Ah, that feeling of the breeze on your face as you feel open-air and gaze upon the rising sun. And on the Horizon, and wonder at the endless opportunities the day brings. While this isn’t liberty many of us can enjoy anymore because reasons, here’s a list of 10 open-world games through which we can vicariously experience this little bit of nostalgic escapism:
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The launch of the Nintendo Switch would have been very different without this breakout title. With Breath of the Wild, Nintendo simultaneously brought The Legend of Zelda back to its NES roots while also elevating it to new heights. Its attention to detail and freedom of movement have earned it the honor of being called one of the greatest video games. Even critics recognize how innovative its game design is for the genre.
Typically, a game can be categorized as “open-world” only by offering a virtual world where players can explore and approach objectives at their discretion as opposed to linearly structured gameplay progression. Breath of the Wild took it a step further by integrating what its devs referred to as a “chemistry engine” on top of a physics engine that most players would be familiar with already.
This chemistry engine kept track of and modified the physical properties of most of the game’s objects and actors, and determined how they would interact with each other depending on their current state. A player could, for example:
Put down a campfire to cook food. After cooking, the player takes a wooden stick and lights it on fire to make a torch. They then use that torch to set a grass patch ablaze, which starts an updraft that the player takes advantage of to hang-glider toward an enemy standing in water. The player, mid-flight, then opts to fire a frost arrow at the enemy, freezing it. Finally, as the player falls, they strike with a lightning melee weapon, causing a chain reaction due to the frozen status of the enemy and exploding the vicinity in a ball of electricity. Unfortunately, because the player happened to be wearing a metal shield, they too suffer damage from this final blow.
Thus, with barely any instruction, the game encourages players to find solutions to problems and experience a level of freedom not seen in most open-world games before or since Breath of the Wild.
2. Horizon: Zero Dawn
Time slows to a crawl as I drawback on my bow. Letting loose the arrow towards the mechanized monstrosity before me, its pained yet artificial roar provides proof of my true aim. I quickly roll forward to evade its counter-attack, while planting a bomb which would catch the ancient android by surprise.
If it looks like Breath of the Wild, sounds like Breath of the Wild, and plays like Breath of the Wild, it’s probably Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s safe to say that Horizon was overshadowed by the, at the time, the newest title in a beloved franchise that would happen to be launching alongside Nintendo’s wacky new hybrid handheld console—which released less than a week after. That’s not to say it didn’t sell well—it wouldn’t be getting a sequel if it didn’t—it’s just relatively few people were discussing the game upon release, the most crucial period of a game’s lifespan. And that’s quite a damn shame.
Horizon: Zero Dawn delivers thoughtful, Monster Hunter-like combat in a weird primal-cyberpunk, surprisingly lush post-post-apocalyptic setting. While sharing some similarities in gameplay and setup, it’s got a few distinguishing traits that set it apart from Nintendo’s open-world title and make it worth playing even if you’ve already tried the latter.
While Spiders isn’t a well-known developer, they do deserve credit for the underrated gem that is Greedfall. It received mixed or average reviews by critics at launch, but the player sentiment seems much more positive when looking for feedback on this title. It stands out among other open-world games for its unique setting, which takes place during a fantasized take on the 17th-century era of colonialism.
Greedfall delivers an experience reminiscent of classic Bioware titles such as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 1, with action-based combat similar to Dragon Age: Inquisition. Character creation allows a choice of starting gender and class, but attribute, skill, and talent points gained upon level up are freely assignable. Players may support or offend any of the game’s five factions aside from their own and do so by questing in a variety of approaches—whether by stealth, diplomacy, or sheer force. NPC Companions provide additional quests that, upon completion, open up backstories that reveal their motivations and aspirations.
It’s a very familiar formula, done in a strange new world. And since open-world games are all about exploring the unknown, Greedfall’s setting is a perfect reason to give the game a shot.
4. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War
Many fans and critics praise the Game’s Nemesis system, expanded and improved upon from the first game, which now applies to a much larger part of the world. Apart from the procedurally-generated unique enemies who grow and learn on their own, the new Nemesis system allows players to command and promote their followers.
Shadow of War’s early reviews and launch reception were mixed primarily due to the implementation of microtransactions that sped up game progress. Still, the publishers have since removed all traces of these from the game. Now is perhaps the best time to enjoy this game, especially if you’re a fan of the Rings’ lore.
5. Far Cry 5
The Far Cry series was among the first to meld open-world gameplay design with the first-person shooter genre successfully, and they’ve all been generally positively reviewed. The fifth title in the series is the first to have its freedom-fighting protagonist be fully customizable and the only one so far to take place in a fictionalized US county.
Gameplay in Far Cry 5 and the series, in general, focuses on combat and free-roam exploration. This thing can be done either on foot or in various land, sea, and air vehicles. While guns and other ranged weaponry have been a staple of the Far Cry series, Far Cry 5, in particular, emphasizes close-quarters combat with its more comprehensive range of melee weapons.
Criticism about its plot aside, Far Cry 5 is a solid game. Besides, true to its open-world nature, lead Lead Director Dan Hay has been quoted saying, “of course it’s a Far Cry game… it’s going to be an anecdote factory. You have a whole bunch of stuff to do and you can play it however you wanna play it, and you can assemble the story as a choose your own adventure, right?
6. Just Cause 4
The Just Cause series also shares its roots in open-world game design. This fourth installment in the series adds a wingsuit to protagonist Rico Rodriguez’s growing arsenal of traversal options. It carries over the previous game’s grappling hook, which itself is further expanded on by adding the ability to attach balloons and booster rockets to the objects he grapples. The entire game can be enjoyed with just these two tools alone
Just Cause 4 also adds a feature called Frontlines. These AI soldiers follow the player as they liberate vital areas in the fictional South American nation of Solís. In no way is the player pressured to advance the frontlines in any particular order or direction. It’s a pure, balls-to-the-wall, do-what-you-want action-adventure. With grappling-rocket-balloons.
7. No Man’s Sky
Sometimes, all you look for in a game is egregious amounts of chill, something to relax to. Who wants to add stress to their already busy lives? Not every creature needs to be stabbed, shot at, or blown up. Not every location needs to be a venue for death and destruction. No Man’s Sky takes the “exploration” aspect of open-world game design and runs with it, turning that one ability into the entire goal of the game itself.
No Man’s Sky will have players mainly wandering. In any other game, this would be an argument against its design, but not here (in fact, the player’s character itself is referred to as “Traveller” by other sentient beings in the game). Think of it as a sightseeing game that spans an entire procedurally-generated universe, with unique creatures inhabiting unique planets that, chances are, no other human player has explored yet.
Sure, you can fly around from planet to planet—seamlessly, without loading screens—trading, dogfighting, running errands, building bases, or doing whatever you think you need to do to make the time spent playing No Man’s Sky worth it. The spirit of the game is best encapsulated by one of the lines a random NPC can give: “Existence is beautiful, if you let it be. Life is not a question. There does not need to be an answer.”
8. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
It’s strange to think that Skyrim is already nine years old. Bethesda Game Studios certainly doesn’t mind, and as it’s been selling, remastering, porting, and reselling the same game on any platform, it could happen ever since then. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is definitely worth the play.
In many ways, most of the other games on this list have Skyrim to thank for existing. It’s the oldest open-world Game included here, and an incredibly influential one with 30 million units sold over its lifetime. It continued the open-world tradition of the rest of The Elder Scrolls games. That thing preceded it but improved upon the design by expanding the game map both horizontally and vertically, making each of the holds and races more culturally distinct, and opting to manually craft every inch of landscape and dungeon than choosing for procedural generation.
The critical acclaim it received upon release—and continues to receive to this day—is well deserved. While not perfect (it’s not exempt from being plagued by Bugthesda), it showed the publishers and investors that players are ready for open-world games and hungry for them. For an entire console generation of gamers, it could have been their first “do what you want when you want” game. They couldn’t have had a better introduction to the genre.
9. The Witcher 3
Designed and created with REDengine 3, CD Projekt Red’s proprietary game engine developed for nonlinear role-playing video games set in open-world environments. The Witcher 3’s complex story is not compromised by the player’s ability to roam free. For the first time in the series, protagonist Geralt of Rivia is given the ability to jump, climb, and swim his way in pursuit of his quarry. This matter opens up exploration options relative to past games when traveling on foot. However, the usual modes of transportation—such as by boat or on horseback upon Geralt’s trusty steed Roach—are still available.
The Witcher 3 consistently tops people’s lists of best games of all time, and for a good reason. Few other open-world games offer as much depth and background to their plot and characters as this. The game of the Year version in particular (which includes both of The Witcher 3’s DLC expansions) is a must-play for fans of Slavic/Scandinavian mythology, action-RPGs in general, or the idea of playing—as the devs themselves called it—”Skyrim in a Game of Thrones sauce.”
10. Red Dead Redemption 2
Adding this game to the list is a little unfair to all the others. When Red Dead Redemption 2 was released, its launch became the biggest in the history of entertainment. Its sales on its first three days eclipsed not just those of any video game in history, but every form of entertainment ever produced. It’s since been surpassed by the opening weekend of Avengers: Endgame, but I don’t think that lessens the impact of a 725 million dollar launch.
Much more than the “GTA with horses” meme, it’s described as Red Dead Redemption 2 is universally praised for its graphics, characters, narrative, gameplay, combat, open-world design, music—just about everything that could go into a game. It’s been called the “pinnacle of video game design” that deserves to be mentioned alongside Ocarina of Time, Half-Life 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Skyrim, and most recently, The Witcher 3.
Its dynamic weather system, ambient sound effects, and impressive lighting engine all add a verisimilitude level not achieved by most games. The fact that the AI reacts to every little detail about your interaction’s context is probably the most subtle way the game makes its open-world that much more believable. Anyone looking to ride free across the open plains of the wild wild west will have difficulty finding a better game to immerse themselves in.