The best sandbox games are difficult to nail down, as the sandbox style is spread across countless genres with disparate mechanics and settings. But all sandboxes 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.
Some of the best PC games of all time are those which allow total player freedom, but there needs to be a bit of clarity when looking at what makes a great sandbox game. 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 taking a look at them all. We support sandbox egalitarianism. So, from the mean streets of Los Santos through the ruthless missions of Agent 47 and the stunning expanse of Eve’s universe, these are the very best sandbox games on PC.
Here are the best sandbox games on PC in 2023:
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. Yes, you could be the next person to make one of the best Minecraft maps or cool Minecraft houses.
Minecraft captures the essence of playing – and fashion, just check out some of the best Minecraft skins for proof. It’s a tactile experience that evokes days spent building Lego creations in your bedroom. Limitations are few and far between, and usually, the simple installation of some Minecraft mods will smash down any that do exist – 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 building appeals to mites (and a fair few adults). And it’s easy to describe; or, at least the very basics are. 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.
And if you aren’t a builder, then there’s the entire survival game aspect of Minecraft, which would can play through from start to finish and beyond without having to worry about how beautiful your base looks, retaining the sandbox experience as you explore procedurally generated caves and infinite biomes. Besides mods, there are countless other ways to improve the experience, from Minecraft shaders and texture packs that make it look like a new release, to maps and servers to play on.
Grand Theft Auto V
A decade old this year, Rockstar’s most recent GTA offering is still 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, whether you’ve been playing for years or are jumping in for the first time. While there’s plenty of online content to tackle, GTA V is arguably the best offline game in the series thanks to its lengthy campaign and huge sandbox environment.
The simulation offers an exaggeration of urban and rural America, going mental with a few firearms can lead to chaos in the streets – not to mention 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, or how long you can go with a five-star wanted level without getting wasted.
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 film whatever you fancy, and cut and shape it into a work of cinematic art.
We can only imagine the thrilling open-world adventures that await when a GTA 6 release date finally rolls around, but knowing it’s a good year or so away at least, there’s still plenty of reasons – and regular updates – keeping us coming back to Los Santos.
Before sandboxes were synonymous with games like GTA or low-res block building, the term was inescapably linked to the freeform murder of Hitman. After a heavy misstep with Absolution, Agent 47 retrieved his sandbox crown with 2016’s Hitman. A set of six locations provides you with uncountable opportunities to dispatch a target, from a simple sniper rifle shot to an some of Hitman’s craziest kills.
Despite the immersive sim being huge this generation, with the likes of Dishonored and Deus Ex, many simply can’t compare to the dense detail of a Hitman level. They provide the freedom to approach the situation in almost every manner you can imagine. And, should your imagination fail you, there are dozens of suggestions thanks to the brilliant Opportunities system. What’s more, each level is being constantly added to over time, with brand new Escalation missions and Elusive Target contracts. Hitman is a sandbox that won’t stop evolving.
The emergent fun continues in the two sequels released since, as we found in our Hitman 2 review and Hitman 3 review respectively. There’s plenty there for returning assassins, such as Hitman 2’s Ghost Mode and an inventive AI that wants you to murder in the coolest possible ways, while the Hitman 3 keypad safe codes leave you something to come back to after completing this trilogy of stealth sandbox games.
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.
What makes Scrap Mechanic different from other building games is how it encourages momentum with components that move. It sets it apart from most other games which tend to stick to creating fortresses and other stationary objects. Even your static castle can come to life with elaborate unlocking mechanisms in Scrap Mechanic. But it’s the cars, tanks, and hover machines that really demonstrate the depths of its potential.
For a quick overview of what makes it special take a look at our Scrap Mechanic beginner’s guide and then see the best Scrap Mechanic creations from the community. What’s surprising is that most are built with only 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 simulation games alike. It’s still pretty impressive, almost 40 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 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. Don’t worry if that danger is too much for you, though: our Elite Dangerous guide will help out any beginners.
Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program is the only sandbox in this list where having a solid grasp of 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.
One of the best indie games around, thankfully KSP is getting as sequel, so there’s even more reason to familiarise yourself with the original before the Kerbal Space Program 2 release date. With its full feature set of missions and free-form sandbox mode, the first game 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 real-life science.
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 war game, where you can dabble in commanding tanks, try to play it like one of the best plane games, or take advantage of the detail of this sniper game to skulk and take your foes out from the shadows.
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. As it allows for anything from persistent multiplayer campaigns to military operations to be created it has birthed some of the best games ever, including DayZ and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
Just Cause 3
Just Cause 3 is ridiculous. Sure, it has the 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. 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. Create an attachment between oxygen canisters and soldiers and you can watch as they’re dragged off before exploding. Then there are 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 mean 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. We got more of an iterative update with the sequel, however, but we found in our Just Cause 4 review that it didn’t stop it from being just as bombastic and fun.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord
After eight years in development, the sequel to the first Mount & Blade game is finally out on Steam’s Early Access program. Despite it being about as buggy as Warband was back in 2010, it’s – ironically – a much more polished experience that expands on pretty much everything that made the first game such a standout for the sandbox games genre.
Bannerlord, like its predecessor, is all about letting you roleplay in a systems-heavy medieval sandbox. 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 let you make money fast in Bannerlord, using your mountain of gold to fund a mercenary army to protect you and bring you glory. Or perhaps you’re just a good for nothing crook, and if so, then it’s the bandit’s life for you.
The blend of macro-scale management and being able to directly control your character and party gives you an unrivalled level of control the gameplay, to the extent where you can either lead an army of hundreds from above, or command them from the over-the-shoulder perspective of your medieval hero/warlord/dastardly baron. If you get stuck, there are always Bannerlord cheats to consider.
If you’ve never played EVE Online you’ll have heard its many stories. Thousands of players and fleets of ships fighting out in space, alliances toppled by traitors, spies murdering CEOs, and lots of theft. All of this is 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. EVE fights the good fight by making its world a true sandbox – helping it become one of the best MMOs on PC.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed check out our EVE Online beginner’s guide. 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.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Four years old, RDR2 is still the latest game from Rockstar, and it received glowing praise in our Red Dead Redemption 2 review and still stands up to it today. After a somewhat sluggish start in the snow, it soon opens out into a glorious representation of the Wild West, with beautiful views of snow-tipped mountains and verdant woodlands. You can wander through the wilderness hunting animals or picking flowers for camp recipes, as well as complete missions for the locals and uncover many RDR2 easter eggs hidden throughout.
RDR2 really hits its stride during some of the key set pieces, including chaotic showdowns and contemplative aftermaths leading to a dizzying finale. After all, you play as an outlaw, and as such are more than capable of pulling off bank jobs, train heists, and duels. If your PC can handle the Red Dead Redemption 2 system requirements, then there’s a lot to discover in one of the best western games on PC. And that’s not including the countless hours of multiplayer action in Red Dead Online, or even joining the RDR2 roleplay with like-minded gunslingers.
The Sims 4
Creepy dollhouse and terrifying social experiment, The Sims is one of EA’s big cash cows, squeezing out expansion after expansion. It’s difficult to reconcile the game with the business model, but it’s better to simply put the latter to the back of your mind and not go crazy with the expansion purchases.
The creation tools are simple and tactile but you can do a lot with them, and the crazy Sims 4 mods and DLC mean the toolset keeps expanding the potential of one of the best management games. But it is 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 we’re 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 Sims space rocket and blasting into the universe?
Garry Newman’s physics sandbox is really just a giant toy box. Absent of objectives and rules, it furnishes players with props, character models, and 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 to the point that it’s often used to make hugely creative 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 starts with one goal: staying alive. That’s easier said than done in a hellish purgatory, however. Foraging for berries and carrots is easy enough, but as they grow scarce and the hunt takes survivors further afield, the risk of death intensifies. Wild pig men, monstrous arachnids, and unspeakable horrors abound at night.
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 somewhat tamed and moulded into something a bit more comfortable. A simple fire and tent can flourish into farm, fortress, or laboratory. Erstwhile nightmares can be transformed into allies that can protect you from the worst the world has to offer.
There you are, enough of the best sandbox games to get your creative juices flowing for a long time yet. We’ve supplied the bucket and spade and now it’s up to you to use your newfound videogame freedom to make your own fun. If you like doing things your own way, then check out the best crafting games available, but for when you’re more in the mood for destruction than inventive creation, there’s our list of the best FPS games around. Oh, and of course you’ll never go wrong with our list of the best old games that continue to age better by the day.