While video games can provide limitless escapism in the form of a highly fascinating linear story, we have a soft place in our hearts for a huge open world where you can easily get lost. To that aim, we’ve compiled a list of our top gaming open worlds.
This isn’t a list of our greatest open-world games, but rather our favorite worlds in and of themselves – whether they’re made up of miles of untamed wilderness, countless blocks of urban sprawl, or something in between, these are the top 5 video game open worlds.
1. Horizon: Zero Dawn
Something about being thrown into a fresh new gaming world and finding it to be dense with carefully thought lore, terrifyingly hostile animals, and tantalizing questions leaves an indelible impact on the mind. Horizon Zero Dawn is one of those games, and it manages to carve out a distinct niche for itself in the popular action-roleplaying genre.
Horizon’s marvelously versatile combat and a story that touches on unexpectedly serious topics found it difficult for me to leave it even after I’d completed the game’s main campaign some 40 hours later. Horizon’s premise is a great mystery that screams to be answered, so there’s a sense of urgency from the start.
The questions posed by protagonist Aloy and the primitive, machine-infested open world she inhabits had me guessing the entire time: what’s at the heart of it all? Horizon has some clichéd dialogue that betrays its intelligence, but the larger issues it explores – such as the origin of creation – are extremely ambitious.
Aloy’s charisma made me care more about her journey on a personal level. She’s a charming character to watch and play as because of the wry wit that tempers her big-hearted heroism; some of my favorite smaller moments came from Aloy’s sarcastic interactions with other characters who didn’t get the joke.
Nimbly voiced by Ashly Burch (known for her performance as Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2), she’s a charming character to watch and play as because of the wry wit that tempers her big- Though you have some control over how she reacts to circumstances for conversation variety, she is mainly a well-intentioned character, which is consistent with Horizon’s overall story.
Once Aloy is out in the great wide world, she’ll have a lot more options. Horizon’s combat is its most captivating element, because to the diversity found among the 26 different kinds of animal-like machines that populate its vast far-future expanse.
These beasts have a number of weak areas that can be scanned with Aloy’s Focus (a lore-friendly equipment that gives you Witcher-like heightened senses), and striking different points might result in different outcomes, changing how a fight plays out.
Send a piercing arrow into a big fire-spewing Bellowback’s bulging ‘cargo bag,’ for example, and a massive explosion will result. Destroy the armoured sac on a flying, ice-shooting Glinthawk’s chest to temporarily freeze the bird, or shoot the cannon from the back of a tiger-like Ravager and pick it up to blast a T-Rex-like Thunderjaw, who you only just glimpsed approaching from the corner of your eye during the fight.
It’s fast-paced action, and there are no tutorials to guide you through how to best approach the beasts, resulting in more satisfying victories. Horizon made me feel like a ridiculously successful warrior after I learned how to fight competently, without surrendering the critical sense that any significant combat may easily result in my death, thanks in large part to the savagery of the machines themselves.
Even if they patrol on fixed routes, the ‘herbivores’ will attack immediately if they notice you, and will continue to scan for you if you manage to hide.
These artificial beasts are authentically animalistic on offense. Snapmaws, massive mechanical alligators, will swipe with their tails and spit ice from their mouths, while tiger-like Ravagers will charge at you with surprising speed for a full body smash up close.
Avoiding their strikes necessitates the frequent use of Aloy’s roll motion, as well as the usage of the rapid on-the-fly building mechanism to counter munitions tailored to the threat. Aloy’s armament consists mostly of upgraded ‘basic’ weapons.
Thanks to her Concentration talent, which slows time and allows for dead-eye aiming, her upgradable bows and elemental-infused arrows – your primary weapon – feel excellent to wield. She also has access to a few more advanced weapons, such as the Ropecaster, which fires ropes to immobilize adversaries, and the Tripcaster, which fires explosive tripwire traps at a distance.
Though these more inventive weapons sound fantastic in principle, they’re extremely slow and complicated to operate when dealing with several threats, and I found the most difficult machines to be far too fast and powerful to be truly useful. When you’re up against a wall, it’s fun to play around with against lesser enemies during more casual hunts, but not so much when you’re up against a wall.
Horizon does not encourage you to just walk into any fight and start shooting. Larger beasts are surrounded by velociraptor-like sentry bots called Watchers, so if you’re not careful, you’ll be outnumbered and consumed in seconds.
To counter this, there’s usually a quiet path to take: hiding in swaths of tall red grass and drawing machines gives you a chance for a stealth kill, and if youmake spotted, Aloy’s Concentration skill will come in handy in helping you land an arrow right in that Watcher’s prying eye before making a quick escape.
It’s a shame that drawing specialized machines away from their packs takes so long; simple hunts for a single animal sometimes turn into enormous battles against multiple types.
Alternatively, Aloy will learn how to bypass the machines’ minds in the field while exploring her world, so she won’t have to do all the labor alone (to tell you how would ruin a wonderful surprise). Overriding has diverse effects depending on the machine – some will become docile mounts, while others will fight for you, killing their own kind.
These overrides can stay longer as your skill tree improves, allowing you to essentially build up a small army of loyal, violent steeds. It’s smugly rewarding to watch them wreck havoc on the field from a safe place.
2. Far Cry 4
Kyrat, a Himalayan country full of myth, faith, secrets, deceit, and beauty, is one of the most well-realized settings I’ve ever seen in a video game. Kyrat is a dense, densely populated, aesthetically diversified place that feels lived in, ripped up, and ancient. Far Cry 4 makes the most of every available advantage to make a wonderful open world for first-person action and adventure, but continually failing to create engaging characters.
The shallow, ambivalent protagonist is the film’s most notable flaw. The American son of Kyrati independence warriors, Ajay Ghale, returns to his Himalayan birthplace to spread his mother’s ashes and becomes engaged in his parents’ revolution. It’s a clever, human premise, but Ajay isn’t quite as engaging as the things he accomplishes.
Far Cry 4’s first-person exploration and combat are characterized by their versatility. Climbing gear in hand, I mounted cliffs in search of treasure, sacred monuments, and hostages in need of rescuing. I stole oxygen masks and snowmobiles to survive in the Himalayan highlands, and I used the unstable climate to smash foes with snow.
I wanted to learn more about a tragic story conveyed in long-lost letters. Beautiful landscapes had me in awe of Kyrat’s lakes, mountains, and other beautiful surroundings, and collectible calling cards had me on the trail of a serial killer.
On Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, this is often hampered by lower-resolution graphics and a shorter draw distance, although Far Cry 4 is visually comparable to Far Cry 3, and meets expectations for old-generation technology.
I adored exploring every inch of Kyrat since it was constantly full of intriguing possibilities. The goal of freeing it from the repressive government was always at the forefront; similar to Far Cry 3, enemy-occupied towers serve as platforming challenges with a satisfying sense of personal progress. Climbing to the top provides you a better view of the world, marking important landmarks and unlocking additional goals.
Liberating outposts in Far Cry 4 is more difficult than in its predecessor, but it’s also more rewarding. If you take the stealth route, you can disable individual alarms to prevent enemy reinforcements and use bait to attract tigers, bears, and other animals to divert the enemy’s attention away from you.
The Hunter, a new, silent foe wielding a bow and capable of luring animals into fighting for him, is a formidable counter. He introduces a new variable, which made me think even harder about how these two excellent combat systems interacted.
In Far Cry 4, these encounters highlight the importance of improvisation. The unpredictability of a scenario spiraling out of control frequently results in disastrous, unforgettable events, such as the time I used C4 to blow up a bear to protect the hired guns I’d called in to assist take an outpost.
I once fired grenades from my personal helicopter, causing the enemies below to become trapped in the fire. I also mounted an elephant, smashed through a gate, and flipped a pickup truck into a man at another time. Tossing opponents with my elephant’s one-hit-kill trunk is pretty much all I imagined.
When a friend jumps in for some two-player co-op, outpost engagements — notably the four larger fortifications owned by government leaders — are at their best. When you add another person to the chaos of Far Cry combat, you get new kinds of frantic, hilarious situations.
Cooperative multiplayer introduces up new tactical possibilities, such as having one player blast down the front entrance while another slips in through the back door to stab guards who are distracted.
Far Cry 4’s competitive multiplayer captures the game’s co-op and campaign’s flexibility, size, and surprises admirably. Far Cry Chronicles is a 5v5 competitive multiplayer game in which two asymmetrical groups fight in distinct ways, taking advantage of the wide-open surroundings to their advantage.
Guns, explosives, vehicles, and traps abound in The Golden Path, as they do in other Far Cry games. The Rakshasa, who rely on invisibility and various types of arrows for their bow, borrow mystical powers from Shangri-La.
Teleporting with the Blink Arrow, whether for navigation, escape, or an immediate kill, is a fantastic tool in the Rakshasa style. Having a tiger or bear defend an area is a fantastic idea. In-game achievements generate coins, which can be used on new weapons, attachments, or skills, such as increased stealth, faster movement, or a tighter connection to wildlife summoning.
Chronicles’ maps aren’t particularly noteworthy, and the modes are basic, unimpressive, but serviceable, but it’s almost astonishing that Far Cry 4’s heart and soul found it into a competitive mode at all. It’s a lot that matches begin regardless of whether or not teams are evenly matched, and that few people are actually playing, because this is a fantastic game. Multiplayer isn’t why you play a Far Cry game, so don’t miss it.
However, the supernatural side-story set in Shangri-La stands out above all others. The kaleidoscopic, gorgeous look of its red vegetation and golden skies, like a miniature Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon doled out in portions throughout Far Cry 4, is utterly unlike Kyrat, as is the foundation of its combat.
It’s designed to be linear, yet it introduces enough fresh and interesting ideas to stand on its own. It’s a tremendous change of pace to team up with a powerful tiger, slow time, and fire five arrows at a time to take out dangerous demons. The mythology is told in installments, and while I didn’t entirely comprehend the legend, I couldn’t wait to learn more about Shangri-strange, La’s lovely world.
3. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, unlike its predecessor, doesn’t exactly take off like a rocket. In comparison to The Witcher 2, when you’re thrown into a fascinating story of intrigue and betrayal right away, this primary mission might feel dull, even perfunctory at points.
But every time I veered off the set route to forge my own way, it turned into a wild, open, exhilarating fantasy roleplaying game, replete with opportunity to use its outstanding combat to good use. Even after more than 100 hours with The Witcher 3, I’m still tempted to keep playing since there’s so much more I want to learn and hunt for.
In terms of RPG mechanics, The Witcher 3 is just as dense and deep as the previous two games in the series, and the immensely huge open-world area has made that depth both daunting and rewarding in the long run. It’s difficult to put into words how vast and open this world is: lush, rolling fields studded with swaying vegetation of various shapes and sizes fill the gap between loosely connected, run-down settlements where people struggle to make ends meet.
The Witcher 3’s scenery is one of the most authentic-feeling open spaces I’ve ever seen, thanks to a full day/night cycle and dynamic weather. A nice minimap directs you to your desired location, which may appear to be a crutch, but without it, I would have been completely lost. It’s a remarkable feat that a world of this magnitude yet feels purposeful and full of things to do.
The technical performance on the PS4 version I reviewed is the one caveat to all of that. Transitions between The Witcher 3’s two main maps are just a little too long, and minor errors do appear from time to time. None of it had any significant influence on gameplay, however it did slightly detract from the overall beauty of the experience.
This new open-world map obviously has repercussions for the tale’s structure, and while there are moments of brilliance, The Witcher 3’s main story is ultimately the least satisfying part of the game. It’s a new case of The Elder Scrolls Syndrome, if you will. Our story opens with Geralt’s long-lost lover Yennifer and Ciri, his surrogate daughter, on a multi-continent search.
The extremely long primary story is effectively just Geralt conducting errands for people in return for information about Ciri’s whereabouts, and that is my single biggest complaint. It successfully maintains concentration and momentum, although it feels more like a wild goose chase than a compelling puzzle to solve, like in Assassins of Kings.
There is some emotional reward along the road thanks to lots of superb conversation and voice acting, but it’s mixed in with too much filler in the form of useless fetch quests and collectathons. I’d have to abruptly stop to guide a goat or search for a lost, narcoleptic dwarf every time I felt like I was on the edge of an interesting epiphany.
Even Geralt can’t hide his annoyance with the never-ending barrage of trivial activities at times. It’s also worth noting that, while you can get by fine without having played the first two games in the series, Ciri is more or less a complete stranger until the last quarter of the journey, which made it difficult for me to care as much about finding her as The Witcher 3 expected me to – especially given the slew of intriguing characters who are relegated to playing background roles.
Thankfully, once you get off the beaten path, they all get a chance to shine, and that’s where The Witcher 3 gets nearly everything incredibly right. Lots of familiar faces return to play a role in Geralt’s search, and once they have, they offer you a secondary line of quests that typically provide far more interesting scenarios to dabble in, depending on your decisions in The Witcher 2 (which can be handily recreated via some dialogue early in the game).
These extra adventures include underground turf fights, assassination plots, love triangles, and unexpected alliances. They’re all so substantial and full of rich story information that they feel like they belong in the main story.
A lot of the side tasks you pick up in the field are in the same boat. Aside from the usual side missions, monster lairs, and bandit camps dotted around The Witcher 3’s vast landmass, you can also pursue a number of monster-hunting Witcher contracts.
Geralt’s prey includes ethereal wraiths that must be made corporeal before they can be harmed, as well as Foglets who hide in thick smog, waiting for a chance to attack. The result is twofold: these are your most reliable source of revenue, which is refreshingly considerable thanks to an appropriately stingy in-game economy, as per the lore.
The entire world is in disarray. Tension is thick in the air, as is the smoke from burned villages. The formidable Nilfgaard Empire has attacked once more, wreaking havoc on the beleaguered Northern Kingdoms. The once-mighty who attempted to profit from Geralt are no longer with us. In these perilous times, no one can predict what fate will bring, who will bring peace to the world and who will only bring pain.
However, a darker and more deadly force emerges. The petty men and women in play of tin-plated armies don’t realize that their conflict is little compared to the Wild Hunt, the extraterrestrial peril that suddenly threatens them. These dreadful phantom riders have haunted humanity for millennia, wreaking havoc on the world.
4. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a clever, sweeping sequel that rightly emphasizes freedom and fun while eliminating most of the fat from the ambitious but uneven adventure of Assassin’s Creed III. Ubisoft’s version on the Golden Age of Piracy starts in 1715 and has a much-appreciated lighter tone that isn’t hesitant to make fun at itself in the pursuit of a good time.
Sailing throughout the vast Caribbean, discovering beautiful and unique islands, and getting yourself into all sorts of swashbuckling mischief provides some of the most satisfying and memorable gaming I’ve had all year. Even after playing the Xbox 360, Wii U, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4 versions for well over 40 hours, I’m still finding new islands to explore and tombs to raid.
Whatever system you choose to play Black Flag on, you can rest assured that it will be one of the best-looking games of the year. The current-gen versions enhance the already stunning AC 3 by adding well-lit tropical areas and amazing water effects on the open seas.
And because to minimum loading and maximum draw distances that appear to run on forever on next gen, the experience is even more remarkable. When your ship hits top speed, the camera zooms out, the speakers blast you with wind noises, and the sunset turns blood-orange, it’s absolutely breathtaking.
Off-screen support is included in all versions of the game. The Wii U GamePad can be used as a map to help you find a particularly hidden piece of treasure, or you can use it to play Black Flag directly from your controller’s screen.
The other versions are compatible with Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV Companion App, a free download that transforms any tablet into a hub for maps, an Animus database, and more. In Black Flag, there’s a lot of information to take in, and being able to use a second screen instead of continually jumping in and out of menus helps you stay immersed in the experience.
Black Flag learns from AC 3’s first ten hours of tedious hand-holding by pushing you right into the action. The world blossoms and enables you to explore its vast undiscovered waters after a short and intense opening mission that places you in the blood-soaked boots of Connor’s considerably livelier and more likeable grandfather Edward Kenway.
The vastness of the world, along with the abundance of enjoyable and gratifying activities, made me want to get as lost as possible as I moved from point A to point B.
Black Flag is at its best when you disregard the main mission prompt and go off in search of your own fun. It treats you like an adult, allowing you to explore its beautiful and bustling world at your leisure. Do you want to discover every nook and cranny of Kingston in search of Templar secrets?
Or would you rather acquire a modest fishing boat and go on a quest for all kinds of dangerous marine monsters, using the money you earn to upgrade your character? Perhaps all you want to do is sail to a lonely island, climb to the top of a mountain, and gaze out at the world. The theme of Black Flag is to embrace freedom and forge your own path through world.
The multiplayer feature, which refines the distinctive cat-and-mouse gameplay introduced in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, also gives you the freedom to construct your own adventures.
Blending in with your surroundings and attempting to fool other players into thinking you’re an A.I.-controlled NPC gives plenty of stressful and exciting mayhem. It’s a pleasant twist to the basic deathmatch that’s become the norm in most online games, but it’s not enough to keep players coming back to Black Flag.
The series’ trademark feeling of momentum is also back and better than ever. It does a great job of combining Assassin’s Creed II’s vertical city-based traversal with AC 3’s dynamic frontier movement.
Edward did, however, occasionally disobey my directions by errantly jumping from rooftops and climbing up walls that I had no intention of scaling in the first place, but these were minor annoyances. In addition, the vastness of the world invites a few snags.
For example, if you leave the area, the body of a guard holding a crucial key may vanish, forcing you to redo the mission. These sorts of annoyances abound in Black Flag, and although they’re not bit-breaking, they did have a habit of yanking me out of the experience far too often.
Ubisoft skillfully avoids the depressing spaghetti bowl that has become Assassin’s Creed’s plot lines in favor of a more lighter tale that celebrates the adventurous spirit of old pirate tales. I liked how Edward is unlike his Assassin relatives in that he is more concerned with making money than with some mysterious cabal’s ambitions.
It’s a welcome change of pace from a show that had begun to take itself too seriously. The fact that Black Flag is less brutal than its predecessors reflects this lighter tone. Death animations are brief and sweet, with surprising little blood for a game that revolves around stabbing people. The restraint is commendable, and it makes battle more fun than it has been in recent years.
On the other hand, Black Flag tends to replicate some of the Assassin’s Creed series’ more egregious errors, such as requiring you to follow a potential victim at a safe distance for minutes while being fed exposition. It irritates me that I had to make to 10 minutes of rarely noteworthy dialogue before I could get to the kill.
While the primary tale is a letdown, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved my time outside of the Animus. These first-person missions are mostly optional, although they’re quite great. As a new Abstergo employee tasked with developing an entertainment product based on Edward’s life, you’ll rapidly become engaged in a bit of corporate espionage, leading to the discovery of a plethora of secrets that hilariously hint to the series’ future.
5. Watch Dogs 2
Watch Dogs 2 excels with open mission designs with various ways to accomplish your objective and some great toys to find them with, by expanding on a lot of what the first game and its expansion got right and mixing action, stealth, and puzzle gameplay with handy remote-control drones. I’m torn between the tone of the story and the characters, but I had a lot of fun exploring the Bay Area map.
In practically every area, this is a tremendous upgrade over the original Watch Dogs. One of the most common criticisms of the original Watch Dogs is that Aiden Pearce, the “fixer” hacker protagonist, is a dull and unlikable character. Ubisoft listened and left Pearce in Chicago, picking up in the Bay Area with Marcus Holloway, a far more likable hacker vigilante who is motivated by a philosophy rather than blind vengeance and who doesn’t always take himself seriously.
Marcus has a lot more appeal to me, save from a couple cringe-inducing jokes. Despite the fact that he and his vigilante hacker group, Dedsec, are a little rude and petty in their struggle against the Orwellian surveillance state that this version of America has become, they’re mostly likeable.
But, surprise twist, that’s a problem, because I don’t believe Marcus is a serial killer who slaughters people by the dozen with garish, 3D-printed assault weaponry. He appears to be a fundamentally nice person, and his raving against the misuse of people’s personal information in the sceneries is heartfelt.
The mission then begins, and he may assassinate a number of private security guards, gang members, or even actual San Francisco police officers, before returning to being pretty happy-go-lucky in the cutscenes, unconcerned by the murder and turmoil.
It’s a strange disconnect that feels different from roleplaying as a violent criminal like Trevor Philips or Michael de Santa, and it was something I was continually noticing and felt wrong about, even if it didn’t alter the mechanics.
Marcus’ nature is the sole factor pushing us toward a non-lethal playstyle of stealth and silent takedowns because there is no morality system to punish (or reward) violent actions. While it isn’t as well-developed as a game like Hitman (you can’t, for example, hide unconscious victims to escape detection), Watch Dogs 2 is as much a stealth as an action game.
Finding a stealthy path to an objective is a more fascinating and difficult method to play that requires you to use all of your equipment, including drones that can drive through narrow areas or soar to hack something you couldn’t reach before.
They’re great for scouting an area before charging in. It’s a shame that attempts to keep the body count down aren’t rewarded – ghosting a mission perfectly earns you the same reward as turning everyone you meet into ghosts. Non-lethal measures aren’t quite adequate when you’re caught in the middle of a high-tech heist, despite my best efforts.
You can melee someone and knock them out (or perhaps being smacked in the face by Marcus’ makeshift melee weapon kills them, I’m not sure), and you have an infinite-ammo stun pistol that can incapacitate people at a distance, although it’s slow to shoot (even with an upgrade). It’s no match for a swarm of SMG-wielding guards, so out come the big guns, which isn’t always a good thing.
Shootouts erupt, with the same cover-based shooting that has become all too common in open-world crime games. Watch Dogs 2 is distinct from other games in that you’re not very durable even on normal difficulties, and the AI is rather skilled at using cover and aggressively flanking. (Also, a lot more gangs in San Francisco have hand grenades than I expected.)
However, you have enough indirect attack means to feel great in a fight, and some of them are a lot of fun. Enemies carrying explosives can be hacked to detonate their bombs, some can be stunned by overloading their headset communications gear, and anyone standing near a hackable piece of equipment in the surroundings can be shocked or blown up at the touch of a button.
But my favorite feature is the ability to call enraged gang members or police officers and use false proof to target them at whomever you want. It’s not just a means of attack; it’s also a great way to distract the guards: I adore inviting them in from the far side of an area and then sprinting in to take my objective while they’re too preoccupied with them to see me.
This amusing ability can be employed in a semi-game-breaking way: you can keep summoning them in until every enemy is killed without lifting a finger (until your power meter recharges). Hacking in general is more flexible than it was in the first Watch Dogs; most hackable items have multiple options. For instance, you can use a hack to open a door or lock it so that no one can follow you for a short seconds.
An electrical box can be detonated to stun someone nearby, made to go haywire to attract attention, or turned as a mine that would detonate when someone approaches too close. In fact, there may be too many hackable stuff strewn about, to the point where I frequently struggle to choose the appropriate one in instances where timing is critical.
This is a great open world map, and I’m not just saying it because I was born in the Bay Area and have spent nearly my entire life here. The version in Watch Dogs 2 is extremely condensed, with entire neighborhoods being deleted, although all of the important landmarks are roughly where they should be. (The continuously gridlocked traffic was thankfully excluded.)
It’s a fun and diverse area to explore and run amok, and it’s surreal to be in the middle of a car chase and look up and see the Moscone Center, the Palace of Fine Arts, the Painted Ladies, Fisherman’s Wharf, or Stanford University. I’d recommend it for virtual travel, especially if you’ve visited before and want to brush up on your knowledge.