50. Grand Theft Auto 5
Released 2015 | Last position 39
Chris: It's been long enough that I've forgotten most of the details of the 40-hour story, but who cares? GTA 5 remains a glorious sandbox of destruction and mayhem, even without a story. You can grab some friends and go bananas in GTA Online together, or go on a reckless stunt-driving and plane-stealing spree alone in singleplayer. Thousands of mods keep it fresh, but it barely needs them. I'll keep happily playing GTA 5 until the next one comes along.
Andy K: I often struggle to finish open world games, but I’ve seen GTA V’s story through to the end three times now. After the dark, downbeat GTA IV, this is a game bubbling with colour and excitement, and every mission throws up some new gimmick, minigame, gadget, vehicle, or absurd moment of slapstick comedy. I love seeing Los Santos and the surrounding countryside through the eyes of three very different characters, and I love how the stakes keep escalating until, by the end, you feel like you’re playing the lead in a Michael Bay movie, leaping out of planes and infiltrating high-security secret labs.
49. Opus Magnum
Released 2017 | Last position 48
Tyler: A brilliant puzzle game. Each level is a condensed factory building problem with many solutions, but only some are elegant enough to feel satisfying. It's the only puzzle game where, after finally solving a level, I've refused to move on to the next one because I knew I could solve it better.
Phil: It helps—or maybe doesn't—that its leaderboard system is very good at telling you how much more elegantly your friends have beaten each level. But it also offers multiple ways to achieve that feeling of mastery. Your alchemy machines can target space, efficiency or time, and each requires a slightly different way of thinking. Alternatively you can ignore pure numbers and just make something that looks pretty in motion—even turning it into a gif for your future satisfaction.
Released 2009 | Last position 47
Rachel: Minecraft is the ultimate playground for creativity. The blocky sandbox has inspired a whole generation of players, from passionate kids to an industry of professional builders. Projects like the Uncensored Library, the charity Block By Block, and hundreds of other initiatives prove that Minecraft is a gaming force for good.
Chris: I've been avoiding Minecraft for the past few years because when I inevitably start it up it sucks a few more days out of my life. Having endless possibilities will do that. Whenever I need to go in to grab a screenshot or video of something, I'll look around and see all the projects I was working on but never finished, or a distant mountaintop or gulch will catch my eye, or I'll spawn a new world and start exploring, or I'll click on creative mode and find myself messing around until the wee hours of the morning.
47. Portal 2
Released 2011 | Last position 30
Wes: The funniest game ever written? Likely. More importantly, Portal 2 is the finest example of the Steam Workshop's success, with a near-infinite selection of user-made maps. I played the campaign once, but many more weekends with a co-op friend, hungry for new puzzles to punish our brains with.
Robin: I think for me this game still holds the crown for the most ‘ah ha!’ moments of any puzzle game I’ve played—especially in co-op. It’s tricky, but in a way that makes you feel like a genius, rather than an idiot.
46. Rocket League
Released 2015 | Last position 25
Tyler: You don't hear much about Rocket League these days, but you don't hear about bowling, either, and people haven't stopped playing that. As other competitive games come and go, Rocket League remains an unmovable pastime. It isn't just because 'soccer, but with cars' was a novel idea. Others have tried to replicate Rocket League and have failed because they lack the subtle controls that enable gorgeous and subtle fake outs, trick shots, and passing plays. After 1,000 hours, I'm still trying to air dribble properly.
45. Civilization VI
Released 2016 | Last position 44
Fraser: Civ typically gets two expansions before the focus shifts to the next one, but Civ VI is unexpectedly still going. It’s definitely shaping up to be the densest of the 4X series, with more civs and scenarios still coming, and with the big changes the base game made to cities, and the expansions’ interesting experiments with golden ages, dark ages and climate change, it’s another strong entry in the immortal series. And now you can also convert cities with rock bands.
Tom: I was a little cold on it when I started playing Civ VI. I liked the city changes but preferred the more subtle art of Civ V. I think if I was going to play any game in the series it would be the fourth, but as Fraser notes, the pattern of expansions should help Civilization VI overtake the previous games in terms of depth and sheer variety of approach you can take to world domination.
44. Arma 3
Released 2013 | Last position 42
Fraser: Arma 3's a serious, daunting military sim that conjures up an infinite supply of agonisingly tense sniper duels, convoy ambushes, night-time raids and all-out battles. But for extended lengths of time it's horrifyingly quiet, full of long build-ups as you crawl through undergrowth, nervously dash through exposed areas and constantly keep an eye out for any signs of life. And then there's the crackle of gunfire, or a sniper's shot echoing through a valley, and you're diving behind cover, trying to figure out where it's coming from.
Instead of being a gun on legs, you're a fleshy, vulnerable soldier, but also a flexible one. You can quickly shift between different horizontal and vertical stances, giving you a great deal of fine control over your body. Usually it's a treat to be able to just go prone, but Arma 3's got an absurd nine stances. So even when it's at its most stressful, you'll always feel in control, empowered by a long list of options, as well as fancy military toys.
But that's just one facet of a much larger creative sandbox. Thanks to its editor and an army of modders, Arma 3 can be pretty much anything. Even its official DLC takes things in unexpected directions, like go-karting and an entire campaign dedicated to first contact with aliens.
43. Metal Gear Solid V
Released 2015 | Last position 21
Jorge Jimenez: Hideo Kojima's swan song to the Metal Gear franchise before his unceremoniously departure from Konami to start his own studio, MGSV is one of the best stealth action games you can get your hands on. This ambitious sandbox game values your freedom to handle any mission you see fit. From sneaking around military bases with your dog (who also has an eye-patch) to calling in a chopper that's blasting Hall and Oates' Maneater on the battlefield—these are just a tiny fraction of the hijinx you'll get into.
Andy K: As a longtime Metal Gear Solid fan, I was disappointed with The Phantom Pain from a story perspective. Whether by design or not, the narrative is paper-thin and wholly unsatisfying. But the stealth itself is easily my favourite in the series. The more you play, the deeper the sandbox gets. You’re constantly unlocking new gadgets and weapons, which steadily grow more absurd until you’re launching a bionic arm at enemies and using wormholes to send sheep back to your base. It’s a joyous collection of fun interlocking systems and endlessly rewarding. If only the story was as good.
42. Assassin's Creed Odyssey
Released 2018 | Last position 32
Robin: I think Odyssey’s often really underrated—dismissed as just another Ubisoft sandbox. Sure, it’s got way too much bloat, and its Witcher-like RPG aspirations don’t always gel super well with AC’s accumulated mechanical baggage. But its world is just completely spectacular. Even if you don’t enjoy the action, you’ve got to recognise what a technical marvel its realisation of Ancient Greece is—utterly huge and packed with authentic detail and mythological wonder. Few digital spaces are as breath-taking to simply travel across.
Fraser: I have spent something like 150 hours traipsing around Greece with Kassandra, and I didn’t even get close to finishing everything. Assassin’s Creed has never been stingy with the diversions. There are usually too many, and that’s the case here, but I was compelled to spend a ridiculous amount of time in Odyssey because it’s such an astounding world. Over every hill, within every city and across every stretch of sea there are incalculable wonders and vistas waiting to be explored and snapped with the excellent in-game camera. It’s a great place for a holiday, with only a bit of murder getting in the way of the relaxation.
41. Halo: The Master Chief Collection
Released 2019 | Last position New entry
Wes: Halo was the first FPS to nail shooting on a gamepad, but once you play on PC, with mouse and keyboard and a 144Hz monitor, there's no going back. With each game added the Master Chief Collection becomes a better deal on PC. They look old, but the campaigns still offer some of the best sandbox level design in shooter history, and multiplayer runs so smoothly on modern dedicated servers.
Steven: Yeah, does Halo really need to be justified? It's fuckin' Halo! Even by today's standards, I'm still blown away by some of the missions in Halo 1 (Flood levels notwithstanding) and I love reliving my teenage years playing Zombies in Halo 2. Everything else—including support for modern displays and hardware—is just a bonus.