This year has been an interesting one for online games and that goes double for sandbox MMOs. Considering how little attention the genre has received over the past few years, this niche genre is making a big comeback with plenty on the horizon to look forward to. But the horizon is still far away, and as the year winds down we want to take some time to look at the best of the best in the world of online sandbox multiplayer games you can play right now. Some of these are more traditional MMORPGs, while others incorporate sandbox elements into a more traditional multiplayer experience, but all of them are noteworthy and worth your time.
We’re going to start off counting down the runners up and honorable mentions before moving on to our pick for the best sandbox experience of 2015. So grab your bucket and little plastic shovel, it’s time to get scoopin’.
The Runners Up
While still in Early Access on Steam, The Repopulation has been slowly winning the hearts of a group of fans through its faithful adaptation of the mechanics that made Star Wars Galaxies such a memorable online game. There’s no denying that The Repopulation is incredibly rough around the edges, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have a really solid foundation for one of the more robust sandbox experiences of our time. Like Galaxies, The Repopulation is truly a game where you can carve out a meaningful and rewarding niche within its science fiction world.
That said, there are a lot of things holding back The Repopulation that have stopped it from appearing higher on this list. Even as an Early Access game, it feels exceedingly unfinished. Combat stands out as one of the least enjoyable aspects of the game, feeling awkward and frustrating at the same time. Fortunately, depending on your given path, you might not encounter these woes all that often. Still, if you’re willing to look past the dated visuals and clunky controls, The Repopulation has a compelling beating heart worth falling in love with.
H1Z1 loses some pretty major points for being one more zombie in a horde of survival games that have been pouring out on a weekly basis since DayZ first experienced its meteoric rise. But we’re willing to forgive it due to the relatively high level of quality Daybreak Games has brought to H1Z1. It’s still a zombie survival game, though. But if DayZ isn’t your thing, H1Z1 is a suitable alternative with enough twists to keep things interesting.
H1Z1 has certainly had its share of controversy regarding the way Daybreak Games has chosen to monetize its game, and depending on your tolerance for these types of shenanigans H1Z1 could potentially be a very unattractive way of spending an afternoon. For now, it seems the focus has shifted away from the open world aspect and instead on the Battle Royale modes, which encourage players to kill each other a la The Hunger Games in gory fashion. It can be fun and frequently intense. H1Z1 might not score points for originality, but it’s still one of the better zombie survival games available.
Though only in closed beta, Albion Online is in a complete enough state that I felt comfortable putting it on this list. There will be a character wipe at the end of the beta period, but if you’re desperate to jump in now you can buy your way in, and if you’re serious about hardcore PVP in MMORPGs, you might just want to consider that.
For a game in closed beta, Albion Online is remarkably functional and fun to play. There’s a big wide open world for you to explore and conquer. Speaking of conquering, Albion Online is heavily focused on player versus player combat, sectioning off a good half of the world (where all the rare resources are) as an open battleground where players can risk everything in epic clashes. And the ability to experience all of this on an Android or iOS device (coming later) is very enticing.
But for all the things Albion Online gets right, there is still a few keeping it from climbing to the higher ranks on this list. Even though all the implements are there for a great sandbox experience, there just isn’t that much to do right now that doesn’t feel like a huge grind. The developers seem keen on listening to players complaints, but right now Albion Online is a game that requires a huge commitment in order to see progress. Once the grind has been mellowed out a bit and the sandbox features fleshed out more, Albion Online looks like a promising candidate.
Between Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen, fans of open world space games have a lot to look forward to. The good news is that while Star Citizen continues to mystify with its ambitious scope, Elite: Dangerous is available right now and it is good. Flying through space completing missions or hunting for bounties is an experience few games can rival, and the new expansion aims to add some seriously exciting new features by allowing seamless travel to planet surfaces.
But like Albion Online, Elite: Dangerous fails to offer enough to do to hold your attention for months at a time. While flying through the solar system and experiencing all of its majesty is wonderful, it won’t be long until you’re thirsting for something other than the same old missions. Still, Elite: Dangerous offers more than enough thrills for space sim fans that it’s really worth checking out.
ARK: Survival Evolved
Dinosaurs have proved a pretty effective tool for mixing up the tired survival game formula. Just when zombies were starting to become boring, Ark arrived on the scene with its gigantic T-rexes and quickly rose to be one of the most popular games on Steam. I’m not surprised. After all, this is a game where you can eat your own poop.
But what makes Ark such a great experience is just how flexible it has become. If playing on one of the official servers starts to wear thin, you’re free to join up with the dozens of private servers or try out the ever-growing list of mods that each offer their own unique take on a strange island brimming with giant lizards. Ark’s combination of survival mechanics and RPG progression systems offers that same pull that’ll keep you wanting to come back for more—just don’t cry when someone breaks into your fortress and butchers all your dinos.
Still, Ark has a long way to go as an Early Access game. It’s one of the more inventive releases in the genre, but performance issues and missing features are still capable of soiling your experience with the game. And, as original as the premise may be, Ark is still just another online survival game.
Metal Gear Solid 5
Okay, okay, Metal Gear Solid 5 can barely be considered an online game in the vein of Ark or Albion Online, but it is a sandbox game—and one of the best ones released this year. Which is why it remains firmly planted in the honorable mentions section.
If you’re a fan of sandbox games and haven’t taken the time to mess around in Metal Gear Solid 5, you’re sorely missing out. While it might lack RPG staples, the sheer scale of its open world, possibilities, and fluid game design makes for some of the most memorable gaming moments in 2015. With a staggering amount of toys to play with and customize, Metal Gear Solid 5 offers the premiere stealth experience that, no matter how you decide to play, always offers excitement and tension.
Black Desert Online
Barring a major implosion, Black Desert Online is sure to be somewhere on our list for 2016, and though we’ve had some opportunities to mess around in this eastern-developed sandbox MMORPG, it wasn’t quite enough for us to conclusively say whether or not Black Desert Online was one—or will be one—of the better sandboxes of the year. It’s gorgeous, it tosses a lot of the stale MMO conventions to the wind, and it offers a big world to explore and build a character in, but only time will tell if it becomes one of the greats.
And the Greatest Sandbox Game of 2016 is…
Was there ever any doubt that EVE Online would take home this prize? Of course there wasn’t! Despite getting on in years, EVE still represents one of the most well-realized visions of a sandbox game ever conceived. It is vast, richly complex, and still a remarkably engaging game to play.
Despite all the jokes about spreadsheets in space, EVE Online is still the de facto standard for what sandbox games should and could be. The amount of options you have to progress as a character, the bitter struggles between its thousand man corporations, and the cutthroat culture of New Eden remain one of the most unique and enchanting experiences available in video games.
EVE Online might be obtuse, difficult, and brutally punishing, but those who manage to climb the steep difficulty slope often find a world that transcends the rigid definitions of video games, instead becoming a rich and vibrant culture that any player can contribute to and shape in their own way.
What do you think of our picks? Hate them? Think they’re amazing? Let us know in the comments! And if you have your own selections for your favorite sandbox games that weren’t mentioned, let us know! This year has had no shortage of great sandbox games to play, even if half of them won’t be fully released until 2016. I guess the bright side is that next year’s list should be even more competitive.Related: Black Desert Online, Elite: Dangerous, EVE Online, H1Z1, MMORPG, Top Sandbox Games