I guess I should clarify that I’m not necessarily opposed to open-world games, per se. In fact, I happen to quite enjoy them. Where I tend to draw a distinction is that when I’m playing a game in which I actually care to complete the main story/quest, I’d rather have it tight and focused than having to waste a bunch of time getting from place to place. With that being said, I don’t mind spending time in the following worlds because they provide me with the experience of being able to dick around without necessarily having to worry about finishing (or even really starting) the game. Kick back, stop looking at your ever-growing quest log, and let’s go on a trip together.
Just Cause 2
I have done approximately 3 missions in Just Cause 2, which I started about four months ago. I don’t remember what the game’s about, or what purpose my character is supposed to serve in the larger story. I honestly couldn’t care less. In terms of telling a story or providing a varied gameplay experience, this game is actually kind of crap. As a playground that allows you to piggyback onto any type of vehicle and cause destruction like a total psycho, it is just unbelievably awesome. The game world is freaking massive, and you can traverse literally any kind of landscape you want, from mountains to deserts. This is a game to put on Easy and just tear around in, causing wanton destruction as you see fit.
A couple of other things about Just Cause 2; it’s actually an incredibly pretty game as well, which is impressive considering its size. Also, it’s ALWAYS on sale so it’ll rarely cost you more than about $7.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Man, oh man, has this game aged badly in terms of visuals. Thankfully, it still strikes a nice balance between being a massive world yet one that is accessible without too much messing around (especially once you get the Harrier jet). Each city is totally different in terms of looks and layout. It’s the countryside that truly makes this a fun sandbox. From hick towns in the mountains to ghost towns in the desert to a secret base – you could spend weeks just messing around. I did — I 100% -ed this game twice back in the day. It’s also a game where I’d spend a few hours just driving around from city to city, just taking in its (at the time) massive scale. GTA 4 obviously looks a lot better, but I still think San Andreas is the best thing Rockstar has ever done.
Final Fantasy IX
Strictly speaking, the world of Final Fantasy IX is not really a sandbox but it’s one that I spent a lot of time exploring just for the fun of it. A big part of this game’s appeal for me was that it (unlike VII and VIII-both great for exploring and chilling in their own right) had a protagonist who wasn’t a big wet blanket. It’s at around the beginning of the third disc I think where you are able to explore the world relatively freely, and it is a total blast. One of my favorite things about this entry in the Final Fantasy series is that the cities and towns are all incredibly fun to explore, and have a ton of things to do there. My favorite city in the game (and perhaps in the series) is Treno. It is the only major city in the game that isn’t tied up in the politics of the story, so it acts as a nice diversion — kind of like the JRPG version of taking off to Vegas for a long weekend. Between playing Tetra Master, cashing in Stellazio coins, competing at the auction house, and doing some grinding outside the city limits, there are few places in the Final Fantasy universe(s) as fun to visit as Treno.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
The Elder Scrolls series contains game worlds that are ideally suited to aimless wandering. I’d actually go so far as to say that you could pretty much ignore the main quest and you wouldn’t be missing out on much. It’s hard to pick one game from this series, but if forced I’d probably go with Morrowind for the reason that it is unlike any other world. While the worlds of Oblivion and Skyrim are impressive in their own right, everything about Morrowind is slightly askew. It almost looks familiar, but there is an element of an alien world present. Each town is remarkably different from the last, and it is truly fascinating to spend time exploring around them. One other aspect to Morrowind that makes it fun to meander around in is that this game has no fast-travel system, other than a sort of transit via elephant-type creatures. For the most part, you need to hoof it around, which cultivates that sense of wonder and discovery.
Far Cry 2
A lot has been written about Far Cry 2 since its release in 2008. While it’s certainly a flawed title, it is also unique and ambitious. One thing it really doesn’t get credit for is that it is easily one of the most stunningly beautiful games of this generation. This is my ‘walkabout’ game; I like strolling out of town, climbing a mountain, and taking screenshots of the landscape. Sometimes it’s fun to tear around on a buggy in the desert, while other times I enjoy watching zebras grazing. Every now and then I like to go searching for diamonds, and when there aren’t any around it’s fun to start a fire in a grassy plain just to see what happens with the wind.
One common criticism about this game is that it makes you feel like you always need to be rushing around because your character suffers from malaria and needs to take medicine regularly. The truth is, it’s not really a problem. If you get low on pills, just go do a ‘passport delivery’ mission to get some more and you’re good to go.
So, those are a few of the game worlds I like to mess around in. Please join in and tell us what game worlds you like strictly for the purpose of sandboxing.