The Allure of Going Anywhere
Open-world video games offer players something incredibly special—the freedom to explore richly detailed worlds wherever their curiosity takes them. These sprawling virtual universes overflow with quests, characters, and locations just waiting to be discovered off the beaten path.
Great open-world design is an art form, and the most immersive titles represent the pinnacle of worldbuilding and environmental storytelling. Let's dive deeper into the living, breathing game worlds that truly make players feel like they can go anywhere.
The Wacky Mayhem of GTA V's Los Santos
A caustic, satirical take on modern America
Rockstar's 2013 magnum opus offers up a city of dizzying scale and non-stop lunacy. Grand Theft Auto V parodies the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles with razor-sharp wit—from the vapid celebutantes of Vinewood to the crooked cops and ridiculous radio talk show hosts. Nearly every street corner uncovers a piece of darkly comedic social commentary or an unexpected surprise to stumble upon. 10 years later, players still haven't uncovered all there is to see and do in this scathing, outrageous world.
Highlights: Over-the-top characters, twisted humor, unexpected random events
The Gritty Futurism of Cyberpunk 2077's Night City
Neon-bathed urban sprawl meets bleak transhumanism
Despite its rocky launch, Cyberpunk 2077 delivers astonishing environmental design and an intricately crafted metropolis. Night City's six unique districts provide a staggering amount of places to eat, drink, shop, take jobs, and generally get into trouble. The game further stands out for creating one of gaming's most inclusive worlds, with gender and sexuality playing major themes. And of course, gliding through the rain-soaked streets in your sleek futuristic car, with neon glow reflecting everywhere, makes even a routine drive mesmerizing.
Highlights: Incredible ambience, thought-provoking themes, unparalleled verticality
Ruling the Seas in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
Live the swashbuckling pirate fantasy amidst island paradises
Ubisoft struck gold transporting players back to the West Indies during the Golden Age of Piracy. Sailing across vivid Caribbean waters with your ragtag scallywag crew, plundering ships laden with rum and gold, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag delivers that childlike fantasy of high-seas adventure. You can basically live out your Pirates of the Caribbean dreams, while also exploring colonial harbortowns and lost jungle ruins. Side activities like whale hunting or deep sea diving make it easy to get delightfully sidetracked. Yo ho ho!
Highlights: Captures the pirate life, tense naval battles, gorgeous tropical settings
Swinging Through the Concrete Jungle in Marvel's Spider-Man 2
Patrolling New York has never felt so good
Spider-Man 2 raised the bar for superhero games with its interpretation of the Big Apple. Though its recreation isn't completely 1:1 accurate, the city feels alive, dynamic, and quintessentially New York. Skyscraper-hopping through vibrant neighbourhoods—from the ritzy penthouses of the Upper East Side to bustling Chinatown markets—never fails to thrill. Little touches like New Yorkers shouting words of encouragement as you thwip by or the strained small talk Spidey makes with cops when he lands make the world even more believable. Add in crazy supervillains running amok and no open world better capture that friendly neighborhood Spider-Man fantasy.
Highlights: Vertigo-inducing web-swinging, great Easter eggs, fun side activities
The War-Torn Dark Fantasy of The Witcher 3
A continent plagued by monsters, magic…and politics
CD Projekt Red's sprawling dark fantasy epic still inspires awe for its intricately layered world design and morally ambiguous storytelling. While jaw-dropping locales like wind-battered islands and misty bogs should keep any adventurer busy, looking closer, you'll find a land ravaged by war. Religious persecution, racism, and refugees paint an unsettling picture that draws from real human history. Top it off with a rich bestiary of creatures and supernatural forces meddling behind the scenes and The Witcher 3 may have some of fiction's most fully-realized worldbuilding. Just try not to get too distracted Gwent-ing everyone you meet.
Highlights: Incredible monster hunting quests, lore-filled environments, gritty realism
Discovering the Secrets of Elden Ring's Lands Between
A realm of decaying splendour and demigods drunk on power
Hidetaka Miyazaki's brand of cryptic Soulsborne storytelling reaches staggering new heights in the sprawling world of Elden Ring. Much of the Lands Between's history remains shrouded in mystery, waiting to be puzzled over in crumbling castles, catacombs, and creature lairs. From melancholy misty lakes to trippy cosmos-channelling divine towers, the diversity of biomes means you never quite know what you'll stumble into next. That sense of trepidation wandering into the unknown, not knowing where the grace will guide you, makes exploration utterly intoxicating. And lord, do the vistas and twisted horrors inspire wonder.
Highlights: Rewards off the beaten track, environmental storytelling, legendary boss fights
Forging Your Own Path in Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Rediscover the childlike joy of forging your own adventure
Nintendo struck a perfect balance with Breath of the Wild in crafting a world brimming with possibilities that give players the freedom to let their curiosity run wild. Instead of following waypoints and checklists, you set your own goals, whether it's paragliding off picturesque cliffs or experimenting with wacky physics. Stumbling into a hidden shrine or korok puzzle brings back that childlike glee of making your own fun. Hyrule here feels untamed—at times punishing yet always intoxicating to uncover its secrets. Wherever your voyage leads, the kingdom shapes itself around your legend, not the other way around.
Highlights: Experimental physics, emergent gameplay, awe-inspiring vistas
Exploring a Wizarding World in Hogwarts Legacy
Finally, experience JK Rowling's magical universe firsthand
Harry Potter fans finally got the open-world Hogwarts game of their dreams with 2023's Hogwarts Legacy. While light on revolutionary ideas, Avalanche nailed implementing staples of the beloved franchise into one cohesive experience. Wandering the iconic castle halls, tickling puzzles with magic spells, and visiting Hogsmeade village captures the whimsical joy that made Harry Potter a global phenomenon. Brewing polyjuice potions in the dead of night or sneaking into the Forbidden Forest for quests brings shared childhood fantasies alive. Its world may not surprise you, but Hogwarts Legacy wholly immerses you into the Wizarding World unlike anything before.
Highlights: Spellbinding attention to Harry Potter lore, engaging class system, charming tone
Wandering the Undead Streets of Dead Island 2
Blood, guts, and glory in the zany zombie apocalypse
Who would've thought the end of days could be so gosh darn fun? But Dambuster Studios' long-awaited sequel transforms the zombie genre into an irreverent splatterfest playground. The studio absolutely nails the comic book aesthetic, filling Los Angeles with vibrant sun-drenched neighbourhoods, beach boardwalks, and Hollywood boulevards dripping with the undead. Creative weapon crafting keeps the satisfying first-person chaos fresh, while side activities like drone racing or graffiti tagging capture that carefree end-of-day vacation vibe. Dead Island 2 proves that even amongst death and devastation, there's plenty of vibrant life left to explore in the world.
Highlights: Signature DIY weapons, vibrant visuals, rewarding open-world activities
The Triumphant Return to Form of Assassin's Creed Mirage
Intimate stealth action perfected in the bustling markets of Baghdad
After years of chasing RPG scale, Ubisoft returned to the series' core tenets with Assassin's Creed Mirage—and the gamble paid off in spades. Trading wide oceans for labyrinthian souks proves tremendously effective, with 9th century Alamut dense with culture, verticality, and bustling life. Taking on assassination missions during the golden hours when vibrant bazaars give way to evening prayers highlights phenomenal worldbuilding. Meanwhile, random events like preventing public executions, rescuing thieves from guards, or chasing informant pigeons make the world feel dynamic and alive. Ubisoft's restrained approach interweaves Alamut's NPCs so elegantly that no other open world here feels richer, more storied, or alive. A triumphant return to form.
Highlights: Phenomenal worldbuilding, emergent stealth gameplay, lively NPC interactions
Freedom to Explore, Stories to Experience
The best open-world games grant us utter escapism, immersing players so deeply into fantastical realms and lives unattainable in reality. But they also gift incredible, unparalleled freedom—to uncover environments brimming with mysteries, to leave no stone unturned wandering off the beaten path, and to embrace that childlike curiosity about what adventure lies just over the horizon.
These living, breathing virtual worlds showcase the absolute pinnacle of gaming's ability to spark wonder and deliver unforgettable experiences. So what breathtaking universe will you escape to next? The worlds await, filled with emergent stories yearning to unfold at your fingertips.