbox games encourage you as a player to experiment. If you do this, what happens? The game develops and unfolds as you modify it by your progress through it by trying out new ideas.

You Can’t Win

This characteristic gives freedom. There is nothing to be won. You set your personal goals and objectives. If you achieve them, you may feel a sense of accomplishment. There is no big banner that will congratulate you on winning the game because winning is what you make it.

In most games, there are some explicit goals – steal a Mercedes, blow up the fort or slay the dragon. There are also some implicit goals – stay alive and keep playing the game. Even sandbox games have implicit goals – stay active as a character or as a civilization. Then there are personal goals that every player sets themselves – finish the game before your best friend, crack this level or build a replica of the Taj Mahal.

A non-sandbox game has the goals set for you, although you can add in some of your own. A sandbox game may have implied goals (build something, explore), but you are the person who sets the goals.

Why is an Open World Game not a Sandbox Game?

An excellent question and not easy to answer. Open World games are a bit like Sandbox Games. Or to put it another way, Sandbox games are a bit like Open World Games.

Exploration

An open-world game will allow you to explore and go in any direction. But all areas may not be available to you at the beginning of the game. You may have to earn or buy your way to the next stage. The open-world game is like a sandbox game in that there will be a big world, but without the freedom to roam. Go the painted desert and acquire the rock of atonement. Little tasks and big missions set for you.

Creativity

In an open world game, you will still be able to exercise some creativity, but inside parameters. In a sandbox game, you can create anything you think you can make with the resources available. In an open world game, you might be able to develop new and novel objects, but typically your choices will be limited. Unless the open-world game has sandbox elements.

Lack of Freedom to Choose

You can consciously choose to deviate from the expected path in an open-world game. But the game is set up for you to follow the script, although you might have multiple ways of achieving the same objective. An invisible director is pulling your strings. In a sandbox game, you would be making the decisions about where to go and what to do.

You Can Win

If you achieve the mission, find the treasure, release the captives or have yourself crowned Emperor and at that point, you can say you have won, then however sandbox like the game is, it isn’t. Typically, the game will stop after you have won. In a sandbox game, you can achieve your goals and then set new ones.

Benefits of Playing Sandbox Games

Escapism

Playing games, watching films, and reading books all provide a temporary escape into another place. Sandbox games extend this feeling of having a break from reality because they immerse you in a different world. You have the power to make creative decisions or wander about and admire the scenery. If you have spent all day putting figures into a spreadsheet, then this is a welcome diversion.

Friendship and Team Working

In a sandbox game, you set your objectives. You can invite others to join you or join in helping someone else achieve their goals in the game. There is something inherently satisfying about working with others, and it is an excellent way to keep in touch with distant friends and relatives. The virtual space is just a few clicks away. Why not have a picnic with friends while watching a volcano erupt? Just because the scenery is pixilated, it doesn’t mean it can’t be a shared experience in real-time.

Exercising the Creative Muscle

Some people do cryptic crosswords, and some sculpt clay, and some play sandbox games. Creating buildings and objects in a virtual world are no different from the creative process in the real world. The same parts of the brain flex and grow. The upside is that there is no mess to clear up after you have spent half an hour constructing a flying machine or building a wall.

Exploration

It is unlikely that this generation will ever go to space, and very few people can go to the poplar regions. A sandbox game can give you the pleasure of exploring and discovering strange new places without the physical difficulties associated with that activity in the real world. In the virtual landscape of the game, you may get bitten by a spider or a mosquito, but you are not going to end up with a swollen arm or malaria.

The History of Sandbox Games

Board Games

In the beginning, there was Go and Chess. Wait a minute – these are simple board games. They are not vast worlds of the imagination with unlimited potential. Yes, these are games restricted to a small board compared with today’s games, but they do show an important sandbox element – player choice.

Within the restrictions of the game, the players have freedom of choice as to what they move, where they move it to, and how they react to the other player. Computing power has led to the rise of the vast complex, sprawling worlds for us to play in and explore, but the base ideas started with those surprisingly complex games.

Adventure

In the late 1970s, there was a game called Adventure. A relatively simple game – the main character is a square that moves around. There was a mission – find the grail. There were enemies to avoid and random events to encounter. But it had an open-ended environment to explore, and the player chooses where to go and what to do to achieve the goal. These features are typical of a sandbox game.

Ultima

A few years later, Ultima was released. A game with a storytelling element and large world maps. The developers made their worlds as big as possible and as free as possible with the technology of the time. The game developed over a series of nine games, each building on the one before. It was innovative in how it introduced new features.

It is an early sandbox game in that a player could wander off into the world and take part in activities that had nothing to do with the mission. The series introduced moral concepts and evil actions having consequences.

Elite

Then came the universe that was Elite. Eight galaxies and many worlds to explore. This game used procedural generation. A vital process for most games today. Content (new rooms or land) comes into existence as you need it. The game has smaller files and a pleasing degree of randomness. As you walk into a room, the room appears in all its detail. The place did not exist until that door opens.

These early innovative games have since developed into a whole host of textured games that possible with the advantages of modern software and technology.

How did the Sandbox Game get its Name?

Consider a toddler’s sandpit – a fluid and changing place to learn and explore. It is a lovely image. And it does describe the game structure and style very well. In ancient times and in more recent times, there is the use of a sandbox to discuss military tactics.

When telling your generals that the enemy is likely to be hiding behind a hill – wet sand can be sculpted into showing that idea. Before computer modeling and drone pictures, it was a very creative way of sharing strategic information. The first wargamers adopted the sandpit as their gaming board.

The jury is out on the exact reason why sandbox games became known by that name. But it is still an excellent description of these creative and engaging games.

The Future of Sandbox Games

There is something attractive about the new and evolving world of the sandbox game. So how will games change over the coming years?

Sensory Immersion

You experience a sandbox game through vision, sound, and thought. You can’t feel the texture of a brick or smell the fragrance of a rose. At present, the technology does not exist to touch those senses in the game. If you are walking through a recreation of a medieval town, it is probably desirable not to be greeted with the authentic aromas of that era.

Early filmmakers had a brief flirtation with Smellovision, and some museums add appropriate scent to enhance the exhibits. Sounds impossible? Technology is being developed to emit evocative odors. First, it is an experiment to see what is possible and soon, you could be walking through a virtual street smelling roasting pork with your mouth watering.

Haptic feedback (vibrating game controllers) is already used to stimulate the sense of touch? But want if you could feel the cat’s fur when you stroke it? The weight of the weapon in your hand? This technology doesn’t exist, but gamers’ gloves could evolve to have tactile feedback. Coupled with headset feeding images to your eyes and nose, you would have an undreamt level of immersion in the game.

Better Screens

Seeing the game on 4K screens is likely to be standard in a few years. The monitors are already on sale. Games with visual images that take advantage of the higher resolution provided by a 4K screen are available When the prices start to fall, they will become more affordable.

Virtual Reality and Augmentation

Virtual reality (VR) headsets may mean that a screen for gaming is unnecessary. Why watch the action on a screen when you can feel as if you are in the middle of it? VR headsets are already available, and games are being developed to play to their strengths.

A new field of technology is the process of virtual augmentation (VA). VA is different in that you are viewing the real world with a virtual overlay. (VR replaces your view of the world with a complete virtual display). Pokemon Go was the first game to take advantage of VA, but it is unlikely to be the last.

Then there is the dream of the holodeck, walk through the door, and experience the whole game with your actual body. The stuff of science fiction? So was space flight and robots. The future will always surprise us.

Playing the Game

Now you know all about sandbox games, are you itching to play one? We have reviewed ten of the best sandbox games for your PC, console, or portable device. There are worlds to build and far reaches of the galaxy to explore. Are you ready?

To summarize:

That’s all for now! We hope you enjoyed our extensive review of the best sandbox games in 2020 and beyond! Until next time!

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