Let’s face it, real life is kind of a lot to deal with right now. If ever there was a good time to turn off from reality for a bit, it’s now. In this post, I’ll be looking at some of the best open-world games you can jump into today, and why you should give them a try.
Open-world games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely love them. I love games that give me the freedom to explore, especially when that’s so hard to attain in real life.
During the last couple of years, in particular, it’s really helped my well-being to be able to explore virtual worlds. There’s only so much of looking at your own four walls that anyone can stand! So, with that in mind, I’ve tried to find new adventures through gaming.
Before jumping in with some recommendations though, let’s explore how open-world games are defined and their benefits.
What are open-world games?
There are different types of open-world games. Primarily, they allow players to explore a virtual world with near-total freedom. They also give players the freedom to approach tasks and objectives in any manner they choose. That level of player autonomy is the real draw of open-world gaming for me. Exploration at your leisure gives you power, time and control over your own journey.
Open-world environments are most commonly found in RPG games. Often, these titles have different paths to the endgame scenario (or scenarios, for games with multiple endings). Your choices and actions in these types of open-world games can have consequences for your end storyline.
Some open-world games do have a set path to follow through the narrative. However, you can explore a variety of environments and scenes at your own pace too. There may be a main storyline to complete but after that, the world is free for you to engage with as you like.
Building and developing your character through interaction with the world around you is another appeal of open-world games. It simulates a reality that you can exert a greater level of control over while having fun at the same time.
What are the benefits of playing open-world games?
Open-world games usually encourage a non-linear experience. Having the freedom to explore encourages your sense of curiosity and satisfies the sense of wanderlust many of us have. Playing games like these are also a great way to relax and unwind mentally.
Additionally, most MMORPG games (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games) feature an open-world setting. These titles combine exploration with social/multiplayer gaming. This encourages real-time social connection with friends or other gamers if you prefer to adventure with other people.
Open-world gameplay can also have an educational impact. Games with historical settings can enable deeper exploration and understanding of moments in time, for example. Space exploration games can give us more of an interest and insight into science and astronomy.
Often, open-world gaming has roots in scientific, technological, cultural or historical reality, and a lot can be gleaned from that. These virtual worlds open our brains up to a multitude of ‘what if’ thinking, which is crucial for boosting imaginative and creative mindsets.
Awesome open-world adventure games
Below are some great open-world games that you can jump into and break free of real life for a bit. If your favourite isn’t included here make sure to let me know in the comments. Open-world gaming is ever-evolving, so there are bound to be a few favourites that I’ve missed out here.
For me, interactivity with non-playable characters in an open world is a key feature of making a game immersive. That’s why I’ve chosen this particular selection of games above certain others.
There are a few affiliate links in this post to some of the games I’ll be recommending.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (2020)
The latest in the long-running Assassin’s Creed series takes us back to the Viking Age, particularly in medieval England and Norway. It’s one of my favourite open-world adventures to sink some hours into. With a heavy grounding in real-life historical events, there’s a lot to love about exploring the British Isles during the time of the Vikings.
As Eivor, you become a raider who becomes involved in an ancient conflict during the era of Viking incursion. The game’s richly detailed environments and compelling storytelling are an instant escape from the reality of modern-day life.
The story of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is set roughly in the years 872-878 AD. It puts pretty much the entirety of medieval England at your exploratory fingertips. You can also venture to Norway and if you’re able to access the expansion content, Ireland and France. Aside from the fact that the scenery is beautiful, there’s a vast array of characters to interact with and learn from.
The game has a wealth of objectives and side quest content to dive into. You can approach this in whichever order you wish outside of the main story. In Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, some of the choices you make do have an impact on the outcomes of the narrative. This means that your thought process really matters at crucial points in the storyline. Immersion at its finest.
History and reality
This is probably a great adventure to jump into if you like your gameplay to have a bit of grounding in reality. It’s amazing to wander around notable towns and cities that still exist today and see how they may have looked in early medieval times.
Additionally, you can take part in the game’s Discovery Tour. This is a great way to learn about the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the era, as well as to understand more about the history of the Norwegian Vikings. It’s a fascinating look at the history of how these two cultures merged and formed the foundations of modern-day British people.
This video gives a really interesting insight into how some of the floral aspects of the game world were created. It’s clear to see the level of detail that’s been put into this particular open-world environment.
I really love Assassin’s Creed Valhalla because of its historical context. Additionally, I’m impressed with the sheer amount of research that’s clearly gone into crafting it. Exploration feels rewarding and works in conjunction with the narrative.
If you’re able to give it a try, jump in your longship and start raiding. You won’t regret it.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
No article about open-world gameplay would be complete without The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. An unbelievably engaging fantasy world adventure based on Slavic mythology awaits you in this masterpiece of gaming. The narrative of The Witcher 3 is genuinely compelling and is based on The Witcher novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. These stories are so popular that the recent Netflix TV adaptation is based on them.
Still, regardless of your opinion on the show, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a game that stands apart in its brilliance. You’ll be amazed by the scale of the world you traverse as Geralt of Rivia, Witcher and monster hunter extraordinaire.
The game is set in the fictional world of the Continent and has several regions to explore. It’s a world populated with people and creatures from a range of races, with the majority of non-humans facing persecution and discrimination.
Politically, the game world is in a state of upheaval and tensions among civilians are at an all-time high. There’s an expanse of history and culture to uncover as you explore Geralt’s life, which makes exploration really satisfying.
Open-world exploration in The Witcher 3
I fell in love with the open-world nature of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt almost as much as I did with the characters and storyline. This is one of those games where you really do feel the weight of your decisions, especially as they can have grave consequences later in the game that you may not see coming.
Narrative aside, the world of The Witcher 3 is unbelievably rich and exciting. From atop Roach, your loyal steed, you’ll explore lush countryside, war-torn wastelands, meticulously detailed medieval-looking cities and snowcapped mountaintops, to name a few.
Another mechanic I love about The Witcher 3 is the open-world sailing. It’s a novelty not to be limited to horseback or walking. In this game, you can hop aboard a boat and sail the seas of the surrounding environments as you please.
The game’s world design has a very authentic feel to it. In fact, you’d easily believe that this work of fantasy fiction was part of historical reality.
This is another game where you’ll approach a range of objectives at a fairly non-linear pace, although some are level-dependent. As Geralt, you can engage meaningfully with a huge cast of characters whilst searching for your missing adopted daughter. The game world is filled with magic, myths and monsters, and provides a truly captivating, lore-rich experience to get lost in.
Worldbuilding in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
During your adventures, you’ll encounter all kinds of moral, political and ethical dilemmas that Geralt can try to resolve. How you do so though, is often entirely up to you.
The Witcher 3 is a great example of strong worldbuilding and detailed character design. As a result the gameplay really does feel more meaningful. It also has the most gorgeously atmospheric soundtrack. I think I spent more than a few hours just roaming around Skellige on horseback listening to the music alone!
This video gives a bit more insight into the world setting created by CD Projekt Red, the developers of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
If you haven’t played The Witcher 3 yet, I strongly recommend you give it a go. I’ve never played a game quite like it, and I don’t know if it can ever be topped in terms of open-world fantasy action-adventure.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
The oldest entry into this list but age is nothing but a number when it comes to open-world games. I’ve written before about how The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the best RPGs ever made, so naturally, it had to be included here.
I’ve been playing Skyrim on and off for over a decade now, and for me, it still measures up as one of the best open-world experiences in gaming. Compared to some of the more recent titles mentioned here, Skyrim perhaps shows its age a little in terms of graphics. However, its open-world fantasy setting is still as highly engaging as it was back in 2011.
One of the things that keeps people playing Skyrim is the fact that there’s no concrete endgame post-completion of the main storyline. Skill progression and levelling up in-game are indefinite. Additionally, players can travel anywhere in the province of Skyrim at any point in time, which creates a realistic sense of exploration.
The main storyline is something that can even be avoided altogether if you want to enjoy adventuring without the narrative! With that said, there’s a wealth of side and miscellaneous quests to discover in this richly built world. The soundtrack is absolutely iconic too.
This level of free exploration, along with the game’s dedicated modding community makes Skyrim one of the most-loved games of all time. It’s impressive for a game that’s more than a decade old to retain such a strong player base to this day. Ultimately, Skyrim is another example of the long-term positive impact that intricate worldbuilding can have on a game.
Check out this video to have a look at some of the world of Skyrim. If you haven’t played it yet, then I’d definitely give it a try for a bit of high-fantasy escapism.
Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)/Horizon Forbidden West (2022)
In Horizon Zero Dawn, you’ll go on a journey as Aloy, a hunter trying to discover her past in a world that’s run by machines. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that’s meant to replicate the decay of Earth over a millennium, the story takes place in the 31st-century United States.
The game world is truly vibrant in its natural beauty. However, it’s dominated by robotic, machine-like creatures that become increasingly aggressive towards humans.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s game concept is fascinating. Exploring a world where humanity is no longer Earth’s dominant species is a thought-provoking twist on the RPG trope. It leads to a different layer of context for your open-world exploration. Your survival depends on your ability to evade, fight and even control the machines you encounter.
The open-world setting is as expansive as it is beautiful, and you’re able to explore the environment and discover a range of collectables outside of the story’s main objectives. Check out this look at the reveal of Horizon Zero Dawn to get a feel for the gameplay and the scenery of this lush open world.
Additionally, the game’s sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, just launched this month. This looks to be another amazing chapter of Aloy’s story and one I hope to get my hands on soon! Check out this video for a look at the newest iteration of the Horizon story. Also, if you’ve had a chance to play it already, let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Fallout 4 (2015)
Another of my favourite open-world games (and one a lot of people love to hate) is Fallout 4. Exploring a post-apocalyptic environment of Massachusetts known as The Commonwealth that includes Boston in 2287 is great fun. The storyline isn’t to everyone’s taste, but in terms of open-world exploration and discovery, I rate it quite highly.
For me, this game provides hours of escapism – even if it is into a post-nuclear future. As the Sole Survivor of Vault 111, you’re thrown into a plot to find your missing son. In doing so, you’ll uncover an entirely new world from the one you were cryogenically frozen in over 200 years previously.
Fallout 4 has loads going for it in terms of switching off from reality. It does have its plot holes and draws some credible critique from gamers about the repetition involved in some of the side quests. However, if you love building settlements and enjoy the idea of recreating the world from the ground up after nuclear devastation, then you’ll love this game.
Combat is also very rewarding in Fallout 4, thanks to the V.A.T.S (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) mechanic. This lets you slow down real-time combat and aim for particular enemy body parts.
Story and exploration in Fallout 4
For me, the storyline is engaging, if a little out of kilter with the rest of the world’s events. Equally satisfying is the process of skilling up and unlocking different perks. Like Skyrim, Fallout 4 is another exercise in non-linear exploration and discovery. There’s no level cap, and players are free to roam and converse with (or ignore) NPCs at their leisure.
In terms of questing, there’s an incredible amount of content to get your teeth into the outside of the main storyline. Again, you can ignore this entirely if you wish, although I personally quite enjoyed it.
Being able to craft and build settlements is a real draw for me. It’s an aspect of this particular open-world game that I’ve not seen in any of the others on this list, and something I find particularly relaxing. Settlement building kind of sets Fallout 4 apart from other open-world games, but it definitely makes sense with the overall narrative.
It’s not for everyone, I found designing and building new settlements for the inhabitants of the wasteland quite a rewarding part of the experience. You can also modify weapons and armour, as well as explore the multitude of game mods from the Fallout 4 community.
As an aside, I love both the art and overall environmental design of Fallout 4. It’s richly detailed and unique in its retro-futuristic style. I really enjoy exploring the abandoned cityscapes of Boston and the nuked wildlands of the wider surrounding areas. Also, your main companion is a German Shepherd named Dogmeat. That’s reason enough for me to play this game, to be honest.
No Man’s Sky (2016)
If space exploration and alien worlds are more your thing, then you’ll never be bored with No Man’s Sky. The game’s main mechanics revolve around survival, exploration, combat and trade.
No Man’s Sky exists in an open-world universe that’s procedurally generated and includes a reported 18 quintillion planets. That’s a lot of exploration to be had. There are also no loading screens, so your gameplay is instant and apparently without limit.
No Man’s Sky allows you to discover and set up a home on a range of planets, and catalogue the flora and fauna that live on them. You’re also able to mine for resources to help you upgrade your equipment and ship, as well as craft outposts for yourself and eventually, expand your fleet.
There is an overall plot that encourages you to discover the mystery of a central galactic being. However, if you wanted to just take your time voyaging through space and not bother with the storyline, you could definitely do that instead.
Personally, I loved travelling through the galaxy and naming my own planets, but No Man’s Sky is definitely a very different type of open-world experience. If you love your exploration with more than a hint of science fiction behind it though, you should definitely get your jetpack on and jump into this one. It’s also being treated to regular updates and new content, so there’s never been a better time to try it out.
Check out this trailer for ‘Sentinel’, the latest update for No Man’s Sky that was released this month.
Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
GTA V is an open-world game where your narrative adventures are laid out in a more linear fashion. However, the open-world environment allows you to roam freely and explore at your own pace. Set in the fictional areas of Los Santos city and the surrounding countryside of San Andreas in California, you’ll be going on a crime-filled journey through the eyes of three protagonists.
You’ll try to survive as a street gangster, a retired bank robber and a gun-running drug dealer. Not a game for the faint of heart.
This game is great if you’re a fan of driving games, but its rich storytelling and multiple protagonist design also make it a compelling open-world experience. The inclusion of the ‘wanted’ system from previous Grand Theft Auto games is an exciting mechanic. So too are the many heists you’ll undertake as part of the storyline. Of course, you can take control of a range of vehicles, which help aid exploration in different and fresh-feeling ways.
GTA V is a really enjoyable and well-loved game to this day. That’s down in large part to the size of the in-game world. Players can explore freely outside of the main story objectives, which helps prevent the linear nature of the storyline from becoming too constraining. Give it a try if you’ve not had the chance to get criminal with it before now.
Check out this video for a bit of the action from the world of GTA V.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)
Another open-world hit from Rockstar Games (the developers of GTA V) is Red Dead Redemption 2. It serves as a prequel to Red Dead Redemption, a game I really loved playing back in 2010. Set in the declining American Wild West of 1899, the story of Red Dead Redemption 2 follows you as an outlaw gang member on your adventures through the narrative and across the open wilds.
Similar to the ‘wanted’ meter in GTAV, Red Dead Redemption 2 features a ‘bounty’ system that chalks up your criminality and importance to law enforcement. Additionally, the game has an ‘honour’ rating system, that notes your moral deeds and choices as your character. This is quite an engaging gameplay mechanic, alongside the horseback riding, hunting and shooting that you can employ during your exploits.
The open-world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is huge. As a fictionalised map of the Midwestern, Western and Southwestern United States at the end of the 19th century, there’s a lot of ground to cover. The terrain is diverse and wide-ranging, and you can explore your surroundings outside of the main story objectives at your own pace.
The ability to tame wild horses and ride them is an especially satisfying part of the game because, with such a lot of territory, you’ll need them. There’s a huge amount of action and adventure to be had and the setting’s basis in historical reality gives the storyline and environment a highly authentic feel.
The graphics are gorgeous and the worldbuilding is also meticulous in this game. Check out this bit of gameplay footage to see some of the richly detailed settings you can discover in Red Dead Redemption 2.
The following titles are definitely up there with the open-world gaming experience. However, in my opinion, they lack more of the elements of NPC interactivity that you’ll see in the ones mentioned above. The worlds created are great for exploring though, and I’d definitely recommend giving them a try for that reason alone.
Forza Horizon 5 (2021)
While perhaps not your typical action-adventure open-world experience, Forza Horizon 5 does provide a lot in terms of exploration. Set in a fictionalised version of Mexico, you take the wheel as the star driver of the Horizon car racing festival.
The world map is huge, allowing you to freely explore a range of terrain in a huge variety of vehicles. Race a dune buggy across gorgeous beaches, or an old Ford Escort down the side of a volcano! For sheer exploration and fun, this game is a must-play.
Fallout 76 (2018)
Another Fallout game that generates a lot of criticism is Fallout 76. Having received plenty of negative feedback upon launch back in 2018, Fallout 76 has seen plenty of updates and some new DLC expansions.
While this means there are now story-like elements more aligned with the traditional single-player experience of a Fallout game, it’s still clear that 76 is best taken as a standalone, multiplayer project.
However, it is very open-world in its fictional post-apocalyptic West Virginia. If you’re a fan of real-time multiplayer online gaming then it can be fun to team up and take out deathclaws and ghouls with your friends. For exploration, Fallout 76 is great but narrative-wise, it definitely doesn’t cut the mustard in the same way as previous Fallout games.
Where will the open world take you next?
There are many, many more open-world games to explore out there. These are just a few hard hitters to get you started on your adventures. Hopefully, you’ll find one that resonates with you from this list.
If there’s one that isn’t included and you feel should really get a mention, please do let me know in the comments. Open-world gaming sometimes draws criticism for sacrificing story for scale. However, I think the games mentioned here manage to provide a healthy balance of both.
If you enjoyed this post, why not check out how puzzle gaming can boost your wellbeing? Or you could explore how to get started with coding, if you’re feeling inspired to learn more about how games and interactive experiences are created.
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