Rough day at school or work? There’s only one way to unwind. Switch on your console and escape to a world of wonder and excitement without leaving the comfort of your room. Yes, whether ancient forgotten ruins, dense cityscapes teeming with life or uncharted star systems, video games allow us to dive headlong into all of them.
And long after we’ve completed the campaign and secured all those sweet trophies, part of us wishes we could be back soaking up those captivating worlds, even if they’re full of frost trolls, deadly mechs or rival gunslingers.
With that in mind, here are the best open worlds in gaming.
Grand Theft Auto 5
As a tongue in cheek pastiche of our world, or L.A., California, to be more precise, Los Santos has it all: not so subtle innuendo, dodgy yoga instructors, rampant capitalism, psychotic gangsters and American excess that threaten to push any sane individual over the edge.
There’s just so much to do in GTA 5. Not only is it teeming with life, there’s random encounters, bizarre NPC missions, stunt jumps and more cars to steal than in Jeremy Clarkson’s garage. If that wasn’t enough, you can lose yourself in the tonne of side pursuits, such as property development, golf, tennis, darts, shooting ranges and the rest.
Need more variety? How about living life in Los Santos as one of the three very different protagonists, where you’ll engage in heists, assassination missions, and more than your fair share of car chases? And all in a map that combines the dense and diverse metropolis of L.A. with the rural, “countrified” wilderness and rolling hills of Blaine County.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2
You know a great indicator of a truly fantastic open world? Where you choose to forgo fast travel, instead traversing through the environment as nature intended. In Spider-Man 2’s case, that means swinging, flying, and falling with style.
You can practically feel the air rushing past you as you swing through a near-perfect replica of New York. And when we say perfect, it’s a marriage of timeless landmarks such as Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Brooklyn Bridge with the shiny highrises and dilapidated tower blocks of the city that never sleeps.
And of course, nothing beats that feeling of chaining a series of webglide, webswing and stunt jumps to your destination. Speaking of destinations, Marvel fans are spoilt for choice, with a who’s who of superhero easter eggs tucked into Manhattan and beyond, including the Sanctum Sanctorum, Avengers Tower and the Raft.
Sure, random crimes can get repetitive after a while, and there might not be as many side activities as others on this list, but we’ll take any excuse to blitz past New York’s skyline via the web.
Sorry, NY subway, we’d rather fly.
The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 is nearly a decade old, but it still captures the hearts of gamers who love to free roam in a gorgeous, scrawling landscape, even if it’s full of drowners, golems and griffins that want to tear you into pieces.
As you ride through the Continent on your trusty steed Roach, you’ll happen across some stunning sights. Take in the sights and sounds of the city of Novigrad, scale the icy isles of Skellige and charge through the rolling greens of White Orchard. Moreover, all these locales are dripping with a lived-in history and detailed lore, inviting the curious to unlock their secrets and wonderfully weird stories, inspired by Slavic folklore. It also helps that there are interactions and sidequests aplenty. And these side hustles aren’t boiled down to rudimentary sidequests, but some of the most unpredictable and imaginative narratives to tempt you off the beaten path. Go on, have another game of Gwent — we’re sure Ciri will be just fine…
As your eyes adjust to the bright daylight after leaving Vault 101, you’ll discover first-hand how much the world has changed from what you recognise.
Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland is a joy to roam through too, with towns barely hanging on to civilisation, irradiated ruins amid Washington landmarks, and the haunting remains of former Vaults to explore. These hugely atmospheric locales include Megaton, a town at ground zero of an unexploded nuclear bomb, Vault 106, a spooky former haven riddled with airborne psychoactive drugs, and the hilarious Republic of Dave. There’s also a rich tapestry of side quests to unlock, with secrets and self-contained stories galore. And guns; lots of guns.
While Fallout 4 is the more recent and graphically accomplished entry (we don’t talk about Fallout ‘76), we reckon Fallout 3 features a denser and more atmospheric world with more surprises to await our Lone Wanderer.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Skyrim has been with us for over a dozen years, and even today, people are playing it on their last-gen consoles, current-gen machines, PCs and… Amazon Alexa devices.
As the Dragonborn, you’re to take on Alduin the World-Eater, a dragon fated to destroy the world. Of course, before all that, you can join death cults, become a master of the Thieves Guild, learn to be a sorcerer, commune with ghosts, battle evil undead, and broker peace between two warring nations.
Part of Skyrim’s widespread appeal is the game’s titular setting within northern Tamriel. Featuring a bitingly cold land with a windchill that’ll give your goosebumps goosebumps, Skyrim is home to icy mountains, chilled keeps and hazardous ruins. It’s not a huge map by today’s standards, but there’s chockloads of sidequests to stumble upon and wheels of cheese to steal.
Even if Skyrim’s world is looking a little dated now, dragon-shouting an NPC off a cliff-edge never gets old. Fus ro damn.
Red Dead Redemption 2
RDR2 transports you to the new US frontier just before the turn of the 20th century, with civilisation fast catching up to a lawless land.
As Arthur Morgan, you’re part of the van der Linde gang that needs to make its way to safety following a bungled heist. Eventually, you’ll take jobs, complete heists and devise a plan to escape the threat of law and order to your way of life. And while bullets might not get you, the land’s voracious bears, crocodiles, wolves and cougars surely will if you’re not careful.
The game takes place across a handful of fictional US states, each one chockful of random and unpredictable NPC encounters. These interactions even have later consequences too — save a guy from a snakebite, and you might see him in town later bearing a reward. There’s also towns, rolling hills, murderous swamps, and the bustling city of St Denis to explore. And while you’re galloping through it all, you get a sense that this is a realistic, lived-in world. Trains depart from stations, poker games go on, and occasionally, your horse poops.
Environmental storytelling is stellar too — most abandoned abodes will be scattered with clues you can use to piece together all manner of grisly, hilarious or downright weird happenings.
Elden Ring might just be one of the more accessible Soulsbourne games in recent memory, but the Lands Between is still no walk in the park. Firstly, there’s no quest journal or mission markers, so you’re left to your own devices to discover and track objectives.
But it’s Elden Ring’s freedom that is so refreshing in this age of HUD waymarkers and objective tick lists. Crafted with the precision of a Swiss clock and deeply layered with secrets hiding secrets ala Metroidvania titles, Elden Ring’s map rewards exploration and discovery.
There’s no cities or bustling townsfolk here — instead, the areas are largely devoid of life. But each encounter is memorable, even if it’s NPCs with hauntingly tragic tales or a demigod boss who’s about to let you get up close and personal with some pointy blades. Elden Ring is a whole grander affair than the dingy dungeons of previous Souls ilk, where you’re in charge of where to go and how to level up in your journey to become the Elden Lord.
Ghost of Tsushima
It’s difficult not to stop and take in the sights of the picturesque Tsushima island in GoT, even if it’s swarming with Mongol hordes.
The game takes you through gorgeous white seas of pampas grass, mist-soaked paddy fields and dense forests of pink blossom trees. It’s utterly divine and serene, in between skirmishes with archers, swordsmen and mystic shamans trying to take you out.
And if you want to go zen, there’s bamboo sword trials to complete, springs to bathe in and foxes to follow (and yes, you can pet them).
And the best bit? With the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback, you can feel the tactile sensation of horseshoe steel on stone as your noble steed trots on paved steps.
Horizon Forbidden West
We’d have happily stayed in the Southwestern United States for Aloy’s inaugural outing in Horizon Zero Dawn. However, we’re spoilt by Guerilla Games’ imagining of the very wild Western US, where nature and massive animal robots have reclaimed much of the land.
There’s a blight affecting the entire west continent, and as the saviour of the new world, it’s your job to find out what’s been causing it.
The environment of HFW is one of the most gorgeously detailed we’ve seen. Ranging from arid, orange-tinged deserts to lush waters teeming with flora, you’ll be in photo mode for hours on end. And while the world isn’t full of random interactions say, like Red Dead Redemption 2, there’s always the threat of a Thunderjaw, Tremortusk or Slaughterspine to spice up your trek.
And when you’re done hunting for weapon and satchel upgrades, rooting through tasty loot crates and finding rare gems, scaling (and then abseiling off) a majestic Tallneck is worth it for the view alone.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
BotW’s story sees you in Link’s iconic green tunic as you attempt to once again save Hyrule and Princess Zelda, who has been locked in a century of combat with series big bad Ganon.
Now, the truly impatient can skip straight ahead to the endgame boss for a very challenging showdown. However, you’ll be missing all that BotW has to offer: a rich world teeming with tonnes to collect, food ingredients to gather, 120 puzzle shrines, 900 korok seeds, a tonne of Guardians to take out and a whole arsenal of weapons to find (and break).
What’s more, inventive players can craftily take advantage of the world’s deep physics engine to discover all manner of creative ways to traverse the land and make a dent in its bestiary. With secrets in almost every nook and cranny, we’re sure Zelda’s rescue can wait a bit longer — what’s another 100 hours?