The PC gaming sphere is absolutely chock-full of incredible worlds to explore. Digital escapism is one of the main reasons games exist to begin with; that tangible human desire to explore unmapped territory and uncharted worlds. There are plenty of beautiful and intriguing universes to explore on PC, but which ones are best? How would one even decide that?
Well, there might not be an empirical formula for discovering the greatest settings in all of PC gaming, but we can lock a writer who has played far too many games in his Writing Box (definitely not a registered TechRadar trademark) and see what he comes up with. Let’s take a look!
If you haven’t played Remedy Entertainment’s 2019 tour de force, grab yourself a copy at once. Control seamlessly blends fantasy, sci-fi, retrofuturism, and horror. It makes you feel powerful, but equally vulnerable.
The star of the game might be the fierce, determined Jesse Faden, but equal billing must be given to the game’s setting: the Oldest House. Headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control - essentially an FBI for paranormal and extradimensional threats - the House is a living, breathing organism through which you are permitted to move, but only when it wants you to.
The initial beats of brutalist architecture and anachronistic office spaces pave the way for starry skies over open quarries and physics-bending tunnels to nowhere, all somehow contained within the same oppressive concrete skyscraper. One particular highlight is the Ashtray Maze, a labyrinthine recreation of a fancy but dated hotel that reconfigures itself around you as you fight your way through it to a thumping soundtrack. It’s one of the best set-pieces we’ve ever seen in a game, and it leaves you feeling exhausted and exhilarated.
The House is as much an ally as it is a backdrop; its walls and floors provide ammunition for Jesse’s telekinetic powers, as she rips chunks from her surroundings to shield herself from enemy fire before blasting her foes with those same shards of concrete.
This is a world that really reacts to your actions; a violent encounter with the demonic Hiss sees a pristine hallway transformed into a warzone, with splintered wood and rocky debris strewn around the place. The Oldest House is more than just a backdrop; it's the best gameworld we've seen in decades.
Supergiant Games have several weird and wonderful gameworlds under their belt, but Transistor just feels… special. Maybe it’s the gorgeous art style and animation, bringing to life the hand-drawn city of Cloudbank.
Maybe it’s the fearsome Process, the antagonizing force, which steadily overtakes the world around you with its unblinking red eyes and unsettling mix of human and polygonal shapes.
The haunting soundtrack certainly plays a role. The city feels like a peaceful place, melding gorgeous art-deco architecture with sci-fi themes, right up until the violence starts. Whatever it is, Cloudbank is a place every gamer should experience.
3. Hollow Knight
Hallownest, the fallen kingdom of bugs where Hollow Knight takes place, is a dreadfully sad place. A massive, sprawling network of caverns, tunnels, and settlements populated by the remnants of a once-great civilization, it has since succumbed to a terrible plague known only as the Infection, turning bustling towns into almost-deserted outposts and ruins.
The environments themselves are beautiful, evoking the feeling of a society still struggling on despite the great tribulations it faces. But Hallownest goes beyond that: the writing ties so delicately into the gameworld as you uncover the bleak history of the region piece by piece.
We won’t spoil anything here, but if you’re in the mood for melancholia, Hallownest is the place to be.
4. Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea
Rapture pops up on a lot of lists like this. The brilliant, spooky style of an underwater art-deco utopia gone to hell is a hallmark of great game settings that will no doubt prove to be timeless.
But the first two Bioshock games showed us Rapture after its downfall, with only the glimpses into its glory days shown to use through the lens of its 'visionary' creator Andrew Ryan.
Bioshock Infinite's Burial At Sea expansion gave us a proper look at Rapture's radiant heyday, and proved once and for all that it was still a nightmarish place to live. It would be an extremely stylish nightmare, mind you.
5. Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2's map spans the fictional locations of Ambarino, New Hanover, Lemoyne, West Elizabeth, and New Austin (as well as almost all of the original game's map as well), and while the places are fictional, it feels like the truest expression of the Western genre ever seen in a video game.
The Old West is dying; and you're dying with it, the last remnant of the gunslingers who used to roam that land. It's a barren, dog-eat-dog world, and it feels amazing to simply travel across in horseback, eyes peeled for a new adventure. It helps that the game looks absolutely stunning on PC as well.
6. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Yes, yes, Skyrim is incredible. We know. But it’s also familiar; drawing its roots from Scottish and Norse history amongst others, with a definite nostalgia for the real world’s medieval period (dragons notwithstanding).
Morrowind, on the other hand, feels almost alien. Giant insectoid beings with chitinous shells tower overhead on spindly legs as you make your way through the swamps; grey-skinned elves fill the towns, a stark contrast to the rather conventional human Nords of the fifth Elder Scrolls title.
Morrowind’s graphical style hasn’t aged particularly well, but it is also a somewhat sillier fantasy world than its successors. Picking up a ‘Scroll of Icarian Flight’ from a splattered corpse and learning that it actually just lets you jump really high, with no mitigation of the swiftly approaching fall damage? Hilarious - provided you saved recently.
7. Hyper Light Drifter
Something bad happened to this world, and you may never find out exactly what it was. As the titular Hyper Light Drifter, you journey through it in search of a cure for the unexplained disease that eats away at you, striking down anyone who dares get in your way.
Much of the world is already in ruins, moss growing over the bodies of fallen soldiers and machines of war. It’s a ruthless, unforgiving world, full of traps and vicious creatures, but there’s also hope here; a small, peaceful community has sprung up around a crossroads, allowing you a breath of respite whenever you need it, before you venture out once more.
The lack of dialogue beyond simple symbols and images further deepens the mystery of this world, and the wonderful pixel animation is the icing on the cake.
8. Destiny 2
The Destiny games have had their fair share of drama, with developer Bungie famously breaking from publishing giant Activision midway through the second game’s life cycle.
One thing that can never be taken away from this series, though, is its utterly beautiful environments.
Destiny 2 is even better than the original in this area. The obvious science fiction leanings are visible immediately, with alien settings like Nessus, a planetoid almost completely converted into machinery by the robotic Vex.
But other settings borrow from different genres; the bright, ethereal trees and spires of the Dreaming City come straight out of a fantasy novel, while tunnels far beneath the surface of Earth’s moon sport gothic architecture with a foothold in classic horror. The variety is astounding, even if all we do in these stunning locales is shoot aliens in the face.
9. Sunless Sea
The world of Sunless Sea demands that you do some reading. A lot of reading, in fact. The lore of this universe runs deep, both metaphorically and literally; the game’s primary setting is the Unterzee, a subterranean ocean that borders the city of London, reestablished after it tumbled through the earth’s crust.
This is a bleak world, with cryptic characters and cosmic horrors lurking around every corner. While most of the world-building is done via simple prose, the denizens of the Unterzee are presented in hand-drawn portraits and the top-down view of the overworld emphasises the massive nature of the sea’s fearsome fauna. A creepy world, for certain, but one that exudes the call to adventure.
10. Far Cry 3
The perfect middle ground between the sun-baked, malaria-ridden locales of Far Cry 2 and the blander backdrops for carnage seen in the later games, Far Cry 3's tropical Rook Islands are the ideal sandbox for a stranded holiday-maker turned tribal assassin.
It's a wonderfully bright and colorful world considering the amount of violence you face from the local pirates and wild animals - looking at you, cassowaries!
Add in a few mind-bending missions thanks to the islands' psychotropic flora, and you've got one of the most enjoyable open-world action games around. Even as it approaches its 8th birthday, the third Far Cry installment still holds up.
The amber-tinted streets of Shanghai in Deus Ex: Human Revolution are a genuine treat to explore, hoovering up hidden loot stashes and eavesdropping on conversations.
The Faelands from Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is one of the best takes on the classic fantasy setting we've seen in a game, and we couldn't not mention Horizon Zero Dawn. Stunning vistas, serene snowscapes, and robot dinosaurs. What's not to love?
TechRadar’s PC Gaming Week 2020 is celebrating the most powerful gaming platform on Earth with articles, interviews and essential buying guides that showcase how diverse, imaginative, and remarkable PC games – and gamers – can be. Visit our PC Gaming Week 2020 page to see all our coverage in one place.
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Christian is TechRadar’s UK-based Computing Editor. He came to us from Maximum PC magazine, where he fell in love with computer hardware and building PCs. He was a regular fixture amongst our freelance review team before making the jump to TechRadar, and can usually be found drooling over the latest high-end graphics card or gaming laptop before looking at his bank account balance and crying.
Christian is a keen campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights and the owner of a charming rescue dog named Lucy, having adopted her after he beat cancer in 2021. She keeps him fit and healthy through a combination of face-licking and long walks, and only occasionally barks at him to demand treats when he’s trying to work from home.