Some games are just too big, too long or have too much to do. There. I said it. I’m not even really sure when that happened. I remember the first time I felt truly blown away by the scale and detail of a game world. It was Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion on the Xbox 360. Oblivion was one of the first games I played on my 360 that made me go, “wow…they really couldn’t have done this on the old hardware!” I was almost overwhelmed by the map and the freedom that was offered. I could go anywhere? Do anything? This was crazy! But off I set to create my own adventure.
I’m happy to say I completed the main story of Oblivion and quite a bit of side material. All in I guess I played for around 45/50 hours? It’s hard to say. One thing is certain though…I couldn’t do that now. The truth is I am at a very different point in my life; I’m a husband, a father to two kids and I have jobs (plural!!), passion projects and various other commitments that mean that gaming (sadly?) is much farther down the list of priorities. Don’t misunderstand me it is still very much my go-to downtime activity, I just…..don’t have as much downtime.
I don’t necessarily want to attack recent games like The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Mafia 3 etc – in actual fact (according to https://howlongtobeat.com/) these games aren’t longer than slightly older behemoths like Oblivion and Final Fantasy X – but more powerful hardware has certainly made these games more sprawling and/or dense than ever before and, consequently, pretty intimidating. On the contrary, I am envious of those who have the time – or at least commitment – to play games of this scale. I just find myself unable – or no longer willing – to take advantage of this undoubtedly amazing state of gaming affairs.
So with this in mind I have decided to put together a list of 10 games for busy people (mums, dads, those holding down multiple jobs, busy bees of all kinds), who still want the open world experience but can’t commit to something like Skyrim or The Witcher; a varied mixture of meaty story, good gameplay, action, production value, puzzles, some side quests and a game world of sufficient size and scope so as to be value for money but manageability i.e. not so big, long or over encumbered that when you inevitably have to take a break to do “real life” for a day/week/month (delete as appropriate) that you can’t be bothered getting back into it.
In order to distil a huge number of available games down to a list of 10 I am employing several tactics. Firstly, and most importantly, I am not including any games here that I have not personally played. Sounds like a no brainer but I have seen it done and there is a temptation to include critically well received games, industry darlings and recommendations from trusted sources without having played them but I just feel like a list of this nature must come from my own experiences. Obviously this will mean I will omit games that some readers will find to be an unforgivable omission. But hey…calm down. It’s only my list. If you have other suggestions by all means leave them in the comments!
Secondly, I have included games that take no longer than 20-25(ish) hours to complete, by which I mean, main story can comfortably be completed within that time and average playtime – which may include the odd side quest, exploration and faffing about – is also likely to be within that window. Source for this data is https://howlongtobeat.com/ .
Thirdly, all the games in the list will have received very positive reviews on a variety of major industry sites and aggregate sites. Think 7/8 out of 10 and above.
Finally, the games will all have been released (or re-released) within the last 5 years. Hey, you still have to be kind of current. Hip with the kids and all that.
Hopefully someone out there (whose schedule is similar to my own) finds this useful! Let’s begin!
Shadow of Mordor
Few games can offer so rich and well-loved a mythology and world as Shadow of Mordor. An open world action-adventure set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and taking place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, SoM gives players a chance to do something long desired by Tolkien fans; become a part of that world. Playing as Talion, a ranger who was killed by the Black Hand of Sauron and whose spirit merged with the wraith of the Elf Lord Celebrimbor, the player must use swordsmanship and magical abilities to avenge the death of both protagonists’ loved ones. It was very well received on release with the Nemesis system of AI grudges and knock on effects being highlighted as particularly impressive. The game can be completed in around 15 hours with an average playthrough – incorporating some side exploration – taking around 23. It is the perfect option for those looking for a high fantasy, open world experience in the vein of Skyrim or Witcher but on a more manageable scale.
Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition
It is perhaps the fate of all urban set, crime orientated, third person and vehicle based, open world games that they be compared – often unfavourably – to Grand Theft Auto. Sleeping Dogs is one such title. But to dismiss the game as another GTA clone is to miss out on a great gaming experience. Sleeping Dogs began life as a new entry in the True crime series but was cancelled by Activision Blizzard due to delays and budget issues. Square Enix then bought the publishing rights and renamed the game Sleeping Dogs. Set in Hong Kong the game follows Wei Shen, an undercover Hong Kong-American police officer, as he attempts to infiltrate the Sun On Yee Triad organization. The game was critically well received on release and even compared favourably to GTA in terms of combat, narrative and on foot exploration. The remastered version was released in October 2014 for Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One which addressed some areas in which the game was not so well received such as aspects of gameplay and graphics. Compared to its more famous competitor Sleeping Dogs is a tighter more succinct affair with an average playtime of around 20 hours and the potential to complete the story alone in about 15 hours.
That’s right Tomb Raider. Not the recent sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider. To be fair to the latter it is an absolutely fantastic game and a strict playthrough of the main storyline will come in at roughly an hour longer than is predecessor’s 11/12 hours. So in truth you could and should play both the Tomb Raider games and both are a more manageable open world experience than many other modern games. So why the first game? Well those who have listened to the first episode of our podcast will know that, whilst playing Rise of the Tomb Raider, I found myself becoming too distracted by the many, many collectibles and secret areas that kept appearing on the map. And because they just sit there making the map untidy it’s very hard not to want to go and “clean them up.” But in doing so I found that I was taking myself out of the main storyline too much and too often and, honestly, stopped having fun. So I stopped pursuing every little thing and continued playing the game to just enjoy the narrative. However, I never found this in the first game. I was happy to do everything the game had to offer because even gathering the collectibles, doing side quests and secret areas felt more achievable. So in a sense I’m being unfair to “Rise of” as both games chunk and release areas of the map as you progress through the game (a nice way to not feel overawed by the size,) both games have an average playtime of within the 20 hour window but, where Tomb Raider can be completed 100% within that time, Rise of the Tomb Raider will take a full 12 hours more to finish completely. So yeah….play both. But if you’re like me you might like the first one more.
Far Cry 3
There are many who consider Far Cry 3’s predecessor (Far Cry 2) as the real jewel in the series’ crown. There is little doubt that the game was unlike almost anything that had come before it. Set in modern-day Central Africa during a civil war, Far Cry 2 saw the player pursuing notorious arms dealer “The Jackal” across a sprawling sandbox gameworld featuring impressive AI, open-ended gameplay, astounding visuals, dynamic weather effects, day and night cycle and fire propagation. All of the above ensured that the game was well reviewed but there were some significant criticisms. Although enemy AI was praised, it was occasionally glitchy and constant respawning of those enemies was less well received. The game’s narrative came under fire for being somewhat boring and some critics felt like features such as malarial effects, firearm jams and vehicle breakdown were overused. The main criticism, however, was that the game felt big but, crucially, kind of empty. Sure there were plenty of bad guys but the lack of civilians and wildlife, long travel time between destinations and general environmental sameyness meant the game could feel tedious. Far Cry 3’s development was, clearly, very much a response to some of these criticisms. It was vibrant, polished, dynamic and exciting. It felt like a real, living world. It eschewed many features that had been less well received (to the dismay of some it should be acknowledged!) and concentrated on creating an open world game that had the focus and tight narrative of a linear game. With well scripted events, great characters and fantastic action, Far Cry 3 really is the Far Cry to play. Though 4 is almost as good….and 2 definitely does have its charms. In any case you can knock out a playthrough of 3 in around 16 hrs and a bit of exploration and faff will usually take about 24. (Also do yourself a favour and play standalone expansion Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon…all kinds of fun.)
Dishonoured is that rarest of things; an original IP, well received by critics and the public, that sold by the bucket load and won more awards than it would be sensible to list here. And all this for good reason. The team that worked on Dishonoured – Arkane – certainly had the appropriate credentials and sheer talent to make a truly unique, quality game. Many of the team had been working on a Half Life episode entitled Return to Ravenholm, one of the game’s creative directors was Deus Ex developer Harvey Smith, Deus Ex designer Ricardo Bare was its Lead Designer, Visual design director Viktor Antonov designed Half-Life 2’s City 17 and Arkane as a studio provided design, animation, and art services on Bioshock 2. With a CV like that you would expect big things. And they delivered. Dishonoured was widely and rightfully lauded as a masterclass in player choice, world building, narrative and character design, gameplay balance and replayability. Even the long established Thief franchise’s reboot released 2 years later couldn’t better Dishonoured as an atmospheric, engaging stealth actioner. Dunwall is a murky, grim yet beautifully detailed and realised game world. Exploration is richly rewarded and, like all the best openworld or multipath games, you often feel like you are the first person ever to discover some of its seedy alleyways and ornate rooftop paths. Between that and the fact that your choice to approach each mission violently, non-violently, head on or stealthily, will not only dramatically effect the game’s ending but also dynamically effect the game environment and NPC’s throughout your playthrough, mean that you can – and should – play the game more than once. The game can be completed in a swift 12 hrs and average playtime will be around 16/17 hrs. Even a completionist can do everything in around 30hrs. (At time of writing I’m playing Dishonoured 2….too early to tell if it is as good/worse/better/worthy of inclusion sadly!)
Post-apocalyptic, dystopian worlds are nothing new in games. They range from the sublime (Last of Us, Beneath a Steel Sky, Wasteland, Fallout) to the sublawful (The War Z, Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, Amy.) But one thing that is generally the same across the board, is that they are largely sober and serious and feature pretty muted colour palettes. Insomniac games decided to buck this trend in flamboyant fashion when they brought their “awesomepocalypse” open world, third person shooter Sunset Overdrive to market in 2014. I won’t bore you with all the details of the game’s development story but suffice to say that – as the makers of colourful platformers Ratchet and Clank and Spyro the Dragon – Insomniac decided to leave more serious shooters like Resistance and Fuse behind and return to their cartoonish, fun filled roots. Overdrive was initially conceived as an open world survival game similar to Day Z but after having watched a video by Gorillaz, and the team abandoned the “grounded” survival model and opted for something a bit more…well…fun! Fun and chaotic freedom is certainly the name of the game in Overdrive. The team have identified games like Prince of Persia, Jet Set Radio and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as having been major inspirations on the gameplay and aesthetic and, let’s be honest, how many other shooters can claim that eclectic mix of influences! Any Ratchet and Clank fans are also sure to notice its genetics in Overdrive’s rail grinding game mechanic. So if you’re looking for a dynamic, fun filled, explosion of colour, sound, pop culture references and speed then you could do worse than a game that is equal parts Ratchet and Clank, Gears of War, Super Mario Sunshine and Dead Rising. Oh and it’ll only take 10 – 15 hours to beat depending on how you play. Winner.
Batman: Arkham Bundle (North America: Arkham Asylum, City)/Collection (Europe: Arkham Asylum, City and Origins)
What list of great open world games (never mind ones that satisfy our swift playthrough criteria) would be complete without the acknowledging the phenomenal Arkham franchise. Now I am cheating here somewhat as I am actually including 2 games in one spot on our list. I am also not choosing the more recent, current gen Arkham Knight nor am I choosing Batman: Return to Arkham (effectively the current gen remaster of the Arkham Bundle or Collection depending on region.) But bear with me as I explain my decision (although I suspect some of you are already way ahead of me.) It’s actually quite simple. The first 2 Arkham games are the best. Arkham Asylum is probably one of, if not the, best open world, action, brawler, stealth platformers (3D metroidvania) that your hard earned money can buy. The map is superb; dark, gothic, compact but dense, nicely unlockable as you go. The voice acting by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill nicely ties it to the animated series and is, also, just superb. It really is a Batman game for Batman fans and was, quite comfortably, the best videogame adaptation of any super hero franchise to that point (though that is a lamentably impoverished category.) Arkham City is a truly great sequel and somehow surpassed its predecessor in every way; taking what made Asylum so engrossing and adding to it. In moving from an island to a city it made the game feel bigger, more dense and more intricate but still – because of Batman’s ability so move so quickly with grappling hooks and gliding ablility – a joy to survey and explore. It also added far more engaging side missions and additional activities. So (if you don’t own them already) to buy a bundle of those 2 games and a wealth of dlc just makes sense. And if you’re pretty speedy you can actually finish both games in around 25 hrs! Also while Arkham Asylum and City were released in 2009 and 2011 respectively, the bundle was released in 2013 and therefore I have finagled a way for it to satisfy the (admittedly self-imposed) “within the last 5 years” rule. So why the Arkham Bundle and not the remastered Return to Arkham? Well Return to Arkham is just a poor remaster. It is too bright – which literally kills the wonderful gothic vibe – and suffers from poor frame rates. It should be noted the remaster was not handled by original studio Rocksteady but another Chinese developer Virtuos. And why not Arkham Knight? Also easy..the Riddler trophies were tedious to the point that I gave up pursuing them and the tank battles (though initially fun) also became a chore. Though the addition of the Batmobile itself was pretty cool. It is still a very good game. Actually a great game but it just isn’t better than its predecessors despite (perhaps because of?) improved hardware. So play the Arkham bundle. Play Arkham Knight. Heck play Arkham Origins (the underrated non – Rocksteady Arkham game.) You won’t be sorry you did.
Comfortably the shortest game on our list with a 4 hour estimated playtime, Firewatch is a wonderfully stylised, well written and sometimes unnerving examination of self-imposed isolation. The game received mostly positive reviews with overall narrative, characters, dialogue, and visual style all highlighted as triumphs – particularly as the game came from an indie team. The game’s ending was divisive, however, with many claiming it was unsatisfactory given the high standard of the narrative throughout. Also, although many enjoyed getting lost in the game’s lush, striking map, some critics, in particular KindFunnyGames’ Colin Moriarty, felt the game didn’t reward players for exploring the, admittedly, beautiful game world and therefore didn’t encourage it. A failure in any open world game. Given its price and quick playtime, however, Firewatch is certainly worthy of inclusion on this list. Is it flawed? Sure. But its sharp, well written dialogue, quality voice acting, appropriately unsettling musical score, unique navigation method, gripping narrative and stunning visuals are certainly worth 4 of your hours.
Infamous Second Son
I wrestled a bit with this one. My gut reaction was that the Infamous franchise must make an appearance on this list and most people would argue that the first game of the series is the best, followed by 2 and then Second Son. If you aren’t familiar with the franchise then I guess the “elevator pitch” is that it is a “what if normal people in the real world suddenly had superpowers….for real” type game; a comic book superhero/villain story for people who don’t know or like comic book stuff. But the (probably shocking) truth is that I never played either of the first 2 games. It would have been so easy for me to lie here and include the Infamous Collection as it bundles both of the first 2 games (as well as Infamous 2 expansion; Festival of Blood,) was released in August 2012 (unlike the individual games, within our 5 year window)and both games can seemingly be completed within 25 hours on a swift playthrough. You would never have known I hadn’t played them but I feel like I should keep to my word here. There is no doubt that the games are good. Very good in fact. That is almost universally acknowledged by trustworthy games media outlets. So if you decide to pick up that collection (and I’m starting to convince myself that I should) I suspect you won’t regret that decision. But I did not play them. However I did play Second Son; and it is really good. Though not quite as highly rated as the first 2 games Second Son was very well reviewed on launch. The game is set in the same world as 1 and 2 but features a new protagonist and NPC’s and – although it follows the events of Infamous 2 – a new storyline; making it accessible to those who never played its predecessors. It was the first in the franchise to appear on the PS4 and that system’s increased power allowed developers Sucker Punch to take what made Infamous so good and go further. They were able to “jack up” the visual fidelity and sheer density and detail of the new game world and the results are pretty breathtaking. Most critics agree that the fictional version of Seattle – that is the setting for the majority of the game – is beautifully realised. Also, many thought that setting the game in a real world city for the first time added to its credibility as a “superpowers in the real world” story. The PS4 also allowed the team to make controlling the new protagonist Delsin more balanced and intuitive; particularly combat and movement and allowed them to enhance enemy AI. Some critics felt the morality system within the game was old fashioned (or at least redundant as it made little difference in playing the game) and that, although Delsin was an improvement over the previous protagonist Cole (partly due to the way Delsin was written and partly due to Troy Baker’s fantastic voice acting) that the overall storyline wasn’t as good as in the previous games. But the game is only compared (in some minor ways) unfavourably to the first 2 by their own extremely high standards. Second Son is a fast paced, action- packed, exploration driven triumph of great narrative and character design and well deserves its place on this list. Especially as you can squeeze every drop of gaming goodness out of it in 20 hrs and a quick play can take as little as 10.
I know what you’re thinking. Uncharted is not open world. It is, perhaps, the best series of 3rd person action adventure games ever created; but it is not open world. It’s linear. Well it’s my list and I’ll put what I like on it. Ok I’m joking…but only slightly. Uncharted 4 comes as close to open world as the series ever has. The wide open vistas in the vehicular portions of the game are particularly impressive. There is an element of exploration and there are hidden areas and secrets to discover in those (deceptively not) vast savannahs and archipelago’s that could be at home in any open world, sandbox game. Whilst on foot the game also continues to do what the series has always done well, namely, to expertly disguise the fact that you’re being effectively corralled through each level by adding so much background depth and detail you’d be forgiven for thinking you could go off the beaten path if you chose to. So if you want everything that made the Uncharted games great – the writing, voice acting and witty “buddy cop” banter, the set pieces, action and combat and the controls, AI and puzzles – and you want open world……maybe try Uncharted 4. If nothing else is hard to imagine assembling a list of satisfyingly but sensibly long gaming experiences without acknowledging this modern classic.
So there you have it. My top 10 open world recommendations for people with limited gaming time! Maybe you agree with all of my suggestions, maybe with some, maybe you disagree with me roundly and would have a totally different top 10! By all means give us your views, opinions and top 10’s in the comments below! Look forward to reading them.