Now, I want to be very clear from the start of this; I’m not saying the best games that are classed as sandbox games. What I’m talking about here are the best sandbox games, as in the best games for the sandbox they have and how fun they have made it to play in or how well they’ve used the sandbox as part of their game. But without further ado, I suppose I should get straight into kicking the article off. And another note just to be clear; these are totally my opinion, you are free to disagree with me, and these are not listed in any particular order.
I think this needed to be the starting point; the granddaddy of my love of sandbox games. Now I get that GTA 3 and Vice City came before this, and they had their crazy sandbox fun too, but I picked San Andreas for a couple of very basic reasons. First of all, the map is huge. It might not be the biggest sandbox map, but consider the fact that this game is nearly 10 years old, and consider how crazy it felt back then to have not just one full-fledged city, but three of them and huge areas between them as well. Yeah, them being ‘full-fledged cities’ may look silly now that GTA V is out and has put the Los Santos of last generation to shame, but nonetheless, it was crazy for the time to think about the sheer size of the map. And as I have fond memories of playing with my friend, trying to drive out and explore the world, in spite of the police kicking up 4 stars when you weren’t where you should be.
On top of that geography, San Andreas almost lets you completely inhabit the life of CJ to make him whoever you want. It may sound tedious to other people, but there really was something bizarrely fun to just taking 10-15 minutes out of gang banging to just go to one of the fast food restaurants and just bulk CJ up to make him look stupidly fat and then continue onwards. Or to go to the gym on the game’s daily cycle and just beef CJ up with the treadmill and weights and all that. San Andreas seemed like this weird progression towards integrating Sims-level control of all these aspects of the character, and I loved that. It only further expanded the whole “Well, I don’t want to do missions, so let’s go do everything but” mentality that I adore from sandbox games.
And just a little shout out for the fact that San Andreas snuck in local co-op without people necessarily noticing. Because there is nothing better than dicking about in a sandbox doing nothing with friends, as GTA Online has shown.
Well, that’s two games from the GTA train now then. I love Crackdown as a sandbox game because what it essentially says is “Fuck missions, you want to chase the bad guy, he’s in the city, go do it”. Crackdown represents a game taking on the idea of a sandbox not just in your time outside of missions, but in the actual ‘missions’. There are many MANY times recently when I’ve found myself thinking about Crackdown when playing other games now that sandboxes have become even more popular; for example, while playing Far Cry 3, and that game throttling me to its narrative for progress and such, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking “This game would work far better if they just took a cue from Crackdown, told me where my friends were, and let me try and figure the rest out, like you actually would probably have to as a jungle guerrilla warrior.” I’m not going to say Crackdown had the most fun gameplay when you weren’t pursuing the story, but its difficult to say that because the story was just part of the gameplay, and everything felt so incidental. It could be very much a case of heading off to explore the city, receiving a notification from the Agency that a high-ranking gangster is nearby, maybe getting distracted by some agility orbs or something like that, and just being within the city as this crazy super-powered cop with all the gadgets and vehicles. It is, and was, basically my go-to point for a game I think current developers are ignoring too much when making their sandbox gameplay.
I think most people that have played this game probably knew I was going to talk about it when they read that opening paragraph. This game is just almost at the epitome of how to give a player the keys to the world and let them run wild with it. In fact, the game’s basic progress mechanics are very much tied to the fact that the player needs to go and run wild and destroy things and kick butt and screw over the Panaun military. Destruction is almost like experience points. Considering most gamers end up descending into havoc, anarchy and chaos when they’re playing a sandbox game and get bored of story, its almost perfect design. Especially when you give them so many tools and vehicles and methods to destroy the hell out of any base that stands in their way.
And there is SO much to destroy, oh so much. The game is HUGE. And not only is the game huge but they made exploring it so fun. The exploring is so fun thanks to the crazy range of vehicles and the fact that it almost feels like a journey to start another journey. There were plenty of times that I’d need to get somewhere to grab a car, to take that car to an air base, to fight my way through the air base to get a plane, to fly that plane across Panau to get where I wanted and then just nosedive the plane and parachute out and enjoy the explosions. And it never gets old, to the credit of the game. It never stops feeling fun to go through that ridiculous process. Which is probably helped by the fact that the map never feels boring. Not only is there wonderful distinction between each area of the nation across the various islands, with the desert land and the snowy mountains and the jungles and the city, but also there are these wonderful little spots of craziness that most people will probably remember. My personal favourite was always the Mile High Club, which was kind of like a yacht held up by two giant blimp-style balloons, and the yacht was basically this huge nightclub, and it was this huge adventure to get up there and then slaughter all the guards up there and jump off or steal a plane to get away after wrecking all the destroyable stuff there.
Basically, just go play this game if you haven’t already. GO DO IT RIGHT NOW. Especially if you’re going to get it on PC, as dedicated modders created a multiplayer mode with huge ~100 player servers. And you need that in your life.
This is when everyone tells me I’m crazy and this list has now jumped the shark and I need to get my Marvel fanboying in tow, isn’t it? Nonetheless, the final game on my list is LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. In LEGO Marvel, the sandbox you play in is literally Manhattan. I can understand why that might sound a bit small, or it might not sound very fun. But the place is literally packed with things to do. LEGO Marvel is basically the mentality of the old ‘collect them all’ platforming games of the 90s (that many of the linear LEGO games take their formula from anyway) but put into a sandbox. Most street corners have got someone on them, asking for help. And if you help them, you get a gold brick, and you’ll need gold bricks to unlock the bonus areas, which will help you to unlock more gold bricks and more characters. Also, there are LOTS of characters and vehicles around the world for you to unlock through doing little puzzles or races or whatever else. I mean, even if you don’t love the game for the Marvel-ness of it and for the brilliant fun of the story and for the fact that the characters have a lot of variety in their powers and such, the sandbox itself is a fantastic little world to just spend a lot of time in. On Steam, I have 26 hours in the game, and I would probably figure somewhere between 15 to 20 hours of that are just time I spent in the sandbox doing things there, never mind what time I’ve put in on the PS3 version playing co-op.
In essence, you kind of need to play it to see how fantastic the LEGO game formula works in a sandbox. The alternative may be LEGO City Undercover (exclusive to Wii U), which they advertised as far more like LEGO GTA, but as I haven’t played it, I can’t really say.
Anyway, folks, thank you for checking out the list, and remember that these are totally my opinions. Also, remember to go play all of these games that you can. Because I said so.
Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.