Video games offer a sense of escapism that can’t be matched. When you read a great book, you watch the pages slowly dwindle. The credits eventually roll on every masterpiece of cinema. But adventures will always be there for you in your favorite games.
The open-world genre is one of the most popular in the modern landscape of big-budget games because it gives players the freedom to traverse wide landscapes that are packed with secrets to discover, missions to complete, and foes to vanquish. A single save file can tally hundreds of hours, even if you don’t complete each and every objective.
If you’re looking for the most expansive, memorable, and immersive open worlds in games, the list below features some of the very best the genre has to offer. Organized by release date, these games are beloved in their own right and include high fantasy RPGs, gritty first-person shooters and cartoony platformers.
The best open-world video games
1) Super Mario 64
Platforms: Nintendo 64
Although it may not feature the largest or most realistic open world, Super Mario 64 contributed a great deal to the foundations of the genre. While preserving many of the platforming puzzle elements from previous Mario games, this N64 classic shifted the focus to exploring a three-dimensional world that moved away from simple linear progression. Peach’s castle serves as the main hub through which Mario travels to a number of colorful worlds. Players guide Mario through different levels in the Mushroom Kingdom, jumping on Goombas, grabbing stars and saving the princess. In addition to completing these missions, there are minigames and secrets to be found in almost every level.
2) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Platforms: PlayStation 2
Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto games have always been some of the most notorious open-world games, thanks to the freedom they afford players to commit crime and partake in violence. San Andreas was the first in the series to feature a truly seamless open world, with no loading screens between areas in the city. Players can drive around freely, hopping out to engage in gunfights before jumping back behind the wheel for a swift getaway. The vast city of Los Santos is full of side missions featuring stories based loosely on real gangs and criminals. Like all other Grand Theft Auto games, San Andreas featured a real-world soundtrack and hundreds of vehicles that perform on the streets, off road, and on the open water.
3) Far Cry 2
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
For a first-person shooter, Far Cry 2’s campaign features an incredible scope while remaining original and engaging. Set amid a civil war in Central Africa, the plot finds players managing relationships with both allies and enemies and tasks them with challenging decisions. These choices can come in the form of leaving an NPC partner to die in an explosive gunfight or stealthily sneaking around a hostile encampment in search of secrets. Players need to scour every inch of the savannah to weaken their opponents and bring freedom to an oppressed population. The African vistas are still breathtaking to behold eight years later, with realistic rays of sunlight peeking over the rolling plains of a dangerous land.
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4) Red Dead Redemption
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
There’s a reason the entire gaming community was whipped into a fervor when Rockstar posted one simple image that hinted at a sequel to this beloved Western. Red Dead Redemption transports players to the Wild West in 1911, allowing them to act on all their gunslinging dreams from classic cowboy movies. There are plenty of ways to spend your time out in the Mexican and American deserts, including trapping animals, hunting bounties, and dueling crooked criminals. Red Dead makes use of a morality system, letting players choose whether they want John Marston to be a hero or a notorious villain. The game will change based on Marston’s honor. Those who take a villainous path are free to rack up as high a bounty on their heads as they can manage.
5) Xenoblade Chronicles
Platforms: Nintendo Wii
One of the more obscure titles to appear on this list, Monolith Software’s Nintendo Wii exclusive JRPG barely made it to the United States, but it quickly found a cult following. The story takes place on an alien planet that combines sci-fi and fantasy elements. Our central group of heroes is locked in perpetual war with an army of hostile machines. The massive size of Xenoblade’s environments can be overwhelming, as can the high-level enemies who have no qualms about crushing players who come too close. The game’s story is incredibly long, packed with emotional twists and optional super-bosses that will keep you busy for well over 100 hours.
6) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
On stage at E3 in 2011, Bethesda Games Studios director Todd Howard famously introduced Skyrim with the phrase “See that mountain? You can climb it.” The promise behind this quote brought players into a world where the landscape was more than just background decoration, but something that could be scaled and conquered. This adventure spans dark dungeons, massive cities, and an unforgiving wilderness that gives absolute freedom on wherever you want to go next. Skyrim is full of friendly characters and factions that you can join and help on quests. The atmosphere of the wintry world is the game’s greatest strength, with the brilliant soundtrack swelling in the heat of action or scoring solitary moments in the majestic forests. Each player will have a different experience with Skyrim, depending on the path they choose to follow as well as their armor, weapons, and race.
7) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
The most recent game to appear on this list happens to also be one of the most expansive. One of the most successful games of 2015, The Witcher 3 added two packed content expansions in 2016 that extended the story of Geralt of Rivia. The game received unanimous praise for its mature writing, compelling characters, and branching narrative. Players explore a vivid fantasy realm, hunting monsters, and fighting in a bloody war between two kingdoms. The size of The Witcher 3’s world is so massive that every copy of the game comes with a physical map so players can keep track of their progress.