Freedom in video games prompted a massive change in the way developers designed their levels. No longer could you simply create areas that should theoretically be accessible, but where the player would instead encounter an invisible wall. Instead, you had to make a living, breathing world, where the confines of certain things, like game progression, imagination and hardware limitations were the only shackles on the player.
The freedom that open-world games inspired in design has permeated every genre to date, from the open-world RPGs of the Elder Scrolls series, to the open-world first person shooter such as Crysis, Far Cry 2 and the like. From genre hybrids like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. to the ever-present influence of Rockstar North’s seminal titles like Body Harvest and Grand Theft Auto, the lack of confines that the early influencers, like Turbo Esprit, The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario 64, inspired in a generation of players and developers is still present in our game collections now, and in upcoming titles such as Assassin’s Creed 3 and Watch Dogs.
However, despite the vast array of riches, there are always a handful of titles that help to advance the genre (or take it back to basics for great effect), and the ten listed below are open-world games that really built on their predecessors, or simply excelled in something we’ve seen before. The list does not include purely sandbox titles, like Minecraft or Garry’s Mod, because open-world games with a great story often have a more profund effect; regardless of the fun of those sandbox games.
10. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
(Developed by Pandemic Studios, released in 2005 on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox)
An open-world game with a difference, Mercenaries kicks off the top ten with its quasi-realistic take on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. With several factions to keep happy, you play as one of three guns for hire parachuted into the area to complete missions, make war and, if you so wish, level every building in the game. The first game that allowed such a range of destruction, Mercenaries was a joy to play. Planting C4 around buildings and blowing them up never got boring.
Despite some enforced linearity in terms of mission design (and running out of your vast amounts of wealth), Mercenaries was a game before its time. The amount of destruction possible in such a large world, with no building off-limits from your destructive grasps, was second to none, and with a whole range of vehicles for you to steal, pick up soldiers with and go on raiding missions, fun was already ripe for the picking. The sequel, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames wasn’t as good as the first game, with terrible A.I. and repetitive voice acting, along with a whole host of bugs, ruining an, at heart, still enjoyable experience. It was also accused of being propaganda to incite a real-life invasion of Venezuela, so you could say it wasn’t particularly well-received.
9. Spider-Man 2
(Developed by Treyarch, released in 2004 on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Gamecube)
Superhero games were always pretty average brawlers before the game to tie-in with Sam Raimi’s second take on New York’s favourite web slinger arrived onto consoles. Whilst the PC and handheld versions of the game were generally restrictive and pretty linear, the home console iteration was vastly superior, featuring a whole host of villains to clobber and the whole playground of Manhattan to do it in.
Though we’ve seen games do things on this scale on the current generation, this last-generation slobberknocker is probably the last time a genuine film tie-in was any good. With the game being praised for its combat, scope and web-slinging mechanic all being a significant improvement on the tie-in for the first movie. Since then, we’ve seen many Spider-Man games, but none have hit the spot quite like Treyarch’s seminal superhero game.
8. The Saboteur
(Developed by Pandemic Studios, released in 2009 on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC)
The second title on the list from Pandemic Studios, The Saboteur was the developer’s swansong, as it was the last game produced before EA absorbed the studio into EA Los Angeles. Set in World War Two, the game pitted you as Irish mechanic Sean Devlin who, after destroying a Nazi competitor’s car, sees his mechanic and best friend Jules killed, and Jules’ sister Veronique threatened in Paris.
To strike back, Devlin becomes an agent for SOE and helps the French Resistance rid the city of Paris of the fascists. Featuring a playground with the likes of Paris, parts of Germany and some French Countryside, The Saboteur’s war-torn sandbox was aided by the inclusion of an excellent visual effect where, if the Germans were oppressing an area, everything would be black and white. Such change in aesthetics proved haunting. It helped that the game was genuinely fun to play too, even if there were a few issues with animations and problems with AMD graphics cards on PC. One of the few PS3 games to utilize anti-aliasing, The Saboteur was a beautiful game, and an enjoyable take on what was becoming an over-saturized setting. Blowing up Nazi buildings and vehicles never did get old, and the feel of the world was a fantastic one that was experienced by far fewer people than it should have been.
(Developed by Realtime Worlds, released in 2007 on the Xbox 360)
Developer David Jones had something of a propensity for creating games where you can kill things. At DMA Design (now infamously known as Rockstar North), he was the mastermind behind Lemmings and, most famously, Grand Theft Auto. After leaving DMA, in 2002 he started Realtime Worlds and, in 2007, they released Crackdown on Xbox 360. An open world game, Crackdown twists the formula slightly and pits you as a superhuman agent working for the Agency, a mysterious peacekeeping organisation based in fictional Pacific City.
Pacific City is gangland central, with everything from takes on the Triad to mysterious criminal gangs based on Central American gangs called Los Muertos. Scattered all around different regions of the city, it’s your job to kill the generals of each gang, take control of their strongholds and then rid the city of crime. Despite the ever-nagging feeling that the Agency is in fact the organisation in the wrong, the fact that you become superhuman at everything through practice and collecting orbs, and the fact that being able to run and jump large gaps at the top of buildings and plummet to the ground and survive meant that Crackdown was a game that stuck with you. Being bundled with the Halo 3 beta undoubtedly helped sales, but Crackdown was a game that was worth playing nevertheless. The sequel, handled by members of the first game’s development team who had moved onto Ruffian Games, brought more of the same to the plate, with slight tweaks and more Freaks. Despite the sense of Deja Vu, if you were after more of the enjoyable first game, then Crackdown 2 was a worthy purchase.
6. Mafia II
(Developed by 2K Czech, released in 2010 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC)
As soon as the dulcet tones of John Lee Hooker signalled the start of the Mafia II trailer, you knew the game was going to be great. The sequel to 2001 PC, PS2 and XBOX hit Mafia: The Lost City of Heaven, 2K Czech’s second take on the series was a great successor to a great title. Presenting an engrossing look at the late 1940s and early 1950s of Vito Scaletta’s life, from him serving in Sicily during the War to joining the Mafia on the recommendation of best friend Joe, Mafia II was a special game.
Despite having a more linear focus than other games in this list, the world, the soundtrack, and the characters, all make up for the lack of any great amount of enticement to explore the world. There are few side missions, but you won’t particularly mind as you work your way through the 20+ hours of the story and DLC while bopping along to Chuck Berry and the like blasting out from your car radio.
5. Batman: Arkham City
(Developed by Rocksteady, released in 2011 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC)
The final superhero game in the list is by far the best. After Rocksteady showed everyone how to do a superhero game, and also revolutionised hand-to-hand combat to be more rhythmic and brutal in video games, it was then time to show how an open-world Batman game would work. Set in the titular Arkham City rather than in Gotham, the game focused on a dark and dank metropolis, where the various miscreants that have plagued the Dark Knight’s existence are roaming free.
Planned by Hugo Strange and his mysterious PMC Tyger Security, the game features a linear focus, but great reward for exploring the city, with a large amount of Riddler secrets, a large array of villains with their own parts of the city themed after them and a large collection of Easter Eggs and fan-service extras scattered around the world. It was an excellent follow up to Arkham Asylum, and was a fantastic game to just take in the experience of a depressing world and really made you feel like you were the Batman.
4. Grand Theft Auto IV
(Developed by Rockstar North, released in 2008 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC)
Since Peter Moore first rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal the logo for Grand Theft Auto IV daubed on his arm, there was a feverish excitement about the game. The second title to take advantage of the RAGE engine, after Rockstar’s testing of its capabilities turned into a full-blown, and enjoyable, Table Tennis game, GTA IV promised an evolution of the series for its first appearance on the next generation of console.
It wasn’t going to disappoint. Despite some anxieties about the more realistic take on warfare and the American dream, Grand Theft Auto IV smashed sales records with its new, living breathing world and a whole host of little extras hidden away, from the likes of real-life comedians performing in comedy clubs to an exciting first official multiplayer mode. With two excellent expansion packs following, and being bundled into their own standalone pack, the universe was packed with an incredible amount of fun. Whilst it had lost some of the immature charm that had made the series so endearing, there was still a top-drawer game there. With great visuals, tarnished only by occasional glitches and pop-in, a large amount of satire and a cover system that made combat feel more manageable, it was the first brilliant open-world game to hit all of the next generation platforms, but it was by no means the last.
3. Saints Row The Third
(Developed by Volition, Inc, released in 2011 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC)
Seen by many as the antidote to Grand Theft Auto IV’s fun but undeniably realistic approach to the genre, Saints Row: The Third took the guidebook for silliness that was laid down by Grand Theft Auto 3 and its successors, and the one that Volition’s previous two Saints Row games had read from, and added a whole bunch of crazy to it.
From purple dildo-bats to human-drawn chariots, from taking part in crazy Japanese-style gameshows to just destroying everyone and everything you can find, Saints Row: The Third was a wacky game that showed that you don’t have to be Rockstar North in order to create an enjoyable, stupid and debauched world that isn’t the largest sandbox out there, but one that is filled with so many toys that it’s hard not to be enamoured with it; even with the glitches and lack of any kind of ‘satire’ about some of the issues it mirrors.
2. Red Dead Redemption
(Developed by Rockstar San Diego, released in 2010 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3)
When Rockstar announced they were changing the focus of the Red Dead series, pushing it towards a more Western-style Grand Theft Auto game, there was a large amount of people who didn’t expect Red Dead Redemption to be as good a game as Rockstar North’s seminal series. Instead, Rockstar San Diego created the ultimate modern sandbox game.
With everything from lassoing villains to shootouts in taverns, Red Dead Redemption created a living, breathing Western, where you could ride your horse across vast prairies being a gun-toting stetson-wearing badass, or do the missions and go from America to Mexico, across the Rio Grande, right into the city of Blackwater, the industrialised side of early 20th Century Western America. Playing as John Marston, an ex-outlaw forced to comply with the authorities in order to take down a gang of outlaws and save your family, Red Dead Redemption has everything you could want, a strong story, a great world and an absolutely fantastic atmosphere resonating throughout the game. It’s the strongest game Rockstar have produced since number one in the list…
1. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
(Developed by Rockstar North, released in 2003 on the Xbox, PlayStation 2 and PC)
Many of the games on this list were worthy of the top spot. Even more games, from the likes of Assassin’s Creed 2 to Bully, were worthy of a berth that they didn’t find. However, there was only one game that, when you factor in the atmosphere of the game, was realistically going to be number one; Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
From the fantastic soundtrack, infectious and as wide-reaching in its appeal as it was, to the feel of the 1980s Miami Vice/Scarface-influenced world of Vice City, there was nothing that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City did wrong. If you wanted to explore the world, then go ahead, there’s plenty of places to do things. Wanna do the missions? You can, and enjoy them as well. Want to just use cheat codes and be a virtual sociopath? The world was your oyster.
It might be an easy choice to have a Grand Theft Auto game at the top of the list, but it’s not an easy choice which one. Although every iteration of the series is strong in its own right, Vice City is the one that you can keep coming back to. If you’ve got the PC version, the wide array of mods available for it add some replayability as well. If not, you can just simply pick up your old version of the game and drive along creating human road-kill while listening to The Human League. Bliss.