There are dozens of excellent open world PC games, and it becomes very difficult to rank them due to their variety of appeal. Some open world gamers prefer them because they can pick up and play at any time, without having to stay “on the rails” with missions or challenges. Some open world fans stay in their fantasy world for days on end, making sure they complete every single side mission and unlock every achievement in gigantic realms.
With a much lengthier development process, these types of game have amassed huge fanbases, eagerly awaiting the moment when they can finish their daily grind at the office, pick up a controller, and start a different kind of daily grind as a truck driver, gangster, thief, hitman or Jedi to name a few. We look at the expansive list of open world games for PC and Steam, and ask what is the best open world game, and why?
Open World Games
Open world games are defined as a mechanic which allows a player to freely explore a playing area (or world) and to tackle impromptu objectives at their own discretion. Whilst some open world games may provide a set of missions that must be completed before access to the wider world is allowed, most games do not take up much of the player’s time before they let you go out and explore.
Most games in this genre will provide a main story – or campaign - where some missions open up skills, experience or character upgrades. Once a certain amount of missions have been completed, the open world is available to free roam and explore.
Open World Game Terminology
Campaign: This is also called the “story” and is made up of “missions” or objectives. Campaigns often provide the player with rewards to allow easier progression in the open world and subsequent campaign missions.
Side Missions: Most open world games allow players to pick up missions as they explore. Some are random encounters that appear procedurally, and some are fixed missions that are there to specifically allow the player to earn a skill or learn valuable information. These side missions can often become repetitive but are generally fun and can often provide a welcome distraction from regular grinding.
Grinding: This term is used to describe the act of repetitive gameplay that a player takes part in to earn in-game currency, skills, experience or any other reward. Some side missions may be available to play over and over, with the same gain for little effort - so the player can grind out money or experience as often as they wish. This is particularly helpful for new players who want an easy way to earn money in a game to purchase specific items.
Free Roam: The ability to explore and participate in the open world unhindered by any requirement to complete missions, and without time constraints.
Skill Tree/Experience: Skill trees, XP, experience, or perks are all attributes of the player’s character, which can be earned during the campaign or side missions. Depending on the type of game, the player can earn weapons, for example, and then upgrade these weapons by finding/earning items.
Are Open World Games Better On PC?
Open world games on the PC have always been popular. With the ability to download massive worlds, and to then be able to mod them with some readily available, intuitive tools, the PC is a perfect format for open world/sandbox games. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a great example of this. With an immense world to play in, the mods for this game take the storage requirement from the original 12GB to treble, quadruple or more. The Cleaned Textures Mod runs at around 10GB by itself, and story mods like Enderal: Forgotten Stories are 16GB.
Storage size is not the only reason PCs are perfect for open world games, though. With GPUs and processors allowing vast landscapes and great draw distances to go with them, developers can create worlds of any size and rely on modern PCs to handle them with ease.
With the next gen of console available, developers are happy to push the boundaries of gameplay and storage with consoles like the Xbox Series X and PS5. Games like Elite: Dangerous are massive in terms of size (see below), and are also available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X and PS4 & PS5.
Games With The Largest Open World Maps
The largest map in an open world game is found in No Man’s Sky, with 18 quintillion different planets (or 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 if you like big numbers). No Man’s Sky, however, is procedurally generated and is not considered a static “map” within a world.
For actual open world map size, Elite: Dangerous takes the crown, being 13.8 million cubic light years in size. After Elite: Dangerous, it would be EVE Online, which is 326,219,876 square miles in size.
Different from open world games in many ways, sandbox games are so-called due to players having the ability to not only participate in the world but also make intrinsic changes to the framework and infrastructure. This can often result in changes in gameplay, and how the world reacts to a player.
A great example of a sandbox game is Minecraft, and probably the most recognised name when it comes to sandbox mechanics. With an almost invisible generation gap, Minecraft appeals to all ages of players, and everyone gets something different from the block building and crafting game. Players are able to create their own microcosm in which animals, environment and NPCs interact with each other and the player. Players can opt for a creative mode where they have absolute freedom to create anything and build in “God-mode” or choose survival mode, where they start the game with nothing and must do everything from scratch.
Games such as Grand Theft Auto V have also become synonymous with sandbox worlds, thanks to modders creating systems like FiveM – a multiplayer mod that allows roleplay scenarios, environment changes and more. Players can use a sandbox inside of GTA Online developing rich stories and worlds of their own.
It is very difficult to say “sandbox” without saying Garry’s Mod in the same sentence. With over 20 million sales, this feat of development genius was originally created without a single aim or objective. Just do as you please. Play with physics, construction, or create your own fully fledged worlds to play an interact with friends in.
The player can spawn (create) NPCs, ragdolls, and objects (props), then interact using various methods. Using the "physics gun" - which shot to pop culture fame in the game Half-Life - ragdolls and props can be picked up, rotated, and then made static. The limbs of ragdolls are also open to manipulation in the same way. Players can also use a "tool gun", which is a multi-purpose item allowing tasks such as welding or appending props. The tool gun also allows players to alter the facial expressions (or moods, if you will) of ragdolls.
By using simple tools like the physics gun and tool gun, and having the ability to develop vast worlds and inherent objectives, modders have constructed amazing games in their own right such as Zombie Survival or Sigwolf’s Blue-X13 – a light bike simulator that still gets incredibly high ratings to this day, being over seven years old.
Screenshot from Garry’s Mod, SligWolf's Blue-X13
A worthy mention here is Kerbal Space Program, which finds the player relying on their knowledge (or lack thereof) of physics and maths to send rockets into space, colonise far off planets, take part in asteroid mining, and more. Thanks to Reddit, KSP shot into the charts as one of the most played games of its time, with players uploading videos of their failed and spectacular attempts at sending frogs into space, launching a shuttle that resembled the plane from the movie Airplane! (below) and even commenting on net neutrality.
Courtesy of Reddit user u/everydayastronaut
Best Free Open World Games (PC)
Ask anyone what their favourite song is and they will give you a quick, off-the-cuff answer. Then they’ll change it. Then, before you know it, you have been given a “Top 5 in no particular order”.
Free open world games are just like this if you’re a fan of the genre. Each game has its own appeal and numerous reasons, and because the games are free, they will have a community behind them that loves it and supports it.
We could mention games like World of Warcraft and EVE Online here, but to truly get the best out of these games, you’ll need a subscription or payment of some kind. For example, WoW is free up to level 20, and EVE Online has extended parts of the game that requires payment. So, while these games are technically free, you’ll feel like you’re missing out eventually.
At the top of our free open world games list it has to be Warframe.
Warframe is a beautifully crafted, huge open world where grinding is probably going to be a pretty part of your life – but you won’t mind a bit. Set in three beautiful open sci-fi worlds, each with its own unique environment, players can parkour, craft, mod and battle in their own way with almost thirty different PVE game modes. Expect story-driven missions, epic quests, space battles, player vs player hand to hand combat, extensive weaponry choices, detailed crafting capabilities, and game modes that never leave you bored.
“Warframe situates players as members of the Tenno race, newly awoken after years of cryo-sleep into a solar system at war. Reborn into a corrupt era, the Tenno are sought by the oppressive Grineer Empire for annihilation. Warframe armour is the key to overthrowing the Grineer by providing players with unique offensive and defensive powers to explore, upgrade and master during purpose-driven radical raids.”
– Digital Extremes
If you like free open world games that are a little closer to home, but still in the realms of fantasy, then Lord of the Rings Online is probably for you.
Inspired by Tolkein’s Middle Earth, this open world RPG gives you the option of playing as one of six races: dwarf, elf, high-elf, hobbit, man, and beorning. LOTRO offers so much in the way of exploration and has set a high bar in the MMORPG genre, recreating the universe with careful attention to detail, and offering players an opportunity to live in a world faithfully recreated from page and screen.
“Lord of the Rings Online is the premier MMORPG set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s wondrous world of Middle-earth, brought to life through those most famous of books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and wonderfully portrayed in Peter Jackson’s movies. LOTRO brings you into the timeline of the events of The Lord of the Rings story, and sets you on a path that parallels the Fellowship of the Ring, aiding them on their journey to Mordor by performing tasks and adventurous deeds surrounding their path across Middle-earth.”
– Standing Stone Games
What Are The Best Free Open World Games On Steam?
Luckily, both of our picks above are available on Steam – Warframe and LOTRO can be downloaded right now using your Steam account.
That said, the top rated open world game on Steam right now (and absolutely worth a mention in our list) is Unturned.
Unturned is a special game, in that it was developed by indie studio Smartly Dressed Games in Calgary, Canada. In the game you play a survivor in a zombie infested dystopia, working with friends (and new allies) to forge alliances and remain among the living. The game was met with immediate critical acclaim, despite not being polished or a AAA budget game. It just is a great game.
As a content writer in the indie game space for a number of years, I have a personal connection with indie development. I have seen the results of solo developers and two man teams go viral; not because it had a massive budget, but because at the heart of the development process is something much more important to the gamer - playability. Unturned hits the spot in terms of playability.
There are five officially developed and one curated community created sandbox map to offer players variety in the game:
- Prince Edward Island (PEI)
- The Yukon
Each map offers the same experience in terms of gameplay structure: craft, fight and strategise your way to survive in a world filled with stuff that would rather you were one of the Turned.
There are options to get closer to nature, by hunting and foraging for food, and even planting crops to become self-sufficient. Other players in the game offer a number of challenges, whether they are friend or foe. You can decide to arrest bandits, for instance, or go full-on guns akimbo. The choice is yours in the way you interact with other players.
The NPCs in Unturned offer a variety of ways to progress, providing trading or progression opportunities, and numerous quests to keep you busy. Travel around by land, sea or air, with tons of vehicles available. Choose to be a nomad and lone wolf – or valued member of society by creating a stronghold with friends.
With a large, supportive community often comes the possibility for modding, and the developers are embracing this from day one, with the ability to mod maps with an in-game level editor, modded weapons, characters and more already available.
From the basic framework to the elongated infrastructure that modding allows, Unturned has so much, it is difficult to talk about it without hyperbole. Just go check Unturned out on Steam.
What Is The Number 1 Open World Game?
Open World PC Game With The Most Players
Grand Theft Auto V: 116,293 14th September 2021
GTA V continues to keep players coming back for more on Steam, with over 100,000 concurrent players every day. With mods like FiveM this further pushes the envelope of what GTA Online is capable of and will also keep you coming back and engaging with new gaming experiences each time.
Grand Theft Auto V is also ranked as the best open world game on Metacritic – though Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn was also rated at 96 (until very recently) and has open world properties.
Open World PC Game With The Most Sales
Back to Garry’s Mod for this section. Being created by the minds of the players alone, Garry’s Mod – or GMod - has amassed a huge following and sales record on Steam, with over 20 million sales since 2004.
Starting out as a simple mod for Valve’s Source game engine, Facepunch’s Garry’s Mod quickly became the object of many gamers affection by just being fun. Where some games required players to digest pages of material before they could pilot spaceships, or required the gamer to practice long and hard to be able to compete with others online – Garry’s Mod said “Just do whatever you want.”
So they did.
Facepunch are also responsible for the incredible open world game, Rust, which is currently sitting way up high on most of the “Top 10” lists for open world PC games. Rust starts you out with nothing. Literally nothing (not even pants!). You are required to survive in a hostile multiplayer world with nothing but your wits, a rock, and a desperate need for underwear.
What Is The Best Open World PC Game?
With all of the excellent frontrunners above, it is difficult to choose the best. There are open world PC games for fans of most genres, so you won’t be stuck for choice. There are far too many listicles out there that are happy to crown GTA V as the best, simply because that’s the easy answer.
The Far Cry series has also earned itself plenty of followers in the gaming world, Far Cry 5 being the most recent; the game has been met with mixed reviews from both players and critics, however, citing Ubisoft’s open world creation & story development as an issue.
Far Cry 6 is on the way very soon, however, and early revies suggest Ubisoft don’t want to upset one of their most hardcore fanbases. Far Cry 6 has gone back to its roots with run-and-gun action and stealth options, with a careful eye on the gamer’s favourite: character customization. The new location and story is also going down well, with lots of easter eggs on the run up to release igniting the Reddit fires.
If you were to look at the PC gaming landscape, and pull open world games from each genres, they have very few things in common other than framework. Some don’t even have objectives (Garry’s Mod). Some are entirely based on space exploration and survival (Elite Dangerous / EVE Online). Some are little more than terribly drawn characters that people love dearly just because of gameplay (Unturned). The vast chasm between each genre is filled every day with new indie creations that hope to take the crown from the big hitters, but seldom get much further than a few awards and decent reviews on Steam.
What makes a good open world game the best is the developer’s focus on playability and being able to keep players coming back for more without being bored.
With this in mind, it is with great pleasure that I tell you there is no “Best Open World PC Game”. Rather, there are loads of game genres that have open world titles for you to explore.
You lucky gamer, you.
Best Upcoming Open World Games 2021 (And Beyond)
Looking ahead, there’s plenty of games coming soon on PC with open world format.
New World: Amazon Games
New World allows you to explore a “thrilling, open-world MMO filled with danger and opportunity” where players can forge their own future as an intrepid adventurer who finds themselves shipwrecked on a supernatural island, Aeternum.
“Endless opportunities to fight, forage, and forge await you among the island's wilderness and ruins. Channel supernatural forces or wield deadly weapons in a classless, real-time combat system, and fight alone, with a small team, or in massed armies for PvE and PvP battles—the choices are all yours.”
– Amazon Games
New World Release Date: September 28th 2021
Far Cry 6: Ubisoft
At its core, Far Cry 6 is a first-person shooter. But on in the same way that GTA V is. There’s a rich and valuable story behind the series, and the latest installment will thrust players deep into an insanely hectic world of a guerrilla revolution. Antón Castillo, a dictator presiding over the beautiful tropical paradise, Yara, has set his stall out to restore the nation back to its former glory. Castillo’s methods, however, may leave a lot to be desired. With his son, Diego, Castillo exerts his tyrannical rule, and it’s going to be up to you – a Yarran guerrilla fighter – to upset the balance of power and bring them down.
Far Cry 6 Release Date: 7th 2021
Dying Light 2: Stay Human
You play as Aiden Caldwell, an infected survivor who possesses superb dexterity and combat skills, which allow him to gain allies in The City – a human stronghold in a world of dangerous creatures that stalk humans by night. A first-person RPG, Dying Light 2: Stay Human builds on the diverse story of the original game, but this time allows the player to see the world through the eyes of a brand new protagonist who can not only fight – but has the ability to change the future of the survivors.
Techland are getting plenty of virtual high fives for listening to their fans. With the second installment in the Dying Light series, they have expanded gameplay to include more player choice, allowing exploration around a dynamic open world that is both reactive to the player’s decisions, and allows interactivity in a physical way. The parkour system – one of the original game’s best features – is both streamlined and evolved, with new ways to interact with environments.
Fans of the series will also know that there are two audio books available to compliment the upcoming launch of the game: Rosemary and Antigone. These tales have been created by Techland to allow the player to immerse themselves further into the world by listening to stories that might be told around the fire in The City.
Dying Light 2 Stay Human Release Date: 7th December 2021
Other Notable Upcoming Open World PC Games