Role-playing games are expected to offer a good story, but there’s more to the genre that just tales of sword and sorcery. Many players love RPGs because their large, open worlds offer an unparalleled opportunity to explore a virtual landscape. Here’s ten games that can put you in the role of a virtual Lewis & Clark.
Baldur’s Gate and its sequel, Shadows of Amn, remain two of the most massive computer role-playing games ever released. While both rely on maps of limited size strung together via a fast-travel overworld, each individual map is large and often full of secrets. These games contain large quest-lines that you can easily miss and it’s almost impossible to see the entirety of either game in a single play-through because some quests are accessible only through followers. Both offer an expansion pack, as well, providing even more content.
You can find old copies of these titles for a few bucks, but I recommend grabbing the enhanced editions because the original games don’t play well with modern, high-resolution displays. If you do pick up an original copy you should check out GOG’s page of enhancement mods. They’ll help make the games playable on your modern rig.
This newly-released role-playing game pays tribute to old games like Baldur’s Gate but, since it’s a new game, it offers refreshed combat mechanics and far superior graphics. Divinity: Original Sin also takes place in a series of constrained maps connected by fast travel, but in classic form, the title makes for this limitation with a wealth of questions and many optional areas. The first town alone can take more than ten hours to “finish” if you do all of the sidequests, and some players have reported spending over 100 hours chasing down all the content.
Because it’s new, D:OS is a bit expensive; currently $39.99 on Steam or through the developer’s website. The game’s old fashioned quest design can be frustrating for some, so I recommend waiting for a sale. Alternatively, you can check out one of the many Let’s Play videos about the game to see if it’s for you.
Explorers will find few role-playing games that can match the massive amount of content found in Bethesda’s famous Elder Scrolls series. The latest title, Skyrim, remains incredibly popular and is considered by many to be one of the best role-playing games ever made, but it’s not the only game in the franchise you should play. Morrowind and Oblivion are both strong titles that offer similar gameplay and hold up well despite their age. You might even check out Daggerfall, which was released in 1996 (and looks it), but boasts the largest world of any game in the series.
There’s frankly too many variants of these titles to list their price points and platforms here, but you should know that Daggerfall is available free and clear as a PC download from Bethesda’s official website. I also recommend that you steer clear of The Elder Scrolls Online, as it lacks the exploration elements present in its single-player cousins.
Eve Online is one of the oldest online role-playing games still active. While it has a reputation for fierce (and often unpleasant) player-versus-player combat, there is more to do in Eve than fight. The game’s massive universe includes hundreds of systems, many of which have special exploration nodes that you can discover and use to obtain various materials. Or you can make your own fun, using your ship’s scanners to find hidden storage containers or track salvage.
This is not a game for everyone. Travel takes a long time, the community can be unforgiving and many systems are so complex you’ll never figure them out without reading player guides. Yet Eve Online remains strong because it has carved its own player-driven niche in a genre full of static, harmless worlds. A 14-day free trial is available, so you have nothing to lose by giving it a shot.
At first glance this MMO looks like many others in its genre, but there are subtle differences that make it great for players who enjoy exploring. The dynamic level system, which reduces your level to an area-appropriate number as you travel, means you can experience the game at your own pace and don’t have to worry about over-leveling content. Maps also include a number of vistas, secrets and “hidden” skill points, all of which encourage players to check out areas they’ve not yet seen.
Another important trait is the lack of subscription fee. This game is “buy-to-play” which means you never have to spend a cent after paying $39.99 upfront. There is an item shop, but the items and bonuses obtained from it aren’t necessary to enjoy all of the game’s content. You can treat Guild Wars 2 as a single-player game if you’d like.
Originally intended as an MMO, budget shortfalls forced 38 Studios, which promptly went out of business after this game’s release, to scale back its aspirations. The result is a game that’s not as grand as it could have been, but Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning remains one of the largest role-playing games released in the last decade. If you look past the story, which is weak, you’ll find a massive game world full of side-quests and optional areas, some of which contain secret treasure. And, unlike many other open-world RPGs, this title provides fast action combat that varies based on the weapons and tactics you employ.
You can pick up Kingdoms of Amalur for $19.99 on Steam, but the title is often on sale at various sites for as much as half the price. Used console copies are also a good bet and can be picked up for ten bucks at most shops.
Nintendo’s E3 2014 presentation video highlighted an upcoming Zelda game that’s being designed to support open world play, a first for the series. Instantly I thought “Wait a second! What about The Wind Waker?”
This unique entry in the franchise takes place in a world of fantastic islands. You quickly gain access to a ship, and once you do, you have the chance to explore at your own pace. There are mechanics to keep you from going too far off the beaten path and the story is still linear, but there’s numerous islands, treasures and puzzles that can only be discovered through exploration.
Originally released for Gamecube, an HD remake has been released for the Nintendo Wii U at a steep $40. It’s worthwhile if you can afford it, but the original version has aged well and is a fine reason to dust off your old Gamecube.
The third MMO on this list, Lord of the Rings Online deserves inclusion for reasons entirely opposite that of Eve Online. Over the years Turbine has (for better or worse) slowly molded this game into an ideal stomping ground for solo players and small parties looking to experience Tolkien’s world. Players can blitz the content if they’d like, but relaxing and enjoying the journey is a better idea – and provides the chance to explore numerous optional zones and quests.
This game is free-to-play, so you can dive in without putting up any money. Leveling becomes difficult as you progress, but you can reasonably expect to hit level 30 before you feel forced to spend a dime.
The original Two Worlds tried its best to be a Elder Scrolls clone but flopped due to a poor tutorial, abysmal voice acting and numerous bugs. Two Worlds II still isn’t as good as Skyrim, but it’s arguably as good as Oblivion, and it offers a slightly different take on open-world RPGs. Combat encounters are more frequent, character customization is even more open and the size of the game easily rivals Bethesda’s best.
This game was never a smash hit, so it sells for only $19.99. There’s also a “Velvet Edition,” which includes a pirate-themed expansion, available for $24.99.
Designed by Tetsuya Takahashi, best known for his work on the classic jRPG Xenogears, Xenoblade Chronicles is a massive game that combines the open-world exploration elements found in many western titles with a modern interpretation of jRPG combat. Though designed for the measly Wii, this game easily contains as much content as its western rivals and delivers it all with the flash and style you’d expect from a Japanese studio. You’ll need about 100 hours just to see a fraction of the content packed in this title, and players who’ve completed every side-quest and explored every secret report over 200 hours of gameplay.
The only problem with Xenoblade Chronicles – for western readers, at least – is its limited release. The game is no longer available in many markets and used copies often sell for at least $50 dollars. That’s a lot to pay for a Wii game that’s four years old. Gamers with patience may want to wait for Xenoblade Chronicles X, an upcoming sequel slated for a 2015 release on the Wii U.
These ten games are all excellent RPGs that not only provide plenty of exploration, but are also fun to play. There are, however, a lot of games that didn’t quite make the cut; Gothic 3, Risen and Sacred 2 are just a few that come to mind. Is your favorite open-world RPG on this list, or has another stolen your heart? Let us know in the comments!