Yesterday we looked at the year's most rewarding game experience. Today, we ask which of the many, many open worlds gaming pulled us and made us want to spend countless hours roaming and exploring.
We'll be publishing a different category each day through the end of the year, leading up to our final vote for best game of 2015. This has been a strong year for games, so anything's possible!
Methodology: Everyone at USG put their heads together and voted on 10 individual categories as a group, and each team member has nominated their own pick for the category. Rather than argue long and loud about personal opinions, however, we've taken a scientific approach: We voted on each category through an anonymous survey in which we weighted each nominee from "most" to "least."
This means, in theory at least, that a game that gets nominated by more than one person won't necessarily sweep the category—it's entirely possible for a dark horse to take the prize if it receives enough second- or third-place points from everyone.
Best Open World: The Nominees
Open-world action games are to 2015 what linear, cover-based corridor shooters were to 2009. Now that consoles have sufficient power to render vast, detailed spaces without vomiting all over themselves, everyone wants in on that action—RPGs, shooters, even plucky little indies! With so many sandbox universes vying for our precious free time this year, which of these six nominees felt most worth the requisite time investment?
Bill: The Witcher 3
In a year where we saw several open-world games, I believe The Witcher III stole the show. Every piece of the map was worth exploring, and riding Roach to your next destination was always more enjoyable than fast travel. That’s how I know it was done well—I never felt like taking a short cut. I can’t wait to return to the Skellige Isles again this holiday season.
Bob: Fallout 4
If we judged Fallout 4 only by its hefty amount of content, this Bethesda RPG would definitely claim the prize for 2015's best open world. Thankfully, there's more to this version of the post-apocalyptic wasteland than size alone. As with past entries, Fallout 4 provides a rich setting full of details begging to be pored over, and plenty of fantastic interactive short stories about desperation dotted throughout the map. Apologies in advance to my fictional kidnapped son for poking around so much outside of the critical path—I'm sure I'll get around to finding you eventually.
Jaz: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
Although it's smaller than most of the sprawling open world games that were released this year, I just have to give the nod to The Chinese Room's gorgeous English countryside from Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. From the incredibly well-observed architectural details on period buildings to the lush, verdant vegetation, the game's environment was exquisitely rendered, and simply breathtaking to walk through.
Jeremy: Rise of the Tomb Raider
While its open world areas appear in fits and starts and ultimately only comprise about half the game's total real estate, that's precisely what I love about Rise of the Tomb Raider. Its free-roaming hubs serve as a palate-cleanser for the linear, shooty action sequences, and they offer ample rewards and clever breadcrumbs to progress without feeling needlessly large for the sake of mere scale. Liberating yet manageable, Rise's open spaces were a pleasure to explore.
Kat: Fallout 4
Bethesda did their customarily excellent job with Fallout 4's open world, packing it full of fantastic scenery, interesting secrets, and lots and lots of enemies. As always, Bethesda's gamees are at their best when you're on the open road discovering new locations, or randomly stumbling upon a fight between a human and their synth replacement. A thousand little touches help their worlds to feel real - the ability to build settlements, a wasteland resident's daily routine, the fact that your companions will literally walk across the wasteland to their destination if you dismiss them. They work especially well in the context of Fallout because they are like a dark mirror for own reality, with recognizable landmarks like Fenway Park and the Freedom Trail becoming something wholly new and interesting. This year has brought with it plenty of good open world games, but none of them are as memorable as the world of Fallout 4.
Mike: Just Cause 3
Determining the best open-world is hard, because you have to balance level design, visuals, and what you can actually do in the open-world. We had a number of contenders this year, but barring the title I didn't get to play (Rise of the Tomb Raider), the world I most want to revisit is Medici in Just Cause 3.
Nadia: Xenoblade Chronicles X
Xenoblade Chronicles X is an ideal game for cold winter months. Its world just sprawls on forever, and it’s packed with all kinds of exotic flora and fauna. Granted, it’s a bit lacking in caves, etc, to spelunk through, but if you’re the kind of person who dreams of going on safari, you could do worse than fire up Xenoblade Chronicles X and dart around the thundering feet of alien sauropods.
The Winner: Fallout 4
Fallout may well have been the biggest game of the year, but it certainly didn't rack up those insane sales without provoking some degree of controversy. That said, whatever failings its mechanics and story may have suffered, there's no faulting its extensive free-roaming world, which dropped players into the post-nuclear ruins of the Atlantic seaboard and let them explore the last sad remnants of mankind (while dodging giant radioactive scorpions, of course). No one creates sprawling open worlds like Bethesda, and Fallout 4 ably demonstrated their skills once again.
Runners-up: (2/tie) Xenoblade Chronicles X (2/tie) The Witcher III
In two days: 2015's Best Character