Note: This article was updated in October of 2018.
Exploration is one of the main facets of video games, especially modern ones, that take games well beyond the territory of Pong and Super Mario Bros. and invite them to immerse themselves within worlds fantastic.
Well beyond completing mission objectives and furthering the storyline, games that offer exploration as a choice allow players to fully immerse themselves within these virtual environments, discovering facets of the game that otherwise elude players who’d choose instead to breeze through the story for the sake of finishing the game.
To incentivize exploration, developers hide quests, bits of collectibles, as well as easter eggs for adventurers to find and discover, providing them with countless memories to call their own.
In this list, we cover some of the medium’s best exploration games of all time. If you think we left anything out, feel free to chime in the comments below, and be sure to tell us what you’re looking forward to playing–what game you’re interested in exploring.
#19 Far Cry 5
The fifth main title within the franchise, Far Cry 5, takes place within the United States of America in a fictional Montana area known as Hope County.
Within the narrative, Far Cry 5 pins players against Joseph Seed, a leader of a cult who has forced his way into controlling Hope County. As more innocent civilians become trapped and forced into submission under Joseph Seed’s rule, only a handful of resistance stands in his way.
Just as before, players can expect the title to deliver as a first-person shooter in an open world environment which can be explored either on foot or through vehicles. However, the campaign can be experienced both as a single player narrative or through cooperative multiplayer.
#18 Final Fantasy XV
Final Fantasy XV is an action role-playing video game and the fifteenth main installment to the Final Fantasy franchise. Overall the story of Final Fantasy XV will center between two empires that have declared war, Lucis, and Nifheim, though after Nifheim successfully captures the kingdom’s crystal of Lucis, a group of friend’s sets out to regain it.
Players take control of Noctis, prince of Lucis, who teams up with his fellow friends on a grand journey against a massive empire force. The game is also set in an open world environment with available quests and collectibles to gather. Gamers are encouraged to explore the wide-open environments likewise, there was much to discover in the game’s open world as you completed the lengthy campaign.
#17 STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl
The atmosphere of STALKER is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And the atmosphere is what defines STALKER.
It’s a first person, survival-horror game set within the radioactive wasteland of Chernobyl, where men known as Stalkers eke out a dangerous living by retrieving strange, reality-defying artifacts. They aren’t alone in the wasteland, which is haunted by mutant horrors and an assortment of nightmarish creatures.
This open-ended setting allows for players to perform a myriad of objectives for the wasteland’s human inhabitants while unraveling the mystery of Chernobyl.
#16 Yakuza 6: The Song of Life
For those familiar with the Yakuza series, the seventh main installment of the series, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life which will pick back up the narrative storyline players have been following over the years.
The game has already released in Japan where it has received a positive reception. Gamers can still expect a brawler type gameplay set in an open world environment. Much like previous installments, players will have the ability to level up various skills and abilities to use against other yakuza thugs in battle.
As for the narrative, players will step into the shoes of Kazuma Kiryu once again who is on a mission to learn what has happened to Haruka after being locked away for three years. The game does feature an open world city for players to explore and as you progress you’ll gather exp to use towards making upgrades such as agility or strength along with unlocking new skills.
#15 Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is set in 431 BCE where players will have the choice of being a mercenary that fights for Athens and the Delian League or the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Either way, players will be a descendant of Spartan King Leonidas I during the Peloponnesian War.
Much like the previous Assassin’s Creed installments, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey will feature a modern day protagonist as well. Ubisoft will be reintroducing players to Layla Hassan who was present during Assassin’s Creed Origins.
There will also be an RPG progression system included in the game as well where players can adjust their character skills and attributes. Likewise, with a branching dialogue system, your narrative journey may offer a unique ending thus giving players an incentive in going back and replaying the game.
#14 Far Cry 4
Much like the previous installment, Far Cry 4 makes our list. This time around, players take on the role of Ajay Ghale, a young Kyrati-American who travels back to his home country of Kyrat, a fictional Himalayan country.
During his travel, Ajay finds that this home country has been caught in a civil war that is controlled by a tyrant king, Pagan Min. A large portion of the game allows players to freely explore the Himalayan country and the wildlife that dwells within it. Furthermore, because the game has a few different storyline branches, gamers will likely replay the title a few times, offering a chance to explore a bit more of the world than before.
Spider-Man was developed by Insomniac Games who are previously known for their Ratchet & Clank and Resistance video game franchises. Their latest title breathes some new life into the Spider-Man story as this video game title will not be linked to any past comic books or cinematic movies.
Furthermore, the game doesn’t offer the normal origin story of Spider-Man, instead, the video game will be focused around Peter Parker, eight years after he has established the role of being the famed hero. From what we know so far, this is an open-world title where the narrative will follow Peter Parker graduating college while keeping up as protector of New York City.
The video game will also give players the ability to go through the narrative as not only Spider-Man but as the civilian Peter Parker character as well. From what we know from so far through trailers released, Spider-Man’s main antagonist will be Mister Negative, who turns out to be Martin Li, one of New York’s prominent philanthropist and owner of the F.E.A.S.T. shelters that Peter’s Aunt May is employed.
Outside of the campaign, players can freely explore New York City where crimes and collectibles will pop up throughout the area in need of Spider-Man’s attention.
#12 Fallout 4
The Fallout franchise has hit this list several times in the past and now with its most recent installment available in the marketplace, we can’t help but add Fallout 4. If you’re a fan of the franchise then it’s likely you’ve already picked up the latest release.
However, if you’re completely new to the franchise, Fallout 4 still marks as a great first entry to the series. Set during the events of a nuclear war, players manage to escape into a vault, only to awaken hundreds of years into the future. What’s left of your world is nothing more than decay and outsiders trying to make it by in this new world.
Each installment to the Fallout franchise manages to bring out an incredible wasteland to explore and Fallout 4 is no exception to that trend. You’ll come across old ruins, new structures, and a fleshed out cast of characters to meet along your journey.
#11 Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 has drawn comparisons to The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim in its encouragement of exploration, hunting, and crafting, the open world experience is actually quite different between the two.
While Skyrim allows the player to take the entire map at their own pace, regardless of their participation in the main quest line, Far Cry 3 is designed for the player to balance their exploring with making progress in the game. However, you will find pockets of time to wander about as you please, and indulging in what Rook Island has to offer will greatly aid you in your quests.
Far Cry 3 is proof that first-person shooters can offer more in the way of exploration and world-creation beyond shooting people in corridors.
#10 Dragon Age: Inquisition
The third major installment to the Dragon Age franchise, Dragon Age: Inquisition is an action role-playing video game where players take on the role of an Inquisitor who is on a grand journey to deal with the civil unrest within the continent of Thedas.
While developers have set the game to be on the same continent of the past two installments, exploration for Dragon Age: Inquisition is rather massive in comparison. For instance, it’s been noted that the game features a map that is already five times larger than the setting of the first installment of the series. With all that said, you’ll want to set aside some time to really dive into the video game.
As mentioned, The latest entry in the long-standing series of role-playing games from BioWare offers wide open environments, unlike the two previous games. Players have the ability to explore the map, uncovering new quests and discovering hidden treasures with the newly added ‘ping’ button that lets you investigate your surroundings.
#9 Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn is the first IP developed by Guerrilla Games since their release of Killzone in 2004. This is an action role-playing video game title that is set a thousand years into the future.
Mankind has mysteriously fallen, with cities only a shell of a once thriving society. Now only small tribal groups remain where giant mechanical beasts roam the world freely in charge. The plot revolves around a female hunter named Aloy who sets out on a journey to explore the open world, meet with other tribes, and potentially learn of the reason mankind fell to being with.
#8 Monster Hunter: World
The Monster Hunter franchise is consistently growing and with each new installment, a number of new gamers explore the monster-filled worlds development studio Capcom has crafted. Monster Hunter: World will mark as the fifth main installment to the franchise and as you can expect, there will be a number of notable updates.
For instance, Capcom has placed larger maps, a more seamless experience between zones and what’s a Monster Hunter video game without the ability to hunt with friends? Outside of the offline campaign, the game will allow a four-player online co-op opportunity.
This might not be directly an open world video game but players will still find a rather large environment to explore. Also if you’re a newcomer to the series then this will still mark as a great title to jump on but you will find that the gameplay can still be a bit advanced. Luckily the community is very active supporting other players with helpful guides and tricks to make your first hunt a successful one.
#7 Metroid Series
The Metroid series has been around for decades and continues to gather new fans while inspiring other developers when it comes to the creation of their own IP. You may have heard of the term Metroidvania tossed around for certain video game titles and its used to describe similarities from the Metroid series.
Metroid has a heavy emphasis on exploration. You’ll find yourself gathering a certain item or power that will allow players to access certain areas that were previously unreachable or locked away.
#6 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the nineteenth main installment to The Legend of Zelda franchise. This time around, players will be placed in a large open-world environment with the ability to play through the game’s dungeons in any order.
Within The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, players will take on the role of Link after he awakens from a deep slumber that lasted a hundred years. A mysterious voice alerts link to reach a ruined Kingdom known as Hyrule where he will learn of Calamity Ganon, the antagonist who had previously destroyed Hyrule, though, during the process, he had trapped himself within the buried kingdom.
#5 The Witcher 3
Fans of western RPGs will no doubt have played at least one of the Witcher games. This series of Polish games based on the works of Andrzej Sapkowski has gained a lot of fans over the years, mainly thanks to its complex world and stories, incredible graphics and deep gameplay systems.
The third and final installment in the series sees a much older Geralt of Rivia – one of the titular Witchers – dealing with the invasion of the Northern Kingdom by the Nilfgaard Empire and the otherworldly threat of the Wild Hunt, spectral riders who’ve plagued humankind for ages. Offering a massive open world, hours upon hours of story content and side quests, tons of NPCs to interact with and monsters to hunt, a living economy that adapts to different locations and events and improved gameplay, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is looking like a worthy conclusion of the series.
Minecraft is ultimately our number one pick for the best open world video game ever made based on the simple fact that the world in which it takes place is that of our own creation.
It offers players the ability to build kingdoms, go on adventures, and craft narratives that far transcend anything created by a game developer. The world of Minecraft is a sandbox, and it’s ours to play in and to do as we like.
The game is what you make of it.
#3 The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Skyrim is the fifth game in Bethesda’s ever-popular series of role-playing games. Like its predecessors, Skyrim takes place in an open environment in which we’re given leave to explore the world as we see fit.
While the world of Skyrim is charming and consistently engaging, it doesn’t simply tell us a story—it offers us instead a chance to weave our very own tale.
Skyrim is interactive art at its finest.
#2 Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption is the Old West made anew with the fiction of Rockstar Games, and it’s every bit as bleak and unforgiving as it was back in the olden days.
It is within this unforgiving land that a man, John Marston, seeks redemption—not only for his life but for his soul. And it is only within this land that such redemption is possible.
Needless to say, the game’s atmosphere is second to none, and it is host not only to John Marston’s story and those of his counterparts but to the greater battle between the old and the new—the stolid Old West and the march of Progress.
Players will likely enjoy the exploration that ranges from the game’s Texas analog to the Mexican desert across the border. All along the way, there’s “Strangers” to encounter, all of whom have their own strange tales to share with the player.
#1 Grand Theft Auto V
Much like Red Dead Redemption, there is plenty to explore and discover in the city of Los Santos and its surrounding environments. The city itself is filled to the brim with strange people, whose lives and stories are intertwined with that of the city.
This is by far one of the most lived-in feeling cities from the Grand Theft Auto franchise and even if you’re completely done with the campaign and side quests that present themselves to the player, Rockstar has a whole different side of the world for gamers to enjoy. Thanks to Grand Theft Auto Online, players have even more options and features to enjoy with the game all while combining players from all around the world to wreak havoc on Los Santos together.