Bored of lockdown? Office not reopening for another month?
Grumpy about the April vacation to Aruba you had planned? Have no fear; TechRadar is here with a guide to the best tools and games you can use on your PC to experience the outside world without actually having to, you know, go there.
1. Microsoft Flight Simulator
The excellent Microsoft Flight Simulator is our pick for the best PC game for virtual tourism. With a brand new game engine developed in-house by French studio Asobo that powers an AI-driven world, this game uses Microsoft’s own map data to model 3D geography, both natural and man-made, right down to cars and trees. This allows it to recreate the whole world. That means you can fly pretty much anywhere, and the cutting edge tech allows you to visit places and experience them in almost photo-realistic graphics.
It even utilises real-world meteorological information to replicate weather effects in real-time. If it’s raining outside your window and you fly over your house, it should be raining in the game too. We’re not exaggerating when we say that this really might be the greatest realistic flight sim ever made, so if you haven’t been able to take a vacation this year, you know what you have to do.
Findery uses both user-generated content tied to locations and a dedicated Google Maps-powered globe to make virtual exploration a cinch. If you enjoy travel writing, this is the perfect tool for you; users can upload their own stories and descriptions of locations they’ve been to or live in.
It’s available both in browsers and as an app for mobile devices, and is the ideal platform for planning your next post-lockdown adventure thanks to the helpful advice and recommendations from other users. Posts are geotagged with exact coordinates, and many users post guides on how best to experience their home countries. Go check it out!
3. Watch Dogs 2
A more modern take on a US city, and a more exciting game that the drab Chicago-set original, the Watch Dogs sequel throws players into a vibrant, bustling sandbox in the form of a near-future replica of San Francisco (and the surrounding Bay Area, including Silicon Valley).
A plethora of gadgets and hacking skills make this city your playground. We’d say that exploring San Fran this way is even more fun than in real life; after all, we can’t do parkour or hack the traffic lights to cause a pileup IRL. Not without being arrested, anyway.
4. L.A. Noire
The facial animation might not have aged perfectly (read: it aged badly), but this is still a faithful rendition of Los Angeles in the 40s, bringing all the key landmarks as well as expertly matching the clothing and vehicles of the time.
The neo-noir story ties into this world perfectly, a great example of how a setting can become a key character in its own right. Indeed, it’s the city of L.A. itself that ultimately deals a crucial killing blow - we won’t spoil it here, but those who have played will know exactly which death we’re talking about.
5. Google Earth
It’s a simple one, and we’ve all messed around on it at some point. But Google Earth is one of the tech giant’s greatest creations; an incredible, 3D-modelled recreation of our planet. Visiting natural landmarks in the comfort of your desk chair is great, and the tool runs incredibly well even in browsers.
StreetView integration means you can leap between the digitally recreated aerial view and photographs from the ground, so it just takes a few clicks to admire the view of the ocean from the old citadel of Dubrovnik, Croatia.
6. Red Dead Redemption 2
Oh, the western frontier. Red Dead Redemption 2 is so detailed, so well-executed, that you might as well have been sent back in time to the American west of 1899. This is a genuinely astounding gameworld teeming with life, from wild animals to outlaw shootouts and covert KKK meetings (which invariably end in those white-hooded fools meeting a grisly but comical end).
It looks mind-bogglingly good in motion, with both flora and fauna perfectly integrated into this already beautiful gameworld. It’s predecessor was a more barren environment to explore, but this is a lush wooded region with weather that reacts wonderfully as you move through it. If you haven’t played it yet, you’re missing out.
7. Forza Horizon 4
This might be the best gameworld we’ve ever seen in a realistic racing game. Well, we say ‘realistic’ - Forza Horizon 4’s open-world United Kingdom has been trimmed and adjusted to make it a better automotive playground, but it’s certainly still got that recognisably British atmosphere.
Seasonal weather effects make exploring locations like Edinburgh and the Lake District an absolute treat. It’s rare in a racing game to want to actually slow down and admire the scenery, especially when you’re behind the wheel of a supercar, but this Forza title simply has that power. Take your foot off the gas, and smell the roses.
8. Assassin’s Creed: Origins
There are plenty of AC games that could potentially deserve a spot on this list, but we’re going to give it to Ubisoft’s gorgeous recreation of ancient Egypt. This is a fantastic world to explore, either on foot or riding a mount or boat, or scouting the area from the perspective of your trusty eagle, Senu.
The included photo mode is easy to use and lets you get up close and personal with some epic historic landmarks, so snap a shot and pretend that you’re actually atop the Pyramids of Giza (in real life, security would likely taze you before you got up the first row of steps)
9. Sleeping Dogs
Developer United Front put a lot of effort into making Sleeping Dogs’ crime-riddled mimicry of Hong Kong looks amazing. From recognisable landmarks to the splatterings of neon that illuminate the seedy backstreets, this is an urban environment that feels incredibly authentic.
It’s not a perfect recreation, but it wisely tries more to capture the essence of HK than replicate the city street-for-street.
During development, the sound team fought to retain Cantonese voice actors for background NPCs in different-language versions of the game, and we’re glad they did; the accents and dialogue you hear as you skim through the rainy streets on a battered motorbike add greatly to the immersion.
If you were in education within the last decade, you’ve probably already heard of GeoGuessr, one of the few ‘games’ to slip past the average school’s internet filter. It’s a simple enough premise: click start, and the game drops you onto its Google Maps-powered globe in StreetView mode, in an entirely random location.
From there, it’s up to you to figure out where in the world you are, using only clues from your immediate environment on the ground. That could be a street sign in a certain language, a monument, even a type of animal. GeoGuessr is best played with friends, in a race to see who can get un-lost first!
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