Digitial Escapes: Travel Games

Uncharted 4
A shot from the upcoming Uncharted 4. (Courtesy of Naughty Dog)

In the first article in our Digital Escapes series, I touched on how video games can give you that feeling of adventure and excitement that can come from travelling to a new place. As the fidelity of games has improved over the past decade, more and more games are coming out with either digital recreations or at least facsimiles of real places. These digital recreations have become more convincing as rendering technology has improved, allowing us to experience real-world locales in new ways and in some cases, for the first time.

In all fairness, very few games set in real-world locations fully capture the environment of the place with 1-to-1 detail; however, games have gotten very good at recreating the flavor of a place. Many studios send teams to photograph and video locations to ensure that they come as close as possible when they create their game worlds based on the real place. Ubisoft is a publisher that has become very adept at encouraging their development studios to create huge digital environs that capture the feeling of globe-spanning locations with intense detail. Their Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series are well-known for their huge open worlds that are convincingly set in real world locations or locations heavily based on the real world.

AC:U Notre Dame

Checking out the sites from the top of Notre Dame!

Last year, Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed: Unity, a game set in Paris during the French Revolution. Unity features one of the most faithfully recreated video game cities of all time and while the game has numerous performance issues, the scenery is undeniably epic and extremely evocative of France’s most famous city. Far Cry 4, another of Ubisoft’s games transports players to the fictional country of Kyrat, which is heavily influenced by Nepal and other Himalayan environments. The scenery of Kyrat is breathtaking.

It’s games like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed that have helped to form a sub-genre of games that I have begun to call travel games. A travel game isn’t necessarily open world in nature – it could be linear. However, travel games are evocative of real-world environments. They should make the player feel like they are somewhere they could really get on a plane or in a car and visit, right now. They don’t necessarily have to be set in the present or even in the real world, but the game world should be heavily representative of a place in the real world.

The other requirement I have for classifying a game as a travel game is that it must feel grounded in reality. There may be way more intrigue, magic and explosions in most of these games than even a modern conflict may feature (and way more surviving falls from asinine heights), but as I said, they capture the essence of what it’s like to visit these places on a base audio-visual level.

Sure, these games will never live up to the real thing, but they’re a great substitute when you just want to hop over to Rome and you just can’t jump far enough in real life. Boot up your gaming platform of choice, through in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and BAM, you’re free to run around the Coliseum to your heart’s content. Got work in the morning, but wanna take a road trip across the US? Throw in Ubisoft’s The Crew and you can drive straight from NYC to LA and back. Hell, you can even swing by DC on the way if you want. The best part is you can do it all in one night and still wake up with mostly enough sleep to drive yourself into the office the next morning!

So, when you want to travel and you just can’t swing it soon enough, pop in one of these games and go on a little digital sightseeing:

The Assassin’s Creed series

If you want to visit anywhere from Renaissance era Italy to the Caribbean during the Age of Discovery and beyond, this is the series for you. Filled with historical, natural and architectural detail, this series offers you a way to visit many of the world’s most famous locales at some of the most interesting points in history. The games range in quality related to how much fun they actually are to play outside the basic of just wandering around their richly detailed worlds with Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood and Black Flag being the pinnacles of the series.

The Crew

While it certainly isn’t a perfect 1:1 recreation of the US, The Crew’s map is a pretty good facsimile of the 48 contiguous United States. Capturing the flavor of many of our biggest cities and even that of some of our more famous small towns, this game is great for those who just love to drive around and sight see (or those who have always wanted to hit 200 mph in Time’s Square and not have to have a death wish to do so).

Far Cry 2-4

The original Far Cry is vastly different from the remainder of the series and doesn’t quite fall into this sub-genre for me. That said, the Far Cry series has captured the essence of several states/locations during some of their more tumultuous periods in modern history. War-torn sections of Africa, pirate (of the modern variety) ridden islands in the Indian/Pacific ocean and the Himalayas during a terrible civil war are all represented. Far Cry is certainly the grittiest series on this list and while it rarely does it perfectly, offers some interesting commentary on the nature of armed conflict, modern colonialism, sanity and other topics. Don’t let that drive you off though – tonally it falls a little closer to the bombastic exploits of James Bond than the hard hitting examination of war you would find in films like Black Hawk DownFar Cry 4 is particularly great because it frequently is happy to let you do your own thing – Kim and I ignored the core mechanics of the game (shooting) one night and simply drove around on a safari of sorts to take pictures of the animals we spotted.

Watch_Dogs

Watch_Dogs is interesting because gamers expected it to be this incredible game that showed everyone what their new expensive next-generation consoles could do. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to those expectations, but it’s not entirely a bad game. This decent open world cyber thriller is set in the Chicago area and features pretty good recreations of the city’s most famous landmarks and features. It can be very fun to just drive around and hack random bits of the city’s infrastructure to cause a little mayhem. That or hop in a car and just go sightseeing.

Watch Dogs

Boating through downtown Chicago. (Courtesy of Ubisoft)

Uncharted

This series is for those who love the pulpy goodness of Indiana Jones. The games are almost as fun to watch as they are to play. They feature globe-trotting stories that take you everywhere from downtown London to the heights of the Himalayas and the endless dunes of the Sahara. The story is absolutely top-notch and each of these games, particularly Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception are masterclasses in fantastic game design and story telling. These games are far more linear than any of the other games on this list, but in my opinion are some of the best on this list. Keep an eye out for some of the quieter moments of these games – they can be amazingly cathartic after the highs of the action beats of these pulp masterpieces. There’s even a collection of the first three bags coming out soon in anticipation of the next game in the series being released early 2016!

Uncharted 3

Drake walks through a desert market.

Tomb Raider (2013)

The series that brought pulpy action to video games recently got a refreshing reboot. While femme fatale Lara Croft was dearly loved by fans of the series, it’s great to see a much more believable (both proportionally and personality-wise) version of Lara grace the screen. With games dominated by white dudes with chiseled jaws (look I’m a white dude with an okay jaw – I like playing as myself too, but still) it was refreshing for me to see a game that saw a girl go from graduate student/travel enthusiast to bad ass action star. The newest game in the series is fairly linear with open hub-areas, this game fits squarely in the pulp action genre of the Uncharted series. Set on the semi-historical, but lost island of Yamatai (Yamatai-koku) somewhere in the vicinity of Japan, it’s battered Pacific island locales are both beautiful and terrifying.

Tomb Raider

Lara gets her bearings after being shipwrecked on Yamatai.


 

There are many other games out there that may fall into this sub-genre, but these are just some of my favorites. There are also several that sort of approach my definition of a travel game, but can’t quite be defined this way. I’ll be covering these games later because they are some of my favorites and still make for fantastic escapism. There are hundreds of games out there offer fantastic escapism, this list was more focused on games that capture the essence of real places well and in such a fashion that they would be recognizable if I visited that place today.

What to know if you go

As a quick note, keep in mind that some of the games I wrote about in the title above are rated mature. Games are an awesome way to unwind and even have fun as a family, but parents those ratings labels on video games are there for a reason.

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