by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 17th September, 2018
We live in the age of open world games that started about a decade ago. Creating believable open world environments was always a great challenge for many video game developers but most of the studios simply didn't have the resources or manpower to accomplish this feat because open world games are expensive to make. The process of building an open world game takes time and money and 15 years ago video games simply weren't such a big thing, and many studios simply couldn't afford to create open world games.
But as the industry grew and as the technology became more advanced, open world games slowly took a bigger and bigger chunk of video games market until they become the dominant subgenre. Today open world games can be found in every direction. Open world RPGs, open world shooters, open-world action adventures, open world racers. Whichever your favorite video game genre is you can bet there are a couple of open-world titles among the best games of that genre. Except if you adore sports games, then you're out of luck.
And when designing an open world game, the prime accomplishment for every studio is to create a gorgeous world that sprawls with life and that is capable of sucking in every (un)fortunate traveler that happens to stray from their path and keep them inside their latest virtual world for eight hours straight. In other words, developers want to create immersive worlds that are capable of making us forget about the real world we live in and instead chase out virtual dreams in some realm that lies on the far side of our TVs and monitors.
But most titles fail to accomplish this feat, they fail to achieve this immersion, they fail to allure gamers into their worlds and make them believe they are indeed real, more real than the physical dimension they currently inhabit. Some of them do manage to accomplish this ultimate feat found in the world of open world games. These experiences are capable of making you forget about everything else except that sweet collection of pixels and code you spend all of your time in. You aren't hungry, you don't need to go to the toilet, you don't need sleep anymore. All you want to do is explore this lush world and discover even the tiniest secret hidden inside its digital worlds. These are the most immersive open world games you can play today.
Let's start with the best RPG game of the last decade and one of the hands-on best video games ever. CD Projekt Red managed to build an impressive world that's the best ever example of how world-building can mean the difference between an excellent game and a masterpiece The Witcher 3 is. All the small details weaved in the world are there to pull players and never let them go (or let them go after they spend 150 hours or so in this amazing world).
Varied environments, Velen that truly looks like a never-ending graveyard reeking with despair and famine, the two main ingredients left after the war. Novigrad, a tiny speck of light in this war-ravaged land that is filled with crime and hopelessness and isn't any different than lands surrounding the city. And Oxenfurt, the one true place of relative peace in ravaged lands where war hasn't come yet and that looks like some phantasm in the otherwise dry desert. And Skellige Islands, an exotic lands of ice and storm that give players a change of pace and offer completely different adventures.
Aside from amazingly designed world, The Witcher 3 comes with tons of activities to do, and the game spreads them on a huge plate that stretches from the mist of Fyke Isle to the lush gardens of Vegelbud Residence, from the huge Ard Skellig to the haunted Spikeroog. The game is filled with quests, Gwent matches, fist fight tournaments, and many other activities that won't let you return to the real world. Add to that the huge number of POIs along with a strikingly large selection of weapons and armor and you could understand why some of us played The Witcher 3 from sunrise to sunset, months on end.
While each Fallout game features an excellent open world map, Fallout: New Vegas offers the best open world of them all. The desert hides countless stories and even more unique locations. Once you start exploring the post-apocalyptic Mojave desert the only two things capable of stopping you are filling your inventory and hitting a wall in the form of an area that is too punishing for your current level.
Obsidian managed to cram the world of Fallout: New Vegas with an amazing number of details and, when looked as a whole, Mojave Wasteland truly feels like a living, breathing world that is built for post-apocalyptic explorers. The secrets hidden within it are often hard to uncover and that's another plus that goes to Obsidian. Developers managed to hide the best adventures from the plain sight, and if you want to experience the best moments Fallout: New Vegas has to offer you have to not scratch but really dig under the surface.
Vaults features in New Vegas offer the best story experiences, each settlement includes at least one side quests that will stay in your memory for years and years, and the city of New Vegas is filled with oddball characters who are ready to divulge some bizarrely interesting stories about this deserted wasteland in the middle of nowhere. Various factions that are constantly in the middle of fight for power simply add a bit of that real life spice to the overall experience and the main quest is there to provide the last nail in the coffin and prevents you from seeing the sun before you discover every single location that is to be found in Fallout: New Vegas.
Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl features a masterful atmosphere of overburdening despair that delivers the grim reality of post-apocalypse like no other game, not even Fallout titles. In the Zone, everything is bleak, ruined, depressive, haunting, and always on the brink of becoming completely dilapidated. But while the world couldn't be grimier, it is inviting for explorers and rewarding for those who are ready to dive into the despair of the Zone to find life in all its horribly mutated forms.
And the perfect digitalization of grand and monolithic yet so dreary and colorless Soviet architecture pushed the immersion in Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl to new heights. When exploring the Zone you really believe that your character is wandering across abandoned villages, laboratories, and urban ruins placed around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. You believe in the promise of authenticity and for those believers, the game completely delivers, and then some. Bandit camps, abandoned villages, humongous factories that slowly rot, once sprawling research facilities now infested with all kinds of hideous mutants are main ingredients of the Zone and they look oh so strikingly real.
While not offering a huge amount of stuff to do, characters with heart and soul that have amazing tales to tell, or the sprawling beauty of its environments, Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl offers an eerily immersive world that is filled with horrors and dark mysteries. But that's okay because humans are extremely curious, especially about things they are scared off.
The thing that Skyrim does the best is the perfect pace of locations found in this icy region of Cyrodill and the sheer number of quests available for the player. While the game does offer fast travel, wanderers of this amazing virtual world prefer walking across it because that way there are millions of distractions that can completely change your plan and make you forget about the current quest in a matter of milliseconds.
You discover a new quest and wonder out in the fields around Winterhold only to find a new dungeon. You, of course, immediately decide to explore it. After the dungeon, a stranger asks to recover his lost amulet that is taken by bandits in the nearby cave. You recover the amulet and then find a ruined castle brimming with necromancers and valuable loot. Now you have to sell that loot and it is best to go to Windhelm, which is now much closer to Winterhold. Once you sell the equipment you decide to reach that newly discovered peak with a powerful dragon residing at its end. You kill the dragon and then decide to explore the beautiful lands of Eastmarch.
And then, after six hours of random exploration, you remember about that quest located just outside WInterholm. The problem is that you are currently hanging out in Riften, trying to join Thieves Guild. That Skyrim for you. A huge playground filled with all kinds of amusement rides and one where plans change as soon as you leave the gates of any settlement.
With Assassin's Creed Origins Ubisoft finally managed to give players a world that is stunningly beautiful but also incredibly immersive and believable. The world of ancient Egypt depicted in the game can be compared to the Witcher 3 world when it comes to the sheer size, the complexity of its various environments, the feeling of bustling life in its cities and the overall experience that is capable of sucking players in, making them forget about that limiting dimension of time we all are bound to follow in the real world.
The world is filled with people who all live their life and when the player finds themselves among these crowds of everyday citizens and villagers, they don't feel like all those buildings, vendors, streets, and people are here to create a believable disguise, a complex guise that should make us believe we are in a world aware of its artificiality. No, we believe that Bayek is just another denizen of this world, just another nobody who simply happens to have a much more interesting life story than other people.
In other Assassin's Creed games things were different. We got the feeling we were simply a tool in hands of the Abstergo company, which constructed these artificial worlds and placed them as a huge backdrops serving the sole purpose of providing pretty backgrounds for out digital adventures. But Assassin's Creed Origins finally got the invaluable gift, the gift of fascinating immersiveness reserved only for the best digital open worlds.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a hardcore medieval RPG that puts realism in front of everything else. In the world of Bohemia, there's no magic, there's just you and your sword proficiency and during the most fights that proficiency is put to extremely enduring trials during which you can go insane because of the sheer difficulty of most fights. But aside from aiming at realism when it comes to gameplay, the game offers unmatched realism when it comes to its world building.
The world isn't filled with stuff to do; you cannot find new quests at every corner, and there aren't hundreds of points of interest that can be explored and looted. No, in this world everything is done with a purpose but that doesn't stop the game from being wonderfully immersive. The settlements are designed with an extreme number of details, the surrounding meadows and forests look as if they are taken from the real world and then put into the game without losing any detail. And all that creates one strong feeling of an authentic world that isn't just another digital recreation served for the purpose of providing a shiny set for the story to unfold in.
And that realism is especially noticeable during social events. You will go to jail if caught stealing and will make people run if you sheet a sword in a settlement. You have to be clean in case you want to speak with nobles, you can hook up with various women during your journey, your character can start conversations with virtually anyone in the world. And that's that last piece of the puzzle that makes Kingdom Come: Deliverance a shiny diamond in the world of open world games capable of making you forget about the real world.
Watch Dogs 2 excels in many ways but the game's strongest point is the sheer beauty of its world and the grand diversity of its environments. The bustling urban landscape of San Francisco is seamlessly transformed into peaceful Silicon Valley that looks and feels like a calm backwater to the huge city it is connected with. Then you have equally impressive Oakland with its gritty charm, an area that represents a complete opposite of San Francisco's refined looks.
And that beautiful map is filled with stuff to do. Looking for notable tourist attractions you can take selfies in front can take hours. Then you have various gang hideouts that are perfect for some drone fun. Races are numerous and most of them are a solid way to kill some time, and there are also taxi fares that can make you laugh at the game's wacky NPC characters.
You can drink coffee and have something to eat, and then spend the whole afternoon trying to find research points that are expertly hidden across the map. Mini-games are there for all those who just love controlling the two cool drones, and drone races are the best way to learn how to fly like a pro. Watch Dogs 2 is an amazing game with a bustling world and it's a shame it features so little vehicles and pedestrians on its colorful streets. If that weren't the case, Watch Dogs 2 world would have a chance to take on the champion of open world urban environments, the GTA V.
Here, we have the definitive apex of urban open world environments embodied in massive Los Santos along with its neighboring areas which are around three times the size of the urban area. Rockstar managed to give life to this world by implementing advanced NPC AI that does a wonderful world of simulating traffic and giving pedestrians and drivers a huge number of potential behaviors. You may see two drivers arguing while waiting for green light, or a heist happening as you walk by with the police and the subsequent chase, or there may be some accident nearby and you can see the ambulance approaching. The game is filled with these random events happening all over the map, which give the world the spirit of real life it needs. And that world is represented with many different radio stations and TV channels, creating a believable grand satire of the modern world we all live in.
The game also offers plenty in terms of gameplay variety with many side and story missions providing wonderful breaks from classic gunplay missions the game is filled with. The final formula is a world where you can enjoy a simple car ride across Grand Senora Desert while listening to the radio as much as performing the magnificent final heist of the game's story. And that's the main reason why GTA V is capable of making you waste the whole weekend exploring its huge map.
Many games tried to emulate GTA level of experience but every single failed to reach its heights. A few came pretty close but each of them lacked at least a couple of special ingredients that makes GTV games so damn good.
With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar tried to create a sort of an antithesis to GTA V. Instead of designing a huge urban area GTA games are known from, the company gave the world a vast wilderness dotted with occasional signs of civilization represented by small Wild-West towns. This gave Red Dead Redemption a different kind of charm while giving players different ways of enjoying the game.
Instead of driving like a maniac while trying not to crash into vehicles and/or people, players can cozily ride their horse in search of the next place to hunt. Or simply enjoying the sunset while admiring the incredibly designed nature from a nearby hilltop.
But the game also features phenomenal AI that makes the game's towns populated by many excellently designed NPCs that create the atmosphere of a living, breathing world filled with countless possibilities. Players can do story and side missions, go hunt, explore and discover new places, or simply enjoy the world while aimlessly wandering through the game world.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is a unique open world game because of its unorthodox setting. We've seen games placed in all version of the Earth, but very few of them picked the scenario of a post-apocalyptic Earth thousands of years ahead of our time. By being groundbreaking like H.G Wells' Time Machine, Horizon: Zero Dawn immediately drew everyone who heard of it. And it kept most of those players hooked by populating that world with stranger than fiction machines, a well-written story, excellent gameplay, imaginative missions, lots of interesting characters, and impressive world design.
Discover ruins of ancient civilization and hunt giant robotic creatures; embark on an epic journey through the lush wilderness and look at stunning visuals the game is filled with. The game contains forests, mountains, jungles, deserts and it traversing it creates a sense of constant exploration of the whole Earth, which can never get boring. On top of all that the game features varied combat and a wide selection of enemies each with their own tactics. And the map is massive and dotted with stuff do to, giving players more than 60 hours if deeply immersive content scattered across the world. One of those games capable of selling a console, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a supreme open world experience.
Yakuza games became some of the most immersive open world games by applying a completely different formula compared to most similar games. Instead of coming up with a huge world map these game offer relatively small areas, a simple districts of Tokyo and Osaka. And instead of trying to achieve high levels of realism and creating experiences capable of making players believe they are in the real world and not some video game, Yakuza titles make players aware they're in a video game from the start.
Fights are too much over-the-top, the game is filled with characters that overreact like in some B movie, crowds of people are stripped of any character, and the game's menus look like they are made for some arcade parlor title. But letting you know you are playing a video game and constantly reminding you about it does have its advantages, like giving Yakuza games an undeniable charm of old school video games, before most games became a playing ground for creating the hyper-realistic recreations of the real world. It drives you to finish just another mission, to embark on some of the numerous side activities, or to explore the map for hidden trophies.
And the small size of both open world maps used in the game allows the two districts to be rich with various activities. And by making then immediately accessible because of the worlds' trivial size Yakuza games become highly addictive and a joy to play. The games have that spirit of Skyrim in giving players a bunch of stuff to do, enough for them to completely forget about the main story, making them lost for hours across Kabukich? and D?tonbori.
Mount and Blade: Warband doesn't offer impressive story willed with unexpected twists, well-written characters, or thousands of lines of superb dialogue. In fact, this game doesn't have a story at all. Also, the visuals found here aren't made out of super detailed terrain, detailed textures, vibrant colors, advanced post-processing effects, incredible animation, and character models. The visuals are okay but not more than that.
What this game does offer is a ridiculously huge map filled with fortresses to conquer, a way to create a ruling dynasty, gather your own army, and complete a number of interesting quests. The combat (especially on horseback) is diverse, adrenaline-pumping, and so satisfying. Huge battles the game is filled with are contributing to the sense of grandeur the game's map further deepens with its scale and the incredible number of settlements it's sprinkled with ranging from small farm villages, trough army garrisons, to imposing castles.
And the sheer size of the map combined with countless activities and lots of lands to invade guarantees hundreds of hours of pure fun many will spend in this masterfully crafted kingdom simulator. To help increase the number of hours you'll spend inside the game fans of the game created numerous mods that add new weapons, quests, better visuals, and even new campaigns taking place on many massive open world maps. This is one of the rare games with mod community strong enough it can match those of Skyrim and GTA V.