From the early days of gaming, with Ultima and Lords of Midnight, open-world games have always been right at home on PC – indeed, those pesky consoles often couldn’t handle it. Compare the ambitious early version of Halo to the final, more confined result, for example – and only the PC could hold sprawling regions in the very first Elder Scrolls games. Nevertheless, it was the leap into full 3D with Grand Theft Auto 3 and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind that really brought the idea of open-world gaming to the masses.
These days, open world can be considered its own genre. You can find accurate depictions of real-life cities or countries, huge fictional expanses with their own landmarks, complete worlds to check out – or even entire galaxies, depending on where you want to go on your next open-world gaming adventure.
The cool thing about the best open-world games is that they can come in a variety of forms: the important feature is that they allow you to explore freely. As such, our list of top open-world games features everything from the best FPS games to car games.
Here are the PC’s best open-world games:
Grand Theft Auto 5
While Grand Theft Auto 3 basically pioneered the 3D open-world game, GTA 5 is the culmination of everything Rockstar wanted to achieve with that innovative experience. The ridiculously large area of San Andreas is your playground, including the LA-inspired city of Los Santos, and it’s one of the most detailed open-world regions seen before or since in a game. There are easter eggs, stores, sports, and countless side missions to occupy you wherever you end up.
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With three completely different dysfunctional characters to choose from in the story, all with their own calamitous problems and selfish motivations, exploring Los Santos suddenly becomes a very characterful experience. The missions are well-designed and varied, not to mention well-written. Then again, you could forget the missions entirely and try one of the many side activities, like golf, tennis, or drug-fuelled rampages. Or just grab a car and explore the incredibly detailed world with the excellent soundtrack blasting away – before bombing down Mount Chiliad and seeing how far you can get before your ride blows up.
If that’s not enough, there’s also GTA Online, which builds on what’s great about the sandbox game and adds dozens of other players – introducing them to races, heists, battle royale, biker gangs, and an much more. There are even GTA 5 mods, which allow you to do all of this as Superman or Magneto, create weapons that fire cows, or just drop random whales from the sky. Who needs a Red Dead Redemption 2 PC release date?
More recently the GTA Casino update dropped a massive online casino into Los Santos replete with minigames, new GTA casino missions, and a stack of hidden GTA Playing Cards to track down – six years after launch this is still one of the best multiplayer games on this list.
Batman: Arkham Knight
“Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman” should be the mantra for all open-world games. Rocksteady’s third and final foray into the world of the Dark Knight boasts a near-complete recreation of Gotham City, and while it’s a smaller play area than most other open-world games – few are as painstakingly detailed and littered with fan service as in this superhero game.
Every square metre of Gotham has something of interest to catch your attention, whether it’s a dastardly murder, an interesting encounter, an intriguing riddle, a gang of ne’er-do-wells to beat up, or a billboard advertisement that you should really take another look at after you’re doused with Scarecrow juice. Getting around the city is a lot of fun, too, from the satisfying grapple-glides to barrelling through the streets in the Batmobile.
While the story might not be as good as the other Arkham games, Arkham Knight is still tops when it comes to gameplay, gorgeous visuals, and an open world you want to spend dozens of hours exploring – and if you’re an avid DC reader then it’ll never get boring thanks to the countless easter eggs you’ll stumble upon.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is where the series finally transitioned from stealth game to full-blown open-world RPG. And like all of the best open-world RPGs, it’s full of character moments, major decisions to make, and clumsy horse riding mechanics. Odyssey also boasts the largest and most absurd Assassin’s Creed map in the series, covering the entire Ancient Greek world, from Kephallonia to Crete.
Despite the vast playing area, Ubisoft has managed to pack an incredible amount of detail into this gorgeous open world – with cities, towns, temples, hidden caves, outposts, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey tombs to explore. The studio’s even taken a leaf out of Nintendo’s recent open-world classic The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild by introducing Exploration mode, where map markers don’t exist, allowing you to properly immerse yourself in the Greek countryside.
When terra firma gets tiring you can also traverse the world by boat. Sailing and ship combat are just as satisfying in Odyssey as they were in the brilliant Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, making the simple feat of exploring the world map a constant joy.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
While its world broken up into a series of miniature open world regions, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt fills each one with enough detail and character that they feel like one cohesive world. Whether you’re tracking beasts across the battle-scarred plains of Velen, exploring the cobbled streets of Novigrad, or skulking through ancient woodlands, CD Projekt Red have crafted a world that feels authentic and fantastical in equal measure.
And your exploration through these rugged locales is constantly rewarded with new quests, characters, beasts, and encounters. In The Witcher 3 you never want fast travel around the map for fear of missing out on a new and exciting adventure, and what higher praise could there be for an open world game?
Just Cause 4
The latest installment of the gaming’s maddest open-world series brings all the destructive gadgets toys from the previous action-adventure games, gives them to the player immediately, and adds a whole lot more for good measure. This time around, Avalanche Studios sends you out to conduct a civil war on the island of Solis, and it’s a surprisingly serious outing for rugged protagonist Rico Rodriguez – although there’s always time to attach a balloon and a thruster to a llama and watch it spin to the heavens like an unwitting Icarus.
The Just Cause series’ success is based on letting players get creative with destruction, and players have countless choices when it comes to physics-based gadgets and high-explosives in Just Cause 4. The addition of massive thunderstorms, tornadoes, snowstorms, and sandstorms only adds to the carnage.
Just getting around Solis is a joy, whether you’re in a heavily armed attack chopper, high-speed motorbike, or combining your grapple, wingsuit, and parachute for self-sufficient traversal. Once you’ve got used to your gadgets you can essentially turn Rico into Superman and fly all over the island – which is, as you can imagine, a lot of fun. Or you could just go to the nearest army base, grab the first tank that shows up, and go to town on the forces of the Black Hand. The choice is yours.
Watch Dogs 2
In a world where Grand Theft Auto 5 exists, it can be difficult to release another modern, open-world city-based game. But Ubisoft found a way to freshen up the formula by adding hacking, Dark Souls-like game invasions, and sharper social and political commentary. Watch Dogs 2 does all that in a slightly condensed, caricatured, but believable recreation of San Francisco. And it’s brilliant.
The troubles of main character Marcus and misfit hacker group DedSec make for a far more satisfying and friendly backdrop than that of the first game. The sequel was finally allowed to take the (frankly hilarious) hacking mechanic and have fun a bit of fun with it. Anything can be hacked, from smartphones and traffic lights to vehicles and security cameras, and with various drones along for the ride, the moment-to-moment gameplay is action-packed, varied, and surprisingly funny. Nothing beats hacking a parked car and using it play bowling with any nearby security guards.
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There are some standout missions across the main story, but exploring San Francisco is the main highlight thanks to a top tier soundtrack, a detailed recreation of the Bay Area, and the ability to hack oncoming traffic to clear up the roads a little.
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid V earns its place on this list for two reasons: it’s the first MGS game to make it to PC, and it’s the only open-world MGS game (we’re not counting Survive). Many were sceptical of the genre shift ahead of its release, but Metal Gear Solid V ended up being one of the most satisfying, immersive, and entertaining open-world games ever made.
MGS V is a war game that offers an incredible amount of content – there are at least a couple of hundred missions, for starters. The stealth systems are fantastic, with loads of moving pieces fitting together like polished clockwork. Light, cover, stance, and noise are all things you have to be careful of, and if you arouse suspicion the guards can even communicate via walkie talkie or even with other bases if reinforcements are needed.
The open world adds so much to these stealth mechanics by expanding the game’s scope. You can observe outposts from miles away and make a plan of attack, and the game gives you complete freedom to do things however you like – no matter how crazy.
Far Cry 5
The latest chapter in the Far Cry series takes players to the US and still manages to feel like a far cry from civilisation. Hope County, Montana, is the gorgeous open-world players get to explore this time around, but you’ll have to share the experience with murderous cultists and deadly wildlife like bears, mountain lions, and wolverines on your way to the your particular Far Cry 5 ending.
Most open-world games see you journeying from Point A to B to get anything done, but Far Cry 5 packs an incredible amount of excitement between those points courtesy of random encounters. Expect to be distracted by enemy jeeps, bears, VIP soldiers, roadblocks, hostage situations, car chases, or aerial bombardments – often all at once. Far Cry 5 does its damnedest to keep players in a constant state of distraction, making it very easy to lose yourself in big sky country.
To top it all off, while it doesn’t work as well as a co-op game where missions are concerned, it does work brilliantly when just screwing around in the open world. Join a friend, pick a place to go to, and wait for the fireworks to start. You won’t be waiting long in Far Cry 5.
Saints Row 4
The Saints Row series is the perfect antidote to the traditional modern open-world game. Volition took the template set by Grand Theft Auto 3 and cranked up the ridiculousness. Things were fun enough with Saints Row 2 and 3, with insane missions such as diving in front of traffic to make money off insurance, but Saints Row IV took it one step further and added superpowers. It’s one of many reasons why it was on of our favourite games of 2013.
While the city of Steelport hasn’t changed much since the last game, being able to jump up tall buildings in a single bound or run faster than a speeding bullet adds an incredible amount of fun to the equation. Very quickly you’ll find that you don’t need cars, helicopters, or even guns – why bother, when you can run up to an enemy at super-speed and punch them off the map? These powers ensure Saints Row IV feels worlds apart from the series’ main inspirations, and makes it one of the most entertaining open-world games out there.
Combine this with an alien invasion storyline, an absurd and diverse range of missions, and the fact that you’re doing all this while playing as the President of the United States – it’s not hard to see how this barmy game has garnered a cult following.
No Man’s Sky
When No Man’s Sky released in 2016 the backlash was brutal. The hype for the game was out of control, and small studio Hello Games had an impossible job of delivering on what players expected from the game. Two years and a lot of updates later, that little studio has managed to turn No Man’s Sky into the best open-world space game around.
Forget open world – No Man’s Sky is open universe. Whereas some open-world games give you a city or even a state to explore, this game starts with an entire planet, and it only expands from there. You can explore it freely – finding outposts, meeting wildlife, causing trouble, mining for minerals, looking for artefacts, building bases, and messing around with No Man’s Sky mods. Then once you’ve fixed your ship and blasted off into the stars, you can find other completely different planets to explore and exploit. You could spend your entire life playing No Man’s Sky and not see everything the game has to offer.
Most importantly, thanks to the updates such as the confusing, frustrating, but wonderful NEXT, it all seems to have a purpose now. You can play with friends, you can craft huge bases, or you can just explore the gorgeous universe.
Forza Horizon 4
As open-world racing games become more common, it takes a truly special title to stand out from the pack.
The latest Forza’s take on the British Isles is packed with detail, and while the open-world map is a highly truncated form of the UK it’s still a vast area to explore – taking in the Scottish Highlands, parts of Oxfordshire and Cumbria, and down to Cheshire. The hills, forests, sleepy villages, and towns all provide a sense of character to the game’s map – our Forza Horizon 4 review found that it’s wonderful to just drive around and explore, even before you start talking about the beautiful visuals and the seasonal weather changes.
Forza Horizon 4 isn’t all visuals either, all of its vehicles feel distinct as you throw them into hairpin bends or speed over the crest of a hill – so make sure you screech over to our Forza Horizon 4 beginner’s guide if you’re new to the series. Additionally, there’s always something to do in Forza Horizon 4 – a ridiculous amount, in fact – including epic races, challenges, customisation, and even season-specific Forzathons.
And there we have it, the best open-world games you can find on PC. The genre’s come a long way since the early days of procedurally-generated dungeons in old games such as Daggerfall. Since then we’ve had a revolution in the genre, and nowadays the worlds we play in look and feel more real than they ever have before. As ever, we’re looking forward to seeing how the upcoming PC games of the future make use of cutting edge tech to deliver even more beguiling open worlds.