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Nothing beats a well-crafted sandbox game. What’s a sandbox game, you ask? In most discussions, “sandbox” is often interchangeable with “open world” and “nonlinear,” so that’s how I’m using it: a game that grants the player the freedom to explore and progress how they wish.
A poorly executed sandbox game is a waste of time, but when it’s done right, it can transport you to an entirely new world full of wonder, excitement, and experiences. Here are the most immersive settings you can visit.
Zombie survival games aren’t new, but if there was ever a video game title to elevate the genre to new heights, it would be DayZ. Following in the footsteps of games like Counter-Strike and Dota, this PvP zombie game started out as a mod but quickly snowballed out of control with a huge fanbase of players.
In it, you play as a near-naked survivor who simply wants to live to see another day. The setting is Chernarus, a fictional representation of the former Soviet Union that has been overrun by the reanimated. But the greatest feature that sets DayZ apart from others of its kind? Permadeath.
When you die, you lose everything. Here’s a zombie survival game that truly emphasizes the survival aspect, and it makes for some pulse-poundingly fun and immersive gameplay. Due to its multiplayer PvP nature, DayZ also has an element of intrigue. Can you trust the other players to help you? Or will they betray you and loot your belongings?
DayZ is one game that capitalized on the Steam Early Access program, allowing players to purchase the game at a discount while still in its Alpha phase of development. The game isn’t complete yet, but you can already play it for $30 USD.
Red Dead Redemption
As a genre, the American Wild West is one of the least explored settings in gaming history. Other than Oregon Trail – which is a classic that transcends genre – and a few outliers like Wild Arms and Call of Juarez, it’s hard to name a Wild West game that really made an impact on the gaming world. That is, until Red Dead Redemption made its debut.
If you’ve never heard of this game, just think of it as Skyrim or Fallout with cowboys, horses, and peashooters. It’s a singleplayer game but it will provide many hours of gameplay with its huge open world. By exploring nooks and crannies far and wide, you’ll uncover a fascinating story that complements the gritty atmosphere.
It’s only available for PS3 and Xbox360 so PC gamers are out of luck here, but when you have the chance, do play it. Every open world enthusiast owes it to themself to get a taste of what Red Dead Redemption offers because it blows other Wild West games out of the water.
The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind
In many ways, Morrowind is the father of open world games. Was it the first? No, of course not, but it was arguably the first with widespread mass appeal. There are few games with a nostalgia factor as powerful as this one, and Morrowind continues to rank highly when players compile their lists of “the best sandbox games”.
What makes it so great?
Obviously, games have progressed a great deal over the last decade in terms of graphics, environments, interface, etc. Morrowind does suffer from clunky controls, low-res textures, stilted animations, unintuitive combat, etc. There are mods that try to update all of that, but they can only go so far.
The beauty of Morrowind, then, is its atmosphere. Despite all of the gameplay artifacts that scream “this game is outdated,” there’s something special about Vvardenfell and the world around it. If you give it an honest chance, you’ll find yourself drawn into a fleshed-out alternate universe that truly feels like it exists on its own.
On top of all that, let’s not forget the music. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of Morrowind‘s charm and immersion was augmented by the riveting soundscape. It might’ve still been a strong game without the music, but it would’ve lost a good chunk of its identity with it.
Long story short, it’s the lore that propels this one above most other open world fantasy games. This lore can be followed through Oblivion, Skyrim, and even the recent Elder Scrolls Online, but I think Morrowind was the best to fully realize its vision.
As far as MMORPGs are concerned, you won’t find a better sandbox experience than EVE Online. Most of the stories about EVE tend to be negative: backstabbing, deceit, scams, heists, turmoil, and otherwise unsavory behavior. In that sense, EVE is a true sandbox: the developers have an “anything goes” attitude (as long as it remains within the game).
EVE is one of a few MMORPGs that leaves you to determine your own fate. Want to be a miner? Go mine. Want to be a businessman and get rich trading? Go ahead. Want to camp out and plunder other players who transport goods across space? Be a pirate. Want to lead a massive alliance in a war for territory? Yup, you can do that too.
All that and so much more.
You can’t go into EVE with the same mentality you’d have in a traditional MMORPG. When you die, you lose your ship. That’s okay because you’ll have a hangar full of other ships, but you’ll lose all of your cargo. EVE is a game of risk and reward. You can do anything you want as long as you’re prepared to pay the consequences.
There are far too many open world games to list them all here and I’m sure there are dozens of other interesting settings waiting to be discovered. Which sandbox games are your favorite and why? Which worlds do you find the most immersive? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!