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Gaming's Best Worlds

A selection of the very best open world (and nearly open world) games ever made.

  • Text: Sammy Cooper

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Free roaming games have always been amongst the most popular. Whether they offer a huge open world that you can explore without loading times, like Skyrim, or one with a number of expansive areas that you are given the freedom to explore individually, like Borderlands, there have been an increasing number of games opting for a more open layout. Naturally we're big fans of titles that allow you to wander freely, so we've gone to the trouble of putting together a list of the best examples (or, at least, our favourites). Here, in no particular order, are the 20 best open worlds that gaming has to offer.

Elite: Dangerous

Elite: Dangerous is a bit of a strange one when it comes to 'open world.' It's less of an open world and more of an 'open galaxy,' allowing you to explore literally thousands of star systems and planets across the whole universe. While many of the planets you can't actually land on and explore, it is still nice to be able to find your very own planet, as there are still countless undiscovered ones out there. With the Horizons expansion, you can now use a rover to explore the surface of a limited selection of planets, giving you even more freedom. If exploration isn't your thing, the game also features a pretty loaded combat system, allowing you to swap out different weapons systems and allocate power to different portions of your ship. There are many ships that allow you to explore or fight more effectively, giving you even more choice in how to play the game.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3 was one of the best games of last year, so there was never any doubt that its amazing and beautiful world would land a well-deserved place on this list. It is presented to you in a number of different areas, each with its own unique characteristics. These never get boring to explore thanks to excellent design, and you will always find monsters to fight, animals to hunt, or quests to complete. The world and its inhabitants have been meticulously crafted and it really shows. Some of the quests or contracts you do have so much heart and almost never pull you out of the experience, only immersing you deeper into the world of the game.

Far Cry 4

Far Cry 4 makes this list over 3 mainly due to the extra level of verticality that you get. In the game you explore the fictional Himalayan country of Kyrat, which brings with it a lush and vibrant world brimming with animal and human life everywhere you go. The game's map is split into six different regions, with each region having its own characteristics and appeal. Scattered all around the dense wilderness of the country are signs of human intervention, from radio towers and outposts to palaces and factories reminding you that civilisation does exist in Far Cry 4 amongst the local fauna. The aforementioned verticality helps the game shine in terms of exploration, and from quite early on in the game you are given the grappling hook and wingsuit, letting you climb mountains, and plummet back down at high speeds. This gives you a great view of the beautiful landscape laid out before you, and the fact you can explore most of what you're seeing makes it even more special.

Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V, on its release back in 2013, was lauded by fans for the freedom and level of detail that the world offers and this holds up today, having been upgraded for current gen console and PC releases. In 2016 it still has has easily one of the most beautiful and varied worlds out there, second only to maybe The Witcher 3. Set in Los Santos, a fictional adaptation of Los Angeles, the player is given the freedom to explore a massive area that is packed to the brim with personality. You've got the city, the desert, the mountains and the forest to explore. If that wasn't enough, the world feels very much alive, with animals in the wilderness, and interactions everywhere you go.

Fallout: New Vegas

We picked Fallout: New Vegas over 3 or 4 because in our humble opinion Fallout: New Vegas tends to provide a more complete package than the other two. Fallout 3's open world did a fantastic job of immersing you in the atmosphere, but when you got down into it there wasn't really that much to do. Fallout: New Vegas really was the fuller experience - you were never lacking something to busy yourself with, and the environment was filled with variety. Obsidian managed to craft a world that felt torn apart and ravaged by its inhabitants. That isn't to say Bethesda didn't with their games, but we thought it felt more rewarding to explore New Vegas, as you'd be met with loads of different experiences every time.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

We'd be mad if an Elder Scrolls game wasn't somewhere on this list. There was a great deal of debate on which game should be included, though; Morrowind, with its wild, almost alien environment, Oblivion, with its incredibly varied landscapes, or Skyrim, with its harsh but beautiful mountainous regions. Skyrim ended up the winner, mainly as it's the latest entry in the series, and is by proxy the prettiest of the bunch. Skyrim's map offers a world that changes in every location. You can travel from the cold, harsh mountains of Markarth to the wide open plains Whiterun, or from the lush forests of Falkreath to the dense marshes of Morthal, and everywhere in-between. Skyrim's map not only offers immense variation, however, as it also feels alive, like a living, breathing world. You could be travelling the land and come across animals to hunt, and be attacked by wolves, bears, or even one of the main features of the game, dragons. Everywhere you go you encounter these formidable beasts, and it really adds to the game's dynamic feel.

Minecraft

Minecraft is an odd one, and it almost feels like cheating including it, but it needs a mention, even if it is different to the rest here. Minecraft is the true definition of a sandbox game, giving you a randomly generated world for you to mess around in each time you start a new game. What's more, it is almost infinite in size, meaning you can explore as much as you'd like until you find the perfect area to settle in. As an open world game, it does enough to keep you invested and exploring, and there is immense variation in what you will find, with over 60 different 'biomes,' each yielding a different look, feel and effect. Minecraft really gives you the ultimate level of freedom.

Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar, with the creation of Red Dead Redemption, have proven that they are amongst the masters of world building. The Wild West setting of Red Dead Redemption really pulls you in, especially in the early portions of the game. It's an absolute pleasure to ride around, just you and your trusty steed, and experience all the American south has to offer. From the cold northern mountains, to the Mexican south with its desert climate, via the heart of the map with its quintessential western feel. It's brimming with wildlife, the weather changes dynamically, and the game's many events add flair to the world. One of the best things about Read Dead Redemption's open world, though, is its size. For a map that is primarily focused around travelling via horse, the map isn't quite as big as, say, GTA, but that's fine. The map's scale is perfect, and gives it a level of familiarity you don't see anywhere else. It really isn't a stretch to say that Red Dead Redemption has one of the nicest open worlds in gaming, ever.

Burnout Paradise

You can spend hours driving around Burnout's Paradise City, just taking in the beautiful scenery. You can drive along the beautiful coastline, or take a turn inland and speed through the mountains. There are five different districts for the game, which can generally be split into an urban area and a rural area. The urban areas offer tight driving with lots of straight roads and sharp turns, where the rural areas give you the opportunity to cruise along at your own pace. You can change and customise your cars and bikes as much as you wish, unlocking more paint jobs and other little bits as you win races and more. The game has been out for a long time now, but is still looks great with a rich open world, making it well worth picking up.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The Assassin's Creed games have always been good for their open worlds, allowing you to climb and parkour over the rooftops of different historical cities and towns. Assassin's Creed III built upon this, allowing you to move swiftly through the snowy woodlands of a revolutionary northern America, and giving you a ship to explore the open sea. The fourth instalment is where the world came into its own, though, giving you a vast sea and a series of Central American islands to work through and explore. As you sail across the sea, you come up against ships and strongholds from different factions and engage in a fierce battle to control the waters. When you get bored of the open water, you can also make your way to one of the many islands dotted around the map, and explore the many environments they have to offer.

Just Cause 3

Just Cause 2 was touted as having a huge map upon release - one of the biggest in the industry. The main issue with the world of Just Cause 2, however, was that even though it was huge, after a little time it felt plain and it got a little boring. Just Cause 3 is around the same size horizontally, but the design of the map allows for a lot more vertical movement. The main difference between the two is that the latest edition doesn't get as boring nearly as quickly. You have so much more in the way of tools and ways to get around that you can have genuine fun in the world. For a start, the flight suit allows for a swift and stylish way to fly around the map. There are many more areas to destroy and create chaos in, and one of the more popular tools in Rico's arsenal is the booster mine which propels things upon activation, making for some hilarious events when combined with the grappling hook.

World of Warcraft

When it was originally released in 2004, the base World of Warcraft map was almost unmatched in its vastness. Blizzard were obviously doing something right back then, as the game was amongst the most popular in the world for a long time. Azeroth, where the game is set, has since grown into more than just the one nation, and the map now spans across multiple massive continents that each have their own unique lore, quests and inhabitants. Since release, Azeroth has seen the addition of two huge landmasses, and separate from the Azeroth map is Draenor and Outland, another two equally huge areas. Legion will undoubtedly grow this world even more, adding more lore and areas for us to travel through in the future.

Batman Arkham City

Batman: Arkham Asylum was a fantastic game, with a great combat system and beautiful world, that told a brilliant story. When its sequel, Arkham City was released, Rocksteady somehow managed to build even further on the last game and bring us an expertly made city to roam around and fight crime in. Arkham City is comprised of multiple districts, each run by a different bad guy, and the game lets you roam around as you see fit. Of course, from the start a number of areas are inaccessible, blocked off by story segments or the lack of a certain upgrade, but it's still fun to glide around the area in style. The game didn't just have a sprawling cityscape above ground, though; a large part of the game is set underground and internal spaces are just as satisfying to explore, being loaded with puzzles and secrets. The hundreds of collectables offered in the form of Riddler trophies and riddles, among other things, ensure the map doesn't get boring either, with each one offering a different challenge.

Saints Row IV

In a similar vein to that of Crackdown, the latest Saints Row game might not have the coolest of cities, but flying and jumping around it as a Neo-like superhero certainly makes it cool enough for a spot on this list. You are given the power of flight, super speed, super strength, and overall general badassery. This makes exploring the streets of Steelport and fighting against an alien invasion even more wacky and fun than what you've come to expect from a Saints Row game. The city that you play around in isn't quite as varied as Crackdown's, but this is something we can forgive as so much more is packed into the areas in this game.

Dark Souls

Dark Souls is a strange one when it comes to open world, and there was a great deal of debate as to whether or not it should be included in this list. The game isn't open world in the same sense as Skyrim or Far Cry, but you are certainly allowed to move around the map as you see fit. What's so special about Dark Souls is that if you see a location in the distance, no matter how far, chances are you can get there. You can travel around and have access to most of the map from pretty much the beginning of the game, taking on routes in whatever order you see fit. Routes are fairly linear, but you are met with a number of obstacles on the way, and paths twist and turn, which makes the game feel much more open. The best thing about the Dark Souls world, aside from the challenge it presents you, is its design and aesthetic. Lordran is gritty and unforgiving, and enemies are extraordinarily well-designed to compliment this. You can travel from the precarious walkways of the infamous Blighttown, where you'll run into disgusting fire-spitting creatures, to the pristine hallways and cathedral of Anor Londo, where you'll find giant armoured sentinels.

Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping dogs is similar to Grand Theft Auto in the sense that it's an open world crime game, but it is far from 'just another GTA clone.' The game takes place in Hong Kong, allowing you to roam the streets of an altogether different city, like none other before it. All of the recent GTA games have been set somewhere in America, so having a game with a similar style set halfway across the world is refreshing to say the least. The game's map is split into four main districts, and as you'd expect, each one has its own characteristics and defining features. North Point is full of densely packed buildings and traditional Chinese markets. Central contains modernised high-rise buildings, filled with supercars that gives you the idea that it's the richer district. The other two districts offer an equally unique experience, and you are given free rein to explore every one. Certainly one of the standout open worlds in gaming, and definitely worth exploring.

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 isn't an open world game in the sense that you can explore the whole map free of loading times, but it is split into massive open areas that you can move through freely. The game has a great variety in terms of these areas, and each zone has its own unique style, characteristics, and enemies. The variation in this game is huge - and you can do it all entirely in co-op mode with friends, adding another layer of fun to the game. It's also quite funny. If you haven't played Borderlands 2, you're sorely missing out.

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Red Faction: Guerrilla is set on the planet Mars, which is something you don't often see in a game. Previous titles in the series weren't open world, so some were worried about the switch for the series, but it definitely paid off. The unique destruction mechanics that the series is known for were dialled up to 11, and you can roam around the surface of Mars fighting the tyrannical EDF, fighting as a member of the rebel forces in an attempt to win freedom for the people of the red planet. The map is sizeable, and the fact that much of it looks the same doesn't matter too much; there are still plenty of distinct locations for you to explore and wreak havoc in.

Dying Light

Dying Light lets you roam freely around a zombie infested city of Harran and the surrounding areas. The map is huge and fun to explore, the collectables adding another layer of challenge as well. One of the core aspects of Dying Light is the free-roam capability, which lets you run around the rooftops avoiding much of the growing zombie population, and feel like a complete badass whilst doing so. In an evolution of the mechanics from Dead Island, you can also craft your own unique weaponry from blueprints scattered around the map, giving more incentive to explore every nook and cranny of each area, which is already beautiful to look at, despite being mostly desolate and abandoned.

Crackdown

Crackdown just about secures a spot on this list, mainly because there isn't quite anything flying around an ultra-modern city with just a single jump, taking on the vicious underbelly of the city at the same time. The world of Crackdown puts you in the shoes of a genetically enhanced police officer who upgrades over time and puts his powers to good use. The map is split into distinct areas, each with their own unique style and a gang boss at the head of it all. The Keep, your headquarters, is at the core of the experience and you can go where you like from the start. A lot of open world games made around the same time as Crackdown would go ahead and lock out certain areas in order to preserve a difficulty curve and give the world to you in segments. Crackdown, however, gives you a place to start as a recommendation but you can go anywhere you like from the very beginning. The city wasn't particularly interesting to explore, but that didn't matter much when you sprint through it at breakneck speeds.

So there you have it, a selection of the very best open worlds in gaming. Of course there are a few we missed out, like the one in Metal Gear Solid V or Prototype, and we're extremely optimistic about the upcoming Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and we're sorry if we missed your top choice. Tell us in the comments if there's another world that gets your vote.