The worlds games are set in can be as important as the characters and storylines they contain, and if developers invest the time they can create truly special locations for your adventures to take place in. We've picked out the best, from the Wild West to the depths of space, so read on and immerse yourself in these dazzling Xbox landscapes.
Red Dead Redemption
From the arid deserts of Cholla Springs to the snow-dusted forests of Tall Trees, Red Dead Redemption’s slice of the Wild West is one of the most varied, beautiful open worlds ever built. It captures the romance, isolation and natural beauty of the cinematic Old West perfectly, and you can spend hours just riding around on your horse and soaking up the sights. About halfway through the game, hero John Marston crosses the San Luis River and rides into Mexico, and it really does feel like a different country. Here you’ll find one of the most impressive areas in the game, Diez Coronas, which features vast, open deserts and towering red mesas.
Psychological horror Alan Wake was originally an open world game, but changes late in development saw it transform into a more linear experience. Despite this shift, Alan Wake’s developer, Remedy, included an impressive stretch of the Pacific Northwest that gives you some freedom to explore. This includes the sleepy Twin Peaks-inspired town of Bright Falls and the richly detailed countryside surrounding it. Although Wake’s tortured journey takes him through dark, shadowy forests and down treacherous mountain paths, the gorgeous lighting and endless vistas make every step a treat for the eyes.
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
Journey from one corner of Skyrim to another and you’ll encounter a range of atmospheric landscapes. You get a sense that this is a vast country, rather than a small section of a larger world. Each location has its own distinct look, as well as its own history, cultures and climate, resting in the shadow of the colossal Throat of the World – the tallest mountain in Skyrim, where icy peaks stretch far above the clouds. From the bubbling hot springs of Eastmarch to the snow-battered coastline of Winterhold, Skyrim is a beautiful virtual world to lose yourself in, which only got prettier in 2016’s Special Edition.
Far Cry 4
Kyrat is a fictional country in the Himalayas and the setting for Far Cry 4. To complement the inclusion of gyrocopters and the returning wingsuit, it’s one of the most vertiginous game worlds on our list. And this is what makes it such a joy to navigate, with deep, forested valleys and snow-topped mountains to cause mischief in. It’s clear Ubisoft didn’t look too closely at the real Himalayan landscape, because this is very much a caricature of that region. But this approach suits the outrageous style of the game, and a huge number of animals – including many that want to eat you – help bring it to life. It’s easily our favourite Far Cry sandbox yet.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Wandering monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia never stays in one place for long, and in massive RPG The Witcher 3 he takes in an impressive amount of scenery. The war-torn region of Velen is an expanse of rolling hills and grim, body-strewn battlefields, while the islands of Skellige are covered in beautiful boreal forests and towering rocky mountains. Each area has its own unique culture and personality, which makes the game’s world feel like a real, lived-in place. And if you want an even more dramatic change of scenery, the superb Blood and Wine expansion takes you to Toussaint, a colourful fairytale land of knights, castles and vineyards.
Empire Bay is a fictional East Coast city inspired by the glamour and grit of New York. In Mafia II we visit it in two very different time periods: the ‘40s and the ‘50s. In the former it’s bleak and wintry, with military planes in the sky and off-duty soldiers on the streets, reminding you that World War II is still in full force. Then our protagonist, Vito, ends up in jail. When he’s released ten years later, he finds the city has changed dramatically. It’s sunny, optimistic and the music’s way cooler. It’s a great snapshot of American history, and although the city is really just an elaborate backdrop for a linear action game, it’s still a wonderful place to explore.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
Black Flag’s Caribbean is one of the most liberating open worlds. It really captures that romantic idea of being a pirate, free to roam the seas at your leisure, doing as you please. It also lets you explore a huge chunk of the West Indies, including Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas and countless other small islands. Sailing the crystal-blue waters, listening to your crew sing bawdy sea shanties, is a thrill. And when a storm begins to rage, the mood changes completely. It still has some of the best water effects we’ve seen in a game, and every time an Assassin’s Creed doesn’t feature ships we’re disappointed. Let’s hope Ubisoft return to pirates at some point.
Batman: Arkham City
Rocksteady’s second Batman game is a great example of trading scale for detail. Arkham City – a chunk of Gotham City that’s been transformed into a maximum security prison – might not be the biggest open world on our list, but it’s one of the most richly detailed. The developers are famous for hiding obscure Batman references in every corner of their worlds, and Arkham City is brimming with nods to the Caped Crusader’s long-running mythology. It’s also brilliantly unsettling, with barbed wire, spotlights and roaming thugs reminding you this ain’t a nice place. Gliding through the sky is a comic-book fantasy come true (just be glad you don’t live there).
It might have been made with a fraction of the budget given to a Grand Theft Auto game, but this open-world crime adventure features a pretty amazing recreation of Hong Kong. It’s at night when the city looks its best, with buildings and colourful neon signs stretching as far as the eye can see. Throw in some rain and reflection effects and you’ve got one of the most attractive virtual cities on Xbox, even if it does lack the insane micro-detail of Rockstar’s urban sprawls. Its bustling markets and serene temples make a refreshing change from the American cities we’re used to trashing in games.
Frontier’s ambitious space simulator is set in a replica of the Milky Way – the very galaxy we’re spinning around in now. The best way to get a sense of its scale and accuracy is journeying to Sol, our own solar system, and taking a tour of the planets. Seeing the whirling storms of Jupiter or the rings of Saturn up-close in your tiny Sidewinder ship is quite humbling. Then you venture deeper into space and discover twin suns, pink moons and fluorescent nebulae. One of the most relaxing ways to play Elite is to hop between stars, scanning planets and selling data for credits. Until Elon Musk sells us a house on Mars, this is the cheap way to enjoy space.
Nuclear destruction, rampaging bandits and mutants aside, the Capital Wasteland – formerly Washington, D.C. – is a strangely beautiful, haunting place. The city’s remains are the most dangerous place in the game, but they’re home to iconic locations like the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. East of the city you’ll also find luxury hotel Tenpenny Tower, which miraculously survived the rain of nuclear bombs that ended the world. Then there’s Oasis, an area where plants mysteriously grow. There are nicer places on Xbox to spend your time, but there’s something curiously evocative about the eerie desolation of this wasteland.
Just Cause 2
Panau is a fictional South-East Asian archipelago, which hero Rico Rodriguez does his best to destroy in Just Cause 2. It’s home to an impressive variety of terrain, including jungles, deserts, mountain ranges and a huge capital city with towering skyscrapers. There’s a lot of empty space, but the sheer vastness of everything makes it a joy to explore in the game’s assortment of land, air and sea vehicles. For some amazing views of the islands, especially at sunset, check out the Mile High Club: a nightclub on a blimp floating in the sky. But be wary of the spooky island to the north-west or you might find yourself stranded.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, this interesting action game by Monolith lets you experience Mordor before Sauron transformed it into the evil land we saw in Lord of the Rings. Taking place in the sixty-year gap between The Hobbit and Rings, Mordor is a surprisingly pretty place. Locations include Udûn, a plain surrounded by mountains, and the Sea of Núrnen, a volcanic region littered with ancient ruins. There are some incredible lighting and weather effects, particularly when it rains, which make the otherwise bleak setting look beautiful at times. We’d love to see Monolith’s take on other Tolkien locations in a sequel.
Grand Theft Auto 5
The state of San Andreas is one of the best playgrounds on Xbox. The sprawling metropolis of Los Santos boasts the famous Vinewood sign, the palatial homes of Rockford Hills and the sun-soaked Vespucci Beach. Drive out of the city and you’ll emerge in Los Santos County, where you can trawl through forests, and see the peak of Mt. Chiliad tickling the clouds. Eventually the green changes to sepia as you hit the Grand Senora Desert, which has trails leading up towards the summit of the mountain. Up here, on a clear day, you can see the skyscrapers of Los Santos far in the distance. Rockstar’s open worlds are the best in the business.
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid 5’s portrayals of Afghanistan and Africa aren’t the prettiest or most detailed open worlds to explore on the Xbox, but it’s how they complement the game’s rich systems that makes them special. The countless ways to approach objectives in Metal Gear Solid 5, using a seemingly endless array of gadgets and weapons, help turn each landscape into a joyous playground of possibilities. The terrain around enemy bases feels carefully hand-crafted to aid you, and, despite looking quite barren, there’s an understated beauty to the sandy deserts and humid jungles that unfold across the game.
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.