The Vault: Top 10 Open-World Games

by on August 10, 2012

The Vault: Top 10 Open-World GamesFreedom 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.

7. Crackdown

(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.

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  • August 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    San Andreas?
    Assassin’s Creed? (any of them!)
    Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction?
    The Simpsons: Hit and Run?
    Just Cause 2?
    Fallout 3/ Fallout New Vegas?
    Those are just off of the top of my head!
    San Andreas is the biggest shocker though, that was by far the better GTA of that generation, and if Vice City is in there for the innovation then why not GTA III where it all started?
    GTA IV was a poor sandbox game, it was a step forward in graphics but a step backwards as far as an interactive sandbox went. There was nothing to do…


    • August 10, 2012 at 12:53 pm

      I’ll ignore the fact that you mentioned Incredible Hulk, The Simpsons and Just Cause 2, I’ll assume that you hit your head this morning and accidentally wrote those games. Assassin’s Creed; only really the second one deserves to be in the list. San Andreas is the only GTA game I’ve never cared about playing and Fallout…*sigh*…Fallout.

      Also, as far as I’m concerned, Vice City is in there because it had Iron Maiden on the radio. That’s all I needed.


      • August 10, 2012 at 1:04 pm

        Yeah the soundtrack made VC better than Andreas! – Did you bump your head?
        Games like Mafia 2 had empty worlds with little to do. Hit and Run was great fun to mess around in, although it wouldn’t make my list.
        Fallout, Skyrim, AC would all be on my list, below the only true number one… San Andreas!

        That’s my two cents.


      • August 10, 2012 at 1:06 pm

        Incredible Hulk had a city where you could destroy everything… It was (as far as I know) the first game where you could do that, which is why it’d make my list.
        The Simpsons Hit and Run was a game where you could roam Springfield openly, something that EVERYONE has wanted to do in a game since games started to become 3D (excluding Road Rage, wasn’t so much Sandbox).
        Assassin’s Creed 2 was the worst one lol but that’s down to the ending… But still there’s no reason it shouldn’t be on the list, at least infront of Mafia fucking 2!!!! The most bland piece of shit!
        San Andreas was the GTA game that contained so much to do it was overwhelming, which is never a bad thing… The story was by far the best one of the series, the gameplay and additional features were iconic and it deserves to be placed waaaaaay ahead of Vice City, or at LEAST that piece of shit GTA 4.
        And Fallout isn’t for everyone admittedly but it’s still a key part of sandbox games…
        And also! SKYRIM?! NO?! ANYONE?!


        • August 10, 2012 at 1:18 pm

          Skyrim? To use a quote from your fine self: “The most bland piece of shit!”


          • August 10, 2012 at 1:23 pm

            to quote from my own comment to Ryan:

            Fallout should have been included based on the fact it was a bold move compared to the previous titles. Fair enough it was miles of wasteland, same as Skyrim, but that’s more based on the setting… Nuclear Wasteland and a fantasy era aren’t gonna be teeming with skyscrapers… Dunno about you but I don’t need a sandbox
            in a city with numerous weapons to keep me stimulated.

    • August 10, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      Like I said in the last entry, there were plenty of games that were worthy of a berth they didn’t find. Assassin’s Creed 2 was one that almost made the cut. Just Cause 2 also.

      GTA IV is in there because of the way the world felt alive. Sure, the ‘bubble’ was still there in terms of spawning new traffic and the like, but you only noticed it on a modded PC version if you went looking for it.

      San Andreas and GTA III were both excluded for almost the same reason- variety. San Andreas also was arguably the worst GTA game of the last generation for me- the world was large for that generation, but completely uninteresting apart from BMXing off mountains and parachuting, or going on a killing spree with a train. (because this list is obviously MY opinion, it’s not presented as fact), and GTA III, though excellent, was not as good a game as Vice City in feel.

      I love the Fallout series, to bits, but I didn’t include it because, outside of a few wandering salesmen and the occasional NPC, that world was completely stale. It took the writing of New Vegas or the structured quests of Fallout 3 to really bring that world alive with the places you went. Between those places, the world was pretty stale apart from the occasional humourous hidden landmark or some loot. Borderlands suffered from the exact same problem, as does Skyrim.

      Other games I considered, and eventually decided not to include, were The Getaway, inFamous and Lego Batman 2.


      • August 10, 2012 at 1:21 pm

        Regardless of whether this is your opinion mate, stating that it IS an opinion doesn’t then justify a statement… I could say “punching babies is fun because it’s my opinion” but people will have issue with it.
        GTA 4 had the worst story down to the fact it had the similar problems the last Fast and the Furious film had, it was about a guy that was running away from a hideous past but then negated by the fact he’s doing exactly what he was accused/running away from! GTA it was murder that scarred him to run away from his demons to come to America to… Murder people… There was nothing to do in it compared to San Andreas, they took out numerous features like full on customisation and turf wars, which is what made SA so great. In SA you had a HUGE map and awesome characters, and to me Vice City I don’t even remember most the people! I could still give you Wu Zi Mu quotes though!
        Fallout should have been included based on the fact it was a bold move compared to the previous titles. Fair enough it was miles of wasteland, same as Skyrim, but that’s more based on the setting… Nuclear Wasteland and a fantasy era aren’t gonna be teeming with skyscrapers… Dunno about you but I don’t need a sandbox in a city with numerous weapons to keep me stimulated.
        And tbh I’m glad Lego Batman 2 wasn’t in there cus I do really like that game but it’s a tiny city with sod all to do.


        • August 10, 2012 at 3:02 pm

          Err, saying “This is what I think” does exactly justify the opinion! :-S Nobody is saying you can’t have issues with his opinion, but it is Ryan’s opinion on his favourite 10 open-world games 🙂


          • August 10, 2012 at 3:46 pm

            Never said it doesn’t justify an opinion, I said it doesn’t justify a statement. In other words the most defeatist way to defend an opinion is by saying it’s an opinion, as oppose to giving valid reason towards said opinion. It doesn’t suddenly become solid defence by saying it’s what someone believes.

  • August 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    inFamous 2 would make my list, and I prefer Arkham Asylum to City…but City is more open-world.


  • August 10, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Brilliant list! Personally, I feel Jak 2 and/or Jak 3 should have been featured, but then again I do love those games so I might be a bit biased 😛


  • realist
    August 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Of course gta:sa didn’t make it even though it’s the best the series has offered, these guys could never enjoy a game where the main character is black, which is why they picked gta4 and vice city, two non black lead character.
    You can tell by his comment about the music, as SA had rap music and vice city had whatever. It’s the only reason whether they admit it or not


  • August 10, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    Viking: Battle for Asgard is still the greatest open-world game of all time.


  • October 13, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Saints Row anything shouldn’t be ever listed.

    They even stole the dildo gag, unoriginal bullshit crap games.


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