For nearly a decade there has been a torrent of open-world games. Ever since 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III the genre has been growing in dominance. Grand Theft Auto III was a groundbreaking title that, for the first time, let players freely roam a 3D world from a third-person perspective, practically introducing a whole new genre of games.
There’s something special about being given the full freedom to explore a famous city, a mysterious remote island, and new locations, as well as the ability to wreak havoc and get chased by police. This very freedom is the reason why open-world games have been so successful.
From role-playing games like Fallout 3 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt to Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V, each open-world title is highly enjoyable and brings something different to the table, whether it’s riding horses and catching bandits, or fighting ghouls in a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C.
Here are the 15 Best Open-World Games, Ranked.
15 Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is definitely not the best Assassin’s Creed game. However, Black Flag best understands what an open-world game should be, much more than the franchises' other games.
Unlike Assassin’s Creed II, which is a more linear experience with a strong focus on storytelling, Black Flag gives players the ability to fully explore the Caribbean islands from the very beginning, including three main cities: Kingston, Nassau, and Havana.
Perhaps the best of part of Black Flag is its naval gameplay. After Ubisoft received positive feedback with the way it handled naval combat in Assassin’s Creed III, the developer decided to base most of Black Flag on the Jackdaw, your own personal ship that acts as your main source of transportation. Black Flag truly makes you feel like a pirate, and the game’s sun-soaked setting is filled with hidden treasures and secrets to find.
14 Infamous 2
Before Infamous, developer Sucker Punch wasn’t too well known. The studio, which is now one of PlayStation’s most important first-party developers, was making Sly Cooper games in the 2000s. However, Sucker Punch showed the world what it was truly capable when it set out to create an open-world game, which focuses on players protecting a city and feeling like proper superheroes.
An argument can be made regarding which Infamous game out of the original two has a better story. However, there is no denying that Infamous 2 is a better gameplay experience, with a better realized world to get lost in.
Infamous 2’s beautiful New Orleans-inspired New Marais setting, which, rather than having the first game’s Empire City skyscrapers, contains swamps and flooded districts. New Marais is filled with a variety of different districts to explore and always feels like a living and breathing sightseeing marvel.
13 Watch Dogs 2
When Watch Dogs was first announced at Ubisoft’s E3 2012 press conference, it seemed like the studio was promising a game it could never deliver. Fast-forward two years and Watch Dogs was met with mixed responses from fans and critics. Protagonist Aiden Pearce is unlikable and Ubisoft's version of Chicago feels uninspired and dull.
However, just like with Assassin’s Creed II, Ubisoft listened closely to fan feedback and delivered a surprising sequel in Watch Dogs 2, which feels, in many ways, like a completely different game from the first. Watch Dogs 2 has a lighter tone, an entertaining and lighthearted story featuring a group of eccentric hackers, and a beautiful San Francisco setting that truly feels like its own character.
Watch Dogs 2's best success is its set of main quests, which make full use of the zany and colorful city-- from infiltrating a tech company in Silicon Valley to saving a famous actor from the clutches of a crazy cult.
12 Burnout Paradise
There aren't many open-world racing games that are genuinely great. Ubisoft’s The Crew and most of the Need for Speed games lack enough compelling content to justify their mammoth settings. However, to this day, Criterion Games’ Burnout Paradise remains as not only one of the best racing games ever made, but one that contains a fantastic and wholly unique world, brimming with a variety of activities to partake in.
The game is set in the fictional Paradise City, where players compete in different types of races and have access to a plethora of vehicles, from motorcycles and sports cars, to just simple trucks.
Players have the ability to progress and level up at their own pace. There’s also a multiplayer component to get lost in, which includes the engaging Cops and Robbers game mode. Burnout Paradise was a complete reinvention of the Burnout series and racing games as a whole.
11 Fallout: New Vegas
It was always going to be difficult to follow Fallout 3, given how influential Bethesda Softworks’ RPG epic has been to this day. When it was announced that Obsidian, known for making niche western RPGs like the Neverwinter series, was going to take on a Fallout game right after arguably the best entry in the franchise, fans were skeptical.
This doubt inevitably affected how Fallout: New Vegas has been viewed over the years. However, the truth of the matter is: New Vegas is severely underrated and would have been praised a lot more if it weren’t for Fallout 3.
While New Vegas isn’t as fresh nor original as Fallout 3, it sports better writing, thought-provoking and well-realized side missions, and a Nevada setting that feels and looks more lively than Washington D.C. Aside from the occasional glitches and bugs, New Vegas turned out to be a whole lot more than a simple spinoff.
10 Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the best PlayStation 4 exclusives so far. Game director Mathijs de Jonge said that Horizon was the riskiest idea Guerrilla Games was pitching to Sony before development began in 2011, and that’s understandable.
Guerrilla was only known for its fledgling Killzone franchise, which never really took off. What makes Horizon a great open-world game is its setting. While the title does sport a fantastic and relatable female protagonist along with a captivating story, it’s Horizon’s post-apocalyptic depiction of a war-torn United States that really makes it shine.
The story is set one thousand years in the future, where humans have regressed to primitive tribal societies while strange machines dominate the Earth. Exploring Horizon’s mysterious and exotic world, discovering the secret and origins behind these machines, and encountering old monuments and relics never stops being captivating.
9 Batman: Arkham City
Most fans highly doubted Rocksteady and their ability to pull off a decent Batman game, let alone an excellent one. Batman: Arkham Asylum proved everyone wrong with its fast-paced combo-based combat, metroidvania-style gameplay, and intriguing original Batman story, which was written by the animated series’ Paul Dini.
Rocksteady perfectly captured what it’d feel like playing as Batman in a video game. The studio took it up a notch with the sequel, Arkham City, which, instead of having a closed-off and a smaller setting like Arkham Asylum, provides players the opportunity to explore a whole city filled with some of Batman’s most dangerous villains.
Gliding around Arkham City while hunting down criminals like Two-Face and The Penguin, and solving The Riddler’s many puzzles never gets old. The only criticism you can throw at Arkham City is that the setting might be a tad too small. But given how uneven the final game in Rocksteady’s Batman trilogy, Arkham Knight, turned out be with Gotham City as the setting, Arkham City’s size is only a small tradeoff.
8 Far Cry 3
It can be argued that Far Cry 3 was a surprise hit for Ubisoft. The previous game in the franchise, Far Cry 2, was a critical darling with middling commercial success. Not to mention, Far Cry 3 was released in early December, right after all of 2012’s biggest games.
Many fans mistakenly took this as a sign that Ubisoft wasn’t confident with its game. In the end, this turned out to be hugely wrong, as Far Cry 3 quickly became one of the company’s most beloved titles.
Far Cry 3 combines Far Cry 2’s exciting and customizable gun play with its own brooding and memorable story, featuring an enigmatic villain named Vaas. Players assume the role of clueless American teenager Jason Brody who, along with his equally ignorant college friends, gets kidnapped and embroiled in a war for the Rook Islands.
From killing tigers and setting weed farms on fire with flamethrowers, to using hang gliders to relax and explore the dangerously tropical setting, there’s never a dull moment in Far Cry 3.
7 Fallout 3
Fallout 3 is, without a doubt, the most influential entry in the Fallout franchise, even if it lacks New Vegas’ more thoughtful quests and Fallout 4’s better gun play. Many players remember the moment when they first leave Vault 101 and ascend up to a decrepit and vile Washington D.C. filled with thieves, ghouls, and insects the size of houses.
Bethesda Softworks is an expert at creating truly massive worlds that players can not only get lost in, but also discover plenty of different side quests to do. Most players don’t even bother with Fallout 3’s meandering main mission given just how many side quests the game throws at you from the beginning.
The second players leave the safe Vault, they have the whole of Washington to explore, and this complete and total freedom has made Fallout 3 an influential masterpiece.
6 Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda franchise has been known for containing long tutorials and forcing players to follow certain pre-set guidelines when it comes to which dungeons players can complete first. Given just how much the gaming industry has changed since Zelda’s inception, especially with the recent dominance of open-world games, Nintendo changed directions with its prized series and opted to make a Zelda game that’s completely open, with little to no restrictions.
Given how this year’s Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been received, with most already claiming it as the best game of 2017, this change of direction was definitely the right choice by Nintendo. Players have an entire stunning Hyrule to explore to their heart’s content, as well as a new take on the well-known Zora and Gordon domains.
Players can go right ahead with exploring and discovering new dungeons and towers to climb, while completely ignoring the main quest. Breath of the Wild is the Zelda game fans have been crying out for, and it certainly delivers.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been parodied countless time since its release in 2011. The game practically took over pop culture for what seemed like an eternity. It was undoubtedly Bethesda Softworks’ biggest hit, even outshining its previous effort Fallout 3.
Skyrim retains the lore and old-school RPG setting of the Elder Scrolls series, while also sporting a refreshingly new northern setting. Gone are the lush green meadows of Cyrodiil, which are now replaced by the snowy, mountainous terrain of Skyrim. Players take the role of a Dragonborn, destined to inevitably battle Alduin, an ancient dragon who wishes to destroy the world.
Unlike Bethesda’s previous games, Skyrim contains a well-written main story that’s worthwhile to complete. As you’d expect from a Bethesda open-world RPG, Skyrim is brimming with countless fantastic quests to complete and a world that will take players weeks, if not, months to fully explore and uncover.
4 Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
A year after Grand Theft Auto III changed video games forever, Rockstar released Vice City. Though it wasn’t the trailblazing behemoth that was Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City is a better game overall, with its fine-tuned combat, the introduction of motorcycles, and a livelier Miami-inspired setting.
After familiarizing itself with the new technology used to create Grand Theft Auto III's open world, Rockstar started working on what seemed like a passion project-- a open-world game based on beloved crime films and TV shows like Miami Vice and Scarface.
Vice City follows the story of Tommy Vercetti, voiced by none other than Ray Liotta, who gets sucked back into a life of crime following his 15-year prison sentence. The plot is compelling, with Vercetti being a better protagonist all around than Grand Theft Auto III’s silent Claude. The glorious 1980s pop and rock music is also a major source of Vice City’s charm.
3 The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has impacted role-playing games and open-world design, raising the bar for both genres. The Witcher 3’s melee combat is deep and challenging, and the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of side quests each tell their own memorable stories about the game’s mythical and dangerous lands.
The free city of Novigrad is beautifully detailed and is a large enough setting to take place over the course of a full-length game. However, The Witcher 3 also contains the battlefields and swamps of Velen and, perhaps the game’s best setting, the barbaric Skellige Islands, which players can only traverse using a boat.
At one point, players can even travel to an abandoned island taken over by a giant, in order to save the prince of the Skellige Islands. Actually finishing The Witcher 3 is a near impossible feat. Developer CD Projekt RED poured its heart and soul into the game, and it shows.
2 Grand Theft Auto V
The Grand Theft Auto series has been pushing open-world games forward in multiple ways for several years now. The latest in the series, Grand Theft Auto V, introduced the ability to switch between three characters on the fly, no matter where they are in the game world.
Rockstar’s recreation of Los Angeles, which is called Los Santos in the game, is gorgeous and brimming with memorable side missions to complete and events to participate in. Players can get lost in the wilderness up north and hunt for animals, or wreak havoc in downtown Los Santos while carrying a rocket launcher or riding a helicopter. The world is your playground.
Couple this total freedom with Grand Theft Auto V’s excellent main story, and you've discovered the most complete game in this long-running franchise. Following the exploits of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor, players face one crazy scenario after another.
1 Red Dead Redemption
Rockstar took a massive risk with Red Dead Redemption. There are barely any western games and it was a huge leap to try to create a successful take on the wild frontier. It was an unproven market and Red Dead Redemption hit the ground running, quickly becoming Rockstar’s best project in years.
What sets Red Dead apart from Grand Theft Auto and all other open-world games is the way it perfectly makes full use of its unique setting. There’s simply no better title out there that expertly captures what it feels like to be a cowboy, and to live in and explore the dying American and Mexican frontiers in the early 20th century.
From the game’s melancholic music to its gripping story about John Marston and his quest for revenge, Red Dead Redemption lives on as one of the best open-world experiences ever made.
Which of these video games has your favorite open-world setting? Let us know in the comments.
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