Let’s face it, real life is kind of a lot to deal with right now. So, with the real world arguably going to pot, maybe a better option is to get immersed in a virtual world instead. That’s right, I’m talking about open-world games. If ever there was a good time to turn off from reality for a bit, now is that time. In this post, I’m going to be looking at some of the best open-world games you can jump into today, and why you should give them a try.
- What are open world games, anyway?
- What are the main benefits of playing open-world games?
- Awesome open world adventure games
- Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (2020)
- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
- Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)/Horizon Forbidden West (2022)
- Fallout 4 (2015)
- No Man’s Sky (2016)
- Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
- Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)
- Notable Mentions
- Forza Horizon 5 (2021)
- Fallout 76 (2018)
- Where will the open world take you next?
- What are the main benefits of playing open-world games?
These kinds of games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely love them. Freedom of exploration is something that I crave in a game, especially when it’s something that’s so hard to attain in real life. During the last couple of years, in particular, it’s become important to my sense of wellbeing to be able to explore virtual worlds. There’s only so much of looking at your own four walls that your brain can stand! So, with that in mind, I’ve tried to find alternative ones to explore through gaming.
Before we jump in with some recommendations though, let’s look a little at how open-world games are defined and their benefits.
What are open world games, anyway?
There are different types of open-world games. Primarily, they’re a style of gameplay whereby players can explore a virtual world with near-total freedom. They also allow players to approach tasks and objectives in any manner they choose. Kind of like you would in real life, really. 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. Sometimes I think that the lack of these things in the real world is what makes them so appealing in the gaming world, but I digress.
These open-world environments are most commonly found in RPG type games. Often, in these, there are many different paths to the endgame scenario (or scenarios, for games with multiple endings). Your choices and actions in these types of open-world games will have consequences for your end storyline. Again, kind of similar to real life.
Then, there are other types of open-world games where you do have a set path to follow through the narrative, but there’s a variety of environments and scenes to explore at your own pace too. It may be that there’s a main storyline to complete but after that, the world is free for you to engage with as you like.
Being able to build and develop your character through interaction with the world around (and its inhabitants) you is a major draw of open-world gaming. It simulates a reality that you can exert a greater level of control over while having fun at the same time. What’s not to love?
What are the main benefits of playing open-world games?
Primarily, open-world games encourage a non-linear experience. Having the freedom to explore encourages your sense of curiosity as well as satisfies the sense of wanderlust many of us have. Playing games like these are also a great way to relax and unwind mentally. Additionally, there are MMORPG games (massively-multiplayer online roleplaying games), which combine open-world exploration with social/multiplayer gaming. This encourages real-time social connection with friends or other gamers during your adventures if you prefer to play with other people.
Open-world gameplay can also have an educational impact. Certain 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 planets and stars. A lot of 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 awesome 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 so that I can try it out. The world of open-world gaming is ever-evolving, so there’s bound to be a few hot favourites that I’ve missed out here. For me, interactivity with the non-playable characters in an open-world is a key feature of making the game immersive, which is why I’ve chosen this particular selection of games above certain others.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (2020)
The latest in the long-running Assassin’s Creed series takes us to the Viking Age, and medieval England and Norway. This is 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 and puts pretty much the entirety of medieval England at your exploratory fingertips. You’re also able to 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. In addition, there are a wealth of objectives and side quests that you can approach in whichever order you wish outside of the main storyline. In AC Valhalla, some of the choices you make do have an impact on the outcomes of the narrative, which makes your thought process really matter in-game. Immersion at its finest.
This is probably a great game to jump into if you like your gameplay to have a bit of grounding in reality. It’s pretty cool wandering around towns and cities you know today and seeing 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. This is a great 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 the open-world environment.
I really love this game because of its historical context and the sheer amount of research that’s clearly gone into crafting it. The exploration is rewarding and works in conjunction with a narrative that doesn’t force you along in a linear fashion. 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 upon Slavic mythology awaits you in this masterpiece of gaming. The narrative of The Witcher 3 is genuinely compelling, as is the sheer 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, in which there are several regions to explore. The world is populated with people and creatures from a range of races, and the majority of non-humans face persecution and discrimination. Politically, the world is in a state of upheaval and tensions amongst civilians are at an all-time high. There’s a whole history to uncover as you explore Geralt’s world, which makes exploration really satisfying.
I fell in love with the open-world nature of The Witcher 3 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 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’re able to 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; you’re not 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 entire design has a very authentic feel to it; you could easily believe that this work of fantasy fiction was part of historical reality.
This is another game where you’re able to approach a range of objectives at a fairly non-linear pace, although some are level-dependent. As Geralt, you’re able to engage meaningfully with a huge cast of characters as you search for your missing adopted daughter. The game world is filled with magic, myths and monsters, and provides a truly captivating experience that a player can get lost in the lore of.
During the course of your adventure, you’ll come across 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 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 to 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 by age is nothing but a number when it comes to these open-world games. I’ve written before about how The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the best RPGs ever made, so I feel like it had to be included here. I’ve been playing Skyrim on and off for over a decade now, and it still measures up as one of the best open-world experiences in gaming, in my eyes. Compared to some of the more recent titles mentioned here, Skyrim is beginning to look a bit dated, graphically speaking. However, its open-world fantasy setting is still as highly engaging as it was back in 2011.
One of the things that keep people playing Skyrim is the fact that there’s no concrete endgame or goal post-completion of the main storyline. Skill progression and levelling up in-game is indefinite and players can travel anywhere in Skyrim at any point in time. 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. This level of free exploration is one of the reasons Skyrim is one of the most-loved games and still retains a strong player base to this day.
Check out this video to have a look at some of the world of Skyrim. If you haven’t played it yet (what have you been doing for the last decade?), 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 being 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 a 31st century United States. The game world is vibrant in its natural beauty but is dominated by robotic, machine-like creatures that are becoming increasingly aggressive towards humans.
It’s a really interesting game concept where humanity is no longer Earth’s dominant species. This leads to a different layer of context to 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, has just launched this month. This looks to be another amazing chapter of Aloy’s story and one I hope to get my teeth into 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. 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, uncovering a whole 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 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, which you can use to slow down real-time combat and aim for particular enemy body parts.
For me, the storyline is engaging, as 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. This, again, can be ignored entirely if you wish, although I personally find it really enjoyable.
The ability 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 in this list, and something I find particularly relaxing. It’s not for everyone, but for me, designing and building new settlements for the inhabitants of the wasteland is 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. Some of these are incredible and I’ll discuss them in another post.
Both the art and overall environmental design of Fallout 4 are right up my street. It’s richly detailed and unique in its retro-futuristic style. I really love 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. I mean come on, that’s reason enough to play this game regardless! If you haven’t played it yet then give it a try for some major stress relief.
No Man’s Sky (2016)
If space exploration is 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. It 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 no loading screens so your gameplay is instant and apparently without limit.
No Man’s Sky allows you to discover and set up 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 but 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 be trying to survive as a street gangster, a retired bank robber and a gun-running drug dealer. Not one for the faint of heart.
This game is great if you’re a fan of driving games (obviously), but its rich storytelling and multiple protagonist design make it a compelling open-world experience. The inclusion of the ‘wanted’ system from previous Grand Theft Auto games is an exciting mechanic, as are the many heists you’ll undertake as part of the storyline. You’re also able to 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 become 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.
Also 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 ones 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. Being able 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 in this game, and the setting being based in historical reality gives the storyline and environment a really authentic feel.
The graphics are gorgeous and the worldbuilding has been meticulous in this game. Check out this bit of gameplay footage to see some of the richly detailed world you can discover in Red Dead Redemption 2.
These games 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 definite must-play.
Fallout 76 (2018)
Another Fallout game that generates a lot of criticism is Fallout 76. Having received a lot of negative feedback upon launch back in 2018, Fallout 76 has been provided with a few updates and some new expansions as DLC. While this means there are now story-like elements more akin to the traditional single-player experience of a Fallout game, it’s still clear that 76 is best taken as a standalone 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 into virtual worlds! Hopefully, you’ll find one that resonates with you from this list. If there’s one that I’ve not 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, but I think the games mentioned here manage to provide a healthy balance of both.
If you enjoyed this post, why not have a look at how puzzle gaming can boost your wellbeing, or how to get started with coding, if you’re feeling inspired to learn more about how games and interactive experiences are created.
Let me know where you like to spend your time in-game! As always, you can catch up with me over on Twitter and if you’ve found this post helpful or interesting then please do give it a share.