Open world games and specifically open-world racing games hold a special place in my heart. The freedom to drive any car of your choice and most importantly drive them anywhere makes these free-roam games addictive and very satisfying to play.
So, what are the best open-world racing games? After researching and play-testing a lot of the games on the market I have made a list of the 7 best:
- Forza Horizon 4
- Forza Horizon 3
- Need For Speed Heat
- The Crew 2
- Burnout Paradise Remastered
- Test Drive Unlimited 2
- The Crew
The listed games above are excellent. But we’ll go over the pros and cons of each of them so you can make an educated purchase and be comfortable with your decision, so keep on reading and we’ll jump right in!
What To Look For In A Good Open-World Racing Game
Vast explorable map
One of the main features a good open-world racing game has is a very large map that the player can explore with little to no limitations. Usually, the bigger the world, the harder it is to make sure the environment feels lively and real but sometimes, particularly in the top 3 games on this list, they nail it.
Variety of cars
A wide selection of cars to choose from is important to the player as it gives a sense of free will and exclusiveness and in general, it improves the experience tenfold.
Having a great selection of vehicles to choose from is great but the experience is made null if customization is limited. Customizing the paint job or upgrading components in your favorite car in the game is important for its replayability and long term lifespan.
1. Forza Horizon 4
Platform: Xbox One/PC | Release date: 2018
Forza Horizon 4 pretty much improves on all aspects of the previous game. The games’ graphics are incredible and the lighting and shading is perfect and helps immerse you in the world. The open-world itself is huge and beautiful as ever in its new setting of picturesque Britain. Horizon 4 has changing seasons and each one looks as beautiful as the other.
The sheer number of cars you can choose from is huge and, in the hundreds, you will always find a car that you like. The game is focused on freedom and most traffic has been removed and replaced by other players in the shared online world. This makes the world feel more real and lively.
Racing with a full sim racing setup feels great and it’s the right way to play but, if you don’t have a full racing sim setup then that’s okay as the developers thought of this, and using a controller feels just as natural. Character customization isn’t particularly great; there are a good number of characters to choose from but they aren’t customizable in any way.
The car customization is a good bit better allowing you to pretty much adjust everything that you could possibly want to. The difficulty in handling your car is at the perfect middle ground. It’s not too hard or easy to control the vehicle and it doesn’t take long to get used to the way Horizon 4 handles. The map isn’t flat like in Forza Horizon 3.
The world in which you now race and explore has lots of elevation and the winding narrow roads of Britain are a refreshing change from the very ‘samey’ looking Australia in Horizon 3. Drifts are easy to pull off and speed is truly terrifying in supercars. There are of course some flaws with the game just like any other.
The game is very slow to get going as if it needs to commoditize itself for people who have never played a racing game. The tutorials seem unnecessary for instance, explaining that you need to do a jump to get jump points and drift to get drift points, yet it does not explain the economy of the game or how online features work.
Forza Horizon 4 has one of the most beautiful worlds I have seen in a game and a unique season–changing game mechanic. It feels very realistic and after a lot of hours spent playing this game, it starts to no longer feel like a game and more like an experience that you’re lucky to have had.
- Fully immersive, beautiful open world with hours of content
- Hundreds of cars & realistic handling
- Unique game mechanics
- Poor character customization
- Unnecessary tutorials
- The in-game economy can be frustrating
2. Forza Horizon 3
Platform: Xbox One/PC | Release date: 2016
Forza horizon 3 ticks all the boxes for car enthusiasts and as a gamer and the scale of the open-world itself is huge. Forza Horizon 2 was a huge success and at the time many thought there would never be a better racing simulator. But, as if the developers wanted to spite our low expectations, they came out with the legendary Forza Horizon 3.
The story mode in Horizon 3 features you as the festival boss, the goal of the game being the expansion of your fanbase so that you can expand your festival and make it more successful.
The multiplayer aspect of the game is fantastic and very fluid. I didn’t find any issues with connectivity or server issues and overall it felt like a polished and premium experience. This is one of the most realistic driving games on the list and it is easy to tell that the developers had a lot of fun when designing the game to be as immersive as possible.
The amount of cars that you can choose from is immense and you are sure to find a car that suits you. Off-road driving in this game is particularly realistic and is one of the best aspects of this game. The cars’ handling changes depending on the texture of the surface you are driving on, and transferring from dirt to tarmac is quite jarring as it should be.
If you purchased a vehicle that you no longer use anymore, the game lets you sell your vehicles in an auction house in-game, which is a quick and easy way to make some cash for a new car. Forza Horizon 3 also features a co-op campaign, which is a lot easier than trying to build your fanbase alone.
Luckily, your progress that you made with your friends can be transferred to your single-player save which means you don’t need to repeat anything that you have already completed in the co-op campaign.
The PvP races feel great and the weather effects in the game are very dynamic, affecting your car’s handling just like in real life. Forza Horizon 3 is a great game offering hard-core realism, for sim racers and arcade racers alike.
- Huge open world
- Large selection of cars & realistic handling on them all
- Immersive feel & dynamic weather conditions
- Loading times can be lengthy
- The menu can be complicated at first
- Cars are far too expensive
3. Need For Speed: Heat
Platform: PS4/Xbox One/PC | Release date: 2019
The Need for Speed series has been quite poor as of late, but NFS Heat is an excellent open–world racing game and it’s clear that they have learned from their mistakes. NFS Heat has 2 different types of races that you can take part in: Day racing and Night racing. The difference being that day racing is organized races with clearly laid out tracks, but where the game shines is when racing at night.
Night racing in NFS Heat is portrayed through illegal street races while under pursuit from the cops. The rush you get while narrowly avoiding arrest from the police while traveling at more than 150mph on busy streets is unmatched by most games out there to this day. Day and night feel very different from each other, and the neon night lights whizzing past you sell night racing for me.
There’s a great sense of speed in this game, as there has been in all games in the NFS series. As you would expect, a lot of damage is taken while racing from the cops, and this is where the game fails.
Both you and the police have separate health bars and this sadly means it is very easy to crash into a cop thinking that he will wreck, only to find that you were previously damaged by taking the corner too wide and you get taken out. This happens far too much; so much so, that it gets in the way of actual progression, and only succeeds in making you very frustrated.
Luckily the open-world in which you drive, Palm City, looks beautiful and for the most part, this game is simply satisfying to observe. Unfortunately, the world in which you drive seems very empty featuring little to no non-player characters (NPCs).
You could argue that as it’s a racing game, it doesn’t have to have NPCs. Sadly, without NPC’s you end up feeling like you’re just a car trying to keep momentum on a road, rather than a human being operating a machine at crazy speeds in a real-feeling environment.
They have nailed it with the upgrade system. It is certainly a viable option to use only one car throughout the whole game and simply upgrade it throughout your playthrough. Upgrades genuinely matter in this game and aren’t just an excuse for a lack of other unique features.
It seems so difficult for racing games nowadays to nail an upgrade system that doesn’t require balancing or tweaks and NFS Heat has accomplished just that.
Customization is vast and detailed in this game and it’s not surprising as the NFS series has always been great in regards to customization, so if you are the type of person that likes to make your car really feel like your own then you’ll be happy with this purchase.
NFS Heat doesn’t provide what you would label as the most realistic simulator available but it certainly is one of the most fun simulators to play around with. Even if you aren’t into very arcade-like games I would still recommend giving this one a try.
- Variety of customization options
- Beautiful and large open world
- Unique game mechanics & great upgrade system
- Lack of NPCs makes the game feel empty
- Not very realistic
- Graphic fidelity doesn’t look current-gen
4. The Crew 2
Platform: PS4/Xbox One/PC | Release date: 2018
The Crew 2 is an ambitious sequel to its predecessor with an even larger, scaled-down but more realistic world to explore. As well as much improved graphics, the game offers other vehicles to choose from when exploring, such as boats, planes, off-road cars, and motorcycles.
The Crew 2 gives you the unique ability to switch vehicles on the fly, which gives way to special moments like traveling 200mph on the highway and transforming into a plane, then flying over the sea only to drop down in a racing boat. The beginning of the game is very cliché, and filled with the usual cringe attempt at a vague storyline.
After choosing your character model, which unfortunately doesn’t look very good, you are immediately thrown into a showcase where you get to use all of the available types of vehicles.
While I like that it wastes no time in showing you how things work in The Crew 2, the lack of a proper tutorial may leave some players who are new to racing games confused and losing their first race, leaving a bad first impression off the bat. Regardless if you win or lose, the NPC will congratulate you for “winning” and rewards you with a vehicle of your choice – this broke the immersion for me.
The game features a fame rating that levels up as you win more races and become more popular. You can then spend the points you receive, from levelling up and winning races, on new vehicles or upgrading your car. When you win a race or get a podium-worthy position, upgrades for your vehicle will appear in front of your car and you can collect these by simply driving over them.
This upgrade system could easily be automatic as all you need to look at is if it’s better than your current components and then replace it with the new upgrade. The open-world itself is preposterously huge and genuinely beautiful to look at. Particularly, while exploring the deserts in the world, I found myself weirdly at peace with myself in my off-road jeep exploring.
The game often reminds you of its photography events where it goads you to take pictures of specific wildlife for currency. It’s entertaining at first but after a while, I found myself actively avoiding participating in these events.
One of the main flaws of this game is its environmental hazards.
For instance, a large, metal, directional sign can be crashed into and removed as if it was just air, however, if you were to crash into a small chair or tiny bench then it stops you in your tracks as if you just crashed into a block of steel. This is very frustrating, as the AI tends to nudge you into the path of these seemingly harmless hazards and costs you 6 or 7 places.
Drifting in races seems to only hinder you and overall, the handling of vehicles could do with a rework. The customization features are great and the number of cars that are available for purchase is immense.
Not only are the cars, motorcycles, planes, and boats customizable, but the character model itself is customizable with unique outfits and accessories that can be added when you feel like it, from your house where your vehicles are stored.
The Crew 2 also has one of the best photo modes I have seen in any game, allowing you to edit impressive cinematic shots of your favorite moments or screenshots, and you also have the option to remove the game’s watermark which is refreshing to see.
- Immense world & immersive feel
- Variety of customization options
- Excellent photo mode
- Broken game physics
- Character models look poor quality
- Poor introduction
5. Burnout Paradise Remastered
Platform: PS4/Xbox One/PC | Release date: 2018
Burnout is an iconic racing game series offering the player an exciting and octane-filled experience. Burnout Paradise is hailed by many as one of the most iconic and entertaining games to have ever been made.
With that said, fans of the original were thrilled to hear that the original now had a remastered version that offered all the bells and whistles of the original including more intuitive controls, better graphics, and all the available downloadable content (DLC) that was made for the original game.
One thing about the series of Burnout games that may throw off new players is the lack of track boundaries when racing. It’s very easy to lose track of where you are meant to be going if you don’t pay attention to the race.
Although this may make things much more difficult at first, eventually you get used to it and realize that the lack of track boundaries makes the world feel more real while exploring. While it’s a remaster, the graphics don’t look like current-gen racing games out today, but they certainly look beautiful compared to the decade-old original Burnout Paradise.
The way you purchase new vehicles in-game is unique compared to other racing games out there today. Vehicles that you may want will be driving out in the game world and you will have to take the car out by crashing into it. This then takes the car to a junkyard and a mechanic will repair it for a fee.
After it is repaired, it’s now yours and you can ride around in your new favorite car until you see another one you like the look of on the streets. The soundtrack of the game is fantastic, including famous artists such as Guns n’ Roses and Faith No More. The soundtrack may be a bit more dated than it was ten years ago, but there are some great classics to choose from while racing.
The world in which you drive, Paradise city, is immense, lively, and there is always something happening or something to do in the world of Burnout Paradise Remastered. Unfortunately, if a realistic racing simulator is what you’re looking for then I recommend you look elsewhere. Burnout Paradise Remastered is certainly an arcade racer more than a super realistic simulator.
But, this game is often on sale and can be picked up quite cheaply at times, and at lower end of the budget range, it’s worth trying out to see what all the hype is about.
- Large open world
- Fun and engaging gameplay
- Comes with all available DLC
- Graphics aren’t great
- Not realistic
- Customization could be improved
6. Test Drive Unlimited 2
Platform: PC/PS4/Xbox One | Release date: 2011
While its graphics are dated compared to games being made nowadays, most racing game enthusiasts will mention this game when listing out their favorite open-world racing games. This game has great driving mechanics and a wide variety of more than 90 different vehicles for you to choose from.
Not only is this an open-world racing game, but it’s also a lifestyle game allowing you to purchase property with a garage to store your vehicles and make your showroom. Buying a new vehicle in the game is quite immersive as you need to first go to a dealership and look the vehicle over in and out.
The open-world the game lets you explore is vast and lively, and there is always something interesting happening around you. The world looks beautiful and the car models look fantastic, but the player models look very poor, even when compared to other games released in the same year.
The sound design of the vehicles is great and all the cars sound beefy and powerful, but the voice acting of the NPCs is pretty awful. The game starts you off on the island of Ibiza with one unimpressive car and a small bit of cash, and you must work your way up through the ranks by completing multiplayer races, gaining fame and wealth, eventually buying properties to store your luxury vehicles.
When Test Drive Unlimited 2 first came out, the game was honestly a big mess riddled with glitches and bugs. The online multiplayer barely worked, and finding a multiplayer race was very rare. Luckily all those issues are now in the past and what we have now is an excellent open–world racing game that will always be one of my favorites, and is definitely worth your time.
- Massive selection of vehicles
- Unique game design & good sound design
- Lively open world
- Graphics are a bit dated
- Awful voice acting
- Poor quality character models
7. The Crew
Platform: PC/Xbox One/Xbox 360/PS4 | Release date: 2014
The Crew is a huge online only racing game that above all else boasts an ambitious open-world of extreme proportions. However, its size is more of a deterrent than the developers had hoped for, as you discover that its effects and visuals, in general, are lacking when a brief moment is taken to pay attention to the small details of the environment around you.
The sound isn’t perfectly mastered in my opinion, and it can often seem as if the AI is cheating to get ahead in the game, which undermines the in-game upgrade system. However, it does do a good job of portraying a scaled–down and stylized version of the USA. Traversing the land and going from one city to another captures the cross-country spirit perfectly, and leaves the player feeling satisfied.
The AI-controlled enemies are infuriating. The police and your opponents in The Crew seem to be able to bend the laws of physics and immediately catch up with you during races, and crash you into a tree or wall, sometimes actually putting you out of the race for good. This, unfortunately, happens regularly, even if you are in a luxury sports car and your opponent is in a pick-up truck.
The storyline itself leaves a lot to be desired in regards to its plot. But, the tracks and environments in which the storyline takes you through are always changing and unique, and this makes up for the cliché plot.
The sound design is okay – it is certainly not perfect, but it isn’t terrible either.
There are times when the bass seems absent in the sound design, and the sound of the engine can be extremely tinny. This is a shame as one of the main features we look for in a powerful car in an open-world racing game is the beefy, chunky sound that we are all familiar with but, in this game, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
There is a wide range of vehicles to choose from and you can customize these cars to suit your taste. As well as customizable appearances, the components such as the tires, gearbox, and much more are all upgradeable and customizable. The Crew is a multiplayer–only game, so an internet connection is required to play. The game itself supports any sim racing peripherals you may want to use.
The driving mechanics feel solid and reliable, and there were many times I simply got lost in the thrill of exploration when suddenly I find another player also in the middle of nowhere; the community of players keeping the game active were, for the most part, friendly and always up for a friendly race. Overall, The Crew is a great game with one of the largest worlds I have seen.
While it is crazy fun just exploring the scaled-down US of A, the game does let you down on many occasions.
- Huge world
- Driving mechanics are on-point & wide variety of cars
- Diverse story
- Online only
- Sound design is poor
- Poor AI
Forza Horizon 4 is the perfect choice for someone like me who wants a realistic immersive driving experience through a recognizable and immense open world, with a large choice of cars and a great online community.
If realism isn’t exactly what you are looking for then I recommend NFS Heat or even Burnout Paradise, as both are adrenaline-filled cocktails of open-world racing, stunts, with the goal of dealing as much damage as possible to your opponent.
Whatever you’re into, there’s a game waiting for you on this list. I hope this helped you better understand what options you have, and what you need to look for in an open-world racing game.