Go anywhere, do anything
You know it well: that magical feeling of stepping into a new Grand Theft Auto, Assassin's Creed, Fallout, or other open-world game. The landscape unfolds around you, filled with a million-and-one little adventures to explore. See those mountains in the distance? Chances are you can climb them. See all those cars on the road? You can pop on down and make one your own. There's something new waiting for you around every corner; hiding under every stone.
But not all open worlds are created equal. The games collected here represent the best of their genre. Entire cities, kingdoms, and continents are brought to life with staggering scope and intricate detail. If you have roughly 200 hours of free time and want to get lost in another realm, well, you've got options. These are our picks for the 10 best open-world games of all time. Which is your number one?
10. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Most open-world games have circled the same kind of fun since GTA 3: wander around an interesting world, get into fights, cause havoc, and collect stuff. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor has a dull world, combat that felts more fun when it was in Batman: Arkham Asylum, and an uninspired list of collectibles (seriously, just read The Silmarillion if you're that hungry for a lore dump). Thankfully, all those mediocre elements are just stage dressing for the main event: your own personal story of death and payback against a legion of procedurally generated orcish manslayers.
Sauron's armies are endless, but not faceless. Whenever you're felled by an orc, he'll be promoted into the leadership ranks, where he'll grow stronger and start making his own power grabs. Run into him after that and he'll remember what happened the last time he saw you, chiding your cowardice or remarking on the nice scars you gave him. This history is being built for every single leader orc in Sauron's army, but one will always be special: whoever has given you the most pain throughout the game will become your Nemesis and - forget about the Black Hand of Sauron - the true final boss.
9. Batman: Arkham Knight
When developer Rocksteady Studios released Batman: Arkham Asylum to the public in 2009, bat-fans the world over were astounded at how well the game captured the fantasy of being the Bat. But there was still room for improvement. With Batman: Arkham Knight, we have the whole city of Gotham to explore, the Batmobile to drive, and more gadgets than ever to enjoy. It's wish fulfillment of the highest order, letting you do what you want as the game continues to hand you more and more tools to utilize.
It helps that Gotham is full of unique and interesting things to see and do. Fans of Batman and DC in general will find plenty of nods both overt and subtle that point to their favorite heroes, villains and plotlines. Completionists will sink hours into finding every Riddler trophy, solving every puzzle, winning every race, and wrapping up every subplot. Even those who just experience the main story will watch Gotham and Batman grow and change, providing a variety of backdrops and situations to overcome. Arkham Knight's not just a great, fun open-world game - it's also the truest vision we've seen of The Dark Knight's world.
8. Assassin's Creed Black Flag
Much like Earth itself, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag's open world is 70-percent water. You'd think that would put the kibosh on your ability to explore, but nay! Black Flag makes it work in simple, natural, and fun ways that turn seafaring into one of the best parts of the game.
Shipwrecks replete with riches, islands housing hidden quests, temples bearing ancient Mayan secrets - all are liberally scattered throughout the world, and are engaging enough to keep you occupied for a good long while. Plus, with AC3's unwieldy sailing mechanic refined for Black Flag, engaging in harrowing sea battles feels both suitably epic and immensely enjoyable, with the nice bonus of expanding your fleet and economic power. Even sailing aimlessly is a pleasure, and you might be surprised how much time you can spend happily watching whales breach and listening to your crew belting out shanties. There are treasures on the high seas, but the seas themselves are the greatest prize.
7. Fallout 4
Fallout 4 could be on this list just for the sheer volume of content brimming from its open-world. The post-apocalyptic landscape is just as engaging and intriguing to explore as in previous games, but with a bit more color and personality than it's predecessors. The desecrated Boston provides plenty of fascinating environments to explore filled with bandits to kill, irradiated monsters to nuke, and abandoned treasure to plunder.
But the biggest draw Fallout 4 is giving players the ability to do whatever they want. Do you want to endlessly explore the open wasteland, experience a story full of quirky characters, or build up a settlement piece-by-piece? You can do all of those things and much, much more in Fallout 4's massive world.
6. Dragon Age: Inquisition
In Dragon Age: Inquisition, you're the boss - and it feels good to be the boss. Your private army - the Inquisition - is one of the mightiest in the land, with the power to influence entire nations. At your war council the political landscape of Thedas is shaped to your will. The council's three strategic advisers - diplomatic, military, and espionage - field requests from kings and peasants alike. Who you assign to each task will influence the outcome. Will you deploy spies to assassinate a rebel leader, or use diplomacy to help him change his ways?
Decisions such as these help convey the weight of your office, and sell the fantasy that you are having a greater impact on the world outside of how many monsters you kill. That's not to say killing monsters isn't enjoyable. Inquisition's flashy visuals and mix of turn-based and real-time combat is some of the best in the series. And the game is filled with different customization options for yourself and your party to ensure you have the optimal crew for any situation. But Inquisition is at its best when you feel in command. It highlights all the most exciting aspects of governing, without all the bureaucracy.
5. Grand Theft Auto 5
Taken at face value, the open worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series are fairly ordinary, even with all the exaggerated stereotypes and sexual innuendos sprinkled everywhere. But being able to go on a crime spree, start a rampage, or simply explore every nook and cranny of your surroundings - all without the consequence, cost, and physical exertion holding us back in real life - is what brings those otherwise-mundane backdrop to life in exhilarating, empowering ways. Grand Theft Auto 5 is the current pinnacle of this design, where you have complete freedom to appreciate or desecrate the environment as you see fit.
Every aspect of GTA5's world feels authentic. Michael's privileged boredom in the suburbs of Los Santos, Franklin's rise from the streets to a Vinewood Hills penthouse, Trevor's meth-fueled antics in San Andreas' arid deserts - it's all believable, despite the increasingly ludicrous missions you're completing. And once you've seen how the lives of GTA's most eclectic protagonists play out, you can experience the world in a completely different way through GTA Online, the anarchic multiplayer sandbox we've all been dreaming about since GTA 3.
4. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
It's strange to think of the typically linear Metal Gear Solid series working in an open-world setting, but it doesn't just work - it made the transition damn near flawlessly in one try. While its map may not be filled with objective markers and countless side objectives and mini-games like other games on this list, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain proves that less is more by putting the focus on its complex, intertwining systems.
Guards in MGS5 don't have preset patrol routes - rather, they mill about realistically, reacting to your movements, changing shifts as day turns to night, and moving from outpost to outpost in unpredictable ways. And you can get in there and really mess things up, either through liberal use of one of several hundred guns, grenades, and gadgets, or by knocking them out and conscripting them into your own army by strapping a balloon to their waist and sending them in the air at over 100 miles per hour. Infiltrate, fulton, manage upgrades, slink back into the shadows - it forms a highly compulsive cycle that will keep you coming back well after the games curveball of an ending.
The true genius of Skyrim's world is that almost everywhere feels unique, and while certain locations offer grander scale than others, you're constantly finding new areas to explore and marvel at. This means that even after 100s of hours of ignoring the story, you're never bored of the exploration, of the thrill of unearthing something new and exciting. Add in dramatic weather effects, day and night cycle, some cute detail for anyone digging into the lore, and - oh yeah - the occasional dragon, and you've got the ultimate fantasy world to explore.
2. Red Dead Redemption
Rockstar has always been at the frontier of open-world games, hardening itself for an ambitious sojourn into the untamed Western expanse of 19th century America. It didn't exactly go according to plan for Red Dead Redemption, with troubled development delaying the game's completion and some wild bugs unleashing a fondly remembered (but unintended) plague of flying bird-people, but the end result came out cohesive and strongly evocative of a dangerous, raw America. For once, the geography of an open-world game didn't just space out objectives. Instead, it provided room for a proper Western to happen.
John Marston didn't escape the curse befalling most Rockstar protagonists - the guy walking away from crime, only to have one last job foisted upon him - but his flaky morality fit perfectly in a Wild West with its own set of rules and laws, all rickety at best. Marston moved through an unkempt civilization-to-be, sporadically intersecting with side quests and primary goals in a way that felt organic. And though discovery of all that wilderness was rewarding in itself, what made it truly fitting for an open-world game was the slavish devotion to the shape of a Western. There was all that space. Sometimes nothing happened at all. A tumbleweed would roll by. And then Marston would walk into an outburst of sudden violence, a kidnapping, a shootout echoing in a monstrous cavern. Red Dead Redemption filled its world wisely, remembering that calm and nothingness are valid, deliberate objects that can eventually bleed into the chaos of a developing country.
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Above all else, Geralt has to get paid. He's not the chosen one here to save everyone from impending doom; he's not serving a higher purpose or following his destiny. Geralt is trying to find his daughter before The Wild Hunt catches up with her, but a noble purpose won't get him better gear or keep him fed, so he's always looking for work. With that one simple distinction, the side action of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt becomes more than just stat-boosting busy work and becomes something that genuinely adds to the character of the game and its star.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the world you're exploring is massive and interesting. Geralt encounters all sorts of people - the working stiffs, the middle class, the royals - and they've all got their own unique perspective on the world, the war, and the Witcher himself. Virtually everyone is worth talking to, and every location is worth visiting because they feel real; you're not just moving from place to place to tick off the next box on your To Do list or find the next best armor shop. Moving through the world has an authenticity many open worlds lack. It's grubby and funny and sweet and unfair and scary and familiar. The Witcher 3 truly feels like a journey, rather than just waypoints on the path to the dramatic final battle.