When gaming first started to take off in the early 1970s, it was so insanely limited that it’s difficult to even equate titles from that era to the releases of today. In those days, two vertically scrolling lines batting a small white square back and forth was akin to watching Chris Evert and Billie Jean King battle it out on the court. From games that didn’t even exceed the 10-kilobyte mark to titles that nearly take up a fourth of a one terabyte HDD, it's safe to say that the growth and advancement of this particular industry has been staggering. Though gamers are generally perceived to be a younger crowd, those who have been around since the beginning can attest that we’ve seen incredible progress.
No single genre of game has benefited more from this massive increase of resources more than open-world titles. Games like Colossal Cave Adventure and Elite served as early conceptual affirmations, but the genre wouldn’t really come into its own until access to more powerful hardware made generating vast expanses of terrain a reality. What’s possible today was only feasible through text-based interfaces decades ago, and games have ballooned to such massive proportions today that some in-game worlds can be equated in size to real-world countries. Zork may have allowed gamers to imagine an immense, richly detailed world, but games in our modern era can outpace even the most vivid imagination in terms of size.
The culmination of roughly fifteen years of effort, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was heralded as one of the best games of 2015. An achievement accomplished partially by its map design, MGSV felt like the triumphant final statement for a series which will likely never return to its former glory. Though the deserts don’t immediately appear to be all that appealing, the densely packed, eloquently rendered six square miles available to the player is actually just enough to make the cut for this list. For those of you wondering; no, I didn’t consider Survive as a contender, as it basically shares the exact same map.
The maps in the recent numerical entries of the Far Cry series are all pretty close in terms of map size, though the fourth game may just barely take the cake. Far Cry 5 may be the apple of everyone’s eye at the moment, but the previous mainline installment provides a slightly superior experience in terms of verticality and size. At a mere 11 square miles, Far Cry 4 isn’t even close to the largest game environment in which you may play, but it’s densely packed with outposts to liberate and side quests to be conquered, which means that the scale is at least warranted.
With a sequel months from release and support from Rockstar Games—likely the most prolific developer involved with the genre—2010’s Red Dead Redemption has gone down as one of the best IP’s to be introduced during the seventh console generation. Gritty and enthralling, this GTA meets A Fistful of Dollars experience is likely to be remembered for years and years to come. Of course, in terms of open-world games, the map didn’t exactly have an incredible amount of variety: situated entirely in a dusty, pre-industrial revolution stretch of the Midwest, the game played host to more than a few expanses of utter nothingness. This served to enhance the game’s authenticity, though, and little more can evoke the sensibilities of a desperado than running down a gang of bandits on a dusty plain.
San Andreas was, to me, one of the first games to really prove that a full-scale cityscape could be accurately rendered in a video game. Sure, 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III is generally considered to be one of the best early representations of such an environment, but that title’s map only barely exceeds one square mile. Literally thirteen times larger than its indirect predecessor, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas manages to be much larger and much more alive than what we saw in GTA III. Plus, while the series’ first fully 3D game offered up a decent depiction of city life, San Andreas let players explore a vast, impressive countryside and mountainscape.
PUBG dev Blue Hole has come under recent scrutiny thanks to the legal threats they’ve hurled toward Epic Games, the minds behind everyone’s favorite battle royale title Fortnite. While their behavior was unfortunate and they managed to make themselves look a bit ridiculous in the process, excluding the horrendous Xbox One port, their game is still able to stand up to the competition even without the artificial elimination of their competition. With a whopping four different maps of impressive scale, Blue Hole doesn’t seem to be lacking initiative when it comes to the development of maps.
While not even close to its predecessors in terms of size or scale, Bethesda’s Skyrim is often considered to be one of the greatest open-world games ever created. It’s developed a bit of a reputation for its relatively unstable nature, but an absurdly dedicated modding community and an abundance of ports and re-releases have helped to ensure that the exploits of the Dragonborn won’t soon be forgotten. Fallout 76 may be on the way, but it will be years before the gaming community is through with Skyrim’s 15 square mile map.
Slightly outclassing its sequel in terms of map scale, Oblivion and Skyrim are both equally beloved open-world titles in the eyes of just about everyone. Though both of these games may be showing their age as the seventh console generation continues to shrink in the rearview mirror, these titles are proof that graphical fidelity isn’t a necessity of quality game design. A more than adequately sized map for the time, Oblivion offers so much content scattered across its 16 square mile map that hardcore fans will likely keep coming back to it for years to come.
Breath of the Wild is generally considered to be one of the best games in a franchise already posited by many to be one of the greatest in gaming history. An extension of what was a very ambitious open-world early NES game, Breath of the Wild has such an incredible amount of content packed into its 22 square mile map that most will doubtlessly be playing far past the 100-hour mark. Just as Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field was considered to be an impressive feat on the Nintendo 64’s hardware, the fact that Nintendo managed to fit such a vibrant, captivating game on what is effectively a mobile console is nothing short of amazing.
Far Cry 2 is perhaps one of the most ambitious early seventh generation titles, and it modernized and helped pave the way for a series which previously wasn’t too console friendly. While those who were made to suffer through these years with nothing but a Nintendo Wii had to endure the terrifically awful Far Cry Vengeance, the impressive 31 square mile expanse available in Far Cry 2 was an absolute pleasure for PS3 and Xbox 360 owners to explore. Packed with dynamically burning brush and believably-rendered stretches of African Serengeti, Far Cry’s sequel was a real treat ten years ago.
Much like the game’s success as a spiritual sequel to the fantastic Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 4’s map size is up for debate. I have yet to see a definitive measurement, but some have argued that the map is actually as small as three or four square miles. Regardless of size, Fallout 4 certainly feels large enough. From the densely-packed, dangerous streets of Boston to the ghostly and literally sickening craters of The Glowing Sea, Fallout 4’s environments are so varied and unique that, even if the game is a bit smaller than other open-world titles, it packs a punch the strength of which could not easily be matched.
I don’t know that I’ll win over too many fans by saying this, but I find Dragon Age: Inquisition to be somewhat of a poor man’s version of The Witcher 3. While I’m sure that each series has its staunch supporters, The Witcher series just comes off as vastly superior to a game which, were it free of EA’s restraints, may prove itself to be a legitimate rival. That said, Inquisition at least managed to deliver in terms of map size. With a full 45 square miles to explore and pillage, BioWare has proven that they still, to some extent, know what they are doing.
The culmination of what must have been years of hard work and dedication, Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V may very well go down as one of the most successful open-world games ever to be released. Nowadays the developer seems to be a bit too bogged down in support of microtransactions and micro-DLC for GTA Online (which has pretty much become an entity entirely separate of the base game), but the basic GTA V experience is still incredibly fun to experience. Endlessly entertaining and detailed nearly to a fault, the almost 50 square miles of playable space available in Rockstar’s mega-hit is brimming with weird people to meet and ramps from which to vault a flaming sports car.
Though the series has seriously been dragged through the mud thanks to a myriad of shoddy, microtransaction-riddled recent releases, plenty of fans still remember the glory days of the Desmond Miles trilogy. While Miles is only casually referred to in Black Flag, the 2013 release continues to stand as one of the best games in the franchise. A whopping 55 square miles are navigable, and, given a ship and a piratical mindset, the possibilities are just about endless. Unfortunately, Black Flag remains as one of the final games in the series to avoid exorbitant indulgence in consumer-unfriendly monetization practices.
One of the most famous MMORPGs of all time, Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft has remained relevant in a genre that could easily have moved on from it long ago. WoW still boasts hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of active players, and, with 80 square miles of space to explore, the player count won’t be diminishing any time soon. Sure, some MMOs have maps many times larger than that of Blizzard’s famous title, but WoW remains unbeaten in terms of playability. Of course, in an era of MMO-lites like Destiny and (in all likelihood) the upcoming Anthem, World of Warcraft is a natural choice for those looking for a more in-depth experience.
With 84 square miles of playable space and two unique game expansions, you could probably play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for the rest of your life and never get tired of it. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but CD Projekt Red’s 2015 release really has gone down as one of the best gaming experiences of the decade. It’s rare to see such a prolific publisher abstain from reputation-ruining monetization schemes, but CD Projekt Red—the studio behind the excellent Good ol’ Games service—clearly isn’t in the business purely for the sake of turning a profit.
Xenoblade Chronicles stands as one of the most interesting games on this list thanks to the hardware for which it was developed. The Nintendo Wii was infamous among dedicated gamers for not being able to compete with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in terms of performance, and Nintendo’s inability to adapt to the HD era meant that their games on their seventh generation console looked dated the minute they released. Xenoblade Chronicles was one of the few games to circumvent those issues, and, with a 95 square mile map, it remains as one of the most robust titles on the platform.
A major criticism leveled at the military combat simulator series Arma is that the maps are, at times, overly-large. While dedicated fans of this series of games tend to appreciate the robust, complex detail and authenticity baked into the Arma experience, gameplay seems to often consist of too little combat and too much terrain traversal. Again, this is a niche game for a niche audience, and those looking for an accurate interpretation of armed conflict need look no further. However, for those interested in a more typical arcade experience, Arma 3 has a ton of shortcomings, and the massive maps often work to the detriment of new players.
Ghost Recon Wildlands is unique in that the entirety of its massive map is open to the player from the get-go. Often games with such dense maps dole out sections of the game in increments to provide a sense of progression or accomplishment. Wildlands, however, doesn’t care too terribly much about hand holding, and pitches the player into the thick of things from the start. Slightly wonky vehicle controls mean that exploring the game’s 105 square miles of accessible terrain can be a bit cumbersome, but the game’s excellent mix of titles like Battlefield 4 and Red Dead Redemption mean that this small learning curve is worth overcoming.
Video game publisher Codemasters are usually recognized as the studio behind racing classics like the Dirt series, the Grid duology, and the F1 compilation of games. However, they’ve dabbled in the past with some other genres to moderate success, and their 2007 release Overlord is still considered to be a pretty underrated gem. Their entries into the realistic military sim genre weren’t met with the same level of praise, unfortunately. Convoluted and a bit clunky, Operation Flashpoint Dragon Rising wasn’t too well received when it released back in 2009, but the game’s 135 square feet of traversable space still seemed to be an admirable feat.
Another casualty of the unstoppable march of time, Star Wars Galaxies’ servers were shut down way back in 2011. Though a dedicated community of fans has kept the game alive to some degree, very few will ever return to this version of a galaxy far, far away. It’s sort of a shame, too, as the game boasted over ten planets and a staggering 200 square miles of playspace. Galaxies was sort of crushed under the weight of Knights of the Old Republic, which released the same year. It’s disappointing to see some of these old MMOs go the way of the dodo, but there’s little point in maintaining a server on which no one is playing.
Originally released in 2008 and remastered earlier this year, Criterion’s Burnout Paradise is often heralded as one of the greatest arcade racers of the modern era. With a unique open world set in the fictional, eponymous Paradise City, players could blast Guns N’ Roses’ famous song of the same name as they tore up main streets, back allies, and country roads in the world’s fastest made-up sports cars. With 200 square miles of streets down which to race, Paradise was as memorable as it gets and an excellent swan song for the developer.
In 2003, every developer wanted to replicate the success of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto III from 2001, though creating a game of such magnitude was no easy feat. True Crime: Streets of LA, is a forgotten GTA clone from the mid-sixth console generation era, and, though it could never live up to the titanic title which it sought to emulate, it did succeed in planting players in an enormous playspace. With 240 square miles to work with, True Crime: Streets of LA must have been a remarkable achievement at the time. We may be a bit spoiled by games like Grand Theft Auto V today, but I’m sure there are a few gamers out there who remember this game fondly.
A massive leap in terms of map size from other entries on this list, the Just Cause series is renown for both its incredible scale and over-the-top mayhem. The franchise’s third installment is as simple—or as complicated—as players choose to make it. Tasked with liberating a repressed island population, the campaign can be breezed through in around eight to ten hours. However, the real fun comes when players throw caution to the wind and set the 400 square mile map ablaze with chaos and unscripted insanity.
Released back in 1999 Asheron's’ Call is considered to be one of the first MMOs to adopt so-called “seamless” 3D environments; that is to say that much of the playspace was traversable without the need for excessive loading screens. Though the official servers were shut down back in 2017, the game lives on thanks to a dedicated emulation community. With 500 square miles to explore, Asheron’s Call must have been an incredible experience back in 1999. In an era in which The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field was considered to be impressive, this MMO was in a league of its own.
Featuring two islands with a total of slightly over 2000 miles of road to tear up, 2011’s Test Drive Unlimited 2 was an endearing title for racing fans. Though the lack of a real on-foot segment means that players may feel a bit detached from the world, there’s hardly a lack of environments to explore or races in which to partake. Games of this nature tend to be a dime a dozen these days, but, back in 2011, a map of this size must have been a major selling point.
A franchise that started out way back when 8-bit consoles reigned supreme, Final Fantasy XV is so staggeringly large that the hard drive space required to download it would have taken up entire buildings back in 1987. To be fair, a good portion of the game’s map isn’t directly traversable and can only be flown over, but the massive map’s 700 square miles is none-the-less impressive. A game so titanic in scale that it boasted a boss fight which allegedly took players 72 hours to beat, XV is a major departure from the oft-criticized, linear Final Fantasy XIII.
Ubisoft’s 2014 Need for Speed clone The Crew was famous for crafting a playable approximation of the entirety of NA. That is, however, just a bit misleading, as the landscape presented in The Crew is actually condensed into a 1900 square mile area, which is still roughly the same size as Delaware. In real life, it takes hours to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, while the trip can be made in about ten minutes in-game. However, Ubisoft’s digital take on manifest destiny is nevertheless impressive.
2009’s Fuel is popularly considered to be one of the largest racing games available in terms of sheer space. With a map that stretches over a nearly-unthinkable 5560 square miles, one could be forgiven for thinking that publisher Codemasters had a real winner on their hands. Unfortunately, Fuel didn’t go over too terribly well, as the playspace was considered by many to be much too large for its own good. Devoid of content and largely barren, this post-apocalyptic Mad Max wannabe may have fared a bit better if the developer’s ambitions had been kept in check.
2006’s Nightfall offered up one of the largest maps in video game history, and it was technically an expansion on another game. Albeit it technically a standalone title, Nightfall allowed players to explore roughly 15000 more square miles of the world of Guild Wars. It is fitting that most of the map is tinged with a decidedly East African/Middle-Eastern flair. Ambitious nearly to a fault, Guild Wars Nightfall is actually a well-remembered expansion, and currently sits with a suitable 84 on Metacritic.
And you thought Skyrim’s world was large. Bethesda’s 1996 follow up to the successful fantasy CRPG The Elder Scrolls: Arena is popularly considered to boast the largest in-game map aside from the theoretically infinite playspaces of titles like No Man’s Sky and Elite Dangerous. Allowing players to explore just about every inch of the fictional continent of Tamriel, Daggerfall’s scope is both as impressive in terms of map size as it is in terms of gameplay. Though some have knocked it for randomly generating much of the terrain, this feat is astounding in consideration of the fact that 3D gaming was a brand new feature in gaming at the time.