Open world video games! We love them for the freedom, the exploration, and the breadth of things to do and discover. In this edition of Leaderboard, OK Beast’s brand new series where we rank video games, we’re breaking down the top 10 video game open worlds of all time. If you want to hear the debates and conversations behind this list, you can check out the first episode of the Leaderboard podcast where we discuss, debate, and a lot of the time argue, these rankings.
For this category, we’re judging the worlds themselves. Not the best open world games, per se. So let’s get started.
10) Fortnite Battle Royale Map – Fortnite
It’s got no name, but it’s brimming with character thanks to alliterative names that dot the landscape like Tilted Towers, Risky Reels or my favorite, Shifty Shafts. Never before have I seen a game twist, turn and contort into different shapes, sizes and colors quite like Fortnite. Meteors falling from the sky act as a countdown marking an impending map-changing destruction and rockets launched by supervillains break reality and this is just the nonsensical world building done to service in-game changes. Craters in the ground level whole areas, scientists built tents to research the site and eventually new life grows, transforming a series of abandoned warehouse into a prosperous crater shaped forest. An area called Moisty Mire played host to a swamp that slowed down the pace of any game that ended there and now because of world-tearing rifts, a desert biome and a new land vehicle have taken its place! It’s far from perfect, but it’s definitely already where millions of people enjoy passing time and I can only imagine how different the game world will be in half a year or even three months. Maybe it’ll be higher on this list.
– Moises Taveras
9) Arkham City – Batman: Arkham City
The element that made the Arkham games as compelling as they ended up being was the near perfect capturing of the essence of Gotham. Gotham, a mad city with mad personalities, is intact in its best form in Arkham City. The personalities of the rogues gallery shine as their voices boom over the local PA systems, their districts are reflective of their goals and their gangs appropriately talk up their boss, talk shit about the others, and beat on the Bat. The city streets and rooftops provide a suitable amount of room for the Batman series’ breezy, free flow combat and flying around the city-turned-prison with a target on your back never felt more like a comic come true. References to Batman lore paired with a smattering of environmental puzzles thanks to everyones favorite riddle master and a sometimes Metroidvania approach to progression make Arkham City the best rendition of hell on earth.
– Moises Taveras
8) The West – Red Dead Redemption
From beautiful but desolate painted vistas to old west towns teeming with life, Red Dead Redemption delivered the Wild West in a level of detail the likes of which we had never seen up to that point. If the terrain between towns seemed barren and expansive, it’s because it’s a deliberate reflection and recreation of the West. Rockstar gave us houses of ill repute where you could smell the sweat and cheap perfume and where taverns looked whiskey-soaked. New Austin captured the dying “Wild West”, its neighbor West Elizabeth represented the onset of the technological era and the will of the powers that be, while Nuevo Paraiso paints a picture of a country at war with itself, on the precipice of a discovery about how power changes men. Looking back, it’s still an amazing sight to behold.
– Brandon Wilson
7) Sunset City – Sunset Overdrive
A punk satire of everything including corporations, submissiveness of the masses, action movie cliches and video games, Sunset Overdrive is one of the most blatantly playful games ever and an homage to counter-culture. At a time where games embrace muted tones, Sunset Overdrive decided to be vibrant. Soda monsters that populate the world after a corporation-induced apocalypse burst with a comic book stylized “Pop” when you pump bullets, explosive teddy bears or vinyl pressings into them. You’re also zipping across power lines, dashing in midair, jumping off of cars, vents, or umbrellas and shooting electricity from a crowbar while you do all of this as Sunset City transcends its namesake and instead acts like a bounce house. To top it off, it’s all set to a punk rock soundtrack, so you get to finally live out your fantasy of being Iggy Pop if he were a superhero bereft of a moral compass.
– Moises Taveras
6) Skyrim – Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Nestled in the snowy territory of northern Tamriel, Skyrim is a haven juxtaposed by harsh weather and civil unrest. Its lands are full of cavernous mountains, haunted crypts, warring villages, ruins, and flame-ridden tundra.
During my first hours in the game, I was tasked with finding the Greybeards, a group of monks living out their days in isolation atop Skyrim’s highest mountain, The Throat of the World. The ascent required me to climb the Seven Thousand Steps, a set of stairs which started at the base of the ominous mount and guided me to the summit. Along the way I was met with the fire and flame of a neighboring dragon, and while I inevitably slew the dragon, I soon found myself ill equipped for a chance encounter with an angry frost troll. This experience was made all the more all-encompassing as I remembered the townsfolk below who warned me of the dangers of the summit. Regardless, their unsolicited tales merely faded into the background as I met the Greybeards and began my quest to fulfill my role as the Dragonborn.
The world, aware of its own scope, was immensely reflective of itself at any and every turn. It was experiences like these that defined our collective adventures throughout northern Tamriel, and while more recent games have elevated open worlds to new heights, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim will remain unforgettable. It’s one of the most revered RPG’s of all time, and its success, which was largely due to its expansive open world, changed the video game market and industry forever.
– Alex Van Aken
5) San Andreas – Grand Theft Auto San Andreas
San Andreas’ open world is one of the few which recreated multiple cities across a region. The cities of Los Santos, San Fierro, and Las Venturas each individually captured the essence and lifestyles of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. Whether you were taking over gang territories and tagging up walls in Los Santos, street racing in San Fierro, or gambling away your savings in Las Venturas, San Andreas had biting commentary ready with a surprising level of detail that pushed the PlayStation 2 beyond its limits. San Andreas also found ways to give character to the country, mountain, and desert areas that existed in between the cities which gave way to a beautifully realized, complete world. Climbing Mount Chilliad and bike racing down the mountain’s path along with breaking into Area 69 in order to steal the game’s coveted jetpack serve as memorable moments in a world filled with memorable locations. It is the way the world is spread out, sprinkled with intrigue, and made to feel like a cartoonish recreation of the west coast which makes it special.
– Blessing Adeoye Jr.
4) Azeroth – World of Warcraft
Azeroth is the embodiment of a living world. World of Warcraft is a game filled with lore, secrets, and treasures around every corner and it’s home to millions of players, each one of them embarking on their own quests and expeditions. Craftsmen visit massive cities in search of artisan traders or auction houses to sell their rare wares. Young hunters trek across the continent of Kalimdor in search of rare beasts, while those looking for lucrative fishing spots may find themselves on the southern coasts of Stranglethorn Vale, registering for a fishing tournament. Every inch of the world is alive and active at any moment.
World of Warcraft has been around long enough to have written its own history in real time and memorialized it. The tapestry of Azeroth’s lore(past and ongoing) has been interwoven into World of Warcraft’s content and massive world. Dragons that once roamed Azeroth even 10 years ago were presumably dead, laid to waste by The Cataclysm – the in-game event that reshaped the game’s landscape forever – only to reemerge years later as the main bosses of an end-game raid. Deserts that were once barren are now flooded and brimming with new life, and once-peaceful grasslands have been ravaged by earthquakes and wars the players have fought.
For the past fourteen years, World of Warcraft has continually expanded and changed its landscape and this has made unraveling the mysteries of Azeroth one of the most compelling adventures ever crafted. Blizzard’s massive success with World of Warcraft wouldn’t be possible without the ever-changing and extraordinary world of Azeroth.
– Alex Van Aken
3) The Continent – The Witcher 3
It may be hard to imagine that a world that was made to intentionally look dark, dirty, and downtrodden could still be so captivating but that’s exactly the picture that CD Projekt Red has painted of the Continent. A land ravaged by a war between Redania and Nilfgaard, the Continent’s city, Novigrad, spans the gamut from dirty slums to the vibrant opulence of the upper classes. Beyond the city gates, the Continent’s wilderness encompasses vast swamps and lush forests capped with amazing snowy mountains. The wilderness is alive with the promise of hunt and feral creatures unlike what you’d find in your own neck of the woods. The finest endorsement I could bestow upon The Witcher 3 is that it feels like a book. The Witcher, games that serve as adaptations of dense Polish fantasy novels, have never felt truer to their source material. Every side quest a genuine tale with a beginning and end, every environment rife with perfect detail and every character a person in their own right, The Witcher 3 nails its world because it understands what it is to tell a story.
– Brandon Wilson
2) Los Santos – Grand Theft Auto V
Five years later and Grand Theft Auto V’s open world of Los Santos is still a master-class in beauty, detail, and pure vibrancy. The diversity of land between the city and the outskirts is complemented by a painstaking level of attention paid to the way NPCs behave, neighborhoods are laid out, traffic reacts, and more. City streets become highways, that give way to the countryside, cities realistically fall out of sight as rolling hills take their place, and it’s a testament to Rockstars growing pedigree that the game doesn’t fall out of step as it leaves behind the comfort of its dense cityscapes. A specifically long and dark tunnel opens unto a bridge on a mountain range with a view to die for and the sight acts as a perfect counter to the oppressive claustrophobia of what just preceded. The dirt that pops out from underneath your car as you drift around the corner on your way down the mountain and the mountain climbers you’ll pass on your way down are proof-positive of how minute the details in the design get when analyzing Los Santos and how small touches can uplift the entire play experience. People who knew what they were doing constructed this world.
– Blessing Adeoye Jr.
Pacific City – Crackdown
The Commonwealth – Fallout 4
1) Hyrule – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Open world games will never feel the same after playing Breath of The Wild. The game takes influences from Assassin’s Creed, Skyrim, Minecraft, Portal, and drops borrowed mechanics that play well together into one of the most expansive and dense worlds to create a playground that makes almost too much sense for an open world game to not have done it before.
Where the game shines is in its lack of a guiding hand. The stories that come from the emergent play of exploration rivals the traditional story that the game chooses to tell. The world is jam packed with secrets for the player to discover, main quests and side quests are outlined for the player in the vaguest sense and the game has excruciatingly hidden collectables. The freeform structure of its tale is a breath of fresh air in an era defined by linearity and whether it’s the creatures, the characters, the scenery, the stories, the riddles or just about anything else you’d expect to uncover on a grand adventure, the game refuses to tell you anything and instead thrives off of the thrill of discovery to propel you forward. Hyrule is as massive as it’s ever been and Link is as small as he’s ever been, which somehow doesn’t compromise the style of the game and the gameplay because of how broadly its systems play into one another. In reality, I’ve played in larger worlds but Breath of The Wild’s rendition of Hyrule feels endless because it forces you to take things slowly, really drink in the environment and consider what you want to do in it. Exploring Zelda: Breath of The Wild’s open world is like taking a very long, refreshing walk in the park.
– Blessing Adeoye Jr.