When Grand Theft Auto III released a little over ten years ago, it was a revelation. No longer were games to be bound by the mission-to-mission, level-to-level linearity that generations of gamers had grown accustomed to. Here we were given free reign to do seemingly anything in a living, breathing city and allowed to pursue the story however we wanted. That is, if we didn’t feel like driving off of sweet jumps and going on murderous rampages instead.
All of this time later and there have been many a game to attempt getting a piece of the GTA pie. Some, such as Saints Row, have done so successfully. The True Crimes of the world…not so much. Still, that doesn’t stop developers from infusing sandbox fun into their titles, and the phenomenon is no longer limited to crime romps. From shooters to RPGs, and even racers, plenty have made great use of the open world mechanic.
Now, this list isn’t necessarily about the best open-world games, but rather the sandboxes that they take place in. Which settings gave you the best time-wasting bang for your buck between missions? I’m glad you asked.
5. New York City – Spider-Man 2
We’ll kick things off with the only nonfictional setting on the list. The Big Apple is a setting that is overplayed in games and movies, but Activision gave us a whole new way to experience it when they dropped one of the best movie tie-ins ever onto our laps.
The fun of swinging around Manhattan wasn’t so much in the tasks that you could tackle — delivering pizzas (yes really) and collecting balloons for children lose their luster after about the tenth time. No, the real magic lies simply in swinging around. It wasn’t a concept unfamiliar to previous Spider-Man games, but this time it was different. In Spider-Man 2, Treyarch implemented some fancy new physics algorithms that allowed for more realistic web-slinging, so to speak. Things like release points, velocity, and trajectory were all factors that determined how you’d swing. Just as importantly, you had to be near an anchor point to even attach your web; no more swinging in open spaces.
As a result, many hours were spent between friends to see who could get from point A to point B faster, or who could do a better job of navigating tricky corners. I spent an immeasurable amount of time climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and jumping off, just to shoot a web at the last possible second.
Batman: Arkham City is the best superhero game of all time, but Spider-Man 2 was the first that actually let me feel like I was in the hero’s shoes.
4. New Austin – Red Dead Redemption
We already know that Red Dead Redemption is a fine game that any gentleman would love to play. We also know that the game is popular with less-than-honorable intentions.
You’ve got a few things that you would expect to be able to do in an open-world western, such as getting blind drunk at a saloon or hunting.You can also play what is secretly one of the best Texas Hold ‘Em games available anywhere, cheat, get caught, then shoot the guy who caught you dead in the street. You can rob banks and and tie women to train tracks, like the dastardly villain in so many silent films.
That’s an interesting segue, though, because taking in silent movies is one of several gentlemanly endeavors that you can partake in. It sounds like a dumb waste of time, but the silent films in RDR are some of the funniest things you’ll see in a video game, all without ever saying a word. Once you’re done taking in the arts, you can wander the countryside looking for flowers to pick. Aww, ain’t that nice? Miraculously, none of it is ever boring. You collect the flowers on your way to 100% game completion, but you’re always happy to do it. It’s…strange.
Your time in the Old West can be as wild as you’d like, or as gentlemanly as your refined sensibilities lead you to be. There’s no question that New Austin is one of the best open worlds in all of gaming.
3. Skyrim – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I’ve put Skyrim into my disc drive but four times, yet I’ve amassed 28 hours of game time. At best, half of that time was spent completing quest lines.
Of course, I always mean to follow up on quests. There are an awful lot of them, after all, so I’m constantly setting markers and going on my merry way. I travel up mountain paths and…wait, is that another cave entrance on my compass? I mean, I’m already carrying an awful lot of stuff, but I guess I’ll check it out. I’ll just take a strength potion on the way out if I need to. Wow, the bandit leader had a pretty slammin’ warhammer, didn’t she? I bet I can offload this for a pretty penny. And look, silver ore! Now I can make that jeweled necklace! It’ll be worth more if I enchant it, though…guess I’ll head back into town and do all of that. I’d may as well smith a few daggers while I’m here, too.
Jesus, I got pretty sidetracked. Let’s try that again. Actually, let’s try a different marker. Boy, this river is quite tranq– wait, was that a…yep! COME ‘ERE, YOU DRAGON SUMBITCH!
I should probably unload all of these dragon scales and bones back in my house in town. Hey, is that another mine?