ImRage: Dissecting Open-World Games
What makes them… and what ruins them?
After finishing Assassin’s Creed III, I have to say I’m really disappointed. The criticisms of it, I’ll leave to other writers so what I’d like to focus on today is its sandbox element. Just a quick refresher on what exactly I mean by ‘sandbox’ or ‘open-world’ game; in contrast to your linear game, which consists of a sequence of levels that you navigate from start to finish, a sandbox game typically throws you into some kind of large environment (like a city) which you can traverse at your leisure and complete missions in. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed and Crysis are notable entries in the genre as well as RPGs like Skyrim and Fallout. Today I’m going to take a look at some of their components and which games manage to execute them well… and which don’t.
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Arguably the make or break of a sandbox game is how entertaining the sandbox itself is. The mark of a good open-world experience is that you always find yourself with things to do but, more importantly, that you actually want to do them. A great example of this would be Skyrim in which the main quest just kind of gets forgotten because of how interesting the side quests are. A terrible example of this would be inFamous in which the side quests are just monotonous and repetitive objectives like ‘kill this many dudes’ or ‘follow this guy for 5 minutes’.
This aspect in sandbox games tends to manifest in the form of side quests, optional objectives and collectibles and sadly this is where many games get it wrong. It’s not fun to collect 500 flags or repeat the same fetch quests ad nauseum for NPCs you couldn’t care less about. The best sandbox games spice their side quests up with variety or use them to introduce new characters or plot threads; they use them to flesh out the world and add more to the experience. In a great sandbox game, the optional parts are as crucial to the experience as the main story. In a bad one, they’re easily forgotten about.
Winners: Skryim, Borderlands, Batman: Arkham City
Losers: inFamous, Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man games
An aspect that can take the sandbox experience to another level is how the world reacts to the actions of the player. As is usual in these games, you’re some kind of important character and you want to feel like a driving force in the game world. For instance, in GTA the world gives you a strong indication of the impact you’re making and even reacts directly to the trouble you cause with the Wanted Level System. On the other hand, a poor example is perhaps L.A. Noire in which you wonder at times if you even matter to the game world at all.
The reason why this aspect is so important is because an open world game is about creating your own experiences and being a catalyst for change in the game world. You want to know that your actions have consequences and the good games personalize this to the point where you’ll hear about your exploits on the radio or be liked or disliked by other characters for the decisions that you’ve made. The worst thing that can happen in a sandbox game is for you to be the character that saved the world (or condemned it) and to feel like no one could be bothered for it.
Winners: Grand Theft Auto, Prototype, Fallout 3
Losers: L.A. Noire, Skyrim, Dark Souls
World Size & Getting Around the Place
Open-World games, as the name implies, often take place in large open environments, usually a city or geographical region. Exploring the world is meant to be part of the appeal but when you have no convenient way to get to where you want to go, it can quickly turn sour. A bad example of this is inFamous again and the painful amount of effort it requires to get from one end of the city to the other (he’s a bike messenger, why can’t he have a bike?). A better example is Prototype in which you can run at high speeds, scale buildings and fly allowing you to get from point A to point B as easily as possible but also have fun while you do it.
When the game doesn’t allow for magical superpowers like flight or webbing then sandbox games often turn to vehicles or platforming to make this part of the game more pleasant. Having a fast travel system is a useful cop-out when the world is massive but sometimes it does defeat the purpose of having such a big world to begin with. A great sandbox game has a world that’s big enough to keep exploring fresh, small enough so that you can become comfortable with it and gives you an effective and pleasant way to travel. A bad one frustrates you with the simple task of getting around.
Winners: Prototype, Spider-Man games, Batman: Arkham City
Losers: inFamous, Assassin’s Creed, Dragon’s Dogma
Resources & Territory
When I see this aspect of Open World games emphasized, I’m often puzzled at its inclusion. Many sandbox games include some kind of ‘take over the city‘ theme and while it may have been fresh the first time it was used, it really has become a dry and boring go-to mechanic used by many games to add more missions. In general though, managing your resources in an Open-World game can either be very fun or very tedious and the bottom line is that it needs to add options to your game rather than annoyances.
A game where territory control and resource management is executed extremely well is The Godfather II. You can use your soldiers to capture or defend bases and accompany you on missions, leaving you to focus on what you really want to do. The same can’t be said about Assassin’s Creed however and having my bases repeatedly attacked in Revelations led me to just abandon them entirely so that I wouldn’t have to go through that god-awful tower defense mini-game. Oh and constantly repairing your houses in Fable, bowling with your cousins in GTA or selling wood in ACIII isn’t fun either. The key? Remember that the game is a sandbox, not a management sim. If resource management absolutely needs to be in there it should be painless, automated or at the very least, the game needs to give you the tools to make it fun.
Winners: Saints Row, Godfather II, The Saboteur
Losers: Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Fable 3
Is Open-World Justified?
I suppose that the last question that needs to be asked to determine whether or not a title is a good Open-World game is, “Should it be Open-World to begin with?” Sometimes its not that easy to answer. I’ve slated inFamous I and II a lot in this column for having many poor sandbox elements but they really are fantastic games with fantastic stories; they just might have been better off being linear. But then a game like Skyrim just wouldn’t be able to exist if there wasn’t a large open province that you had the freedom to explore and affect change in at your whim.
The appeal of an Open-World game is usually to be the main character in your own story or, at the very least, to have some kind of influence on the world itself. Even if you can’t have that, you at least want the luxury being able to approach objectives in the way you want to. A game like L.A. Noire, as classy as it is, isn’t your story; it’s Cole Phelp’s story and, no matter what you do, it’s only going to pan out in one specific way. In contrast, Red Dead Redemption might be John Marston’s story but you can still enjoy it the way you want to. A great Open-World game is only Open-World because it needs to be. Because, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t live up to its potential.
Winners: Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3
Losers: inFamous, L.A. Noire, Viking: Battle for Asgard
I hope this article has given you a bit of insight into the many aspects of a very popular genre of games nowadays. By no means are these all-encompassing and there really is a lot more that makes or breaks a truly excellent Open-World experience. In the end though, it’s really quite simple; a truly excellent Open-World experience creates a living place that you’d love to get lost in. And a bad one doesn’t… that’s all there is to it.
See you in two week’s time…