Casual Friday: Virtual Vacationing

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Welcome back to PC World's weekly celebration of slack. And nothing screams "slack" like summertime. Problem is, with gas prices rising and dollar values dropping, taking a vacation is tough on the wallet. So, what are you going to do with your spare time?

The Great Indoors

Staycation (stay-kay-shun, noun). "A vacation that is spent at one's home enjoying all that home and one's home environs have to offer." --Urban Dictionary

That's the nice way of saying you're stuck--no Tahiti trip this year. Yep, even a check of my favorite deal-scouring travel site, TravelZoo, resulted in few viable destination deals. Hell, I'd be lucky to afford a road trip to Carhenge (apparently, ancient Nebraskan druids stacked up classic American cars to commune with nature). Don't worry, you still have ways to see the world without leaving your living room.

For example, try taking a peek at the strangest sights in Google Earth or get a beachside view of Oahu via Webcams (see bottom of page at this link for different camera locations).

Then, of course, there are video games--and I'm not talking about traipsing through Second Life on some cornball tour of digital never-neverland. I want to try and simulate the real deal--without dropping a fortune. 

First stop, the airport. Well, Microsoft Flight Simulator, at least. Don't forget to take off your shoes and have any bags searched before sitting down at the computer. The game lets you control the whole flight in real time. Going cross-country in-game can take the same number of hours it would in real life. Hit autopilot and read a book. Maybe catch a movie. But where should I "fly?"

See Hawaii

A Hawaiian beach scene from Test Drive Unlimited.
Some 1000 miles of Hawaiian roads await you in Test Drive Unlimited. The game makers went to a whole lot of trouble to capture the vibe of everything from Waikiki to the North Shore. True story: One rainy day I turned on the game and drove my Maserati to a secluded spot by a beach. I just sat there and read a book as I heard the waves roll in and the occasional car speed by. Want to go on a trip with some friends? Buy a couple extra copies and meet up online. Best part is that this game is about a year old, so you can find it pretty cheap online.
Test Drive Unlimited (PC, PS3, Xbox 360). Travel Costs (besides hardware / home theater): About $20

Go South of the Border

Just Cause: A little fun--and a couple of gun fights--in the Latin sun.
South America is beautiful this time of year, so get down to some exotic locales. Over 250,000 lush acres are simulated in this huge, open environment. When you aren't shooting down drug dealers, you have a lot of ways to get around and see the sights: paragliding, sky diving, jetskiing and base-jumping to name a few. How much will this spicy getaway run you? Not a whole lot. Like Test Drive Unlimited, the Just Cause game is a little  older, so a quick online search should find a copy for cheap.
Just Cause (PC, PS2, Xbox 360). Travel Costs (besides hardware / home theater): About $15

New Yawk, New Yawk

Grand Theft Auto's take on NYC may seem a little dark, but there is a whole city to explore.
Ah, "The City." Day or night, there is always someplace to go and something to do. Walking through the park during the day and hitting clubs at night is the least of your choices. Play darts in a dingy club. Shoot pool, go bowling, do some shopping in midtown--what, you thought Grand Theft Auto IV was just about sex, drugs, and carjacking? GTA's Liberty City is a dark reflection of New York, and the attention to detail is just scary. I can insert a disc and drive to the corner in "Manhattan" where my apartment should exist.
Grand Theft Auto IV (PS3, Xbox 360). Travel Costs (besides hardware / home theater): $60

European Tour

Gran Turismo 5: Prologue is a pricey teaser for the final release next year.
As much as I want to cruise the Italian countryside or blast past traffic on the autobahn, it just ain't happening this summer. At least not in "meatspace." PS3 owners can not only get a taste of foreign lands, but a sampling of what Gran Turismo 5 will be like when it drives to stores in 2009 with Gran Turismo 5: Prologue. Of the six race tracks in the game, a couple camp you in beautifully recreated city streets. While beautiful and fun to drive, this is a pricey teaser for the final game. Is it worth the trip? Well, considering the exchange rate, it's a whole lot cheaper. (Don't own a PS3? Project Gotham Racing 4 for the Xbox 360 is another good globe-trotting, international driving fix.)
Gran Turismo 5: Prologue (PS3). Travel Costs (besides hardware / home theater): $40

Game Breaker

Even blood elves in World of Warcraft need a little time off during the summer.
But the most important thing to do, finally, is to take a vacation from playing games as well as from work this summer. Forget Azeroth for five minutes. Ditch downtown demon-busting-land one afternoon. Slather on some SPF 800 and discover your neighborhood. You know, that place you drive through on the way to work. Enjoy life and spend some quality time living it. I will...eventually.

Senior Writer Darren Gladstone geeks out over gadgets, games, and odd uses for humdrum tech. In other words, he's a nerd--and he's okay with that.

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