All the way back in 2001, I was a plump-faced 11-year-old when I was handed a Playstation 2 controller at a friend’s house and introduced to Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3). At the time, the term “open-world” was nigh-unheard of in the video game industry, so opening the game’s map to find that I had full access to explore everything Liberty City had to offer – and at my personal discretion – was a welcome surprise.
Though the first open-world game is argued to have been made as early as the 1970s, in the years following GTA3’s release, the video game industry took hold of the “open-world” concept and ran with it. For the video game industry nowadays, “open-world” almost seems more of a commodity rather than the rare marvel it once was. After all, as technology evolved to allow more and more 3D rendering in video games in the 1990s, and continued to grow into the 21st-century, larger and more interactive virtual worlds became a primary selling point for many of the industry’s newer titles.
Today, “open-world” can be considered its own genre of games, though most games that utilize an “open-world” model of exploration span across genres from first-person shooters, to action-adventure hack ‘n’ slash beat-’em-ups and modern day-RPG titles. The common factor they all share, however, is the ability that allows players to explore their virtual worlds freely, typically starting with the reveal of the in-game world’s vast scale.
In this article, I’ll cover my top 5 picks for open-world video games with the best map reveals that made players buckle down and prepare for the virtual trek of a lifetime.
1. Cloud Leaves Midgard – Final Fantasy VII (original)
Released in 1997, Final Fantasy VII (FFVII) has been hailed for over two decades as one of the objectively best video game titles ever produced. FFVII was also one of the largest games of its era, encompassing 3 separate discs for Sony’s first Playstation console.
After completing the game’s introductory story within the confines of Midgard, FFVII’s primary albeit heavily industrial and dystopian city, players were able to take control of the main character, Cloud, and have him leave the city’s borders in search of a way to save the world.
What players weren’t expecting, however, was the reveal that FFVII’s in-game map showed Midgard as one of mere dozens of in-game locations. On top of that, the map’s geographical diversity and accessibility meant that players would have to make use of every in-game vehicle and hidden mechanic in order to fully explore it. At that realization, the initial shock of having FFVII play across 3 separate discs suddenly made much more sense.
2. Arthur Morgan Rides to Horseshoe Overlook – Red Dead Redemption II
Riding on the success of its preceding title, Rockstar’s 2018 award-winning title Red Dead Redemption II (RDR2) is the best Western you’ll ever play. It places players in the shoes of outlaw Arthur Morgan as he and his ragtag gang members navigate the end of the “Wild West” era at the turn of the 20th-century.
True to its Western film-inspired roots, RDR2 begins with a mission that has Arthur and several other members of the wanted Van der Linge gang rob a train guarded by Pinkertons. After completing the heist, Arthur is told to meet the rest of the gang at Horseshoe Overlook, the gang’s primary camp/hideout in the early portion of RDR2’s plot.
As players make their way towards Horseshoe Overlook, however, they have the ability to pull up the in-game map. Doing so will offer players a chance to grasp the sheer size of RDR2’s in-game world, spanning across five fictitious states. As if the in-game map’s scale alone wasn’t jaw-dropping enough as is, players only unlock the ability to fast-travel to previously visited locations well into the game, meaning that players better be prepared to spend hours upon hours riding on horseback to uncover as much territory as possible.
3. Link Awakens in Hyrule – The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
When Nintendo released Breath of the Wild (BotW) in 2017, it set a new precedent for how fans perceived the developer’s beloved “Legend of Zelda” series. While the open-world concept of gameplay was included in previous “Zelda” titles such as Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, none of them possessed the scale or possibilities that BotW included.
After starting a new game in BotW, players awaken as the series’s primary recurring protagonist, Link. We find that it has been 100 years since Calamity Ganon drove the fictional world of Hyrule into chaos, and – as usual – it is up to Link to find and awaken his counterpart, Princess Zelda, to eliminate the Calamity and restore Hyrule to a land of peace and prosperity.
After awakening and navigating outside of Link’s stasis chamber, players are met with a cutscene that shows Link running to a clifftop and are given the first glimpse of BotW’s Hyrule: an open world so vast and diverse that players were left scratching their heads wondering just how they would be able to explore all of it. Upon the reveal of BotW’s map size, players immediately took to the internet to find out just how large this iteration of Hyrule was at scale. As it turns out, BotW’s map is equivalent to about 360 square kilometers.
4. The Protagonist Escapes Helgen – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Released in November of 2011, Bethesda’s fifth installment of their “Elder Scrolls” action-adventure RPG series wasted no time throwing players into an immersive fantasy world full to the brim with arcane magic, powerful monsters, and political subterfuge. For starters, players begin their experience in Skyrim as a political prisoner chained in the back of a wagon en route to their own execution in the mountainside village of Helgen for “conspiring” with a group of rebels, known as Stormcloaks, against the Empire.
A brief side-note: Skyrim’s intro sequence was so unique and memorable, in fact, that it has become a source of meme gold in recent years.
Upon arriving in Helgen, players are then able to customize their in-game playable character before the village is attacked by a dragon, which, up until this point in “Elder Scrolls” lore, were all thought to be long-dead. Players must then work with either their imperial captors or the Stormcloak rebels to escape the village through a network of underground caverns and tunnels before emerging at the foot of a mountainside.
Players are immediately hit with the sight of other mountains far off in the distance, a bright blue sky, and a running river between them and their next destination. While these in-game sights may not be as impressive today as they were upon Skyrim’s release in late 2011, what does remain as impressive is the feeling when players pull up Skyrim’s in-game map, finding that the game’s total size covers nearly 15 square miles – nearly all of which is entirely at their discretion to explore or ignore as they see fit. While this is barely half the size of BotW’s map, the fact that Skyrim was released some 6 years prior makes it all the more incredible.
5. Jin Sakai Escapes Khotan Khan – Ghost of Tsushima
Released by Sucker Punch Productions in the summer of 2020, Ghost of Tsushima is an open-world action-adventure has players take on the role of Jin Sakai, a samurai retainer in service to his uncle, Lord Shimura, in their fight against the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274. As such, a large portion of the game revolves around mounted combat on horseback.
In Jin’s first confrontation with the Mongal leader Khotan Khan, both Jin and his fellow samurai fall. Lord Shimura is taken prisoner, and Jin makes his way to free his uncle before losing in combat to the Khan and being thrown off a bridge. Considered dead, the rest of the game follows Jin on his journey across the real-world island of Tsushima to free his uncle, stop the Mongols, and free Japan from their tyrannical onslaught.
The map reveal of “Ghost” comes after Jin’s second fight with Khotun Khan at the game’s introduction. After being thrown from a bridge, Jin is able to stand and find a horse to escape, riding through a massive clearing of tall grass and striking flowers as the game title appears on the screen. Players are then allowed to access the in-game map, which shows Jin’s journey beginning on the southern end of Tsushima and taking him north across the entirety of Tsushima’s land area, offering some 11 square miles worth of territory to explore.
While not accurate in size to the real-world island of Tsushima, which is approximately 274 square miles in area, the reveal of the in-game map in “Ghost” provides players with not only a daunting task ahead of them, but also some of the most breathtaking scenery ever developed for an open-world video game.