For decades, almost every computer game was linear. Limited memory and storage space meant that if you weren’t progressing from one objective (or level) to the next, you probably couldn’t be doing much of anything—spending a few (or a few hundred) turns developing your character was about all the free rein you had. But that’s all changing now. So-called “open world” games, whether single-player or online, let you specify when, how, and how much you play, and in pursuit of what goals, and are becoming more popular as people discover just how much fun telling their own stories in a game can be. And you have plenty of options in the kind of game you play: science-fiction, fantasy, or even realistic (albeit occasionally with an added dose of the fantastic). Here are three current titles you may be interested in trying if you want the only limits of your entertainment to be your imagination.
ELITE: DANGEROUS ( $60 )
You can’t really appreciate the vastness of space until you try to travel anywhere in Elite: Dangerous. This PC game by Frontier Developments is a crowdfunded follow-up to the classic Elite series of space sims that’s been around for 30 years. Set in the 34th century, it gives you a ship, a handful of equipment, and a full tank of fuel, then sets you out on your own in the vast cosmos to get money and lead your interstellar life however you choose. It’s huge, slow, deliberate, and open, and it will reward players with the patience stay with it. There’s no epic story told where you’re the main character and the universe is at stake. You’re just trying to make your way in space. Once you leave stardock for the first time, your actions, goals, and destinations are entirely up to you. And the galaxy has 400 billion star systems (the vast majority of which are procedurally generated, and yet to be explored) to see while you do it. But this isn’t to say that the galaxy is empty or static. Elite: Dangerous is a persistently online game that automatically lets you encounter other players online if you’re in the same part of space; you can optionally play solo without the player interaction, but that mode still needs an Internet connection. Politics and economics are the lifeblood of the galaxy, and every cargo run, government crackdown, and pirate raid influences the price of goods in a given system. Larger, overarching events take place in the background, letting players work en masse to back different factions in certain systems, running missions for them in the hopes of overthrowing the ruling government or, if they prefer, protecting the status quo. You can make your way as a pirate or mercenary, fitting your ship with tons of weapons and going after targets.
You can also avoid battle entirely and outfit your ship to be a deep-space exploration vessel with advanced sensors, and later sell information about your discoveries. Or you can get a mining laser and an onboard refinery and mine asteroids all day, scooping up ore and processing it into usable material. You can also simply travel from star to star, buying and selling commodities to make a profit. But watch out: You might get attacked by the very pirates you would otherwise be chasing. Jumping between stars requires charting a course to your destination and making a series of warp jumps that will take your ship several minutes to go any significant distance. Landing at a space station requires pinpoint precision as you enter the complex and land in a specific bay. Mining requires careful shooting of asteroids and then even more careful scooping up the minerals by aligning your ship at a specific angle and very slowly flying into them. Even combat is as much a game of cat and mouse as it is dogfighting, with jumps, chases, and jockeying for position. Elite: Dangerous is fantastic for the patient: a sprawling, intergalactic sandbox. It’s not fast-paced, exciting, or even very personal outside of the stories you craft for yourself, but it’s so incredibly vast and intriguing that at least some of you will find yourselves jumping back into your cockpit so you can scan another star or mine another asteroid—just because they’re there.
THE ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE ( $60 )
Ever since the first chapter of the Elder Scrolls saga, Arena, was released in 1994, Bethesda Softworks has been upping its open-world approach by giving the player a constantly expanding way to live in the fantasy wilds of Tamriel. It seemed to hit its apex last spring with the release of The Elder Scrolls Online, an MMORPG version of the series, and it’s been skyrocketing in popularity ever since. And in mid March Betheseda is poised to rebrand it for PC players as Tamriel Unlimited, which will offer the same expansive gameplay without monthly subscription fees. (Xbox and PlayStation owners will get their chance to join in June.) One of the most vibrant and fascinating spins on the tried-and-true MMORPG formula, Tamriel Unlimited gives you about as many options for customizing your character and your life as you had in the most complex entries in the standalone series (particularly the last two, Oblivion and Skyrim). You can tweak everything about your appearance, including your race, select an umbrella class from the four available (Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Nightblade, and Templar), then, after a brief introductory sequence that proposes the plot and teaches you the intricacies of weapons, magic, and character interaction, your destiny in Tamriel falls completely under your control. You’ll quickly discover that most of your questing assignments are richer and more detailed than the typical go-here, bring-back-that, fight-this-thing variety (you know, the type popularized by World of Warcraft), though your journeyings along the main plotline will reveal its own creative options. (Keeping track of everything you have going on is easy with the convenient online journaling system.) You don’t have to feel constricted by your character type, as you can revamp, rethink, and retrain your skills at will. And crafting items is a good way to relax and get in good with those around you, as is linking up with the class organization of your choice (such as the Fighters’ or Mages’ Guilds).
Each of the game’s three major factions (the Aldmeri Dominion, the Daggerfall Covenant, and the Ebonheart Pact) has its own specific quests, too, so whichever path you follow, you’ll never run out of things to do. The visually sumptuous world makes a compelling canvas on which to paint your adventures, with each of the individual provinces gorgeously distinct and cohesive in design. Waterfalls tumble into pools amid clouds of mist, the gnarled roots of giant trees camouflage houses for gentle forest dwellers, towns and castles are built around consistent stonework designs, and so on. Even a walk on the beach brings out the details, with scuttling crabs and painstakingly rendered seashells flawlessly setting the scene. Two other major innovations in Tamriel Unlimited include a new Champion System, which eliminates much of the grinding required of characters who reach level 50, and the Justice System, which will incorporate new player-versus-environment (PvE) and player-versusplayer (PvP) content. Both of these additions should push Tamriel even closer to the real world, but because The Elder Scrolls Online has long been one of the most immersive MMORPGs out there, they probably won’t need to do much to keep the game a winner.
DYING LIGHT ( $60 )
Even though zombie stories can be a lot of fun, chances are you’ve never really wished you could be inside an episode of The Walking Dead. But Techland’s game Dying Light draws an astonishing amount of suspense and entertainment from just that concept. A mysterious plague that turns people into zombies is ravaging the vaguely Middle-Eastern Harran City, and you’re airdropped in to try to find out who’s in charge and devise a cure before it’s too late. But even though you’re given a handful of smaller quests to complete, and can track down many others (or not) as you see fit, your only real objective is to help others—and yourself—stay alive. This is much harder than you may think. During the tutorial-like section at the beginning of the game you’re given extensive training in a variety of parkour-style tricks that let you leap to and scale any structure in seconds, and these are abilities you’ll need to stay ahead of the surging hordes of undead clogging the streets. Not only do they congregate in packs and sneak up on you, some explode when hit or run as fast as you can, so developing strategies and staying out of their way is crucial for your survival. Don’t forget to search their decaying corpses and the containers they’re guarding to find the tools and money you’ll need to repair and strengthen the puny hardware you start with. Did I mention this is just during the day? The night is a whole other matter. The zombies become even more numerous, violent, and daring then, and can attack from multiple unexpected fronts the sun’s unforgiving rays cut off to them. You can tip the odds in your favor by setting up lighted traps and safe zones during the day, and collecting items you can craft into weapons, medical supplies, and other handy tools, but withstanding the post-dusk onslaught will require razor-sharp wits and split-second reflexes regardless. Nighttime in Harran is truly harrowing, and each second you’re outdoors can feel like an eternity as you struggle mightily to stay hidden, stay moving, and above all stay alive.
Few open-world games have environments as robust as Dying Light’s, and it won’t take you long to adapt to a place that’s disquietingly like our own Earth, where every window ledge, rafter, and collapsed wall section can spell the difference between a narrow escape and a bloody, brain-chomping death. You have a stunning number of ways to deal with the shambling adversity put before you, and the process of learning everything you can do—to say nothing of what works and what doesn’t—is a big part of what makes this game so wryly delightful. You’ll need to experiment to see what gives you the best shot at seeing another sunrise, but you’ll thrill to every moment of it. An alternate play mode lets you assume the role of a zombie and try to gnaw others into submission in a wild online multiplayer frenzy. It’s a nice spin on the formula, but as it is, the rest of Dying Light is already loaded with features for you to sink your teeth into.