With a cruel combo of lockdowns and quarantines, it has been a challenging (stronger adjectives available) year to be a traveler. But there is one novel form of travel that has remained impervious to international restrictions – in fact you don’t even have to leave your home to enjoy it. We are talking, of course, about video games. (OK, stick with us here.)
Gone are the days where video games served as an art form exclusively for those with bad acne and good reflexes, and today, thanks to remarkable advancements in graphic capabilities and data storage, many games resemble vast, vibrant worlds that lie waiting to be explored, taking the form of the rolling plains of the American Wild West or the mesmeric depths of the ocean. Celebrity voice acting and orchestral soundtracks enhance the experience, and plot lines range from all-out action to a quiet afternoon tending to crops.
So whether you’re a first-time digital adventurer or seasoned cyber nomad, wave goodbye to reality for a while and take a trip to one of these wonderful digital worlds.
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Winner of Game of the Year at the 2015 Golden Joystick Awards and widely considered one of the greatest video games of all time, the third instalment of the beloved Witcher series is as good an introduction to the world of modern gaming as you can get.
Based on the fantasy novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, the Witcher 3 sees players take control of Geralt of Rivia, a monster-hunter for hire, as he searches for his adoptive daughter Ciri. This quest will take players through the giant, war-torn land of The Continent, shuffling through the packed streets of grand cities, sailing to far-off islands and wading through thick swampland, all while occasionally downing tools for a quick round of Gwent (the frighteningly addictive in-game card game). Though its setting may be highly fantastical, the game has a very human story at its center, brought to life by a talented voice cast that includes Game of Thrones star Charles Dance.
Must-visit spot: Perched on a sheer mountaintop on the wintry Skellige Isles, the cloud-piercing black stone citadel of Kaer Trolde makes for an arresting sight. Its occupier, the jarl of Clan an Craite, throws a cracking banquet when there's cause to celebrate.
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
2. World of Warcraft
A behemoth of the gaming industry, World of Warcraft played a leading role in shifting the perception of video games from puzzles to be completed to realms in which to exist. The game is the planet’s most popular MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), which means the world in which it is set, Azeroth, is populated by avatars of real players (millions of them) as well as computerized characters.
The game starts off typically enough: players select a race for their avatar (Human; Dwarf; the ungodly human-panda hybrid Pandaren), and are introduced to the basic components of the game. But from here on out, what the player does is essentially up to them. Undertake quests, venture into forests and raid enemy strongholds or compete in weekly fishing contests (The Stranglethorn Fishing Extravaganza) and let loose at Azeroth’s annual beer festival, Brewfest (held each October, naturally). With 17 cities to visit and a map that takes over 12 hours to walk around, players won't run out of things to see.
Must-visit spot: Stormwind City is the largest and grandest human settlement in Azeroth. It’s dotted with temples, pretty parklands, characterful inns and imposing historical monuments, including a set of giant stone statues honoring heroes of the Alliance that fell during the campaign on the orcish homeworld of Draenor.
Available for: PC
3. Stardew Valley
Who said you need fast-pace storylines and cutting-edge graphics to create an immersive world? Thanks to its charming, retro appearance and rewarding, easy-going gameplay, Stardew Valley has garnered a strong cult following since its release in 2016.
In the game, players take control of a character who is the beneficiary to a rundown family farm in the delightful backwater of Pelican Town, and are tasked with returning it to profit. Between planting crops and tending to livestock, players will have the opportunity to explore more and more of their surroundings, meeting the jovial townsfolk, attending various time-specific festivals (honoring both real-world holidays and in-game events, like the arrival of the fluorescent jellyfish) and even finding a partner to share your wholesome, salt-of-the-earth existence with. Unlike most of the games on this list, Stardew Valley can also be played on smartphones and tablets, making it a good choice for would-be gamers without consoles.
Must-visit spot: Pelican Town’s central beach is a great spot to kick back and relax, with an old wooden pier that is a popular spot for fishing. In the middle of winter, the night market takes place here, with merchant boats lining the sands.
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, iOS, Android
4. Red Dead Redemption 2
If you spent your youth embroiled in imaginary gun battles with outlaws in the Old West, then Red Dead Redemption 2 will delight your inner child. The hotly-anticipated prequel to Sony’s Red Dead Redemption has become one of the best-selling games of all time, winning numerous awards in the process.
Set in the final days of the American Wild West, the game sees players slip into the spur-heeled boots of rugged outlaw Arthur Morgan, who must lead his gang of misfits through the perils of a rapidly modernizing (law-abiding) world in which they no longer belong. While the game’s plot, characters and gameplay all drew praise from critics, it’s the game’s setting and scenery that takes center stage, and to this end, there’s nothing more enjoyable than simply roaming freely through the wild, ever-changing landscapes atop your trusted mount, with the sense of serenity shattered only by the occasional bust-up with a rival gang or local sheriff.
Must-visit spot: The city of Saint Denis bears a striking resemblance to real-world New Orleans. It’s home to bars, boulevards, barber shops and the pretty Théâtre Râleur, which puts on daily performances incorporating acts of magic and fire dancing.
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
5. Beyond Blue
Travelers are drawn to diving for both the visuals and the meditative quality that comes with being underwater, and Beyond Blue attempts to replicate both without asking players to squeeze into a wetsuit.
Developed with the creators of BBC series Blue Planet II, the game centers around protagonist Mirai, a deep-sea researcher tracking and documenting various underwater species, while subsequently learning more about the devastating impact of human behaviour on our oceans, from deep-sea mining to pollution. But, worrying ecological premonitions aside, this is one of the most relaxing games ever made, with players able to glide seamlessly along the ocean floor to the placating tones of a synthy soundtrack. Though the thrill of swimming alongside a pod of blue whale is best enjoyed on a big screen, the game is also available for smart phones via the Apple Arcade, offering gaming on the go.
Must-visit spot: The shelf of active underwater volcanoes, glowing red in the darkness of the deep sea, makes for an impressive sight and serves as a reminder of the otherworldly landscape that exists at the bottom of our oceans.
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, iOS
6. No Man’s Sky
The perfect video game for anyone drawn to works of science fiction, the pioneering No Man’s Sky allows players to hop into a spaceship and journey into the cosmos, interacting with alien life forms and exploring new planets as they go.
The game opens with the protagonist waking up on an unknown, deserted world with no memory of how they got there, leaving the player to piece together the story while hopping from one weird and wonderful world to the next. Aside from its deep space setting, what makes No Man’s Sky unique is that if a player is the first to set foot on one of the in-game planets (and document its bright pink, five-legged native fauna, for example), then that discovery remains attributed to them indefinitely, with subsequent visitors (ie other players) to that world notified of the brave soul who discovered it – making the sense of exploration on offer feel authentic. What’s more, with over 18 quintillion planets in the game, the makers admit they don’t even know what lurks on the surface of some in-game worlds.
Must-visit spot: Throughout the game, a cosmic force draws the player to the very centre of the game’s universe; what resides there? You’ll have to find out for yourself.
Available for: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
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