Growing up, we didn’t have much money to go anywhere. The rare opportunities I was able to get to a beach or lake are some of the best memories I have. This is why games that allowed me to explore unique open worlds have always had a soft spot in my heart. The chance to see places that I would never otherwise see was such a magical opportunity for me. These are worlds that make you feel like you were transported to another location complete with its own lore, people, and creatures.
They might be based on reality or born from the imagination of a small team of developers but all of these worlds help to draw the player in and encourage them to look under every rock and through every filing cabinet. So strap on your boots and let’s start our journey through the best worlds in gaming to explore.
Hyrule – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Zelda’s Hyrule has always been pure wonder to explore and with so many iterations, there is always something new to discover. However, I remain steadfast in my opinion that Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is the most enjoyable to journey across. There is just so much to find out in Hyrule.
I’m still discovering things in this digital world despite having put in over 300 hours. Things can be as big as a treasure cave full of weapons and ore or as small as a reference to a past game and a long-lost farm.
Not only does it have the highest peaks and deepest valleys of any Zelda so far, but it also has several ways to get around the map which makes it a less tedious experience. Riding a horse, biking, or paragliding are all great ways to get around the world but even just walking can leave you in a state of serenity as the cherry blossoms fall and the sun begins to set.
Capital Wasteland – Fallout 3
Fallout 4 might have more color, but Fallout 3 remains the most enjoyable modern Fallout to explore. The surreal experience of walking down the war-torn mall and looking at the Captial Building and the Washington Monument is still something special in gaming. Fallout 3 actually does a really good job at replicating different areas of D.C. (just very condensed) and it can be a treat to visit some of your favorite landmarks.
On top of that, the creepiness of seeing the complete ruin of my own country’s capital is still something that provides such a terrifying feeling of loneliness in the wasteland. The metros are filled with ghouls, the surface with mutants and raiders, and the few friendly locations are filled with people ready to backstab you at a moment’s notice. It’s such a well-designed location. I just wish Fallout 3 had New Vegas’ mechanics to make it the perfect Bethesda Fallout.
Skyrim – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
People have become burnt out on Skyrim thanks to Bethesda’s continued success in re-releasing it; however, there can be no denying that the lands that comprise Skyrim can be filled with pure wonder. Whether you are trudging along the side of a mountain as a gust of wind turns up the snow or skipping across chunks of ice in the North while the Northern Lights dance overhead, the world of Skyrim is a treat to see.
Of course, there are hundreds of locations with loot and secrets to find throughout the land. Exploring the world fully will reward you with the most deadly weapons that will make defeating Alduin a breeze. Skyrim’s combat may be basic but the world is one that should be experienced and is one of the best to lose yourself in for days on end.
Hollownest – Hollow Knight
Metroidvania’s were made to be explored and the new gold standard in world-building and exploration in the genre has to be Hollow Knight. Travel to a world underground where anthropomorphic bugs crawl out of their hives where once a thriving society lived. Every section of the map is teeming with personality and quirky NPCs to interact with.
There are even hidden passages and sections of the map like the hive where you can find one of the better abilities in the game. The art style makes this game a treat to explore through and nothing beats the melancholy feeling of sitting on a bench near a glass window as a gentle rain falls outside. It’s these little moments outside of the hectic fighting and platforming that create just a pleasing juxtaposition and reward the player with peace of mind.
Arkham City – Batman Arkham City
The Arkham games are a Batman fan’s dream come true and that goes double for Arkham City which takes a slice of Gotham and turns it into a free-roaming city-scale prison. As Batman, you’ll glide over rooftops, crawl through vents, and beat up thugs in alleys.
Rocksteady placed a lot of easter eggs, quests, and collectibles through this world which makes it a joy to traverse and discover them all. Stumbling upon the Mad Hatter randomly can really liven up your playthrough but if you look around, you might be at the scene of Bruce Wayne’s parent’s murder. This is a Batman game for Batman fans but it certainly has the power to convert even the most hardcore Marvel fan into its ranks.
Forbidden Land – Shadow of the Colossus
A mysterious land with old ruins, vast plains, and massive Colossi that dwarf anything in the area. The Forbidden Land is a beautiful world to wander around and take in the visual splendor of this closed-off geography. There really isn’t that much here but that is what accentuates the real beauty of the game. It can feel like you are traveling through Middle Earth’s plains feeling like you are completely open to attack but no attack is forthcoming. You are free to breathe in the openness and freedom of the setting.
That is until you reach one of your targets in the Colossi. These shambling goliaths are but gentle giants that you take out during the course of the game. They are old, and they feel old while you climb to the top of their stone-like moss covered bodies. They act as both their own visual splendor and a place to take in the rest of the world.
1947 Los Angelas – L.A. Noire
Rockstar is known for making some incredible games with huge open worlds. L.A. Noire might be on the smaller side of their spectrum, but it provides a look into an America that is often overlooked in gaming.
The development studio captured 1940’s L.A. from the picturesque billboards to the racist streets. It may seem sparse compared to some of the entries on this list, but it does feel like Rockstar tried to create a fairly realistic portrayal of the time period. For those of you interested in history, this one may be right up your alley.
However, the full racism of the period was downplayed, but I guess since they weren’t trying to deal with those themes, it would have seemed superficial. It can be great fun to get in one of the old automobiles and cruise downtown; making you feel like you have been transported back in time, and there is only one other entry on that list that can claim the same.
Territories of the United States – Red Dead Redemption 2
The first Red Dead Redemption was a beautiful game on the Xbox 360 with stunning sunsets and massive valleys that helped to make the rocky Wild West feel so much more inviting than what people may have thought at the time.
However, Red Dead redemption takes everything to 11. Now there are far more lush forests with streams cascading down hilltops. Snow-capped mountain tops are traveled over, and towns are populated with dozens of more people than any of the towns in the original had ever been.
It really does feel like you are on the precipice of the modern age and on the tail-end of the Wild West. So saddle up and travel through all of the lands that early America had to offer because we may not see another iteration so well executed for quite some time.
Planet 4546B – Subnautica: Below Zero
In the indie space, there have been a number of titles that have promised the player a lush alien world to explore and survive in, but none of them hold a candle to Subnautica’s Planet 4546B. This water planet may not initially seem like a planet that is fun to explore—what with the freezing temperatures of the surface, giant icebergs, and only a few islands around.
However, with the proper equipment, you can descend into the deepest parts of the water and find a world that is teeming with life and begging to be explored. From the flowing kelp forests to the bioluminescence of the deep, there are so many beautiful sights on this planet. Even the surface can have its moments of beauty and wonder with animals, geysers, and frozen tundras. It almost makes me appreciate the beauty of the cold … almost.
Kingdom of Lordran – Dark Souls
Dark Souls is a dark fantasy world that makes huddling behind a bonfire in the basement of a castle seem preferable to crossing a bridge in broad daylight. That’s because this world is incredibly dangerous and unforgiving; however, the world needs to be explored thoroughly if the player wants to progress. There are so many rewards, shortcuts, and sights to see by taking the route that seems like it’s out of your way.
Or maybe there’s an army of skeletons that are blocking your progress well; fighting through them is going to give you some beneficial items. Even if there isn’t a giant sword waiting for you at the end, just being able to see a new vista can make the game feel so open and explorable. The joy in Dark Souls is challenging yourself to see it all. Much like Mount Everest, journeying through this world is the entire point in doing it. The top is just a bonus.