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Hello! I know there are tons of threads like this, but I've been searching for a really enjoyable sandbox game for a while now and I just don't want to give up without posting exactly what I'm looking for and seeing what recommendations surface. Thank you in advance for reading this!
Things I Would Like to See in a Sandbox Game:
1. Decent Graphics. This might seem a bit shallow but if I'm going to spend hundreds of hours staring at a virtual environment, it never hurts to have some level of visual appeal. I understand that sandbox games tend to be low-budget, so I'm not looking for anything particularly stunning or cutting-edge; I just want to get as close to "good" as I can. For my personal tastes, anime or cell-shading styles are fine since they age well. For games that take a more realistic 3D approach (think Morrowind/Oblivion), I have found that dated graphics become more tolerable if the game has a lot of clutter to distract from the often unrealistically flat ground, so I will prefer a game that has more trees/walls/bushes/other environmental objects to a game that has fewer of these. I prefer 3D environments.
2. Players Can Affect The World. Whether it comes in the form of finding rare abilities that you can teach to other players, building structures such as houses or towns throughout the landscape, or affecting the behaviors of monsters and NPCs with your actions, I like games that are perpetually changing based on what the players do.
3. Open-world Content. Quests have their place and can be helpful for tutorials, but I would prefer for game developers to put a bunch of cool toys in the hands of the players and then let us make our own fun. Tell me what the rules are, show me how to manipulate my character or interact with the world, and then just set me loose and let me do whatever I want to do. Big plus for games that have a lot of exploration and interesting non-combat pastimes. I also don't mind games that lack a global/map chat or that have basic or limited navigation features.
4. Horizontal Progression. Maybe this is just a pipe dream of mine, but I really don't care for the leveling system. I don't like gear grinding or feeling that I'm always working toward a stat increase. For those of you who have played Shadow of the Colossus, you have an example of my ideal system: you already have all or most of what you need to do anything you like in the game and there is no real vertical progression, but the actual gameplay is so enjoyable that you don't even miss that carrot on a stick most themepark MMOs have you chase. I would much rather have a game where developers put their effort into expanding the world I can explore, the customization options characters have, and the things I can do in the game than to have me constantly repeat all the least enjoyable activities (kill X of this, find X of that, cast this spell X times X number of times until it hits the next level) just to see some numbers go up. If you get better at the game, it's because you've found a great new way to rework your character using what is already at your disposal or because your actual skill as a player has increased through practice. It may be that there aren't many or any games out there that follow such a system, but if there are, I would love to know about them.
5. Fun, Interesting Gameplay. There have been some (in my own humble opinion) improvements to the combat systems of MMOs lately. When it first released, Tera's combat system was fairly innovative among MMOs; I am most particularly fond of Mount & Blade's control system, which takes advantage of varying mouse movements to give players great versatility in how they attack (for example, you can block toward different angles, swing a sword in multiple directions, and plunge or move back while attacking in similar games). If there are any sandbox games around now that have implemented a fluid or unique combat system, or that have some innovative systems in place for non-combat activities such as crafting, it would be a huge plus in my book. I also like having lots of ways in which to interact with the world beyond pure questing combat.
Lastly, my thoughts on PVP, since I know this will likely have a large impact on what games people recommend: nice to have, but not necessary. I'm not actually a great PVPer but I do play with people who are, so it would be nice to find a sandbox game that I can confidently recommend to them should I enjoy it myself. I do not mind getting trounced into the dirt over and over again so long as the game has a hard cap system, preferably with a lower limit (so that players do not infinitely become better at the game such as in EVE online). Soft cap systems, while interesting and appealing in theory, are often not at all fun for new players when actually implemented since newbies have almost no chance of ever catching up to veteran players and being able to have a fight based on skill rather than numbers. In other words, it's perfectly fine if I enter a game expecting to be ganked over and over - so long as I do actually stand a chance of hitting the stat plateau and soon being able to say that I am winning or losing based on my playstyle, skill, character build, etc.
I have tried EVE Online but I don't like it because the gameplay is just not interesting enough to keep my attention; for me at least, it feels too impersonal and many activities involve more waiting than doing. Also, as mentioned before, I am not a fan of games that have both open-world PVP and a soft-cap system. (It's a shame, because EVE otherwise looks like a pretty great game - it just isn't the sandbox for me.) I am planning to try Darkfall Online when it re-releases.
Thank you so much for reading and I apologize for the wall of text. Any recommendations or helpful comments you can give would be appreciated!