Just like a good book or movie, games allow us to visit places that we could never go to in real life or let us see what it’s like to live in a different era or with a different lifestyle. While all truly great games have the ability to immerse us in another world, open world “sand box” games like GTA or Assassin’s Creed succeed at making us feel like we’re in a different place and time like no other genre can, so it’s no surprise that open world action games have rapidly become one of gaming’s most popular genres. With that thought in mind, I thought I’d compile a list of five of my favorite games in the genre.
It’s hard to pinpoint when and where “open world” games really started. Freeform, open RPG’s have existed on the PC for decades, and open worlds have existed on consoles in some limited extent ever since games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid experimented with non-linearity. Of course, the genre only truly came into it’s own when GTA3 hit the PS3 back in 2001, but even that landmark game wasn’t Rockstar’s first attempt at the genre: in addition to the first 2 2D overhead GTA’s on the PS1 and PC, the team behind GTA3 first experimented with 3D open world game design in the cult N64 classic Body Harvest.
You could say that open world games are the ultimate expression of gaming: after all, besides being fun, I’m sure a lot of us play games because they give us the ability to do things we could never do in real life and see places that we could never actually visit ourselves. It’s human nature to want to explore, and next to booking a trip around the world, games offer one of the easiest and most convenient ways to sate our natural wanderlust. The freedom offered by open world games is the closest a lot of us will come to take a trip to some far-flung land or going on an adventure in some exotic location, and at the very least, games cost a lot less than a trip to South America or Asia and you won’t have to worry about contracting dysentery.
Now, I should clear some things up before I get onto the list proper: this is a list of my favorite open world action games, so I’ve deliberately left RPGs like Fallout, Elder Scrolls, and Borderlands off of this list — trust me, I love those games as much as you probably do, but they’ll have to wait for another list. Similarly, this is a list of my favorites, and as such, they’re probably not the same as your picks — if you’re the type of fanboy who nerd rages at the thought that somebody could possibly have different opinions than you, feel free to post your death threats & juvenile insults in the comments section. It’s a popular activity on this site. Meanwhile, sane, reasonable adults who simply want to discuss the games I’ve talked about or who want to post their own picks should also feel free to talk about the topic at hand in the comments section as well.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
It’s impossible to write a list about the best open world games without listing at least one Grand Theft Auto game, and as far as I’m concerned, GTA: Vice City is still the series’ pinnacle. While later GTAs featured more complex gameplay and better graphics, Vice City still has the edge as far as narrative and setting are concerned: Tommy Vercetti’s adventure through Vice City’s neon lit metropolis remains one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in front of a console. The game’s cast of shady lawyers and morally bankrupt politicians and business leaders provided a pitch perfect parody of Reagan-era America, and the game still features one of the best soundtracks to ever grace a game; while the graphics may be primitive by today’s standards, there’s still nothing quite like getting in a high speed chase while “I Ran” by Flock of Seagulls plays in the background.
Assassin’s Creed 2
I hated the first Assassin’s Creed. The missions were repetitive, the world wasn’t fun to run around in, and the game often penalized you for trying to explore new areas or do things your own way (a big no-no for open world games.) Thankfully, Assassin’s Creed 2 fixed all of the problems of the original title: Renaissance era Italy provided a unique and colorful setting that was immensely fun to explore, and even more fun to murder people in. In sharp contrast to the original game’s incredibly restrictive design, AC2 encouraged players to figure out their own solutions to each mission: players could stalk their targets stealthily from the roof tops, simply charge in with their swords drawn, or skillfully manipulate the crowd to create a distraction while they casually took down their target in plain sight. AC2 is everything that a good sequel should be, and it’s also one of the few open world games that didn’t overly restrict players’ freedom once they started a mission — an important lesson that more open world games should learn from.
Saints Row 2
If there’s one thing I don’t like about the newer GTA games, it’s that they take themselves too seriously sometimes — while dealing with heavy issues like Niko Bellic’s internal turmoil was interesting, sometimes I play these games just because I want to beat down some rival gang members with a dildo or blow up a building with an RC helicopter. Thankfully, Saints Row is more than happy to to pick up the slack; as GTA has become more realistic and serious, Saints Row has gradually become more wacky and more insane. While the more recent Saints Row 3 amps the insanity up to eleven, I still prefer Saints Row 2 — the rival gangs have more personality, and SR2’s version of the city was more fun to explore. Regardless of whichever game in the series you prefer, the Saints Row franchise is still the go-to franchise for mindless, insane fun: driving around the city while spraying people with raw sewage just never gets old.
Red Dead Redemption
Rockstar may have pioneered the open world genre with games like GTA and Body Harvest, but with Red Dead Redemption, they perfected it. RDR’s gritty tale of the dying West is perfect in almost every way: unlike the awkward combat that’s common in most open world action games, the gun play in RDR is just as good as many dedicated shooters. Red Dead’s expertly crafted narrative and top-notch voice acting made its cutscenes just as good as any old Sergio Leone western, and the game’s gorgeous graphics even managed to make mundane tasks like travelling from one destination to another an exhilarating experience.
Batman: Arkham City
For whatever reason, most of the games on this list put you on the wrong side of the law. Batman: Arkham City, on the other hand, puts you in the pointy boots of comics’ most famous vigilante. While the titular Arkham City isn’t as big as the worlds featured in the other games in this list, it’s absolutely crammed with things to do: there are secrets to find, optional subquests to undertake, and in just like a true superhero fashion, you can spend an entire night just stopping random street crimes. There’s a lot of reasons to like Arkham City: the unpredictable story, the massive cast of iconic Batman villains it lets you fight, the tense stealth-based stand-offs… but the best thing about Batman: Arkham City is that it really lets you live out your childhood fantasies and makes you feel like Batman while you play it. Whether you’re swinging from rooftop to rooftop or burying your elbow in some henchman’s windpipe, Batman: Arkham City is the ultimate form of wish fulfillment for anyone who grew up reading DC Comics or who watched the Animated Series as a kid.