When you think open world games you probably think Grand Theft Auto. The two are synonymous—few games have influenced an entire genre as thoroughly as GTA has since going three-dimensional in 2001. Not content to define open world games for an entire generation, Rockstar Games went on to refine the genre with Bully, Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire. These games have firmly established Rockstar as the reigning kings of open world games, and GTA’s enduring popularity ensures that today’s launch of Grand Theft Auto V will be one of the highest grossing in the history of the industry.
The open world genre is older than GTA, though, and far more varied than Rockstar’s standard tales of crime and villainy. Listed below in chronological order are ten vital open world games that helped create the genre or that carved out new space within. All feature cohesive open worlds, and none of them fit the Rockstar formula.
This might be the first open world game older players ever touched. Epic for its day, Zelda’s sense of adventure is created by the freedom to travel throughout the entire game world with minimal direction. That spirit of open-ended exploration set the template for subsequent Zeldas, including the Wii U’s upcoming HD remake of 2003’s Wind Waker.—Garrett Martin
The increasingly intricate world of Ultima was most fully realized in Ultima VII. It’s easy to lose track of the main quest while exploring the game’s massive world and multiple subplots. With countless interactive objects, daily schedules for non-playable characters, real-time combat and borderless transitions between open space, towns and battlegrounds, Ultima VII presents a seamless open world that seems to live even when you’re not in it.—GM
Super Metroid perfects everything about the already excellent Metroid, presenting a sprawling alien world with multiple distinct environments that can be freely visited and revisited provided you have the right equipment. The Metroid series broke down the walls that boxed in the side-scrolling action game, and Super Metroid remains the apex of this particular subgenre.—GM
An excellent open world game needs a fully developed world that remains true to itself. With its post-apocalyptic setting, morally ambiguous characters and patient approach to introducing story elements, Fallout both presents an indelible game world while providing players the freedom to explore it at will. Fallout’s world is so richly conceived that it was smoothly updated into a fantastic series of open-world shooters over a decade later.—GM
Far Cry 2 is a surprisingly smart shooter set in an open-ended African nation that’s both beautiful and depressing. It deconstructs both the shooter and the open world game within a setting that’s pristine in its depiction of corruption and desperation.—GM
Assassin’s Creed introduced a level of historical detail to the genre, but it took the trilogy of Assassin’s Creed II sequels to satisfyingly recreate the past. Between an uncommonly charming lead character and a story full of Machiavellian intrigue and Art Bell insanity, Assassin’s Creed II and its two spin-offs comprise the most fully realized narrative in open world games.—GM
It’s not the biggest or most elaborate world, but every one of Deadly Premonition‘s characters has a life in Greendale. Peeking in their windows and watching them move around the world map fleshes out their relationships, adding more weight to the game’s uncanny events than any high-res graphics could.—Brian Taylor
Most games try to convince you that everything you do really matters; Just Cause 2 takes the opposite approach. Its commitment to unrealism deflates any notion of consequences. The takeaway: Why not go nuts? That’s how you find yourself attaching a moped to the back of your truck to swing it around as an impromptu wrecking ball, or leaping off the nose of a jetliner to reach an aerial sex club held in place by two blimps. You could say that the events of Just Cause 2 make no sense, but that’s not quite right. Like any vivid dream, everything makes perfect sense in the moment; it’s only when you wake up that it seems insane. And with an enormous world that could take more than 100 hours to explore, Just Cause 2 makes it dangerously easy to hit the snooze button.—John Teti
Progression in Minecraft takes investment, patience, research and a reliance on the knowledge and efforts of others. These are values that modern convenience and modern media have encouraged us to abandon, videogames included. With every quest-line, every arrow pointing the way and every pre-established reward, we grow just a little bit farther outside of ourselves and buy in just a little bit more to the cultural zeitgeist. We’re content with this because we’ve lost the ability to create structure and meaning for ourselves outside of a pre-established system. In Minecraft, we’re finally left alone—a shockingly simple and subversive approach that makes the game both unapproachable and essential.—Richard Clark
The difficulty and open-ended structure of Dark Souls are just symptoms of what makes the game great: its relentless dedication to mystery. Dark Souls gives the player almost no direction, forcing us to explore and figure out things on our own, with only cryptic and potentially untrustworthy messages from other real-life players to guide us. Some say Dark Souls treats players with indifference or outright contempt, but in truth it respects us, our abilities and our intelligence more than most other games.—GM