PC gaming's best US cities

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

Happy July 4 to all our friends in the USA! Today the UK team loosely tries to join in with a story about the Independence Day game that time forgot, and this celebration of the best US cities in PC gaming.

We're lucky enough to have visited a lot of the cities on the list, and it's always a surreal experience to compare reality to a virtual interpretation. These games capture something special about the places they model. It's not just about getting all the landmarks in, the best cities use light, weather and sound to create a distinct mood. Sometimes the shooting and driving feels secondary to the experience of wandering the streets, soaking up the atmosphere.

Washington DC, The Division 2

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

It's odd to walk around a virtual city you've also visited in real life. The layout of the city has to be changed to fit the mechanics (cover everywhere!), but there are sudden moments of powerful recognition as you have a tense gunfight in the National Air and Space museum. As in real life, the White House is smaller than you expect, and the Capitol Building seems huge. The soft storms of the Division 2 make DC's wide avenues even more beautiful. A cracking bit of virtual tourism with the bonus ability to shoot nanobees at bandits.—Tom Senior

Liberty City, Grand Theft Auto 4

(Image credit: Rockstar)

Los Santos is a much bigger and undeniably more impressive location, but the now decade-old Liberty City is still my favourite open world city in any game. The over-the-top golden skies of Rockstar's love letter to New York are completely unrealistic, but they add this mythical feel to a playable space that was unprecedented in detail at the time. From Star Junction, its version of Times Square, to the light coming through the train tracks on the streets of Broker, it's still an emotionally stirring place to explore. I'd love to see it revisited in GTA Online or a new singleplayer game at some point.—Samuel Roberts

San Francisco, Watch Dogs 2

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

My memories of San Francisco mostly consist of sunshine and good sandwiches—our sandwiches are crap in comparison. Ubisoft's interpretation of San Francisco is luminous and extremely fun to drive around, not least because you get to live the Bullitt fantasy of careering down those steep hills. The in-game phone has a Scout app that encourages you to tour the city's landmarks, which is a really nice touch that encourages players to see the city as a storied, lived in place, rather than just a chaotic play space. I've always wanted games to follow Ubisoft's approach to cities. In Assassin's Creed you can access historical information about the locations you're visiting. I like learning little bits about places I won't get to see in real life.—Tom Senior

City of Glass, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

(Image credit: ea)

I had to check the wiki to make sure the City of Glass is technically part of North America (it is! If it's technically in Canada and we've goofed, I unreservedly apologise). This Mass Effect-y environment is full of clean skyscrapers and high-end apartments that look like they're owned by rich jerks. Both Mirror's Edge games use colour theory to provoke a powerful response from the player, but Catalyst is the game everyone seems to forget about, so the location from that game lands a place in this list.—Samuel Roberts

Lytton, Police Quest

(Image credit: Police Quest)

When I venture into digital American cities, it seems to be almost exclusively to break the law or sow chaos, even if it's inadvertent, but not in Lytton. It's a wee, peaceful town that's sprouted a drug and murder problem, and as Sonny Bonds, Police Quest's by the books rookie, playing by the rules is the only way forward. You can't even drive recklessly. Everyone else is getting to do the crimes, but you've got to behave and stop them from having fun. It's a bit dull and completely obsessed with procedure, but even 30 years later, Lytton and the Police Quest series still feels novel.—Fraser Brown

Los Angeles, LA Noire

(Image credit: Rockstar)

It seems so unlikely that a period-set game could have this level of detail, but this was a Rockstar-published game, after all. LA isn't much for chases and open world side quests, designed as it is as the ultimate movie set-like backdrop for solving scripted crimes, but it does that almost impossibly well. From the store fronts to the landmarks, it's still lovely to look at now, and the interiors are lovely little locations to pick through. I like that it captures the beauty of the city while also making it feel new and dangerous, in the way neo-noir films like Chinatown and LA Confidential do so well.—Samuel Roberts

Empire Bay, Mafia 2

(Image credit: Mafia 2)

Rain is really important in open city environments, and Empire Bay has gorgeous, grey rain. It feels great to wander around in a soaked trench coat listening to the authentic honks of old cars. The city itself is a collage of famous imagery from the 40s and 50s that uses New York and Chicago as obvious touchstones. Away from the skyscrapers and colourful districts like Chinatown, Mafia 2 does a good job of modelling industrial zones and warehouse districts. That doesn't sound very glamorous, but it's important for the sense that there is hustle (and crime) happening in every corner of the city.—Tom Senior

Detroit, Deus Ex: Human Revolution

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Hengsha is probably more memorable in 2011's Deus Ex game, what with its ludicrous nightclub The Hive, but Detroit is a lovely location to explore too. And you'll do that in the way we've come to expect from the series: by throwing bins and boxes around while trying to climb over stuff. Detroit has the massive Sarif Building, Adam's apartment complex, the futuristic LIMB clinic, and even those twats dancing in the subway.—Samuel Roberts

Boston, Fallout 4

(Image credit: Bethesda)

It's not a problem that I've picked a place that's technically been hit with a nuclear warhead, right? Cool. I'm pretty fond of all of the modern Fallout games' US locations, but Boston in Fallout 4 is the most well-realised city among them to date. It even has its own comic shop! I'm not particularly familiar with the real place, but the way it adapts landmarks like Fenway Park and the USS Constitution to Fallout's universe is really cool, even if the game itself didn't blow me away like I hoped it would.—Samuel Roberts

Paradise City, Burnout Paradise

(Image credit: Criterion)

Screw humans, this is a city built for cars. The city planners were drag racers and stunt drivers and destruction derby enthusiasts, creating the perfect stage for infinite races and collisions. It’s one big race, really, and any street can become part of it at any time. Rules are tossed aside in favour of letting you just do whatever you want, including choosing your own route to the finish line. Memorising Paradise City, etching it in your brain—that’s how you win.—Fraser Brown

Tom Senior

Part of the UK team, Tom was with PC Gamer at the very beginning of the website's launch—first as a news writer, and then as online editor until his departure in 2020. His specialties are strategy games, action RPGs, hack ‘n slash games, digital card games… basically anything that he can fit on a hard drive. His final boss form is Deckard Cain.