Ever since Grand Theft Auto III merged third-person action-adventure gameplay with a realistic parody of New York City, gaming has been obsessed with creating open worlds that feel like living, breath places that exist beyond the player. These days, NPCs are more realistic than ever, worlds are enormous in size and scope, and random encounters have grown from minor battles to dynamic stories.
In the past few years, some of the best open-world games around have launched, delighting gamers with endless time for exploring, adventuring, and (more often than not) killing innocent animals and people. Here are five titles that you should pick up for some immersive open-world action.
Fallout: New Vegas
Before there were open-world games, there was Fallout. And Obsidian Entertainment’s Fallout: New Vegas captures everything that was so great about those original games.
Fallout: New Vegas focuses around Nevada and Las Vegas, referred to as “New Vegas” in the post-apocalyptic future. The game returns back to the west coast after Fallout 3 turned to the east, and it also features a relaxed and slightly over-the-top feel more in line with Fallout 1 and 2. That’s in part because some of the game’s developers from Obsidian Entertainment previously worked on Fallout 2.
These days, Fallout: New Vegas still ranks as one of the best open-world titles around. Not just does the game strike a fine balance between action role-playing with an interesting story to share, but the game blends Fallout 1 and 2’s story with the gameplay enhancements introduced through Fallout 3. The Mojave Wasteland feels enormous, and it has a lengthy list of characters to meet, settlements to explore, and enemies to shoot-up through its sidequests. Plus, the PC version’s vibrant modding community gives the game some serious replay value, adding all new game features, difficulty settings, and weapons to try out. As far as open-world games go, this one is a must-buy.
Grand Theft Auto 4
Grand Theft Auto III refined open-world gameplay, but Grand Theft Auto IV perfected it. Released in 2008 to enormous popularity, Grand Theft Auto 4 tells the story of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who lands in Liberty City to start a new life.
Grand Theft Auto IV replicated New York City in a way that very few contemporary games accomplished. Characters lived realistically, walking across the city with shopping bags and coffee cups in hand while hanging out with other people. Rockstar’s Liberty City satirized the Big Apple in both big and small ways, from knock-off landmarks to flyers and ads that mirror the New York City government’s sleek, minimalist look on its posters and its PSAs.
Not just that, but Grand Theft Auto IV felt more lifelike compared to its 3D predecessors. Cars behaved dynamically, no longer stopping and starting abruptly as in earlier games. Guns handled more realistically, and in-game shootouts became much more intense. And of course, police chases became way cooler during free roam, too. There’s nothing like driving through a bustling rendition of New York City as the LCPD are on your tail.
Grand Theft Auto IV changed how people play open-world games. It was no longer enough for developers to create worlds that felt “big.” They also had to be realistic. After all, what’s the fun in blowing up a half dozen police cars if it doesn’t feel lifelike?
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
If Mass Effect Andromeda is any example, not every series can survive the jump to open-world gaming. But The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild shows that when developers understand what makes open-world games so fun, then some of the most iconic series can exceed expectations.
Breath of the Wild takes place in a Medieval-like Hyrule, in which Link must prevent Ganon from destroying the entire world once he awakens from Hyrule Castle. But the game jumps players straight into Hyrule, allowing them to explore the world at their own pace without much guidance. So in order to survive, players must explore their environment, discovering items and learning how to take on enemies through trial and error. Weapons can lose durability from use, too, and players can even cook elixirs and foods for stat buffs and health recovery, respectively.
As far as Legend of Zelda games go, Breath of the Wild is certainly different because it trades in a linear story for a living world to play through. But the game’s story and characters still hold up, along with its gameplay, which has been hailed as one of 2017’s best open-world titles. So if you’re looking for an open-world Nintendo Switch game to grab, Breath of the Wild should be at the top of your list.
Red Dead Redemption
In 2010, Westerns weren’t considered an open-world hallmark. Red Dead Redemption changed that. Released by Rockstar Games for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Red Dead Redemption put players in charge of John Marston, a former outlaw tasked with killing his old posse member after the federal government comes knocking on his door.
Before Red Dead Redemption was released, Rockstar Games was mostly known for its open-world action-adventure romps through modern-day America in Grand Theft Auto. But Red Dead Redemption introduced a serious story that exchanged Rockstar’s familiar satire for sincere political commentary. And it did so with a gorgeous setting and adrenaline-pumping combat, impressively capturing the Wild West’s atmosphere across the sunburnt plains of the U.S. and Mexico.
Red Dead Redemption gave the Western a kickstart, showing that a studio like Rockstar could take the genre’s tropes, twist them around, and create a realistic world speaking bluntly about the American Dream and the government that fosters it. And the game’s world remains a delight to players up to today, as fans eagerly await the game’s sequel, Red Dead Redemption 2.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Many open-world games feel one-dimensional. Once the player leaves a town or settlement, it’s like the universe suddenly stops existing. CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 3 doesn’t feel like that at all. The game makes the player feel more like an actor on a stage, with the world pulling the player away from the main story with random events and sidequests. As a result, CD Projekt RED’s open world doesn’t revolve around the player, but it certainly changes based on how they act.
In The Witcher 3, players take control of Geralt of Rivia, a magical bounty hunter called a Witcher. Geralt is tasked with venturing through the Continent, searching for his adopted daughter Ciri, who can control time through her powers. As the player explores through the world and advances the plot, they can’t just use various magical signs and weapons in combat, but they also have an enormous open-world to explore throughout the game. Between a day-and-night cycle that influences monsters, sophisticated enemy AI that forces the player to read and respond to opponents’ attacks, and immersive side quests with realistic twists, The Witcher 3’s world feels alive.
While each open-world game on this list feels dynamic, The Witcher 3 is one of the first to truly feel realistic. While Grealt successfully completes a sidequest or advances the main plot, life goes on. Not every minor character is a good person, nor is every quest-giver a person in need. Some are manipulative, threatening violence to reach their goals. Other times, Grealt agrees to a quest only to stumble across monsters randomly terrorizing villagers. The Witcher 3 tries to make the player feel like a real person on a stage, but not a superhero. Not everyone can always be saved.