Somewhere along the way—well, in the wake of the incredible, paradigm-shifting success of Grand Theft Auto 3 two decades ago (!) to be precise—open worlds became the dominant expression of video game geography. Where once we had two-dimensional side-scrolling landscapes which then morphed into crude, limited, three-dimensional playgrounds, those playgrounds have now ballooned into entire worlds. Not all video games these days are open world of course, but it does feel like in the corporate world of big budget game development, more often than not there will be significant swathes of PR and marketing people pushing any given project to develop into one featuring an open world—whether that choice fits the title or not. But I’m not here to debate the relative merits of open world vs linear design—I touched on that a little bit in my review of The Last of Us Part II. No, I’m just here to celebrate the very best examples of the school of video game design that champions those huge sandbox environments that (ostensibly, anyway) aim to put player freedom above all else. Here, then, in no particular order, are my picks for the greatest open worlds in video games.
(A quick note here that this isn’t necessarily about the best games overall, just about the best worlds, though naturally enough there is some overlap between the two. An extra addendum: I haven’t gotten round to playing Elden Ring yet, so that game’s by all accounts very impressive world of The Lands Between was not eligible for entry.)
Might as well kick things off with an absolute wonder, a minor miracle of a game, and one that revolutionised open world video game design. The YouTube channel Girlfriend Reviews once said of the 2017 Nintendo masterpiece: ‘I never knew video games had me in chains until Breath of the Wild set me free’. That really does sum things up for me. Hyrule has taken on many forms in the illustrious Nintendo franchise’s history, but the version presented in this entry is a peerless playground of player-defined joy. Girlfriend Reviews’ freedom comment was referring to the effect of a specific mechanic added into Breath of the Wild—as Link, you could now climb anything, trees, buildings, mountains, the only thing limiting you was your stamina—but the freedom here is baked into the very foundations of the game’s design. The game gives you an unbelievably rich toolbox, counting on your intuition and curiosity and encouraging you to experiment: If if feels like it should be possible, it very well may be—an idea that is proven over and over again by people still discovering stuff you can do in the game half a decade later.
By virtue of being released on a less powerful system than some of the higher-end games on this list, Breath of the Wild’s version of Link’s homeland may well be less absolutely detailed than something like the lands of Horizon: Zero Dawn or even an older title like Skyrim—but though there is technically less there, there is so, so much more to do with it. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Breath of the Wild and its world together represent a celebration of the joy of gaming itself. Yes the world is beautiful, with art direction and design that continuously stuns you with varied and colourful landscapes, but it’s the multifarious, intuitive ways the game actually allows you to interact with it all that made it the revolutionary title it is.
San Andreas - Grand Theft Auto 5, Liberty City - Grand Theft Auto 4
Open worlds have been a part of the video game ecology for so long now that it’s hard to remember a time before they were so dominant. Though the non-linear design that underscores open world games dates back far longer than 2001—with titles like the original Zelda and a number of others implementing it many years before (the first Grand Theft Auto itself coming to mind too)—it was undoubtedly the release of Grand Theft Auto 3 that put a rocket up the ar*e of the industry and changed things forever. The experience of taking those first few haltering steps after escaping the prison truck at the start of the game, a fully realised 3D Liberty City stretching out around you in every direction, is one that is forever etched into the mind of every person who was lucky enough to have picked up the game at the time two decades ago. While GTA 3’s world was mind-blowing at the time, with hindsight it’s not one that is strong enough to make this list. That would go to the worlds found in two later titles in the series: The Liberty City seen in Grand Theft Auto 4, and GTA 5’s San Andreas. GTA 4’s vision of New York City—gritty, grimy, layered and stacked on top of itself—is, like the game as a whole, an underappreciated piece of work. The technology wasn’t quite there yet for Rockstar to develop the kind of game world they’d clearly been intending to since the GTA 3, but they leapfrogged the limitations of the time by focusing on art design, density, and sheer atmosphere. Liberty City as seen in GTA 4 still holds up today, and a fully done remake would be a dream come true. By the time GTA 5 rolled round, on the other hand, the industry had advanced enough for the folks at Rockstar to really deliver. As filtered through their typically twisted lens, GTA 5’s Los Angeles and surrounding area is a gorgeous, sun-kissed, expansive, and varied landscape—a playground for the kind of excess that typifies America in the rest of the world’s eyes.
North America - Red Dead Redemption 2
An open world more meticulously designed than perhaps any other, the fictionalised version of a North America transitioning from nineteenth to twentieth century seen in Rockstar’s masterpiece is truly a sight to behold (as it happens it also unfortunately reveals the more rotten side of the video game industry, and of the exploitative labour practices that have been imposed on the artists who create these incredible visions). Where some games lean towards the more Impressionistic school of art design, content with conveying mood and atmosphere with broader strokes, Red Dead Redemption 2 veers so hard in the other direction that if you zoomed in on an individual leaf you’d find it detailed right down to the granular level. While that may not be literally true (though it wouldn’t surprise me if it was), it’s a testament to the absolutely bonkers amount of work put into making this world look as much as possible like the real one. Rockstar isn’t content to have you control Arthur Morgan the way you might a character in any other game—no, it wants to use every method at its disposal to make you feel like you’re actually trudging through the mud of Valentine in his worn boots, the weight of long weeks in the wilderness heavy on your shoulders. To their credit, they mostly succeed, and the gorgeous, immersive world they put together, blade of grass by blade of grass, plays a big part in that.
Gotham - Batman: Arkham City
Talking about games that make you feel like someone, we must naturally turn to Rocksteady’s Batman simulators. Excellent games for the most part, it’s their world design that has stuck with me since their release. While the first game in the series has arguably the greatest setting—you really can’t go wrong with the fantastically built labyrinth that is Arkham Asylum—Arkham City’s titular metropolis was the moment that Rocksteady’s games expanded into an open world setting, and they did the idea of inhabiting Batman’s sturdy boots in that setting more than justice. Not the biggest open world by any means, Arkham City is nevertheless one that teems with menace and character, and is riddled (ha!) with nooks and crannies to be discovered.
Rennaissance Italy - Assassin’s Creed 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
I might be exposing my own bias here, but hey it’s my piece and I get to do what I like. IÂ´m on record as being a huge fan of the trilogy of Ezio games in the AssassinÂ´s Creed franchise. Sympathetic, charming, and relatable, Ezio Auditore da Firenze remains one of my all time favourite video game protagonists, and the world that Ubisoft Montreal built around him lived up to that standard. Despite the advances in technology in the interim thirteen years since we first met Ezio, the Assassin’s Creed series has yet to come up with a better setting for its history-hopping games than it did with the Renaissance Italy featured in the first two of the Ezio trilogy of games. Naturally, a lot of that is simply down to the geography of the places featured there, and the ways it interacts with the gameplay of the series: Some of the more recent Assassin’s Creed games (Origins, Odyssey, Valhalla) are set in locations that, while beautiful, also feature plenty of open spaces—fields, country roads, forests—and to me that seems to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of where the core appeal of the series lies—in flitting from rooftop to rooftop of a tightly knit urban environment. That’s not to say that the series is not allowed to evolve of course (a lack of evolution being one of the most common sticks used to justifiably beat the series), but if it’s going to do that it needs to do it well. Thus far, though the quality of the games overall has varied, the transition to a different style of environments has not been handled very well. Rennaissance Italy on the other hand was simply a perfect choice for Ezio’s adventures, and the developers’ devotion to recreation was married to gameplay-enhancing design in a divine way.
4546B - Subnautica
I almost hesitated including the ocean planet 4546B on this list. The sub-aquatic world that Unknown Worlds Entertainment built for this aquatic survival simulator frequently stretched the definition of the word ‘game’ for me. Games are, after all, meant to be fun. The oceans of 4546B instead had me diving through waves of fear and anxiety. I suffer from a wee bit of thalassophobia—that is, fear of deep, open water. And by wee bit I mean that that stuff scares the bejesus out of me. The sight of endless stretches of opaque water evokes in me a feeling of some truly ancient fear. All rational thought abandons the scene and the primal, lizard brain takes over. This was the feeling that swept over me repeatedly while swimming around in the waters of Subnautica. And yet in some strange display of masochistic drive I kept going back. Again and again. That speaks volumes about not just how good the game is, but also how well designed its world is. 4546B may well be terrifying, but the azure shallows and dark depths are so compelling to explore that you just can’t help yourself. Go ahead, take another exploratory trip into that tangled kelp forest. Do it, you know you want to. Just remember that there’s always a bigger fish.
The Solar System, Space - Outer Wilds
Going on its own internal logic, the largest open world on this list—encompassing as it does a whole solar system—the cosmic setting of the 2019 Mobius Digital indie hit The Outer Wilds is not actually technically all that big. It may well be the smallest out of all those on this list as a matter of fact. But the sense of wonder and mystery it generates in the player as you follow the breadcrumb trail throughout its wildly different and imaginative worlds more than makes for that. Uncovering the history of this magical place bit by bit creates a feeling of uncanny scale here that dwarfs many much larger games.
North America - Horizon Zero Dawn
Guerilla Games’ 2017 open world portrait of a post-apocalyptic North America reclaimed by nature is a beguiling and captivating one. Light dapples through the canopy of dense woodland, sparkling off narrow streams. Ancient cities rise up out of the desert. Strange, robotic creatures roam vast grasslands in herds, the sun bouncing off their chrome hides. Truly beautiful to look at—to the point where I would sometimes stop moving whilst playing simply to gawp at a particularly enchanting vista—the key to Horizon Zero Dawn’s world design is the embedding of remnants of the ‘old world’ into the landscape of the new, and of the way that Guerilla integrated elements of the familiar with the strange, fantastical, and new. In the extras on the extended Lord of the Rings DVD, the films’ creators talk about the way they wanted to make the history of the ancient landscapes featured there to feel extremely organic, for it to be told through half-buried statues and other glimpses of a world long gone—it’s one of the highest compliments I can think of, that Horizon Zero Dawn calls to mind those masterpieces in design.
The Wasteland - Fallout 3
From one post-apocalyptic North America to another. Where Horizon Zero Dawn took place in areas that were once known as Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah, Fallout 3’s story takes place mostly around the ruins of Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, and Maryland; and where the world of the former is designed in such a way so as to put forward the feeling of a victory for nature over humankind, The Wasteland of Fallout 3 is very much a vision of a loss for both: Humanity may well be diminished, scattered, and humbled, but my god did we take everything else down with us on our nuclear weapons-assisted descent. That first glimpse of the outside world that you get when you exit Vault 101 after the underground prologue is one of the most iconic in modern gaming. Vast, barren, scorched, and levelled, it nevertheless manages to hide many secrets, as pockets of humanity carve out a living amongst the ruins and we carry on that most tenacious tradition of our species: war.
Tsushima - Ghost of Tsushima
A game that I’m finally playing through now two years after release and over which I’m kicking myself for why it took me so long to do so, Ghost of Tsushima is so breathtakingly, eye-bleedingly beautiful that it makes Horizon Zero Dawn look like a child’s crayon scrawl by comparison. That’s obviously hyperbole, but it gets at the truth, which is that any future conversation about video games and art design that doesn’t feature Ghost of Tsushima is automatically invalid. In their efforts at bringing a classic samurai film to life, developers Sucker Punch must have sought out and learned from the ghost of Kurosawa himself, because I can’t think of any other way that the relentless barrage of insane imagery seen here could have been achieved. The lighting! The colours! The movement! The framing! It all works together so well in transporting you into the kind of transcendent dream that has made me pause the (supremely enjoyable) gameplay innumerable times just so I could take it all in. Seriously impressive stuff.
Night City - Cyberpunk 2077
I’ve written a fair bit about Cyberpunk before. From both a more negative and more positive angle. A flashpoint for the industry in many ways upon release, we can now look back on the game with a more sober perspective than many did at the time, including assessing its open world fairly—and the truth of the matter as far as I’m concerned is that Night City is a frustratingly flawed yet brilliant creation: Both jaw-droppingly beautiful and fantastically designed, and often lifeless and empty. The moments it does click, though, are powerful, and justify its placement on this list.
The Forbidden Lands - Shadow of the Colossus
Where Cyberpunk is lifeless by accident, Shadow the Colossus’s The Forbidden Lands are so by design. There will come a time when I am able to summon the ability to write about how much this game—and the other two in the series, ICO and The Last Guardian—means to me, but that day is not today. Suffice it to say that Shadow of the Colossus features one of the best designed open worlds in all gaming, its sparse and haunting landscapes evoking a powerfully transportive feeling of desolation and sorrow that serve the narrative perfectly.
Skyrim - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
What is there left to say about Skyrim that hasn’t already been said? The land of a thousand stories has also over the years become one of ten thousand memes, and it’s easy to forget just how well put together the actual world is. The Northern part of the continent of Tamriel is a wintry and mountainous one, and its design is perfectly catered towards encouraging a player to become totally lost in it. Deep forests hide forbidding tombs and caves. Imposing cities jut up out of the plains. Mysterious villages nestle alongside meandering streams. And above it all loom the snowy peaks, jagged sentinels fraught with danger that entice travellers to try seek their fortune on the winding paths and treacherous heights. Skyrim simply wouldn’t be Skyrim without Skyrim.