My Five Favorite Open World Environments in Video Games

Video games have come a long, long way from when they first appeared for the general public back in the 70s. Not only have they become more complex in terms of graphics and game play, but they also transitioned from a 2D to 3D format with varying degrees of depth. I enjoy many of the classic 2D games from the 80s and games from the 90s onward that have 3D graphics, but I'm particularly fascinated with games that provide open worlds (a.k.a. "sandboxes") that allow players to explore large and unique locations as part of and/or in between game missions. Even if a game is mediocre or doesn't hold my interest, I'm content to be a virtual tourist if it provides me with an engrossing open environment to visit.

Here's a list of five open worlds that kept me entertained for hours with their expansive scope, unique features, and varied opportunities for interaction. These aren't the immersive virtual realities that the sci-fi genre keeps promising us, but they're great examples of what digital entertainment can provide to gamers when game developers are given the support to create incredible worlds of their own. Read on for my list of noteworthy virtual environments.

5. Location: Gotham City
Game: Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes (2012)

Traveller's Tales' Lego Batman 2 is the first Lego game that features an open world that players can explore as part of the game's missions. (From what I've heard, Lego City Undercover for the Wii U features an even larger open world, but I haven't played it yet.) Even though it is the first of its kind, this version of Gotham City is an amazing thing to behold

The Lego-ized Gotham City is spread across three islands with connecting bridges and waterways. Players can explore the city by driving through the streets in a motor vehicle; speeding through the waterways in a boat; flying over the skyline in either an aerial vehicle or as a flight-capable character; or entering a subway station to go to another island. Even after I finished playing the game's missions and defeated the various DC super villains who invaded Gotham to wreak havoc, I was still impressed with just looking at the city from various perspectives and visiting its many sites. (Click here to read my complete Lego Batman 2 review.)

4. Location: Springfield
Game: The Simpsons: Hit and Run (2003)

I haven't watched The Simpsons on a regular basis for well over a decade, but I was a die-hard fan for its initial seasons during the 90s. (True story: In college, I wrote a term paper about The Simpsons that earned me a free trip to an academic conference in New Orleans.) Thus, it only felt natural to pick up a copy of The Simpsons: Hit and Run, a game which allows players to freely roam the Simpsons' home town of Springfield.

Hit and Run is mostly a racing game, and each level is self-contained in a way that a race track is self-contained; in other words, players can drive anywhere within a level while they are in it, but they can never drive outside of the level and into a new location. Regardless, each level is designed after a particular Springfield neighborhood (the suburbs, the town square, the business district, and the harbor area) and each neighborhood features popular locations from the TV show (Kwik-E-Mart, Moe's Tavern, Springfield City Hall, Springfield Elementary School, etc.). The arrangement of Springfield into three-dimensional environments--a pretty sweet accomplishment for a 2D cartoon--was a treat for Simpsons fans, even for those who don't enjoy racing games (like me, for instance). Never before or since has a game made the experience of driving a pink Plymouth sedan to the local convenience store and back feel so rewarding.

3. Location: Miami
Game: Scarface: The World is Yours (2006)

I'm not a fan of gangster-based entertainment but when I heard that the cast and crew from the 1983 Scarface movie were involved in the creation of the official video game--including Al Pacino's selection of a sound-alike voice actor to assume the role Tony Montana--I knew I had to play Scarface: The World is Yours at least once. I'm glad I did, because the Scarface game put together a fantastic recreation of an early-80s Miami.

An open environment is essential to the largely non-linear structure of Scarface. Since the game tasks players with rebuilding Montana's drug empire, the Miami that was created for the game had to allow players to do things that a notorious drug lord would do to make money and build influence (e.g., sell cocaine, buy real estate, launder money, bribe cops, massacre rival gangs, etc.). Nevertheless, speeding around the computer-generated Miami of Scarface, either in a car or a motorboat, proves a lot of fun by itself. There are many locations to visit, the weather patterns change, and the sun rises and sets as you play through the game. It's a virtual gangster's paradise.

2. Location: Bullworth Township
Game: Bully: Scholarship Edition (2008)

Bully: Scholarship Edition has plenty going for it--a witty script, a large cast of characters, and engaging game play--but it wouldn't be half as interesting without the interactive environment of Bullworth, the township in which the game takes place. As players progress through the game, different neighborhoods within Bullworth are unlocked and each has its own features, personality, and missions. Players can move through the town in various ways (by foot, bicycle, skateboard or bus), and the setting alternates between day and night according to the game's own system of time.

As with Scarface: The World is Yours, an open world environment serves the non-linear game play style of Bully. Yet because players assume the perspective of an adolescent while playing the game, the gradual exploration of Bullworth and its neighborhoods will remind older gamers of what it was like to be a kid and to visit new places for the first time as a part of growing up. Sure, Bully allows players to indulge in all sorts of hilarious juvenile hijinks, but the opportunity to ride a bike through the streets of a small town at dusk brought back a lot of childhood memories for yours truly. (Click here to read my complete Bully: Scholarship Edition review.)

1. Location: Kawawii Island
Game: Go Vacation! (2011)

The way I see it, Namco Bandai's Go Vacation! is Wii's other premier resort game, with the original being Wii Sports Resort. Wii Sports Resort was designed to demonstrate the enhanced capabilities of the Wii's MotionPlus feature and it did so against the backdrop of a tropical resort called "Wuhu Island". For as impressive as its MotionPlus sports games were, Wii Sports Resort didn't allow players to freely meander around Wuhu Island on their own. Even when Wuhu Island appeared again in Wii Fit Plus, players could only see different areas of the island by playing a fitness game (e.g., jogging, biking, etc.) that used the island as a background setting.

In contrast, Kawawii Island in Go Vacation! features four different resorts on a single island: a beach resort, a ski resort, a mountain resort, and a city resort. Each resort has its own selection of sports games of varying levels of quality; however, the real stars of the game are the resorts themselves. Each resort is well designed and allows players to freely move through them to find hidden secrets, explore different attractions, and enjoy the scenery. As with any real resort, each Kawawii Island resort even has a visitor center--complete with Muzak playing over the center's loudspeakers--where you can "talk" to staff about extra resort features. As virtual tourism efforts go, you can't do much better than Go Vacation!.


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