Ever since Grand Theft Auto III changed the landscape of gaming in 2001, open-world titles have grown in number, variety, and ambition.
Obviously, you have first-person heavy hitters like the Borderlands, Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Far Cry series. Likewise, there are plenty of stylistic third-person mashups, including the Horizon franchises, Saints Row, Mass Effect, Just Cause, and Assassin’s Creed.
Even the creation of unique gems – such as Mad Max, Sleeping Dogs, Burnout Paradise and Shadow of the Colossus – have become more likely over the past twenty years.
Sure, there are occasional duds, like the glitchy Two Worlds, the regressive Crackdown 3, and the repetitive and bland Fuel. After all, developers need to pack their sandbox universes with enough gameplay, intrigue, and unlockables to keep players engaged for dozens of hours (so it’s easy to drop the ball from one way or another).
Luckily, none of the games on this (unranked) list succumb to these pitfalls. In fact, their extremely balanced mechanics, storytelling, characterizations, environments, and/or bonuses make them far more satisfying and enduring than their predecessors and peers. From recent favorites to older classics, these are easily the most rewarding open-world video games to date.
No disrespect to the relatively authentic nature of GTA IV or the nostalgia of GTA: San Andreas, but GTA V absolutely offers the richest package.
On the one hand, its multiple protagonists and intersecting narratives have furthered Rockstar North’s knack for compelling storylines and distinctive personalities. This is all extremely ironic for much of the playtime, but there’s also significant pathos and connection to Michael’s midlife crises, Franklin’s survival spell, and Trevor’s meta-representation of the the player’s own desensitization to anarchy.
There are also a ton of great missions and other activities to do. From the adrenaline-fueled heists of Prologue, The Jewel Store Job and The Big Score to the satirical Friend Request and surreal Risk Assessment, the trio is never short of a cool new operation.
Additionally, they can engage in movies, real estate, racing, and various in-between sports, allowing Los Santos and the surrounding area to be remarkably involved.
What really elevates GTA V, however, are its myriad surprises. Whether it’s UFOs and hidden ghosts, countless pop culture references, or secret places and landmarks, the core experience is endlessly deepened by ancillary treats.
(Of course, the PC modding community and GTA Online have done wonders too.)