Open-world! Sandbox! These two terms are nearly ubiquitous in modern game advertising, and developers seem to be falling all over themselves to prove that their new game is the sandboxest and the open…nest of all. Cool. No problem with that. The thing with open world is that it’s essentially meaningless if there’s nothing do to there and doesn’t amount to much of anything.

That said, there are some game that make it world very well, and they are the ones we’re going to focus on here. But first things first.

Basic terminology

For clarity we should briefly explain the difference between “open world” and “sandbox”, because contrary to popular understanding they are not the same.

Open worldopen world games have just that. An open world. It isn’t a gameplay concept as much as a world structure. If your game has a huge overall map and allows for largely uninhibited travel it’s open world. Not much to say about it.
Sandbox – can be coupled with open world, but really doesn’t have to. Sandbox games give you tools and let you run wild with them. The gameplay is open-ended, you are encouraged to make your own fun, instead of experiencing what the game has prepared.

Having set the terms, we can move on to giving a brief list of subjectively best sandbox games.

[UPDATED 2019]

Arma 3

Release year: 2013
Genre: Tactical shooter
Developer Bohemia Interactive

The third incarnation of possibly the most complex military simulator out there is undoubtedly detailed, expansive, and flexible enough to allow a lot of freedom to its players. This time everything takes place in the near future of 2030s, around the Aegean Sea and South Pacific.

Arma 3 screenshot

Arma 3 doesn’t really place any specific boundaries on player activity. It has a huge amount of various military equipment ranging from weapons to vehicles, offers plenty of possible mission types, and has an editor for the creative minds to enjoy. If you enjoy military fiction, roaming the islands of Arma 3 is likely to give you the thrill you seek

Key features
  • Powerful editor enabling the creation of new modes and missions
  • Extensive catalogue of military equipment
  • Massive maps
  • A singleplayer campaign in addition to the multiplayer mode

No Man’s Sky

Release year: 2016
Genre: Survival
Developer Hello Games

Lacklustre release notwithstanding, No Man’s Sky became more feature-complete with every major update, to the point where it is now. Almost all promises that put the game on the radar have been fulfilled, chief among them the long awaited multiplayer.

No Man’s Sky screenshot

You have an entire galaxy to explore, and when you’re somehow done doing that, the game is happy to throw another one your way, complete with new unique lifeforms, geography, and challenges. Build a base, invest in a better spaceship, keep every meter in the green, and discover the galaxy.

Key features
  • A ridiculous number of planets to visit
  • Worthwhile base-building
  • A mystery to uncover
  • Mod support

Elite Dangerous

Release year: 2014
Genre: Space combat
Developer Frontier Developments

If the somewhat abstract, pastel-coloured vibe of No Man’s Sky isn’t to your liking, but you still want to explore space, Elite Dangerous might be the game for you. It has a definitely more realistic look, and follows in the footsteps of a classic franchise. If frequent long-distance, in-character runs to the edges of known space are anything to go by, it’s pretty engaging.

Elite Dangerous screenshot

Set in the fourth millennium, it benefits from all the technology we might be able to create by that time. It also features space pirates, space bounty hunters, space miners and many other space jobs that the players are free to take up any time they wish. Or, if no job seems appealing, they can just go exploring, as long as they have the necessary supplies for the trip.

Key features
  • A lot of systems recreated based on astronomical data
  • Plenty of jobs and activities to busy oneself with
  • Space-age MMO
  • The world changes dynamically through players’ actions

Just Cause 3

Release year: 2015
Genre: Action
Developer Avalanche Studios

The Just Cause series is notorious for giving the players a large open world, and a free reign about how they go about liberating it from the forces of some dictator or another unwelcome ruler. In Just Cause 3 Rico Rodriguez has to free his own homeland, a Mediterranean island of Medici.

Just Cause 3 screenshot

Just Cause 3, much like predecessors, is a generator of explosive chaos, capable of escalating to a very satisfying degree. Rico is a true demolition man, and with the help of the game’s physics a creative player can cause a really entertaining mayhem.

Key features
  • Physics engine supporting your ideas
  • Extremely useful grappling hook with many creative uses
  • A story that provides perfect excuses to engage with the gameplay
  • Ridiculous and spectacular action sequences

ARK: Survival Evolved

Release year: 2017
Genre: Action-adventure, survival
Developer Studio Wildcard

ARK is certainly among the most well-known survival games, and as the genre frequently joins forces with a sandbox approach to gameplay, its appearance on this list was a foregone conclusion. “It’s the one with dinosaurs and dragons” is probably the fastest way to identify ARK: Survival Evolved.

ARK: Survival Evolved screenshot

Indeed, there are animals, including dinosaurs, to tame and train, there are places to explore, bases to build… In general the player has a lot of freedom as to how to interact with the world. Just be mindful of your hunger or thirst. It IS a survival game after all.

Key features
  • With DLCs: several diverse worlds to explore and survive in
  • You can tame dinosaurs, ride them, and make them work for you
  • Team up with other players and build a powerful clan base together
  • Work your way up the tech tree, from throwing rocks, to Energy rifles

Surviving Mars

Release year: 2018
Genre: City builder
Developer Haemimont Games

Surviving Mars allows you to check if you would be any good at establishing a colony on the Red Planet. You have an army of friendly-looking drones to prep the basic infrastructure, various types of domes for you eventual colonists to live and work in, and a bit of science-fiction mystery to deal with every now and then.

Surviving Mars screenshot

Surving Mars is a very fun game, and once you get to the landing pad doesn’t really care that much about how you establish the colony. As long as it works, it’s fine. Nobody’s stopping you from making a really aesthetically pleasing colony, if you can manage.

Key features
  • Mars colony simulator
  • Pleasant aesthetic design
  • Alien mysteries and cataclysms
  • Diverse colonists with randomised traits

Oxygen Not Included

Release year: 2019
Genre: Survival simulation
Developer Klei Entertainment

Where Surviving Mars is all about setting up a colony on the surface of the planet, Oxygen Not Included is more interested in creating life-sustaining conditions within an asteroid. You have some blueprints for helpful devices, but it’s up to you to figure out how to use them.

Oxygen Not Included screenshot

What you need to understand, however, is that you’re pretty much working with a closed system. You need to make arrangements to collect waste, to let harmful gases flow elsewhere, and to manage temperature. ONI is quite good at simulating basic fluid dynamics.

Key features
  • Duplicants you give orders to have their own personalities you need to manage
  • Many different asteroid environments changing mission parameters
  • Recognizable cartoon aesthetic typical for Klei Entertainment
  • Well designed fluid physics

Metro Exodus

Release year: 2019
Genre: First-person shooter
Developer 4A Games

This is the third game in the video series adapting the novels of Dmitry Glukhovsky. This time the persistent protagonist Artyom takes his family and friends out of the tunnels and out into the post-apocalyptic surface.

Metro Exodus screenshot

Exodus features both discrete levels, as well as larger, open areas where Artyom can do as he pleases, which includes scavenging for resources and crafting tools for survival. The story even includes some choices to make, which will influence the ultimate outcome.

Key features
  • A mobile base of operations: the steam locomotive Aurora
  • Levels alongside large sandbox areas
  • Crafting and resource management
  • Choices and consequences

Astroneer

Release year: 2019
Genre: Sandbox, adventure
Developer System Era Softworks

Astroneer is a very friendly-looking game with a few cool ideas worth noting. All of it takes place of procedurally generated planets, all of which have an open-world structure. Your player character is the eponymous Astroneer, and one of the coolest tools in their disposal is the deform tool.

Astroneer screenshot

That tool is useful not only for collecting crafting resource, but is also capable of terraforming, letting you reshape the planets you visit. It could be used to build bridge, or create more elaborate structures, if you feel like it. Ti a creative and industrious player it can be a ton of fun.

Key features
  • Powerful terraforming
  • Mysterious artefacts to understand
  • Explore the diverse planets
  • Family-friendly aesthetic

Grand Theft Auto 5

Release year: 2013
Genre: Action-adventure
Developer Rockstar North

The Grand Theft Auto series has a legacy of making its cities feel like places full of things to do, but GTA V is by far the most comprehensive among them. The fictional city of Los Santos as well as the surrounding area is fully open to players, who can follow the story… or play golf, tennis, try themselves at a stock market, or go to a cinema.

GTA V screenshot

The story follows a trio of criminals, Michael, Trevor, and Franklin, who are strong-armed into completing a number of robberies. There are some choices to make, there is much conflict due to the dynamics between the three, it’s all good crime story stuff. The player isn’t forced into a single character, but can freely switch between them, often catching them in the middle of some unrelated activity.

Key features
  • Three protagonists with unique skills and abilities
  • Extensive online component
  • Massive city full of activities
  • Freedom to do what you want, when you want

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Release year: 2017
Genre: Action-adventure
Developer Nintendo Entertainment

The most recent entry in the history of the Legend of Zelda franchise has a pretty decent amount of sandbox to it. Most importantly, it uses the sandbox to give the world as such a lot of believability.

Everything works just as you’d think it would, boulders, fire etc. and the game encourages you to take advantage of it through your exploration. Even better: Link has a number of magical abilities acquired via runes, and nothing really stops him from using them at will everywhere.

Breath of the Wild screenshot

In Breath of the Wild’s case all of this serves to create a world which feels coherent, even if to some extent arbitrary and silly.

And it succeeds at doing so with flying colors, we must add. If you happen to have Nintendo Switch Breath of the Wild is a must have for many reasons, and it does make sandbox gameplay feel useful and a worthwhile world-building exercise instead of a gimmick.

Key features
  • A competent physics engine enables creative solutions
  • Freedom to beat the game in any order you want
  • One of the best first-party games on Nintendo Switch
  • A lot of cooking

Dishonored (franchise)

Release year: 2012, 2016, 2017
Genre: Action-Adventure, Stealth
Developer Arkane Studios

Arkane Studios struck gold with Dishonored. They started the search in Arx Fatalis and kept it up in the Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, but Dishonored, oh boy.

We’ve written about it before, and have called it a goal-oriented playground. Dishonored (1, 2, and soon Death of the Outsider) lands the spot here, because it does little beyond giving the player a goal to achieve and some fun tools you can use at will anywhere.

Dishonored 2 screenshot

Essentially DH is a simulation of an arcane assassin. All powers work dynamically within the physics engine rather than being scripted and being given canned animations. You can teleport to any structure in range wide enough to support you, possess NPCs from rats to guards, stop time to interact with bullets and crossbow bolts shot by enemies or yourself….

There are plenty of other videos showing off just how sandboxy the game can feel and how creative you can get. And it’s only open-world within the levels themselves, the game progresses linearly otherwise.

Key features
  • Play as an assassin’s equipped with magic powers
  • Choices in gameplay have story-bound consequences
  • Plenty of tools to use in creative ways
  • A classic revenge story

Mount & Blade: Warband

Release year: 2010, 2016
Genre: Action, Strategy
Developer TaleWorlds Entertainment

Mount&Blade is a simulator of a person trying to make a living in a more or less medieval-like setting. This doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but bear with me for a moment.

The character creation makes M&B look like a relatively complex RPG, with some background details for you to define, a huge number of face-customising sliders, a bunch of stats etc. and none of this prepares you for what comes after. When you leave the chargen you’re given a rudimentary combat tutorial and are let loose on the world. You’re free. Do what you want.

Mount & Blade: Warband screenshot

Get a small band of warriors to protect you and become a trader or support craftsmen. Get a larger band of warriors and pledge allegiance to a king, get a rundown castle and a a half-dead village. Or fight for yourself, capture a keep or a city, become a new power in Calradia. Be just a roving mercenary or just a guy who makes a living by fighting in tournaments.

M&B: Warband isn’t a sandbox in a mechanical sense, true, but it’s an extremely open-ended game, with many possible outcomes and little overarching plot or goal other than an occasional quest from a lord or another distressed NPC. Otherwise, you are free to do whatever.

Key features
  • A no-magic fantasy land for you to conquer
  • Hectic, intense battles
  • Tons of diverse equipment: weapons, armour, etc.
  • You can invest in industry and help trading caravans

Factorio

Release year: 2014
Genre: RTS, Construction
Developer Wube Software

Have you ever dreamt of having a massive factory? Factorio allows you to. What is Factorio? Essentially a game about creating the most optimised (or the most convoluted, if that’s your thing) way to produce expected results.

Your Factory expands almost as fast as it grows in complexity. Factorio allows for the creation of pretty weird constructions. One player managed to create a Factory playing the music video to Darude’s Sandstorm, of all things. No kidding.

Factorio screenshot

A further YouTube trip reveals self-replicating factories, and even a rendition of Portal’s ‘Still Alive’ and a couple other songs. If you can imagine something work thanks to a sequence of programmable units, there is good chance it can be done in Factorio and the game won’t mind one bit. The problem is setups like these require some extreme planning and probably engineering skills, and thus have a high skill threshold. Nothing that can’t be overcome, of course.

Key features
  • Set up elaborate automated production lines
  • Skill ceiling limited only by your imagination
  • Challenges your engineering aptitude
  • Build a rocket and leave the planet you got stranded on

Dwarf Fortress

Release year: 2006
Genre: Simulation
Developer Bay 12 Games

This is a game that might be largely unknown to many of you. Not surprising, too. It’s not particularly pretty, being fully text-based, it’s very weird, and gets weirder with every patch, and its skill threshold is through the roof if you want to play for any extended period of time.

It is however quite possibly one of the most complex city simulators out there, complete with robust procedural generation of pretty much everything. It also has some of the silliest accidental occurrences anywhere.

6. Dwarf Fortress game

The game doesn’t give you any goals other than keeping the settlement alive and, preferably, growing. What you do beyond that is entirely up to you.

Notably, Dwarf Fortress was cited to be an inspiration for Minecraft, and was picked to be featured in the Museum of Modern Art. If you have time and patience, you should check it out, it’s freeware.

Key features
  • One of the most complex games in existence
  • Uses ASCII graphics by default
  • The patch notes can be really funny
  • Easily moddable

You can download it from offical website.

Saints Row 4

Release year: 2013
Genre: Action-Adventure
Developer Volition

Saints Row 4 get the spot at the expense of GTA V for the sheer insanity of everything that happens in there. It’s also probably the best superhero game to date, and the least angst-driven, to boot.

What is SR4? A simulator of a superpowered unapologetic and oddly cheerful criminal. The playable character over the course of the game gains access to multiple abilities, all of them considered… unnatural.

If you’ve played Prototype before you almost know what to expect, but Prototype didn’t have mad doctors with cat heads running amok, ragdoll-based side activities, and the kind of rampage GTA with its more realistic style can’t really provide.

5. Saints Row 4 screenshot

Most importantly, The Boss has an outstanding and incredibly entertaining traversal powers, letting you run fast, jump high, and glide far. Then you add several different flavours of blasts, including one turning everything to gold, a couple flavours of telekinesis and a couple more. All of them allow you to have a smashing good fun and ignore the insane narrative whatsoever.

Key features
  • One of the best supowerpower-based games around
  • Excellent use of licensed music tracks
  • Plenty of creatively bizarre scenarios
  • Excellent character creation

Kerbal Space Program

Release year: 2011
Genre: Simulation
Developer Squad

This is a very smart and very cute game, with a very good physics model. Importantly, unlike most other games on this list, this one can actually teach you something.

The idea is that you’re helping a humanoid race known as Kerbals launch their space program. That’s pretty much it, but when coupled with a very complex physics engine we get a game that even NASA and Elon Musk are interested in. Where does the sandbox part comes in, though? In building the various rockets and other interplanetary exploration gear, of course.

Kerbal Space Program screenshot

KSP boasts a very detailed physics engine, which allows all objects to be reasonably accurately simulated with Newtonian dynamics. Watching your meticulously constructed monster rocket fall apart in a realistic way is extremely satisfying. Although efficiency is strongly favoured, nothing stops you from going wild.

You can experiment with a large list of components to create some fairly outlandish machines, of this is your jam. As long as you meet the win condition, you’re good.

Key features
  • Help the titular Kerbals go to space as safely as possible
  • You don’t have to sacrifice creativity for function if you’re good enough
  • Pretty realistic physics
  • The Kerbals are very amusing to watch

Conan Exiles

Release year: 2018
Genre: Action-adventure game
Developer Funcom

This list would be severely incomplete without some representative of the inexplicably popular more-or-less online survival game genre. Conan Exiles gets the honor due to it being probably the freshest in the early accessed survival genre, and doing its best to capture the atmosphere of Robert E. Howard’s and succeeding to a reasonable degree.

What can you do in Conan Exiles? You can survive. That’s pretty much the central idea. What you do to survive is another thing. You can devote yourself to hunting animals for resources, mastering the various crafts, becoming a warrior. If you want you can even summon humongous avatars of your chosen god (Mithra, Seth, Yog) to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and wreck their carefully build settlements.

Conan Exiles screenshot

Funcom keeps developing the game, enjoying the Early Access label, and despite glitchy “launch” it keeps a fairly steady playerbase. Sure, it’s about half as big as the one of DayZ and doesn’t come anywhere near the popularity of ARK: Survival Evolved, but Conan Exiles is fairly new compared to direct competitors and well worth checking out, especially if you like Howard’s body of work.

Key features
  • A sandbox survival set in the world created by Robert E. Howard
  • Very flexible building construction
  • You can summon avatars of your chosen god
  • Big emphasis on crafting

Terraria

Release year: 2011
Genre: Action-Adventure
Developer Re-Logic

Easily one of the finest examples of open-world crafting-centered sandboxes in recent memory. If you are hungry for crafting, dungeon crawling, and some basic survival mechanisms (monsters mostly come out at night, mostly) but don’t want to manage a three-dimensional space, then Terraria is just the game for you.

It’s done in a 16-bit style reminiscent of games of old, but boosted by some basic physics engine, making dungeon crawling more dangerous (as it should), because you never know when you can get flooded by lava.

Terraria screenshot

The players are encouraged to create their elaborate home bases, which can grow to actually impressive sizes and house a number of loyal subjects, provided you tend to their needs.

It’s an all-round good fun worth checking out, but, sadly, it can’t quite compare to the king of all sandboxes.

Key features
  • 2D game about building and dungeon delving
  • Pixel-based artstyle
  • Allows you to build some amazing structures
  • There is a lot of underground dungeoneering to be done

Minecraft

Release year: 2013
Genre: Action-Adventure
Developer Mojang

Here we go. The MVP of sandboxes. The one that despite being now 6 years old remains relevant. The one that pretty much formed a subculture around it. The one that created ample opportunities for people to recreate some of the most incredible feats of human architecture. Minecraft took the world by storm. And it isn’t really hard to see why.

It is by far the best at capturing in digital form the joy of putting together crazy Lego builds. If you so choose you can flat out ignore the survival game that sticks to the unbridled creation, too.
Just take a look at some of the amazing creations, as ranked by folks at WhatCulture Gaming.

Minecraft screenshot

The things which were unthinkable to achieve until somebody came along and did it, over usually weeks of work. If sandboxes are about having fun with the game’s systems, then there’s probably no game that can beat Minecraft.

Key features
  • The archetypal freeform crafting game
  • You can build virtually anything, especially if you use mods
  • Excellent in multiplayer, as many people can contribute
  • Survival mode provides some structure for those who want it.


Can there be the end?

A specific ending to an article might run counter to the overall theme, but texts have their own laws that need to be obeyed to some extent.

Sandbox is notoriously hard to specifically describe. It may apply to extensive crafting, the general lack of goals and abundance of systems, even the freedom of abusing the abilities and physics engines for fun and profit during missions. It can be found in any genre, really.

Overall, this list isn’t exhaustive of course. You may well favour a game we didn’t include for some reason or another. If this is the case, as always, sound off in the comments and let us know.