In Stalker the open world is your enemy. Gamma pockets, anomalies and radioactive storms can end you in moments. Any building can hide scavengers, or terrible mutated creatures. Ammo and armour is scarce, and you’re lost in a wasteland so bleak as to be almost completely alienating. But as the Stalkers know, the place has a strange allure. Explore the blasted husks of Ukranian factories and apartment blocks, and try not to be too unnerved by the lifeless quiet. After a while, Stalker’s desolation becomes beautiful.
This is what money is for: creating a kind of pastiche of a real-world location that’s so staggeringly accurate in atmosphere and details that it’s actually better than being in the real thing. Los Santos took the meticulous approach Rockstar gave to the compact Liberty City in GTA 4 and brought it to the scale of 2004’s San Andreas—the result is an open world of such a high standard that it’ll only likely be topped by Rockstar itself. Between its strong multi-protagonist campaign and the mad playground of GTA Online, there’s well over 100 hours of chases and gunfights across land, air and sea for those who want it here.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
Assassin's Creed's jauntiest outing since 2, Black Flag masterfully combines toe-to-toe swashbuckling with sailing in a luminous Caribbean archipelago. Tiny islands, whales, forts and colonial armadas provide the variety on the ocean, and the sizeable islands host traditional free-running Assassin's Creed action. After a poor third entry in the series, Black Flag was a salty lungful of fresh air.
The cities are smaller and the plot’s nonsense, but few games can match the excitement of smashing a port. You crack the walls open from the ocean with cannon fire before seamlessly freerunning through the shattered battlements, hunting the commander with a brace of loaded pistols. It’s exactly the sort of action that open worlds do brilliantly. Top storms, too.
The Witcher 3
An outstanding technological achievement, The Witcher 3 is the vanguard of a new wave of open world games able to leverage the power of modern gaming systems to create environments of extraordinary detail and scope. The bogs of Velen are a moody aperitif that primes you for the bustle of Novigrad and the sweeping forests of the nordic Skellige region—one of the most beautiful game locations ever.
You can spend hours sailing around those islands, stumbling upon quests, breaking curses, killing monsters and playing Gwent with rowdy locals. The Witcher 3’s towns are noisy, bustling places that make other open world towns seem lifeless by comparison. It’s a pleasure to simply pick a direction and walk—the hallmark of a great open world.
Just Cause 2
Not exactly the most in-depth of the games on this list, but one of the most empowering and silly. The grappling hook in Just Cause 2, which allows players to tie objects together, is the foundation of Just Cause 2’s extended lifespan on PC—since its release in 2010, its mod scene has kept the game popular, culminating with its popular multiplayer mod being released as a standalone game with Square Enix’s blessing on Steam last year. Just Cause 3, just around the corner, promises to take inspiration from the modding community by adding the ability to tether heavier objects with the grappling hook and to fire multiple tethers at a time.
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
MGS5 only truly comes into its own as an open world game when you stop using the helicopter to get to every mission, and work your way through each of the two massive landscapes (Afghanistan, and the Angola-Zaire border) picking off Side Ops like an RPG. Kojima Productions’ stealth action game encourages true freedom of approach, and its progression systems properly reward the player, too. You start by headshotting enemies with a rubbish pistol and end by dragging enemies towards you with a magic robot hand, sticking tanks on balloons and calling in airstrikes on bears. Great game or greatest game?
Saints Row 4
A delightfully silly satire on games, don’t let Saints Row 4’s slightly dull city put you off. Powers like superhuman speed, Hulk-like jumps and a range of comedy guns and wrestling moves means this is the closest thing to Crackdown you can find on PC, except it’s better, because it has jokes. It also has an inflato-ray that puffs up enemies until they pop, and a Dubstep gun that changes firing pattern depending on the costume you give it. Based on this information, you've probably already decided whether to give it a try or not.
Batman: Arkham Knight
Disappointing PC port aside, Arkham Knight’s Gotham city is an extraordinary recreation of Batman’s stomping ground. Across the three islands you get a different sense of the city’s social classes and even gentrification—including one island where shiny new skyscrapers are being built on top of the old parts of the city. Travelling around this location by Batmobile shows Arkham Knight’s divisive new feature at its best, and being able to jump out at any time, ambushing groups of goons with the Dark Knight’s extensive armoury, is as close to fulfilling the complete Batman fantasy as games will ever get.
A brown post-nuclear wasteland ought to be boring, but the decades Bethesda has spent refining the same open world formula pays off in Fallout 4. While not as groundbreaking as its predecessors, the absorbing world serves as a battleground for Boston’s warring NPCs. Diamond City defenders fight running battles through the outskirts of the city, while in the wilderness raiders bully settlers and the mutated wildlife attacks anything it thinks it can eat.
With the exception of Minecraft, this is the only game on the list that gives players some control over the landscape. Liberate settlements and you can melt down their possessions to build towns with luxuries like running water and turret systems to keep the wastelanders out. Because it’s based on an advanced version of the Creation engine that powered Skyrim and Oblivion, it’s a modder’s paradise. Fallout 4 is great now, but we can’t wait to see what it will become once the community’s had some time with it.
The best game ever made, if you can learn how to play it. Like Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress can generate a planet in moments. It goes further than using erosion patterns to plot realistic river routes, or using geology to weave skeins of ore into the crust in believable patterns. It models builds whole societies—heroes, battles, wars and religious beliefs included. Sometimes a society won’t even survive the world creation process. Instead you come across their abandoned halls as you manage your fortress, or encounter their ruins in DF’s roleplaying mode. The ASCII interface is offputting to some, and it’s best played with some aids, but this is the most advanced open world generators available, and it’s still being updated with new features and behavioural tweaks.
Far Cry 4
Since Far Cry 2, the series has encouraged gunfights across sprawling open world locations, from Africa, to the tropics, and now the Himalayas. Far Cry 2’s setting, systems-driven approach to action sequences and the interesting buddy system made it a critic’s darling. It’s still great, but Far Cry’s stealth systems have improved since then, and the addition of co-op and some spectacular mountainous terrain in 4 earns it a place on this list.
The series has become more refined with each entry, and 3 and 4 have wisely focused on giving players a generous scattering of outposts to conquer. These open-ended challenges give you license to improvise with a varied armoury, or go in close to chain together stealth kills in close combat. Like its predecessors, FC4 has some of the best dynamic fire in any game as well. That only adds to the carnage when things inevitably go wrong.
What if an open world wasn’t just a challenge to be survived, but a bedrock on which to build a world of your own? Many games have tried to emulate Minecraft over the years. Some, like Terraria and Starbound, have done a great job, but the original is a generation-defining work that’s still growing with every update. As a survival game it’s relatively crude, but it’s an incredible building game, and players have used Minecraft’s creator tools to build extraordinary things—just check out the PC Gamer server for a sample. Minecraft isn’t just a great open world game, it’s a cultural phenomenon. That’s borne out by the fact that 21 million people have bought the game at the time of writing.