Top 5 Gaming Sandboxes


When Will Wright gave gamers the option of unleashing Godzilla into the middle of the cities that they’ve spent hours planning and building it brought something important to light – gamers like the freedom to cause as much damage as they can just as much as they enjoy the challenge of completely the game. As the technology developed the play areas got bigger and bigger, providing more and more space and activities not linked to the ultimate goal. Games based around this concept were dubbed ‘sandbox’ games, as they provided a play area for gamers to run around in making their own fun.

The factors that make some sandboxes better than others are varied – size, scope, originality, variation within the map and range of mini-games available. Below are five games that have stood out from the pack.

5. Arkham City

Batman: Arkham City (2011)

What's cooler than a sports car? Batman.

This is one entrant that would’ve featured higher on the list if it wasn’t for the small geographic size, but it makes up for it in richness. Every part of the city is totally unique – no copy pasted buildings here – with multiple distinct and well realized buildings and locations making up the prison city. The place is densely populated with the whackjobs that make up Batman’s villains and each of them have their own set of activities to tackle. Of course half the fun of any open-world game is the method of transportation, and few things are going to be as much fun as ‘Batman’. Equipped with a boosted grappling gun and a cape for gliding and the player can waste hours patrolling the city for violent criminals, puzzles by the Riddler and crime scenes to investigate.

See also: ‘Spider-Man 2’ – the original superhero sandbox. Few things are as fun as swinging around New York as the webslinger.

4. Vice City

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)

I got a gun!

The Rockstar GTA series set the original benchmark for open world sandbox games by creating the mini-games and semi-linear mission structure. Every player has their favourite game in the series but for my money Vice City proved the most fun. The most recent iteration of Liberty City was well detailed but bogged down with the annoying social mechanic and slower moving cars and San Andreas almost made the grade by including Area 51 and a jetpack but was ultimately filled with to many empty spaces. Vice City was a well planned mayhem activity set ranging from bright and colourful tourist strips to grimy ports, a range of vehicles and weapons to muck about with (attacking a corrupt business man on a golf course with a club was a good introduction to the game). Mini-games range from taking down criminals as a vigilante to robbing stores to working as a paramedic. Hidden jokes were everywhere, even the original gaming easter egg.

See also: ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ – the most detailed and best looking city in the series.

3. The Capital Wasteland

Fallout 3 (2008)

Welcome to the future. It sucks. Having spent your life in a self-contained underground vault you begin your adventure when you emerge bleary eyed into the Capital Wasteland, what was once Washington DC before an atomic strike crippled society leaving it to begin anew. The best thing about this particular world is that it feels as though it has hundreds of years of history in the foundations, with well designed settlements and ideas dotting the landscape. No matter where you travel in this vast world you will meet people with stories to tell and things to do. The game has a particular ability to make the player feel as though they’re part if the world as well – forming connections, creating a home and discovering new things.

See also: ‘Elder Scrolls: Skyrim’ – a for medieval fantasy theme.

2. Panau

Just Cause 2 (2010)

Just drop in!

Plenty of games have opted to create a game area larger than a city, sometimes incorporating surrounding areas or multiple cities. Paanau is a country and it feels like one. The capital city is bigger that the latest version of Liberty city and takes up a very small percentage of the map. It’s remarkable that you can stand on the summit of a mountain and see the game area disappear into the horizon around you and knowing that it’s all there for you to explore…then getting into a sports car and seeing how car you can drive it down the side of the mountain.

The sports car down a mountain routine never gets old.

Panau is huge and varied. Vast deserts, deep rainforests, long coastal highways, towering mountains, chains of islands – the list goes on. Every part of it is completely open from the get-go with a massive range of ways to explore, including the parachute and grappling hook combo. Although it does have a clone stamp feel at times it balancing that out by making almost everything destructible. This is helped along by the range of weaponry that starts of the level of ‘barmy’. The place is littered with secrets, including the land of floating rocks, a hot air balloon, messages written in bananas, the island from Lost to name a few. The amount of fun to be had to epic, whether it’s attaching the head of a statue to a helicopter and turning it into a wrecking ball of surfing on the top of a 747 jet.

I understand that the word 'radical' was coined for times such as these.

See also: ‘Red Faction: Guerrilla’ – for more destruction madness!

1. The Old West

Red Dead Redemption (2010)

Gaming as a hobby certainly has does involve a certain amount escapism, and part of that is taking on a different role. Give yourself an hour in the world of Red Dead Redemption and just try not to feel like a cowboy. The involvement of the character is, in part, due to the fantastic visuals. Apart from the odd glitch in early versions (creepy horse woman, crazy cougar man) the world is hugely detailed and looks stunning. Seeing the different light effects at different times of day brilliantly done and players often have to stop and enjoy the sight of the sun coming over the horizon.

That's mighty purty.

In addition, the world feels massively interactive. Every town is filled with people to converse with, poker games, knife games, horseshoes, duels and the wider world is similarly filled with random events such as animal attacks, wild horses to tame, bandit raids, shooting challenges, hunting and survivalist challenges. Although the world is vast and can take up a bit of travel time (plenty of fast-travel options mind) there’s never a lack of things to do. Red Dead Redemption stands out as a game to easily lose oneself in.