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29 Features

Wish you were here: Postcards from gaming's virtual summer getaways

By Andy Kelly on Thursday 25th Jul 2013 at 11:00 AM UTC

There's more to games than machine-gunning people to death. They're about exploring, immersion, and losing yourself in a virtual world. They aren't all suited to this - you can't exactly go for a relaxing stroll in Manhunt - but others are perfect for escaping cruel reality, if only for a few hours.

The mark of a good open world is being able to enjoy it without being distracted by missions or being shot at by enemies. The games below are notable for having beautifully crafted worlds that are a pleasure to just wander, drive, or fly around, from the abstract fields of Proteus to Far Cry 3's lush tropics.

With the Western world still gripped by the cold hand of austerity, and with bankers feasting on golden pheasants as the rest of us eat Pot Noodles, not everyone can afford a holiday this summer. But don't feel left out. Unpack your trunks, put the sun cream back in the medicine cabinet, and play some games instead.

The Rook Islands - Far Cry 3

When you've cleared all the pirate outposts in Far Cry 3, the islands become serenely peaceful. Some think this is boring - and Ubisoft Montreal responded by patching in the option to reset them - but for us, this is the perfect chance to explore. When you're sprinting between missions, you don't really get the chance to savour the beauty of the Rook Islands, and there's a lot to discover. From crashed World War 2 planes to ancient temples, it's a rich and diverse open world.

For the best virtual holiday experience, use this guide to disable the HUD in the PC version, then turn off the pounding, dramatic music. With the help of Jason Brody's digital camera, this transforms the game into a relaxing wildlife photography simulator. We've spent hours roaming the jungles and valleys, snapping tigers, sunsets, and waterfalls.

Watch out for... Even without pirates, there's still a lot of danger on the island. If you ever hear the screech of a cassowary or the hiss of a Komodo dragon, we have one piece of advice: run.

The Wild West - Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption's vision of the Wild West is incredibly varied. As you ride across its vast landscape, the scenery shifts from dusty, sun-baked deserts to snow-capped mountains and forests. It's a joy to explore on horseback, either alone or with friends online. Each part of the map has its own distinct lighting, scenery and feel. Diez Coronas is dominated by red mesas, while Thieves' Landing is surrounded by gloomy swamps. It's an incredible place.

Bandits and other n'er-do-wells are everywhere, but it's possible to enjoy the world without them interfering. You can hunt for rare animals in the wilds, collect exotic plants and gamble in saloons. The game's RPG-style progression system for hunting and gathering gives these tasks some purpose, but that doesn't matter. We're on holiday, remember.

Watch out for... If you're playing online, chances are you'll be harassed by other players, or sniped from a distance by some no-good varmint. Stick with your friends, or go offline. There's no shame in being a yellow-belly.

The Island - Proteus

Proteus is only about an hour long, so it's more like a weekend break than a holiday, but it's unforgettable. It's about as minimalist as games get, and sees you exploring a surreal, abstract island. You don't really know what's going on at first, but then you realise that the seasons are shifting, changing the landscape around you. We played it in the dark with headphones, and were utterly hypnotised by it.

The audio design is key to its appeal. Everything in the world makes a sound, and these combine to form a beautiful ambient soundscape. Each season has its own mood, with the music reflecting your surroundings. It's like going on some bizarre psychedelic trip, and it's remarkable how a game with so little going on can keep you so transfixed.

Watch out for... Nothing. That's the beauty of Proteus. Of course, there's always the risk of you being so lost in the experience that you don't notice your house burning down around you. You can buy the game here.

Panau - Just Cause 2

This is the biggest open world on our list, and one of those games where exploring it is way more enjoyable than doing any of the missions. It's also one of the most dangerous, and conflict is difficult to avoid, so you're better off sticking to the air for this particular holiday. Luckily there are loads of aircraft to play with. With sweeping mountain ranges, shimmering oceans, jungles, and deserts, Panau is packed with stuff to frantically hit the screenshot button at.

Brilliantly, a multiplayer mod for the PC version of Just Cause 2 is being developed by fans. It's in an early beta testing phase at the moment, but already looks insanely fun. The only downside is that there isn't much to do on Panau that doesn't involve killing people, besides admiring the scenery.

Watch out for... To the far north-west of the colossal world map there's an island that, when you fly close to it in an aircraft, a storm whips up and causes you to lose control and crash. Lost, anyone?

Skyrim - The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

If you've watched CVG's Rags to Riches series on YouTube or read PC Gamer's brilliant The Elder Strolls, you'll know that it's entirely possible to play Skyrim without doing any adventuring whatsoever. There's so much to do in Bethesda's world, including hunting, alchemy, cooking, building houses (with Hearthfire or PC mods), mining, and crafting. But if that all sounds like too much hard work, just go for a wander and you're bound to find something interesting.

If you want to explore without being bothered by wolves and bandits, bring up the command console in the PC version and type tdetect. This makes enemies ignore you, giving you the freedom to move around without having to pull your sword out every few minutes. For sightseeing suggestions, check out our video: 8 Things to See in Skyrim Before You Die.

Watch out for... If you're playing on Xbox or PS3 you won't be able to disable enemy detection, so you'll have to constantly be on your guard for mages, bandits, and so on. It's also easy to get drawn into a quest by accident.

The Hebrides - Dear Esther

This windswept Scottish archipelago might not be a traditional summer holiday hotspot, but Dear Esther's unnamed island is a great place to go for a virtual stroll. Developed as a Half-Life mod in Valve's Source engine, its world design is breathtaking. Like Proteus, its gameplay - if you can even call it that - is markedly minimal. As you explore the island, you hear letters to the titular Esther being read aloud by the main character, which weave a fascinating and complex story.

What's great about Dear Esther's environments is how understated they are. Most game worlds exaggerate their natural architecture and colours, but every inch of this island feels real. If your dream holiday is rambling around the Highlands on your own, rather than sunning yourself on a crowded beach, this is the game for you.

Watch out for... Occasionally you'll catch brief glimpses of shadowy figures in the distance that fade away as you approach. They're so subtle that some players don't notice these 'ghosts' at all.

Italy - Assassin's Creed II

Across Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, there's a huge chunk of Renaissance Italy to explore. Rome, Venice, Florence, Forlě, San Gimignano, and the Tuscan countryside are all beautifully realised in Ubisoft's historical stab-'em-up. Wandering these cities is the closest thing you can get to virtual tourism in a game, thanks to the Animus database entries that explain the history of almost every building and area you encounter.

Depending on your notoriety level, you're able to explore these areas without any interference from guards. Just don't try and climb any rooftops, because according to Assassin's Creed law, that's a crime punishable by instant death. History buffs will get a kick out of wandering the streets, learning the history of the period.

Watch out for... As well as the aforementioned rooftop guards, minstrels can cause you problems. They have a habit of backing you into a corner and twanging their lutes until you pay them. Or stab them.

Europe - Euro Truck Simulator 2

No, we haven't gone mad. Euro Truck Simulator 2 is genuinely, unironically good. We've sunk 22 hours into it, which is twice as long as we played BioShock Infinite for. As the title suggests, it simulates the experience of hauling heavy goods around Europe. Sounds boring? It really isn't. You haven't lived until you've navigated 20 tonnes of explosive chemicals down a narrow country road, at night, with broken headlights. But these moments of drama are, admittedly, rare.

Mostly it's just driving and obeying traffic laws. But while this should be suffocatingly dull, it's weirdly relaxing watching the scenery roll by and listening to the hum of your engine. There are miles of road to explore, from the UK all the way to Eastern Europe, and it looks surprisingly good for a niche PC simulator.

Watch out for... Bad drivers. Speed cameras. Red lights. Breaking the law by not putting your wipers on in the rain. Mistakes result in fines, which eat into your profits, so you quickly train yourself to be a law-abiding citizen.