The popularity of open world games grows exponentially each year, and though criticism of an oversaturated genre are not without merit, that popularity also means that for the massive audience that does enjoy that style of games, each year brings great new experiences. 2021 was no different in that regard, and here, we’re going to pick a handful of open world games that released over the 12-month period as the ones that stood out to us the most, before picking one of them as the best of the best.
NOTE: The nominees and winner were decided by an internal vote held among the entire GamingBolt staff.
FAR CRY 6
Open world games and Ubisoft have become synonymous with each other, and Far Cry 6 is, in essence, exactly what everyone had expected it to be. Whether or not the series needs to try fresh and new things is an entirely different argument, but in the here and now, there’s no denying that Far Cry 6is a great game. Yara is massive and diverse, beautiful and full of things to do, which encourage players to wreak havoc at will with great freedom and in a variety of different ways. Is it too big? Perhaps- but those who enjoy open world games will, by default, find plenty to love here.
SUBNAUTICA: BELOW ZERO
If you’re looking for an open world that puts you in an environment unlike any other, look no further than Subnautica: Below Zero. Like its predecessor, Below Zero strikes a perfect balance between the freedom and hunger to explore of open world games and the methodical and addictive progression of the survival genre. No matter where you go in this world, whether you’re diving deeper into its underwater depths or exploring the frigid world above the water, you’re guaranteed to always find something to reward your curiosity, which means the drive to explore never goes unrewarded.
Where most open world games go with the “bigger is always better” philosophy, the Yakuza and Judgment games have always understood that quality always trumps quantity. Lost Judgment abides by that rule of thumb as well, and though there’s Kamurocho and Yokohama aren’t lacking in size by any means, where they really flourish is density and design. Over the course of the game, you’ll become very familiar with both maps (unless you’re already familiar with them from your experience with past games in the series), and traversing them with your skateboard or on foot never gets boring. What really helps this open world shine, of course, is the ridiculous variety of activities and quests on offer here, and typically enough for an RGG Studio game, very few of them fail to impress.
Riders Republic is the very definition of a diamond in the rough, but purely where its open world is concerned, it might just be a diamond. The idea of smushing a bunch of famous US national parks into one enormous open world map is not only incredibly unique and ingenious, it’s also backed up by excellent execution. One area flows into the next, and collectively, the entire map offers incredible diversity in environment- which, of course, leads to incredible diversity in the activities that are available to you as well. Whether you’re skiing or cycling, wingsuit flying or snowboarding, zipping through this massive online open world never loses its luster.
FORZA HORIZON 5
Playground Games exhibited an inherent knack for crafting good open world maps for a racer even back when they took their first crack at it with Forza Horizon’s debut, and with each new game in the series, they’ve only gotten better and better at it. With Forza Horizon 5, they’ve crafted their best map ever. It does everything you could possibly want it to- it’s massive, it boasts a number of unique environments, it’s littered with beautiful sights and vistas, and most importantly, every nook and cranny of the world is full of things that will, one way or another, reward you for exploring. Racers as a genre have often struggled to create compelling open worlds, but if Forza Horizon 5 was the only racing game you’d ever played, you’d never be able to guess that.
If you were disappointed by the offerings of a certain cyberpunk open world game in 2020, don’t worry- The Ascent delivers everything that you could possibly want a game of this genre to deliver, and then some. This is a game that, among other things, excels at world-building, and that in and of itself is enough to compel players to go out and explore every corner of the arcology it’s set in. But of course, there’s plenty else that encourages you to do that- heart-pumping combat, a number of side quests, the pull of new loot and gear, and above all else, the promise of stunning vistas that are propped up not just by unbelievably impressive tech, but gorgeous art design as well.
SHIN MEGAMI TENSEI 5
Until not that long ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a Shin Megami Tensei game making into a list such as this one. Atlus’ beloved RPG franchise has always been constrained by tight budgets, which has meant a singular focus on combat and dungeon-crawling, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. SMT5, however, goes bigger and better in almost every way possible, allowing players to explore massive, intricately crafted areas that hide treasures and loot and rewards that always make exploration worthwhile without fail. On top of that, the simple act of moving around is surprisingly fun thanks to slick movement and traversal mechanics, all of which combines to make Shin Megami Tensei 5 a game where you can spend hours upon hours off the critical path.
MONSTER HUNTER RISE
In 2018, Monster Hunter World’s reinvention of the series ensured that any future instalments that followed the same formula would, by default qualify for any lists such as this one, and thanks to its solid selection of well-designed maps across multiple biomes, Monster Hunter Rise very much does exactly what you would have expected. But the game isn’t content with just riding on the coattails of its predecessor’s success. Mechanics such as the Wirebugs and Palamutes completely change traversal in Monster Hunter Rise, which makes traversing its maps a significantly more enjoyable activity, to the extent that we’re not sure if we’ll ever be able to go back to a Monster Hunter game that doesn’t have that stuff.
Halo has never been open world, but built on a combat sandbox as it always has been, it’s a series that has always had open world sensibilities, in some regards. The marriage of that sandbox with a proper open world in Halo Infinite is one that makes sense, so it’s no surprise that it’s been pulled off as well as it has. Zeta Halo isn’t terribly massive, but it’s a playground that encourages players to experiment and sink their teeth into memorable combat encounters. That, combined with solid progression mechanics, rewards, and of course, the addition of the Grappleshot – which radically improves movement and traversal – makes for a compelling open world environment that, despite its lack of environmental variety, has more than enough to keep players hooked for dozens upon dozens of hours.
FORZA HORIZON 5
We couldn’t possibly have picked any game other than Forza Horizon 5 as our winner in this category- and given how excellent its fellow nominees are, that in and of itself is high praise for the game. Every second we’ve spent in its recreation of Mexico has been full of joy and wonder, whether we’re driving through a dusty desert or a charming town with its cobbled roads, on a snow-capped mountain by the lip of a volcano or pristine beaches, across a massive highway or through a dense forest. Such variety of biomes, weathers, and activities is rare to see in any game, but Forza Horizon 5 ensures that it isn’t variety for variety’s sake- it’s all in there for a reason, lovingly crafted and brilliantly detailed, and collectively, all of it makes a massive impression right off the bat.