For perhaps the first time in gaming history, a true fantasy RPG broke through to the mainstream, spawning countless memes, videos, and pissed-off girlfriends. Skyrim is a special game; it is a game that competed with the biggest gaming franchise of all time, Call of Duty, and still sold millions. Bethesda had balls, and they showed them to the whole world – figuratively speaking of course. Skyrim has, likely, the most deep, expansive, and diverse gaming world of any game on this list (if the expansion packs for WoW aren’t included). Not only are there hundreds of unique places to visit, many with their own NPCs that can talk, trade, or fight with you, but within them there is usually an awe-inspiring amount of depth and polish. Now, I know speaking of polish and Skyrim together is iffy, seeing as teleporting mammoths and the most absurd physics ever can take you out of the immersion, but that’s to be expected from something so ambitious on the aging hardware of the 360 and PS3. This game featured a world that you could truly shape to your liking, and was utterly full of choices and consequences.
Mass Effect 1 was a great game, but after playing through it almost a dozen times, and truly realizing how stereotypical and cheesy some of it was, as well as the awful cover system and floaty shooting, I’ve concluded that, though I loved the mystery at the beginning of ME1 and the big Reaper reveal, its sequels are indubitably superior games in almost every way. Mass Effect 3 didn’t change as much from ME2 as ME2 did from ME1 (sorry if that was confusing); this, as well as the disappointing ending (that was actually made much better through the Extended Cut DLC) made me further conclude that ME3 was the middle of the three in greatness and quality. Still, a game with an incredibly deep combat system that rivals Gear of War, RPG elements as refined and deep as you’d need for the sort of game, and a story that spans three games that is so beautifully and effectively told that it’s the envy of the gaming industry is hard to beat. Indeed, the greatest strength of the series is the evolving story that truly, genuinely adapts to your choices and actions. It’s both funny, sad, and true, but I found myself caring more about Liara than most of the people I know in my life. Sad, yes, but a very good testament to just how great Bioware is at sucking you in and making you care for its characters and story.
On this list for many of the same reasons as its direct sequel, ME2 is an example of doing virtually everything right. The opening where Shepard died, allowing you to believably reconstruct him or her as you saw fit with his reconstruction was smart. The reasons for characters to join you, and how you gained their trust were the backbone of the game and also done perfectly. The combat became much more intuitive and fluid after ME1 (it was such a needed improvement), as well as adding heavy weapons to diversify combat even more, and allowing Bioware to throw more enemies at you than ever before. The relationship system was done right, with the ability to try and spark old flames, or ignite new ones – like Miranda, that callipygian woman. In essence, Mass Effect 2 did everything it did right. Even the DLC truly added to the experience and expanded your possibilities if you wanted to pursue them, though they weren’t necessary. Mass Effect 2 is simply a game that I look at and I see superb design and polish with. All of this is within, of course, an ever-evolving galaxy that is at your disposal to explore and take advantage of. Finally, the conversation system is what makes Mass Effect stand apart, for no games has ever done it quite as well, and it is a primary key to what pulls you in so fiercely and so engrossingly.
While GTA 3 was absurdly innovative and expansive, Vice City is like the cooler older brother with Ray Bans: it’s more refined, focused, and simply put, cool. The 80s vibe is one of the best settings in all of gaming, and Rockstar captured it so well. I mean, come on, this game had one of the best soundtracks in all of gaming, dozens of weapons, dozens of vehicles, helicopters, boats, strip-clubs (several, actually), and so many other elements that I simply don’t have room to list that add up to make this an incredible, astounding, unparalleled game. Vice City is one of the best games of all time, in my opinion, and also features arguably the best world in which to wreak all the havoc you want. All of this, and I haven’t even touched on how fun it was to post-up in Burger Town with an M16 and RPG with the National Guard flooding in and tanks rolling down the streets toward you. Oh, and let’s not forget the riveting story (with many parallels to Scarface, in a good way) full of deep and engrossing multi-dimensional characters with intrinsic motivations. This was a game that not only had an open world, but had a world that literally felt plausible in almost every way. It was something that always felt so real and interactive, and truly is my pick for the best open-world/sandbox videogame since 2000. Hell, I’d say ever, but that’s a whole other story, Diablo fanboys.