The sandbox game is difficult to nail down, spreading across countless genres with disparate mechanics and settings. But all share a common trait: freedom. Whether it’s creating a whole world or building up a gang of criminals across a city, sandbox games leave most of the agency up to the player. They are universes to be experienced at a pace not dictated by developers.
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There needs to be a bit of clarity when looking at what makes a great sandbox game, though. They have, since the days of Elite and Ultima, referred to open world games filled with choice and diversions. But revisionist history would describe them as “games like Minecraft”. For the purposes of this exploration of the best of the bunch, we're including them all. We support sandbox egalitarianism.
Minecraft is synonymous with modern sandbox games. And it deserves to be. It’s one of the purest sandbox titles, because it’s more a tool than a game. It’s a figurative sandpit, waiting to be molded into giant fortresses, complex circuits and gargantuan spaceships suspended in the sky.
And Minecraft captures the essence of playing. It’s a tactile experience that’s evocative of building Lego creations in your bedroom. Limitations are few and far between, and usually just the installation of a Minecraft mod will smash down any remaining - it’s more concerned with giving players the tools to curate their own experience than telling them what to do.
It’s bridged the gap between different generations of gamers. Its rudimentary graphics and interface inspire nostalgia, while its simple logic and blocky, Lego-style building appeals to mites (and a fair few adults). And it’s easy to describe; at least the very basics. The common sense logic that runs through its foundations makes it accessible and less daunting for the uninitiated, making it an experience that can be shared by kids and their parents.
Want more? Here's our Minecraft review.
Grand Theft Auto V
Rockstar’s most recent open world is a true play pit of opportunities. At times it feels like every street of the sprawling city is a destination for fun, offering up new types of people to interact with, new terrain to experiment on, and new buildings to explore.
The simulation offers an exaggeration of urban and rural america, and so going mental with a few firearms can lead to chaos in the streets and some exceptionally wild police chases. Pushing the limitations of the world is part of the expected experience; seeing just how many bodies you can pile up, how many hitchhikers you can kidnap, how long you can go with a five-star wanted level.
The GTA V mods scene is booming right now, so it's the perfect place to experiment with other people's creations. But beyond that, the game comes bundled with its own extensive tool kit for creative types: the Rockstar Editor. A seemingly limitless machinima movie creator, it allows you to simply film whatever you fancy, and cut and shape it into a work of cinematic art.
Want more? Here's our Grand Theft Auto V review.
Despite being in Early Access, Scrap Mechanic already has all the makings of a true sandbox hit. Like Minecraft, it’s fuelled entirely by your creativity, and how your mind manages to extrapolate the basic features into a mini (or not-so-mini) masterpiece.
While other building games tend to stick very much to creating fortresses and other stationary objects, Scrap Mechanic encourages momentum with components that move. Even your static castle can come to life with elaborate unlocking mechanisms. But it’s the cars, tanks, and hover machines that really demonstrate the depths of Scrap Mechanics potential, and the community’s best creations are built with just a handful of basic components. Imagine what could be built when the game eventually expands its inventory.
The original Elite was one of the first sandboxes, setting the standard for future sandboxes and space sims alike. It’s still pretty impressive, even 30 years on, with over 200 worlds to visit and trade with. Elite: Dangerous, though, is a galaxy in size, a scale that is both bewildering and extremely intimidating. Just the scope of the thing is astounding. No wonder it's one of the best space games on PC.
Making your way through the galaxy is familiar: trading with stations, fulfilling requests for goods and assistance, chasing down bounties. But this is all taking place in our own simulated galaxy, where everything is to scale. When you leave leave supercruise and are faced with a gargantuan glowing sun, it feels like you’re facing a real sun, something so massive that it’s almost inconceivable.
Even simple trips feel like significant undertakings. With every jump to supercruise, there’s the risk of interdiction, leading to a lot of flailing around as you attempt to align with the escape vector, which plonks you right in the middle of deep space. Fail, and you've got a dogfight on your hands. Finally, you reach your destination, in need of repairs but at least with some stories to tell. That sense that you’re really in dangerous space is Elite: Dangerous’ biggest coup.
Want more? Here's our Elite: Dangerous review.
Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program is the only sandbox in this list where having a solid grasp on maths and physics will be a boon. It’s an ambitious simulator that tasks players with sending rockets into space, colonising planets, mining asteroids and fooling around with moon buggies. How you go about all of this is pretty much up to you.
Someone made this NASA FTL concept vessel using Kerbal's tools. It probably can’t create a warp bubble though.
After spending a large stretch of time in Early Access, it emerged as one of the greatest triumphs of the system. With its full feature set of missions and free-form sandbox mode, it provides practically endless opportunities to fiddle with big-budget science. It’s a game where your experiments and successes have extra weight, as they aren’t taking place in a fantasy realm but one grounded in reality and based on real-world science and engineering.
Want more? Here's our Kerbal Space Program review.
Military simulator Arma 3 is, like Minecraft, as much a tool for game creation as a game itself; one where much of the heavy lifting has already been done. It looks great, making the fictional Greek islands it takes place on eerily real, and the combat has benefited from this eye for detail too. It’s a combined arms game, where you can dabble in commanding tanks, scurry around as infantry, or patrol the skies as an ominous drone.
While it comes with a three part campaign and multiplayer, the meat is the huge editor that gives creators countless tools and assets with which they can craft their own worlds from persistent multiplayer campaigns to military operations that wouldn’t look out of place in the campaign.
There’s plenty of room for silliness, as well. Bohemia Interactive created Arma 3 Karts out of an April Fools gag, while users have been building skate parks, Superman mods, and even a dinosaur or two.
Just Cause 3
Just Cause 3 is ridiculous. Sure, there are the other trappings of the modern open world shooter - killing dudes, driving around, ploughing through hundreds of missions - but that’s not what makes Just Cause 3 sparkle.
The whole point of the game is to sow chaos throughout the island of Medici, and how you go about that is up to you. Most of the joy comes from attaching the grapple hook to things. Attach it to a car and then to a statue and you’ve got a simple means of toppling this symbol of tyranny. Attach it to oxygen canisters and soldiers, and watch them get dragged off before exploding. Then there's the rocket mines, which can be attached to anything and everything for high-velocity, explosive violence. The game really could just be about doing silly things with the grapple. But a gorgeous island and flexible missions means there's more to Just Cause 3 than silly chaos (well, not too much).
It’s like a Pepsi Max ad from the ‘90s, but with a much higher body count. No wonder we voted it one of the best games of 2015.
Want more? Here's our Just Cause 3 review.
Mount & Blade: Warband
The best of the Mount & Blade series, Warband is an open world fantasy RPG crossed with a Medieval simulator, which basically means you never have to pay attention to the real world again. Warband dumps players into a giant sandbox, where six factions duke it out for supremacy, there’s no real story and it’s left to the player to decide what they want to do.
Perhaps the showman in you will inspire you to become a master jouster and champion of many tourneys; maybe your eye for a good deal will lead you down the path of the wealthy trader, using your mountain of gold to fund a mercenary army to protect you and bring you glory; perhaps you’re just a good for nothing crook, and if so, then it’s the bandit’s life for you.
Travelling around the map, you’ll no doubt find yourself waylaid by enemies, or maybe you’ll be the one doing the waylaying, but either way, you’ll no doubt get into scraps. Combat is skill-based, requiring fancy footwork, excellent timing and employment of the right weapon and right attack for different situations. It’s tough to get the hang of, but ultimately very rewarding. You’ll likely have an army at your side, too, leading to some particularly massive conflicts. And that army can be trained, gain experience and be equipped with new gear - though you will have to pay their wages.
With the multiplayer mode added in Warband and a wide variety of mods, including some impressive overhauls, it’s a game that will easily swallow up your life if you let it.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The first time I played Morrowind, I looted a wizard's corpse and discovered a scroll that the deceased believed gave him the power of flight. Ignoring the results of what was clearly his first experiment with the spell, I cast it. Launched high up into the sky, I could see the whole land from my amazing vantage point… and then the ground started getting closer. And closer. And splat. I was dead.
That early encounter - which isn’t a quest, it’s just something that happens - encapsulates what makes Morrowind so magnificent. You can see why it's one of the best RPGs on PC. There’s a gigantic alien sandbox begging to be travelled across, filled with strange people and the promise of countless quests and random misadventures. It’s a game where you can murder an important NPC, failing the main quest, and yet can keep playing.
Diversity is the name of the game in Morrowind. Where Oblivion had its European forests and Medieval towns and Skyrim had its Scandinavian themes, Morrowind is utterly unique, rarely looking like a real-world counterpart. Giant mushroom forests, homes made out of bone and carapace, large floating beasts - the lovable silt striders - for transportation, it’s a weird place. A place you can make even weirder with the vast collection of Morrowind console commands and cheats.
This variety extends to all aspects of the title. Skills, magic and equipment are all much more abundant in Morrowind compared to its successors, and offer more in depth customisation and substantially more character builds. At first it’s confusing, bursting with choice but little direction, but when you start to chart your own path, it becomes a game unlike any other.
If you’ve never played EVE Online, you’re sure to have heard the stories. Thousands of players and fleets of ships fighting out in space, alliances toppled by traitors, spies murdering CEOs, and lots of theft - all this without developer involvement. Sounds like one of the best space games on PC to me.
It’s a living galaxy with a complex player-run economy, filled with corporations and alliances that rise and fall, and opportunistic pirates, soldiers and businessmen waiting to fleece or destroy you. It’s glorious.
EVE fighting the good fight by making its MMO world a true sandbox. Notoriously tough to get into - though CCP have made some improvements there - the most overwhelming thing about it is all the possibilities, and that’s a great thing to be submerged in.
Do you become a miner, taking more and more risks as you try to find the fastest route to wealth? Or maybe you’re the sort who hunts down those greedy miners, for fun or profit. It’s in the corporations, though, that EVE’s heart really lies. The intrigue and wars that arise from them would fit neatly in the pages of The Twelve Caesars.
The Sims 4
Creepy dollhouse and terrifying social experiment, The Sims is one of EA’s big cash cows, squeezing out expansion after expansion. But it’s good. Really good. Maybe more than it should be. It’s difficult to reconcile the game with the business model, but it’s simply better to just put the latter to the back of your mind and not go crazy with the expansion purchases.
The creation side of things - the mods, the building of houses and businesses, the molding of little human jesters - is its initial strength. The tools are simple and tactile, but you can do a lot with them. But its the emergent stories that happen to and within your creations that makes The Sims so damn compelling even after you’d expect the well to run dry.
You could follow the route of the creepy, sociopathic puppet masters by creating dungeons and then setting fire to Sims once they're inside. Yes, you could, but I'm not going to encourage that kind of behaviour. Instead, why not help your Sims follow their dreams, be that hooking up with the hot person from the bar down the street, or building their own rocket and blasting into outer-space.
Garry Newman’s physics sandbox is really just a giant toy box. Absent objectives or rules, it furnishes players with props, character models, just a whole load of tools from which can spring all manner of oddities and crimes against nature.
Everything can be stuck together and fiddled with, and it’s often used to make videos and bizarre shows. And it’s a game design tool, giving birth to single-player adventures, multiplayer worlds and a heap of player-created content.
It can be an introduction to game design, countless games or just something you can mess around with when you’re pissed. But most importantly, you can give NPCs very silly faces.
Intrigued? Discover the origin story of the game with The making of Garry's Mod.
A simple premise, the cartoon survivor - there are several to choose from - in Don’t Starve starts with one goal: staying alive. In a purgatory that increasingly becomes a hell, that’s easier said than done. Foraging for berries and carrots is easy enough, but as they grow scarcer and the hunt for food takes survivors further afield, the risk of death intensifies. Wild pig men, monstrous arachnids and unspeakable horrors are all over the place, and come night, there’s madness and nightmarish, invisible things to worry about.
Don’t Starve is a great survival game, but its no slouch as a sandbox, either. The world might be cruel and deadly, but it can be tamed, to a degree, and molded into something a bit more comfortable.
A simple fire and a tent can grow into farm, a fortress, a laboratory; wild pig men can be transformed into allies, willing to protect you from the worst the world has to offer; and increasingly complex tools and machines can be hammered into existence, bringing some civilization to the wilderness. Learning how to do more than simply survive is the key to avoiding an early demise.
And it’s gorgeous, though unsettling. An exaggerated, gothic cartoon, filled with sketches that you might expect to see a possessed child scribbling across a wall.
Should Don't Starve's standard variation not be enough for you, there's the opportunity to take to the seas in Don't Starve: Shipwrecked.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
Where many sandboxes are content with letting players have fun, building silly castles or going off on lovely adventures, STALKER torments. It’s a sprawling first-person shooter where your freedom is only curtailed by the fact that almost everything in the whole bloody place wants you dead. If the mutant monsters and bizarre anomalies don’t get you, then the radiation sickness probably will.
Despite its many open spaces, it’s a claustrophobic game, and not just when it sends you down into dark tunnels and monster-infested catacombs. STALKER has an oppressive atmosphere that bears down on the player at all times. But it’s never hopeless. There’s always something you can do to overcome the constantly hostile game world.
You don’t storm into areas, blindly shooting. Death can come quickly, so assaults are slow and tactical, and the peculiar artifacts that can be collected add another layer of complexity, creating an almost RPG-like system of traits that confer different bonuses and costs. And a huge collection of changes from an ever-loving mod community means there's always something new to experience in STALKER.
Those are our top picks for the best sandbox games on PC, but what do you think? Point out our glaring omissions in the comments.