Best open world games on PlayStation, Xbox and Switch
Ever since Grand Theft Auto III released back in 2001, we’ve been utterly obsessed with games that don’t punish us for totally shirking our responsibilities to explore the worlds they are set in. There were plenty of games with ‘open worlds’ before GTA III came tearing onto our screens but none of them let you flog a speed boat or small aircraft with the fuzz hot on your tail.
Since GTA III’s wild success, every developer under the sun has tried their hand at creating rich, open worlds. Some more successful than others. With 20 years of experience roaming the wastelands, punching it down a Los Santos highway and wayfaring across the cosmos, we’ve learned a thing or two about what makes an open world successful. It needs to be jam-packed with engaging lore and memorable characters. It needs to keep you on your toes, curious about what’s in that one shed you haven’t raided yet, or fearful of an untimely attack from one of the townsfolk. It needs to be peppered with excuses to keep exploring; excuses other than 10,000 collectibles. Lastly, it helps if your mode of transportation is a horse you’ve formed an undying bond with or web-swinging between the towering buildings of Manhattan.
So, if you love nothing more than boundless exploration, you’re in for a treat – here are our top 10 picks for the best open-world games on Playstation 4 and 5, Xbox One, Series X and S and Nintendo Switch.
Best open-world game overall: The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
Could it be any other at the top of this list? CD Projekt Red’s epic multi-platform adventure introduced an entire generation to the wild world of gaming’s most beloved pantsman, Geralt of Rivia.The Witcher III’s sprawling map is teeming with odd side-missions, surprise encounters with a bestiary of magical creatures, and more hidden-loot than you can poke a silver sword at. And not the kind of loot that checks a number off an ever-growing list of fetch quests but expertly designed armour sets that boost your stats and give Geralt a fresh new look.
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt is legendary because it’s the hybrid of a complex fantasy framework laid by author Andrzej Sapkowski and the meticulous minds at Sweden’s CD Projekt Red.
Best exclusive open-world game for PS4: Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn had the supreme misfortune of releasing about one week before a brand new console (Nintendo Switch) and what’s widely considered one of the best games of all time, Just Dance 2017. As if the new console and wave of new titles weren’t enough of a challenge, HZD went toe-to-toe with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. With two epic open-world games released in the space of the week, the conversation turned from praising both games and platforms to pitting them against each other and more often than not Breath of the Wild came out on top. Which is a shame because apart from the open-world similarities, crafting and archery combat, each game serves a completely different purpose.
Breath of the Wild is light on the cutscenes and exposition and heavy on the experimental sandbox gameplay. Horizon Zero Dawn is a more traditional open-world game with a unique sci-fi story to tell, stunning environment design and a steep learning curve for some of the game’s more challenging robo-dinosaur battles.
Oh, did we forget to mention there are robo-dinosaurs? Loads of ‘em.
Best exclusive open-world game for Xbox One: Forza Horizon 4
Racing games and open-world games don’t typically have a ton of crossover, but Microsoft’s Forza Horizon series proves the two go together like VB and a meat pie. Released back in 2018 (with an enhanced version for the Series X and S launching in late 2020), Forza Horizon 4 introduces changing seasons, with races taking place in a synchronised shared world with up to 72 players.
The environments are rich and incredibly detailed, the cars ultra-realistic and the gameplay smooth as silk, and only more so on the Series X and S. As one of Microsoft’s flagship series, it also benefits from regular (and pretty damn generous) updates and content additions, including new cars, songs, gameplay modes, and more.
Xbox One/Series S/X
Best exclusive open-world game for Switch: Breath of the Wild
What is there to be said about Breath of the Wild that hasn’t already been said? It became an instant classic upon launch in 2017, praised as the best Zelda game of all time thanks to its expansive and varied open world, nonlinear gameplay, memorable characters and epic story.
Waking after a hundred-year sleep (god, I’m jealous), Link is tasked with saving the Kingdom of Hyrule from the evil Calamity Ganon, a monstrous, demonic creature who, after regaining his strength while being sealed away in Hyrule Castle for 10,000 years, threatens to break free and destroy the world.
Everything from the art style and soundtrack to the combat and puzzles is simply exquisite. The only downside? You can’t pet the dog.
Red Dead Redemption 2
We waited eight years to saddle up in Rockstar’s follow-up to 2010’s Western adventure Red Dead Redemption. Was the wait worth it? Ab-so-lutely. In the words of Augustus McCrae, “ain’t nuthin’ like ridin’ a fine horse in new country”.
Red Dead Redemption 2 takes us back to a time when John Marston (the original game’s protagonist) was just a scrappy bandit in the Van Der Linde gang; still struggling to tell right from wrong, much to the chagrin of our new protagonist, the equally conflicted Arthur Morgan.
Unlike many of the games on this list, Red Dead Redemption 2’s open world isn’t exactly littered with distractions. Sure, there’s a small nation’s worth of quirky personalities who will happily request your assistance in robbing a train or flogging some Kentucky Saddlers but the real beauty of this game is found in the moments of serene silence between missions, trotting through the wondrous Western landscape of Austin, Lemoyne and New Hanover.
Rockstar’s latest frontier foray isn’t for everybody. If you’re more into moment-to-moment action, Red Dead Redemption 2 might have you feeling a little hogtied. But if you don’t mind a more measured pace, it’s one of the best ways you can lose a few hours roaming the countryside from the comfort of your couch.
No Man’s Sky
The recipe for success we outlined in the introduction? No Man’s Sky tosses almost all of them to the wind. Engaging characters and lore? Who needs ‘em? Ball-busting mission loops? Sounds stressful. What No Man’s Sky lacks it makes up for with one of the most satisfying modes of travel and a procedurally generated universe so vast you literally couldn’t see it all in one lifetime.
If you find Red Dead Redemption 2 slow and laborious, don’t even look twice at No Man’s Sky. But if the idea of therapeutic space exploration appeals to you, then engage thrusters and prepare to blast off.
No Man’s Sky tasks you with collecting various minerals and resources in order to upgrade your ship and warp cells to power your Hyperdrive. And that’s about it. The rest of it is pretty much optional. It’s all about discovery. Discovering planets, flora and fauna and naming them something stupid to give some lone wanderer down the line. On that note, if you happen to find a small constellation of planets named in tribute to Will Smith’s Big Willy Style and Willenium, come to say g’day.
GTA V… Again
I was hesitant to add Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) to this list. Six years and one console generation after its initial release, Grand Theft Auto V still manages to hit the top 10 sales charts in Australia, beating more recent games such as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Red Dead Redemption 2. And since this is a recommendations list, intended to introduce players to new games, GTA V feels like a gimme.
So, let us suggest GTA V… again. If, like us, you spent an unholy amount of time cruising the streets of Los Santos when GTA V first released in Australia, you may have been less inclined to pick it up when it re-released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (or you simply couldn’t afford any more time off work). Now that it’s been six years since your last playthrough, we highly recommend reconnecting with Trevor, Franklin and Michael for a fresh first-person perspective on your depraved criminal fantasy.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition
Just like Grand Theft Auto V, I very nearly didn’t include Skyrim on this list because technically it’s a last generation game and it’s available on pretty much any device that connects to the internet. And even though I think it’s a bit cheeky that you’re asked to buy Skyrim twice on PlayStation 4 if you want both the Remastered and PSVR versions, Skyrim’s world and the fantasy it lets you live out make it worthy for a spot on our list.
The Dragonborn’s adventure is a tale as old as 2010 and nine years later there’s still something so appealing about booting up a game, creating a Khajit with a cute cat name like Sooty and venturing off into the wilds of Tamriel.
Out of all the games listed here, Marvel’s Spider-Man swings towards the cinematic side of open-world storytelling. Its version of Manhattan might not be the richest open-world and it does blindly follow Ubisoft’s recipe for fetch quest gluttony but swinging across the full length of its map is an unbelievably fluid (and addictive) experience that glued my hands to my controller for hours on end.
Marvel’s Spider-man is your average neighbourhood action game but it’s dressed from head-to-toe in open world spandex. And that’s just fine by me. Side-missions, repetitive as they may be, can be thwipped up in a matter of minutes and the game uses unlockable Spidey suits as a reward for cleaning up the streets in the most stylish and efficient way possible.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a disappointing Metal Gear game. For Snake’s final outing, Konami shed many aspects of the series fans loved; the movie-length cutscenes, convoluted plotlines, and beloved voice talent David Hayter all got the chop. What slithered onto our screens was a story-lite stealth adventure through Afghanistan with… Kiefer Sutherland in the lead role. A disappointing Metal Gear game but a revolutionary open-world stealth game.
The MGS series has always been about tactical espionage and while dropping Snake from a roaring helicopter into a sprawling warzone doesn’t sound like your typical stealth game, MGSV gives you a ridiculous number of tools and weapons to help you sneak across the desert.
Snake uses everything from horse-droppings, to high-altitude balloons and Afghanistan’s ever-changing weather patterns to conceal his emotions- location, to conceal his location. Before Breath of the Wild, The Phantom Pain was the premiere game for rewarding out of the (cardboard) box thinking.
Watch Dogs 2
Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs series has had one of the most interesting changes in pace in video game history. The first game played with some interesting ideas around shifting the combat load from straight gunplay to more abstract takedown methods using your environment and the main characters’ elit3 h@ckiing skillz. But its insufferably bland plot and boring protagonist were a narcoleptic’s worst nightmare. The follow-up leaned hard into the corny hacking culture immortalised by the 1995 film Hackers and was much better for it.
If you take Watch Dogs 2 at face value without a sense of humour and you’re likely to come down with a severe case of cringeitis. But spend some time with its over-the-top characters (including a masked hacker that conveys its feelings via ASCII emojis on its mask) and you’ll find a colourful interpretation of San Francisco that’s an absolute blast to explore. Hack the world.
The desolate wasteland of Mad Max is a barren map with long stretches of featureless desert. But what else would you expect from a game starring the Aussie avenger?
Avalanche Studios made the most of its sparse world with incredibly designed outposts and outcrops on every horizon; rusty monoliths in the distance that are begging to be explored. Approaching these destinations in Max’s iconic Interceptor, which you upgrade from a roadside rustbucket to a wasteland war machine, is one of the most satisfying joyrides you will ever take in a game.
If you are considering trading your hard-earned guzzoline for Rage 2, we strongly suggest you buckle up for Avalanche’s previous apocalyptic adventure first.