For the last 10 years or so it seems that Sandbox style games, games that allow little limitation on character and world, have become the forefront of gaming technical ability. Developers seem keen to make huge and vast worlds that let the player roam free to show off their development prowess. But regardless of how dense and beautiful an open world might be, if there is fuck all to do in it, is there a point?
I first want to make it clear that I love the sandbox genre, and I love open worlds. You only need to take a look at how well GTA V has done to see that, when it is done correctly, open world gaming can be monumentally impressive. The amount of extra curricular stuff you could do in GTA kept players traversing the sun kissed streets of San Andreas for years. Other games try to replicate the achievements of games like Grand Theft Auto but struggle in the face of more limited budgets, development cycles and smaller teams. One game that demonstrates this assertion to a degree is Mafia III. The game’s story content was superb and it tackled a setting and time period that lends itself brilliantly to the medium. A black, Vietnam war vet going toe-to-toe with rival Italian and African mobsters was a thing of beauty. The issue that held the game back was how it translated to an open-world format. If you strayed too far from the main story and engage in the additional world content it provided, you would find yourself repeating mundane activities within a few hours. But this is the curse of open world and I think that we need to address it. The visual aesthetics of an open world dwindle quickly when you find yourself thinking, is there a point in me driving down this street? Exploring this alleyway or cave? Now I get it, there will always be your diehards going and looking at all the pretty things but even a completionist will find it hard to travel across a map if there isn’t some worthwhile loot or secret lurking at the end of that proverbial rainbow.
But the problem lies herein. Developers don’t seem to really want to make that change and give quality over quantity. Only look at the lacklustre Ghost Recon Wildlands to see the death that can befall a game due to its vast, empty landscapes. Just Cause suffered from this also, until its best and strongest instalment in Just Cause 3.
MINOR SPOILER AHEAD
The reason I have come to such an opinion as of late, is that I have recently finished God of War, a game that not only delivers on visual supremacy, but also linear/semi-open world designs. This allowed for a focus on story and helped make the game feel more close knit and driven. I never found myself bored, and the open areas they created were not necessarily huge, but they were packed to the brim with Easter eggs and collectibles. Something God of War did cleverly as well was take you down a path, showing you the loot but making it inaccessible, creating a want to go back and unlock it as soon as you got the utility to do so. After unlocking the Blades of Chaos, and realising their unique ability to destroy tree of life roots, I recalled all the places I had seen them covering access to a chest I so desperately wanted. This not only gave me enough things to do as a half arsed completionist, it meant I went back to those areas and explored again and again.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is another great example of how a smaller, but filled open area can sometimes work better than open worlds. Chapter 10, and it’s expansive savanna like setting, did a great job of making the player feel like a real treasure hunter, all the while maintaining the linear story in reserve. Tomb Raider is another game that showcases how those pocketed environments become more interesting than a huge city of buildings I can’t enter.
Far Cry 5 had minor backlash from being too generic in its open world design and, even though it was visually superb, like most Far Cry games, it didn’t seem to shake up the formula from 4. So again, further reiterating, sometimes it isn’t even the amount of content, but the age old issue of variety.
However there is light at the end of the tunnel as developers bring new and exciting linear story based games to every platform, in the wake of the success of those mentioned above.