The best open world games

We're living in a golden age of sprawling and exciting open world games. Here are our favorites.

We're in a golden age of open world games, sprawling sandboxes where player choice rules above all else. Sure, there are stories, quests, missions, and goals, but players are free to complete them at their own pace. From fantasy realms to simulated galaxies, from modern cities to post-apocalyptic wastelands, the best open world games give players the freedom to choose their own path—to do what they want, when they want—and provide an interesting and rewarding setting for their self-guided adventures.

Here are the best open world games on PC.

Forza Horizon 3

Forza Horizon 3 is a racing game, but it's not only a racing game. It's a huge, sprawling, beautiful sandbox full of city streets, pristine beaches, lush forests, and dusty deserts representing a condensed but still sizable slice of Australia's Outback. Its vast and varied terrain gives us lots to do: races, challenges, stunt jumps, collectible hunts, not to mention hundreds of cars to play with. Forza Horizon 3 is the best of an already excellent series in terms of size, scope, variety, and enjoyment.

Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl

In Stalker, the open world is your enemy. Gamma pockets, anomalies and radioactive storms can end you in moments. Any building can hide scavengers or horrifying mutated creatures. Ammo and armour is scarce, and you’re lost in a wasteland so bleak as to be almost completely alienating. But as the Stalkers know, the Zone has a strange allure. Explore the blasted husks of Ukranian factories and apartment blocks, and try not to be too unnerved by the lifeless quiet. After a while, Stalker’s desolation becomes beautiful.

Grand Theft Auto 5

This is what money is for: creating a kind of pastiche of a real-world location that’s so staggeringly accurate in atmosphere and details that it’s actually better than being in the real thing. Los Santos represents the meticulous approach Rockstar gave to the compact Liberty City in GTA 4 and brought it to the scale of 2004’s San Andreas—and the result is an open world of such a high standard that it’ll only likely be topped by Rockstar itself. Between GTA 5's strong multi-protagonist campaign and the mad playground of GTA Online, there’s well over 100 hours of chases and gunfights across land, air and sea for those who want it here.

GTA 5 is also highly moddable. Here's our list of the best mods for Grand Theft Auto 5.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

An outstanding technological achievement, The Witcher 3 is the vanguard of a new wave of open world games able to leverage the power of modern gaming systems to create environments of extraordinary detail and scope. The bogs of Velen are a moody aperitif that primes you for the bustle of Novigrad and the sweeping forests of the nordic Skellige region—one of the most beautiful game locations ever.

You can spend hours sailing around those islands, stumbling upon quests, breaking curses, killing monsters and playing Gwent with rowdy locals. The Witcher 3’s towns are noisy, bustling places that make other open world towns seem lifeless by comparison. It’s a pleasure to simply pick a direction and walk—the hallmark of a great open world.

Here's our list of the best mods for The Witcher 3.

Elite: Dangerous

Few open world games are as open, and vast, as that of Elite: Dangerous. Fly your spaceship through the entirety of the simulated Milky Way, battling pirates (or becoming one), mining asteroids, transporting and trading goods, or simply exploring undiscovered stars, planets, and systems. Whether you choose to play solo or join a connected online galaxy with other players, you're sure to find adventure among Elite's 400 billion star systems. You might even run into a few aliens.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

Assassin's Creed's jauntiest outing since 2, Black Flag masterfully combines toe-to-toe swashbuckling with sailing in a luminous Caribbean archipelago. Tiny islands, whales, forts and colonial armadas provide the variety on the ocean, and the sizeable islands host traditional free-running Assassin's Creed action. After a poor third entry in the series, Black Flag was a salty lungful of fresh air.

The cities are smaller and the plot is nonsense, but few games can match the excitement of smashing a port. You crack the walls open from the ocean with cannon fire before seamlessly freerunning through the shattered battlements, hunting the commander with a brace of loaded pistols. It’s exactly the sort of action that open worlds do brilliantly. Top storms, too.

The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind

Hiking across Morrowind is a lot like visiting one of those replica Victorian streets—yes, it's a bit brown, the technology is antiquated and for some reason everything smells of must—but it feels so real. A glimpse into another world frozen in time, alien and yet familiar. Morrowind bridges the divide between modern, polished but impersonal 3D blockbusters and the peculiar, characterful roleplaying games of yesteryear. With efforts such as OpenMW and Skywind to bring Morrowind into the modern era, there may be life in it still. Large enough to get lost in and stuffed to the brim with little details, the island of Vvardenfell continues to entice and enthrall today as it did 15 years ago.

Metal Gear Solid 5

Metal Gear Solid 5 only truly comes into its own as an open world game when you stop using the helicopter to get to every mission, and work your way through each of the two massive landscapes (Afghanistan, and the Angola-Zaire border) picking off Side Ops like an RPG. Kojima Productions’ stealth action game encourages true freedom of approach, and its progression systems properly reward the player, too. You start by headshotting enemies with a rubbish pistol and end by dragging enemies towards you with a magic robot hand, sticking tanks on balloons, and calling in airstrikes on bears. Great game or greatest game?

Starbound

With quests, combat, boss fights, exploration, survival, mining, crafting, building, and interplanetary space travel, Starbound packs a ton of things to do into its charming 2D pixelated universe. Whether you're digging deep into a planet's surface, jetting off to discover new solar systems, or constructing a quiet little town and populating it with friendly NPCs, you'll find Starbound's world—worlds—an inviting and fascinating place to spend countless hours.

Check out our list of the best mods for Starbound.

Just Cause 2

Not exactly the deepest of the games on this list, but one of the most empowering, exciting, and silly. Rarely has such a huge and beautiful open world felt like a true playground, and with a grappling hook and infinite parachutes to swiftly navigate the lush and tropical island, it's always playtime. Your boots will barely touch the ground before you're careening through the air again, zipping from place to place amid chaos and destruction. Just Cause 3's world may have been bigger, but this one is definitely better.

Mad Max

There's a certain dismal beauty to a destroyed and decaying world, and the wasteland of Mad Max is filled with horrible, yet still somehow lovely sights. From blasted industrial landscapes to desolate deserts to lakes of toxic sludge, the world is a dangerous and atmospheric place to explore. Plus, you get to drive through it all in a souped-up car, spike-covered as you battle roving gangs of War Boys, Buzzards, and other psychopathic speedfreaks. While Mad Max gets a bit repetitive, and it's not as much fun when you have to get out of your car and fight on foot, its open world is still provides hours of high-octane fun.

Saints Row 4

A delightfully silly satire on games, don’t let Saints Row 4’s slightly dull city put you off. Powers like superhuman speed, Hulk-like jumps and a range of comedy guns and wrestling moves mean this is the closest thing to Crackdown you can find on PC, except it’s better, because it has jokes. It also has an inflato-ray that puffs up enemies until they pop, and a Dubstep gun that changes firing pattern depending on the costume you give it. Based on this information, you've probably already decided whether to give it a try or not.

Westerado: Double Barreled

Don't let its looks fool you: Westerado is an open world game, and one that allows more freedom than just about any other ever made. The story is always the same—you're searching for the desperado who murdered your family—but the identity of this outlaw changes every time you play. As you explore the dusty Western world, searching for your target, you can go where you like and do what you want, including accusing anyone, at anytime, of being the killer. You can even draw your gun and shoot any NPC you meet, even in the middle of a conversation. Be a hero, or a scoundrel, or something in between. The choice is entirely yours.

Fallout 4

A brown post-nuclear wasteland ought to be boring, but the decades Bethesda has spent refining the same open world formula pays off in Fallout 4. While not as groundbreaking as its predecessors, the absorbing world serves as a battleground for Boston’s warring NPCs. Diamond City defenders fight running battles through the outskirts of the city, while in the wilderness raiders bully settlers and the mutated wildlife attacks anything it thinks it can eat.

With the exception of Minecraft, this is the only game on the list that gives players some control over the landscape. Liberate settlements and you can melt down their possessions to build towns with luxuries like running water and turret systems to keep the wastelanders out. Because it’s based on an advanced version of the Creation engine that powered Skyrim and Oblivion, it’s a modder’s paradise.

Of course, it's even better with mods. Here's our list of the best mods for Fallout 4.

Dwarf Fortress

The best game ever made, if you can learn how to play it. Like Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress can generate a planet in moments. It goes further than using erosion patterns to plot realistic river routes, or using geology to weave skeins of ore into the crust in believable patterns. Its models builds whole societies—heroes, battles, wars and religious beliefs included. Sometimes a society won’t even survive the world creation process. Instead you come across their abandoned halls as you manage your fortress, or encounter their ruins in DF’s roleplaying mode. The ASCII interface is offputting to some, and it’s best played with some aids, but this is the most advanced open world generators available, and it’s still being updated with new features and behavioural tweaks.

Sunless Sea

It’s easy to equate open world games with absolute freedom and carefree fun—an assumption that Sunless Sea leaves shipwrecked on the jagged rocks surrounding its oppressive eponymous ocean. An intriguing narrative and difficult (sometimes cruel) gameplay result in a lesson in humility and character building not often seen in the other games in this list. More eldritch than escapist, it’s an acquired taste and not for those who don’t like (lots of) reading—but with an undersea expansion pack there’s always something tugging you back to its darkly humorous, moodily scintillating seascape.

Far Cry 4

Since Far Cry 2, the series has encouraged gunfights across sprawling open world locations, from Africa, to the tropics, and the Himalayas. Far Cry 2’s setting, systems-driven approach to action sequences, and the interesting buddy system made it a critic’s darling. It’s still great, but Far Cry’s stealth systems have improved since then, and the addition of co-op and some spectacular mountainous terrain in Far Cry 4 earns it a place on this list.

The series has become more refined with each entry, and 3 and 4 have wisely focused on giving players a generous scattering of outposts to conquer. These open-ended challenges give you license to improvise with a varied armoury or chain together stealth kills in close combat. Like its predecessors, Far Cry 4 has some of the best dynamic fire in any game as well. That only adds to the carnage when things inevitably go wrong.

Minecraft

What if an open world wasn’t just a challenge to be survived, but a bedrock on which to build a world of your own? Many games have tried to emulate Minecraft over the years. Some, like Terraria and Starbound, have done a great job, but the original is a generation-defining work that’s still growing with every update. As a survival game it’s relatively crude, but it’s an incredible building game, and players have used Minecraft’s creator tools to build extraordinary things. Minecraft isn’t just a great open world game, it’s a cultural phenomenon.

Mount & Blade: Warband

It may not be the prettiest world, but the sheer amount of freedom in Mount & Blade: Warband makes up for the lack of production value. Crisscross a map dotted with medieval villages, towns, and castles, and assemble armies of allies (or go it alone) as you do battle on foot or horseback. The combat is some of the most enjoyable and intense on PC, and you can truly choose your own path. Complete quests, side with any faction you want, and become ruler of one and acquire vassals—or just romp around looking for trouble. A healthy and creative mod community means you can expand your adventures into the world of The Game of Thrones, the Star Wars universe, and plenty more.