This is a bit of a complicated category because this isn’t simply “Best open world.” Open worlds certainly qualify — and may have an advantage — but these are the games I enjoy being in the most. “Being in” might be about exploration or how you interact with the world, but it could also be a combination of visual and audio execution, or even worlds with phenomenal backstory. Everything should add up to a fully realized game world. “Most well-realized universe” just isn’t quite as catchy a title.
There’s a disappointing lack of world development in Destiny 2, but what’s there is super interesting. I also enjoyed exploring the different worlds and the secrets they had to offer.
Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age
The world of Final Fantasy XII is so vast and varied, and the game does a great job of shepherding you to new areas and giving you a reason to explore. It’s just that I’ve seen this world half a dozen times already.
Prey gives me Bioshock vibes, which is a pretty high compliment. Exploration can be a bit confusing, but there’s a ton of backstory to discover and space feels fittingly terrifying.
I was pleasantly surprised at the different types of areas you explore in Rime, and once I found my first collectible that gave additional backstory for our lead, I wanted to find more.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole
Similar to “Best Looking Game,” there are diminishing returns in coming back to South Park. The exploration is also fairly simple, but it’s still a fun town in which to play.
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
India is so well-realized in The Lost Legacy. For me, though, I enjoyed the character interactions more than I did the exploration. But Naughty Dog should keep experimenting with more open world design.
5. Super Mario Odyssey
As I mentioned in “Best Looking Game,” Odyssey doesn’t have that particular insanity that was brought by Super Mario Galaxy. But its worlds are extremely varied and have fun with the age-old types of worlds you’d typically find in a Mario game. From a gameplay perspective, I have some issues with the concept of moons, because having so many makes them feel less special to earn. But from an explorational perspective, the hundreds of moons you can find really force you to explore every nook and cranny of each kingdom.
I also appreciate how each kingdom not only looks different than the one before it, but many of them have unique twists that require some additional strategy to explore. Lake Lamode and Bubblaine obviously require a fair amount of underwater work. Shiveria, on the other hand, freezes you pretty quickly if you stray into the water. Everything boils down to capturing the best creature for the thing you want to do. That not only works as a fun exploration strategy, but keeps things fresh even after earning 500 moons in 14 different kingdoms.
The world of Pyre obviously looks amazing, with its painted, washed-out colors and varied settings, but the world is also rich with backstory that you uncover over time. This is mostly learned through dialogue rather than exploration, which makes it an interesting fit for this category.
Still, it’s all about a well-realized world, and Pyre knocks that out of the park. There’s just so much history there that it almost becomes overwhelming. I’d say that the game doesn’t do a great job inching you into the circumstances and instead throws you in headfirst. But as you continue to explore, meet new characters, read journal entries, and listen to the voiced music, things start to piece together. I wouldn’t say everything about the world ever becomes completely transparent, but that’s part of the charm and mystique. This is a world that existed long before you came around and will continue long after you leave your time with it.
3. Assassin’s Creed Origins
The technical execution kept Assassin’s Creed Origins off my “Best Looking Game” list, but this is where the art direction and attention to detail can really shine. I’m still astounded with just how much Ubisoft crammed into Origins, but I guess that’s the benefit of having 80 million developers across 60,000 studios working on a game at once. The scale of the game is absolutely massive — it would take well over 100 hours to truly uncover every little side quest and hidden area. For me, after beating the story at around 50 hours, there’s still so much to do. And the crazy thing is, I actually want to go back and do it.
The world of Egypt at this time is just so fascinating, with so many cultures and lifestyles represented. There are the small villages where people go about their business farming and trading, but there are also vast Roman cities filled with temples to their new gods, fishing villages with decks floating over rivers, sprawling deserts where it seems like no life could sustain itself, a sea with small islands scattered about, and even a city surrounded by water that worships crocodiles. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface. In a sense, the sheer amount of places to visit in Origins is honestly the thing that holds it back. It’s hard to take a breath and enjoy the wonder when you know there are still a million other stories and secrets to find.
2. Horizon: Zero Dawn
When it comes to new IP, Horizon: Zero Dawn takes the cake with its ability to establish a world worth exploring. The different regions are so varied while still feeling cohesive, and the game smartly gives you several options for moving about the space. The platforming could definitely use some more depth and freedom, but it still felt good to climb a giant mountain or broken relic. By choosing the right upgrade path, you have the ability to summon a mount at almost any time, which makes it infinitely easier — and faster — to get from point A to B. For as large as the world of Horizon is, I don’t like using fast travel because I just enjoy being in the environments.
More specifically, though, the ruins, cities, and technological spaces are the best to explore and offer the most story context. I have mixed feelings on using audio diaries as an ambient form of storytelling, but they mostly work in Horizon. They can be a bit of an info dump, though. To put a positive spin on that, I was so desperate to learn more about the history of the world that I wanted to find and listen to everything I possibly could. It’s less “setting” and more world-building, but I have to again call out the armor designs. Each one makes sense for its intended use and has a clear relation to the culture that created it. Horizon: Zero Dawn would definitely win a “Best Armor” category.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
I feel like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild combines the best elements from the other games on this list into one amazing package. It has the drive to uncover secrets in every inch of the world that Super Mario Odyssey brings, the scope and freedom of movement from Horizon: Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Origins, and the beautiful art direction and mystery of Pyre. The game doesn’t run perfectly, with several major and minor framerate hitches in some of the larger areas, but the entire experience is one of wonder.
The biggest knock against Breath of the Wild in this category is the implementation of some systems that seem to fly in the face of encouraging exploration. Rain makes it near-impossible to climb mountains, lightning storms can kill you if there isn’t a place to hide, and blood moons increase enemy spawns and make it hard to see. But Breath of the Wild also does a smart thing in how it allows you to uncover new areas. Whereas Horizon and Assassin’s Creed give you towers to climb that un-fog zones and drop icons all over your map, Breath of the Wild leaves that discovery completely up to you. Sure, there are still towers to climb, but it’s up to the player to stand on the tower and zoom in on areas of interest, manually marking them on the map. Breath of the Wild most certainly doesn’t hold your hand, and while some of that can lead to frustration and confusion, the overall experience is an immensely positive one.
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