The real world can be boring sometimes. We know that feeling of wanting to jump into a virtual sandbox and getting lost in it for a few hours. Here are a few open-world games that you can explore when you’re owed a break from the physical world.
They’re chock full of side quests, collectibles, and other ways to suddenly lose half a day. We’re not including some of the more obvious titles, such as Skyrim, Fallout 3, and The Witcher 3.
If you’re a fan of open-world video games, you’ve likely already played those titles to death. Instead, let’s shine a spotlight on some other sandbox titles with an open world environment that is worth getting lost in.
Just Cause 3
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Square Enix Co., Ltd.
Release Date: December 1, 2015
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
We can think of no way better to kick off a list of great open-world games, than what is essentially the ultimate sandbox. Just Cause 3 is a game that emphasizes play, equipping the player with a bunch of toys for destruction and tossing them headfirst into a world where everything can be tied to and jumped onto and dragged and blown up.
The story is forgettable: Rico Rodriguez is tasked with toppling a generic dictator who rules his nation with an iron fist. The writing is just as bad, full of cringe-inducing one-liners told with mediocre voice acting and stiff cutscene animations.
None of this matters though, because the game proper makes all the exposition and worthless narrative easy to ignore. The parts that will stick with you have nothing to do with a shocking plot twist or well-developed character, but those free play moments of aimless experimentation. What would happen if I hooked this person up to an explosive canister and tied the two of them to the wing of an airplane? That’s the kind of dumb question Just Cause 3 encourages you to find the answers to.
Just Cause 3 understands that the appeal of open-world games is in the opportunities for emergent gameplay mechanics. It provides you with a box of tools and a massive playground for you to wreak absolute havoc in. The grappling hook is the key tool, of course, letting you tie things to other things and see what happens.
YouTube has an endless number of videos containing footage of players just messing around with the NPCs and vehicles. Locomotion is smooth and effortless and allows you to quickly move through the world without ever setting foot on the ground. More than anything, Just Cause 3 is a game that inspires free experimentation, never limiting you to the confines of a narrative context.
Super Mario Odyssey
Developer: Nintendo Entertainment Planning & Development
Release Date: October 27, 2017
Odyssey captures the sheer joy in movement and exploration of the original Super Mario 64, more than any other mainline Super Mario title since the series first made the switch to the 3D format. It’s as important a title for the Switch, as Super Mario 64 was for the Nintendo 64; as one of a line of early first-party releases on Nintendo’s newly launched (at the time) portable, Odyssey was designed to show the masses what the Switch can do. Fortunately, it fulfilled these high expectations, showcasing a level of polish that dwarfs even other Nintendo titles.
The gameplay gimmick for this go-around is Mario’s sentient hat, Cappy. By tossing Cappy onto the head of an enemy, Mario can take control of it. The variety of enemies and other controllable objects keeps the levels refreshing. You’ll find yourself replaying levels and trying out new ways of traversing the maps, utilizing the unique skills and properties of the theme-appropriate props scattered throughout.
In addition to this fantastic implementation of the game’s primary gimmick, Odyssey introduces a plethora of unique locomotion mechanics that are both intuitive to pick up but can be toyed with, combined, and layered. Underneath the cutesy graphics, hides a surprisingly complex platformer; it’s no wonder that Odyssey has become such a hit with the speedrunning community.
Super Mario Odyssey takes us back to the days when we used to sit wide-eyed in front of our televisions, replaying Bob-Omb Battlefield for the hundredth time. Its satisfying movement and novel gimmick combine in ways that make it infinitely replayable. It’s a visual delight as well, a spectacular showcase of classic Nintendo polish, evoking a warm familiarity that is earned through several decades of consistently fantastic releases. Odyssey is distilled joy and is guaranteed a place in the hearts of Nintendo fans, both new and old.
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: September 7, 2018
Spider-Man is the first Spider-Man game that really captures the free-flying joy of the PS2’s video game tie-in to the Raimi sequel, Spider-Man 2. Movement is fun to learn and a blast to experience first-hand. The combat is a satisfying twist on Spider-Man 2’s, combining Spider-Sense with an arsenal of high-tech gadgets to create a system that encourages experimentation. All this comes packaged with a surprisingly compelling narrative told convincingly through great motion-capture performances and excellent voice work.
Swinging from building to building through the streets of Manhattan is surprisingly easy to pick up, especially with Spidey’s considerable set of movement skills. Eventually, you’ll be zipping across rooftops and navigating through tight corridors without even breaking a sweat. It’s in these moments that the game invites you to test your web-slinging skills. How fast can I get from Central Park to the Daily Bugle? Can I swing through the grate beneath that tower?
The story manages multiple plot threads without skipping a beat, and it engrosses you in the process. This might be one of the best depictions of Peter Parker, the nerdy kid turned superhero. The narrative calmly navigates familiar territory, reintroducing us to Peter Parker and the cast of regulars that accompany him through each reboot. Still, it’s a title that is unafraid to explore the human relationships between Parker and his friends and villains. More than any other Spider-Man title before it, the PS4 Spider-Man often lets its titular character take the back seat for some plot moments, giving room for other characters – especially some of the franchise’s classic villains – to develop.
Like a few other games on this list, Spider-Man shows us how much fun a highly refined movement system can be. The web-swinging is what carries the game, but its exquisitely told story and fully formed characters will leave a lasting impression. We can’t wait for the sequel!
Publisher: Square Enix Co., Ltd.
Release Date: February 23, 2017
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
When you complete your first playthrough of Nier: Automata, you’re met with these puzzling words from the developers: “Enjoy the rest of the game”. If you haven’t played Nier Automata go play it right now. When you’ve finished, take a day off. Now finish it properly.
Nier: Automata is the type of game that lingers at the back of your mind for days after you’ve completed it. It exploits our familiarity with the “world is run by machines” trope to great effect, its mecha-girl aesthetic deceptively conventional for a title that is all but that. It’s a shining example of how video games can utilize the mechanics of play to tell non-linear stories.
It’s hard to know what to expect going into Nier: Automata, but chances are if you jump into this world knowing little more than what the trailers have shown you, your expectations are going to be way off base. At first glance, Nier: Automata doesn’t seem to be quite sure what type of game it wants to be, merging bullet-hell shoot-em-up, hack-and-slash, RPG, and side-scroller mechanics into a disjointed whole. With time, the systems come together in a manner wholly unique to Nier: Automata. It’s a game that is what it was meant to be, and it’s a narrative only possible in video games.
Underpinning the often-overwhelming oddness of Nier: Automata is a spectacular soundtrack, an eclectic mix of orchestral strings and thumping electronica that is closely tied to the game’s sound engine. The sound design is brilliant, with music transitioning seamlessly as you enter different areas of the game’s world.
Speaking of the world, it’s a sorrowful representation of a world overrun by machines, desaturated and in disrepair. In fact, the whole game feels like it was designed by machines in a world where man no longer exists. The menus are monochromatic and overly functional to the point that players may find themselves overwhelmed at the tiny text and data dumps.
If possible, go into this one blind, and be patient. Nier: Automata is a game that rewards patience.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Brought to you by FromSoftware, the developers of the Dark Souls and Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, is the type of game that comes with one difficulty: Nightmare.
Set in Japan during the Sengoku era, you play as the shinobi Wolf, guardian of the heir of a royal line and one of Japan’s ruling families. Internal royal family tensions and nation-wide political turmoil result in a betrayal that ends in your death. Your Dragon heritage as one in a long line of shinobi grants you the ability to resurrect after death. It’s a mechanic that is a bit more forgiving to players new to the genre, but the faster overall pace of movement and combat and the increasingly severe punishments for frequent deaths more than to make up for it.
Both Bloodborne and Dark Souls are indicative of Sekiro’s pedigree. The combat is quicker than either title, requiring quick reflexes to block or evade enemy attacks. The revive mechanic (which is where the subtitle Shadows Die Twice comes from) offers players a free second go when combatting particularly difficult enemies, but it won’t compensate for poor swordplay. Mashing buttons and the dash button will get you nowhere.
The rewards for investing the time and effort to master the combat mechanics are immense. Deliberate play of Sekiro provides you with a tangible sense of self-growth, evident every time you trackback to earlier areas in the game. Enemies you struggled to defeat are later dispatched with ease, but it’s not because of your in-game character is significantly stronger, but rather that you’ve improved mechanically, learned the attack patterns and mastered positioning.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice isn’t a game for everyone. It might not even be a game for most people. Sekiro is a game for those who don’t mind losing and are willing to put in the time and effort to get better.
Developer: United Front Games
Publisher: Square Enix Co., Ltd.
Release Date: August 24, 2012
Platforms: PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, Mac
We’re going to close this one out with an older but criminally underappreciated title.
Sleeping Dogs began development as True Crime: Hong Kong and tells the tale of former gang member turned undercover cop, Wei Shen. A love letter to the classic crime action dramas of the ’80s and 90’s Asian cinema, Sleeping Dogs offers a gritty urban take on the open-world formula that engrosses players in the seedy underground world of a hyper-stylized Hong Kong.
If you play the game straight, moving directly from plot point to plot point, you’ll find a fantastic story told through some top-tier acting and writing. The characters and personality that drive Sleeping Dog’s narrative feel authentic and believable – the arc of Wei’s childhood friend, the wannabe mobster Jackie Ma, is particularly moving – and you’ll find yourself invested from the first tutorial mission.
The combat is the glue that keeps the play experience compelling. The combat system is largely fist-to-fist, adopting the counter-attack mechanics from the Arkham series. It’s surprisingly intuitive; in a few hours, you’ll find yourself smoothly transitioning from one opponent to the next, stringing high-flying kicks and devastating punches together. Wei Shen may be trying to end street crime, but the enjoyment we got from the combat had us trawling the streets of Hong Kong, looking for someone’s teeth to put our fists into.
That was our list of some of the best open-world games to spend the hours in. We think we’ve offered a pretty diverse motley of video games for you to check out, from the more contemplative and serious to the care-free distraction of others. What open-world game do you think deserves a little recognition? Feel free to discuss it with us!