The best sandbox games on PC

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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 

Sandbox games Minecraft

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

Best Sandbox GTA 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. 

Scrap Mechanic

best sandbox Scrap Mechanic

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 its potential, and the Scrap Mechanic 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.

Elite: Dangerous

Sandbox games Elite Dangerous

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

Sandbox games 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.

Arma 3

Sandbox games Arma 3

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

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

Sandbox games Mount and Blade

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.

If Warband is already your favourite Medieval sandbox, then you'll know that Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord looks like a truly incredible sequel

EVE Online

Sandbox games EVE Online

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, and led by incredibly talented EVE fleet commanders from the comfort of their home PCs. 

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

best sandbox 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’s Mod

Sandbox games Garry's Mod

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

Don’t Starve

Sandbox games Don't Starve

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

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl

Sandbox games S.T.A.L.K.E.R

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. 

Want more? Here's our STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl review.

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. 

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reddog000 avatarUntoldAv3nGer avatarFraser Brown avatarHansKaosu avatarxrobz1x avatarBeemann avatar+24
xrobz1x Avatar
14
2 Years ago

I wish they would have combined the size of just cause, the destructebility of red faction geurrila and the tounge in cheek of saints row all in one neat package, giving us entire cities to destroy if we would wish so .

Like you place a bunch of remote charges around a building and right before you get there blow them up as you drive away from cops and make the entire building stop them dead in the tracks :D

2
JDravenW Avatar
1
12 Months ago

Mercenaries 3?

1
Stevie Lee Avatar
2
1 Year ago

Overall I think this is a good list, but I can't believe that you missed Fallout: New Vegas; it is about as open world as you can get, especially with mods/modding tools.

2
Ephy Avatar
1
3 Months ago

Dude, New Vegas is a nightmare to mod properly, if you don't want the game to crash ever two seconds.

1
reddog000 Avatar
5
2 Years ago

I really enjoy sandbox games. I also like others but a pretty good list (minus FPS's..hate 'em) nonetheless. Roguelike games are also starting to get some more love nowadays which is nice too.

1
warrantgames Avatar
10
1 Year ago

I was reading this, nodding along with the decisions on the first page. Nothing groundbreaking, the basics, stuff that most people would agree with.

And then I turned to page two.

Ah, Dwarf Fortress. The game that launched a thousand dwarves.

Launched them straight into my VOLCANO! Where I then cast them into obsidian, then had their family members live in rooms tiled with the fossilized remnants of their loved ones.

1
bang.setia.com Avatar
1
1 Year ago

euro truck simulator 2

best truck simulation (open world)

1
Orb no Archivist Avatar
1
1 Year ago

Scavengers Trepassers Adventurers Loners Killers Explorers Robbers #MissYouGSC

1
Richie Shoemaker Avatar
125
Richie Shoemaker(14 hours played)
1 Year ago

I once made a sandbox in Minecraft and the game became stuck in an infinite feedback loop.

1
xXIamWillXx Avatar
1
1 Year ago

No terraria? :(

1
cjclip Avatar
1
6 Months ago

Also i very like SKETCH TALES sandbox

Draw what you play and play what you draw in the world where doodling is magic

and imagination is a superpower. :)))))

http://store.steampowered.com/app/384090

1
Draylynn Avatar
2
Draylynn(23 hours played)
6 Months ago

If you can't build/destroy terrain and explore your game unhindered (like a 'sandbox'), it's not a sandbox - don't confuse open world with sandbox, they're not the same thing PCGamesN.

So frustrating to search for sandbox games and come across open-world games that have no hint of 'sandbox' in them, the term has become corrupted.

1
Creeper_2099 Avatar
1
5 Months ago

I Think Minecraft is The Best Game of All Time!!!!

1
chandlerklebs Avatar
1
4 Months ago

Terraria should totally be on this list!

1
0V3RKILL Avatar
110
2 Months ago

from this article I have to say I like GTA5, Just Cause 3 and Stalker.

1
CrafterOfWorlds Avatar
4
2 Months ago

Realism of Insurgency, graphics of No Man's Sky, modularity of Minecraft, humour of SR, GMod, and JC3, combat of M&B = ultimate game

1
Jorgete Panete Avatar
1
2 Weeks ago

but you forgot terraria

1
Arthur5555 Avatar
3
1 Year ago

The only sandbox game I found in the list is Minecraft. And I already play it.

0
SnexieCZ Avatar
2
1 Year ago

Then you don´t know what sandbox means...

1
pressurepoint14 Avatar
1
1 Year ago

A sandbox game is one where the user creates a significant portion of the world, sets objectives for themselves, and can go anywhere and do anything without having to unlock content through questing or leveling. So games like gta or saints row; where the world is dev generated, the quests and long term goals are set by the devs, are definitely not sandbox.

1
sheepyadventures Avatar
1
1 Year ago

Actually sandbox means every open world game or a game where you can have some choices made by your own. I know that sucks. I would really like that openworld games would somehow be divided from the true sandbox games like minecraft, dwarf fortress and garrys mod.

1
Draylynn Avatar
2
Draylynn(23 hours played) replied to sheepyadventures
1 Year ago

The sandbox term has been warped by game developers into roping more customers to their product.

Few years down the line, there will be divided tags for games "sandbox" vs "true sandbox" and it'll just get abused further by those scumbag marketing departments at game developer HQ.

If you don't have absolute control in one way or another in your gaming environment (terrain, combat and story), it doesn't deserve the sandbox tag.

1
|CG|-NoReturn Avatar
1
|CG|-NoReturn(1 day 5 hours played)
11 Months ago

Gmod? Morrowind 3?

1
Kablooie Avatar
3
1 Year ago

Yeah, a lot of open world games on this list vs true sandbox - but if we're including open world games like Morrowind, then I am dismayed to see the lack of one of the greatest open world games of all: Fallout3.

0
TheJoat Avatar
1
1 Year ago

Wow. How do the words "sandbox" and "game" ever get together?

A game has a beginning, middle, and an end. It has conditions for winning.

A sandbox "game" just goes on forever. Can you win? Can you almost win?

"Games" used to be fun to play.

What's the point?

0
SamRothstein Avatar
41
SamRothstein(2 days played)
10 Months ago

You're over thinking this

0
TheOneUsingBrains Avatar
1
9 Months ago

Wow, people still don't know what a sandbox game is. From this list: GTA 5 is not a sandbox, Arma 3 is not a sandbox, Just Cause 2 not a sandbox game either, theese 3 are all simple theme-park. Saints Row 4 not a sandbox either, M&B: Warband only partialy a sandbox+ medieval simulator+theme-park.

Red Faction (partially), Morrowind, The Sims3, none of theese are sandbox.

Elite: Dangerous is a space commander simulator not a sandbox.

Burnout and Stalker, especially very far from the definition of "Sandbox".

Burnout is an arcade style racing game, not a sandbox.

Stalker is an horror genre fps shooter, not a sandbox.

To end with, the idiot who made this list absolutely have no idea what is the difference between a sandbox and theme-park, simulation and arcade games.

Thank you for killing my brain cells.

0
UntoldAv3nGer Avatar
359
UntoldAv3nGer(18 hours played)
2 Years ago

Skyrim is much better than Morrowind. How could it not be? For having terrible combat, ugly graphics, and a bad UI system, it sure is a wonder people still like it.

-3
HansKaosu Avatar
11
2 Years ago

There is 10 bloody years between those 2 games lol. Of course Morrowind looks worse. It came out in 2002.

Does not make Morrowind any less superior game. The overall game is much better then Skyrim.

Skyrim is a better framework but the game content in Morrowind is better.

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Beemann Avatar
14
Beemann(1 day 9 hours played)
2 Years ago

All TES games have terrible combat, bad UI and ugly graphics but at least the old ones had some actual options and a neat setting due to a lack of concern for people leaping over half of the content, getting lost or floating around blasting villagers.

I say this as someone who has spent literally hundreds of hours trying to fix issues in Skyrim that you imply are exclusive to Morrowind

2
Fraser Brown Avatar
928
2 Years ago

I find Morrowind to simply be a more interesting location to play in. As for the "ugly graphics", there's an HD texture mod that makes it a little more pretty, and even without it, I think Morrowind's aesthetic trumps Skyrim's vaguely nordic look.

1
xrobz1x Avatar
14
2 Years ago

You are right, that is why peope love the new star trek movies better , better special effects, better frame rate.

Oh wait.........

1