Open world games are a dime a dozen in today's industry. Naturally, with so much choice gamers are starting to become pickier about which adventures they'll be dropping the next 20-200 hours of their lives into. Having a gigantic map, a million collectibles, and climbable watchtowers is not enough to stand out from the pack anymore.
Here are 9 recent open world games that carved out a name for themselves by doing something unique or by doing something far better than anyone else could.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
What it did best: Engrossing sidequests.
Ever since its release, The Witcher 3 has become the poster child of how to do an open world game right. All large-scale RPGs must now try to measure up to CD Projekt RED’s leviathan or forever remain in its shadow. It would be wrong to call The Witcher 3 perfect however. The game’s massive critical acclaim can instead be attributed to its deep, mature writing that made even the most insignificant sidequest a fully-fleshed out slice of narrative. At the top of its game, quests like The Bloody Baron stand as the best that gaming has to offer. The titular Baron, Philip Strenger, appears at first to be nothing but a violent bandit leader. However, through your long quest to bring back his missing wife and daughter we begin to see him for what he really is – a controversial, multi-layered figure that cannot be labelled as wholly good or evil.
This theme remains constant throughout The Witcher’s vast offering of quests, with their intelligent writing often leading to difficult dilemmas in which right and wrong become blurred. Though mercy may seem like the obvious resolution to a situation in one moment, it could just as easily come at the cost of more lives later down the line. Many RPGs have moral choices but few are able to consistently turn a fetch-quest or monster hunt into an emotional gut-punch quite like The Witcher 3.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
What it did best: Captivating dungeons.
There’s a reason that gamers are still obsessed with Skyrim 5 years after its release. Even with a massive map, Bethesda still managed to pack the world full with interesting dungeons that avoid becoming repetitive traipses in the dark. Some of the most engaging quests in the game are found within random caves, tombs, and ruins. The moment that a player loses their wanderlust and begins to believe that they cannot be surprised by what waits for them over the next horizon, is the moment that an open world game becomes a chore and no longer an adventure.
Better yet, Skyrim is a modder’s paradise. It’s almost impossible to burn through everything there is to see because modders continue to push the envelope with increasingly ambitious projects. AlexanderJVelicky’s Falskaar mod for example, adds an entirely new region to the game with dozens of dungeons, sidequests, and fully voiced characters. Simply put, Skyrim manages to be almost endless without ever becoming stagnant.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
What it did best: Weaving a personal, evolving story.
Recent news of a sequel to this 2014 hit can largely be explained by one factor – the brilliantly executed Nemesis system. Shadow of Mordor’s open world is pretty but mostly uninteresting, its combat is an exciting mixture of cat and mouse stealth and bursts of aggression but did little that hadn’t already been done by Arkham or Creed games, and its story is strong until faltering significantly in the final act. The Nemesis system however, remains fantastic throughout, weaving a very personal story for each player as they strategically pick apart Mordor’s ranks one by one.
Essentially, the armies of Sauron are comprised of randomly-generated lieutenants with differing strengths and weaknesses. Each stands distinct from one another with a slew of armours, weapons, and personalities. Falling in battle against these imposing fiends is made all the worse by their mocking taunts and subsequent promotion up the Uruk hierarchy, though it makes hunting them down and exacting your revenge all the sweeter. The Nemesis system really goes to show how much more alive a game world can become with just a little extra thought.
What it did best: Meaningful distractions.
While the latest Yakuza is technically an open world game, it’s a very small one. Invisible walls surround the two small hub areas, leaving little to traverse between the thug-laden streets and the couple dozen explorable buildings. Despite this unimpressive first impression, Yakuza 0 is a veritable conveyor belt of entertainment, hardly ever requiring more than a couple of hundred steps before you find an enjoyable distraction. With most open worlds there is a sense that the protagonist seems to be wilfully avoiding his higher calling, the main questline, as you dabble with trivialities. Yakuza’s game world is built in such a way that it seems entirely plausible that you’d get sucked into the engaging, often absurd sidequests.
The minigames are similarly enthralling. A typical open world game tends to offer one, maybe two or three minigames at the most. From my time with Yakuza 0 I’ve already tried my hand at batting, pool, darts, fishing, phone dating, weird softcore video booths (!), a bunch of classic Sega games, model car racing, business management, hostess club management, phone dating, karaoke, disco dancing, UFO cranes, bowling, fighting tournaments, chou-hand, koi-koi, blackjack, slots, roulette, baccarat, oicho-kabu, and chinchirorin. Each of these are fully fleshed-out with at least a handful of activities to suit any player; there’s always something to keep you occupied.
Assassin's creed iv: black flag
What it did best: Expanding the open world to the oceans.
Though taking to the waters isn’t uncommon in open world games, having your feet firmly planted on dry land is the status quo. Black Flag stands as a proud exception as the majority of its beautiful Caribbean coastal region is made up of glistening open water. With an upgradeable vessel, treasure hunts, all manner of naval combat missions, whale hunting, and all the land-faring side activities you’d come to expect from a Creed game, Black Flag is an ocean of possibilities.
As the long-running series continues to churn out title after title, Black Flag will endure as a rare moment of inspiration amongst an increasingly tired formula, so much so that it’s often criticised as not being a true Assassin’s Creed game. Labelling thematic shifts and gameplay innovation as a departure from a series seems to be cynical to say the least.
Red Dead redemption
What it did best: Atmosphere.
Even as the oldest game on this list, Red Dead Redemption still feels modern. Its pitch-perfect rendition of the sweeping 1900s American and Mexican landscape set a standard for the Western genre so high that hardly a soul has attempted to dethrone it. Though the Grand Theft Auto series may be what put Rockstar on the map, Red Dead is a more cohesive vision. Its characters, whether noble or reviled, offer intrigue in spades. The uncertain morality of the wild west offers a better backdrop for its main character to cut loose as a killer or follow the path of restraint, unlike GTA’s occasional entertaining yet immersion-breaking killing sprees.
Amongst the arid plains, snowy peaks, and dusty towns, the game is masterfully situated with a soundtrack that captures the spirit of the movies it hopes to emulate. As the action picks up, so too does the music’s tempo, puling you into the gritty landscape in which death and danger could be lurking around any corner (or in the underbrush, damned cougars…).
Final Fantasy xv
What it did best: Endearing companions.
Whether you love it, hate it, or simply nothing it, the latest Final Fantasy outing did one thing much, much more effectively than the average open world game – it gave you some damn fine company. Despite their massive, bustling locales, it’s easy to feel lonely within an open world game. The scale of such projects often leads to limited dialogue with whatever followers you pick up through your travels. Final Fantasy XV chose instead to build your journey around its four central characters (admittedly, at the expense of all others). Your buddies don’t feel like plus ones to a party, Ignis, Gladio and Prompto ARE the party.
As your long road trip progresses it’s hard not to fall in love with your eccentric brothers-in-arms. Prompto’s snapshots bring a sense of nostalgia and warmth to a journey that rarely lasts longer than fifty hours whilst Ignis and Gladio are both at once watchful protectors and playful banterers. Every battle, every long ride, and every minigame is made just a little better by the knowledge that your bros are with you for the duration.
Metal Gear solid v: the phantom pain
What it did best: Tactical versatility.
Lurking from a nearby hilltop you assess a small but heavily fortified enemy outpost with your spotting scope. Guards diligently patrol the compound whilst snipers man the towers. What’s your plan of attack? It’s a familiar scenario in the open world with most games like Far Cry 3 or Just Cause opting to supply you with either a stealth edge or an excessive supply of ordinance. Metal Gear Solid V sets itself apart from the rest by giving you a staggering range of offensive options, both lethal and non-lethal.
You could be old-fashioned and sneak your way in with nothing but the camouflage on your back, or you could throw caution to the wind and get your hands bloody, all guns blazing. Then again you could also form a two-man sniping team and pick people off, perhaps you could deploy your dagger wielding wolfhound, or maybe attack with your own battlemech? If that’s too straightforward you could launch an airstrike, or stun the guards with your guided rocket-propelled fist. Why not wait for a sandstorm to come by and use it to meticulously tranq every guard in their face at point blank range? The possibilities are almost endless, giving you an unmatched amount of creative freedom in which to go about ruining those guard’s days. Oh, and don’t forget to extract yourself through a wormhole after you’re done.
What it did best: Your impact on the environment.
Plenty of games boast that your actions will have consequences, gradually affecting the world around you. Nowhere is this more effectively realised than within the randomly generated open world of Minecraft. You are literally able to pick apart the world and rearrange it how you see fit. You could build a cosy little house, or maybe a secluded deep sea fortress, or even a near perfect replica of King’s Landing from Game of Thrones. The only limit placed on you is the one in which your time and sanity demands.
By the time you’ve mastered most open world games you’ll have obtained the most powerful weapons, a bevy of strong titles, and maybe a sweet new costume. Mastery of Minecraft elevates you to a god within your own world as you look upon your handmade dominion, perfected with only the rarest materials obtained from deep within the earth or the Nether realm.
With plenty more open world games on the horizon, here's hoping that they push the boundaries in the same way these titles did. Do you have a favourite that wasn't on the list? Stick it in the comments!