A few days ago, discussing WoFF with some work colleagues, it became apparent that I had very little faith in modern, so-called “western” RPGs. I’d just written a review about World of Final Fantasy which attacked the nature of open-world gaming in a light-hearted manner but it dawned on me that I meant every word.
It is difficult to argue with the success of some open world franchises, the GTA series is considered legendary. Whilst it may not be to my taste to play, I do believe that GTA4 and GTA5 are perhaps the most complicated and thoroughly well constructed pieces of software to date. The attention to detail is staggering. Someone has to carefully create and correlate hundreds of hours “background noise” such as the entertaining radio channels, the artwork in the posters to the vocal reactions of the NPCs in the street. Not a single line of code here, but this detail is what makes the game immersive. Additionally, its funny, challenging and does “sandbox” the right way – bored of the campaign? Do what you want! It’s OK, go for it! We won’t punish you for your deviance, we may even reward you!
Conversely, open world implemented poorly is downright dull. Perhaps controversially, consider Assassins Creed: Syndicate. I’ve played the first 30 hours or so of this. It started off great, I was being instructed on how to play the game. A contrived scenario was delivered to me to ensure I understood the nuances of what is quite a complex playing mechanic. I was impressed when the end of this scenario opened up the entirety of London as the setting for the rest of the game. At this point the game just went – “There’s our big thing, impressive huh? Right go to that dot on the map” And sadly, it’s all a bit downhill from there. The constrained stealthy missions are fun – I particularly enjoyed infiltrating the hospital to meet Florence Nightingale, but the bulk of the rest of the game is go to the dot. Kill the red dots. Go to the next dot. Cut Scene you wont understand. Go to the next dot. Kill the red dots. Chase the red dot… and so forth. ACs downfall is that its open world is very pretty and expansive, but really lacking any depth. It all looks a bit similar, the characters are “historical celebrities” and so feel unoriginal, the combat is sluggish/too hard/too simple, and sadly you’re left simply filling progress bars whilst being bewildered by a fragmented narrative. And shamefully (tut tut tut) you can pay to fill those progress bars quicker. Naughty given it’s a full price AAA title.
Batman: Arkham City, Arkham Knight, and Arkham Origins are equally large games, but they are bursting with detail. Sure these games too are about filling progress bars, but you don’t realize you’re doing it, and you are generally rewarded for doing so with abilities that allow you to progress, encouraging back tracking and littered with great plot and characters. These games too are about going to the dot on the map and doing something, but they generally engage you. The “predator modes” are polarizing, but present the player with the opportunity to do things their way, set their own goals. Can I kill them all silently? Can I kill them all quickly? Can I kill them using those new moves I unlocked? What will unlock next? Unlocking I suppose is a form of progress bar filling too, but it has much more substance. The “unlock” event is described by some significant change in your status. A change which has to be planned and crafted, therefore it must be deeper than merely “you now do more damage”, or your “wibble” count is now 100. A design team has envisaged a reward that forms part of the continuing gameplay experience.
Going back to Assassin’s Creed, growing the characters really makes no difference. Even if my number is lower than the target enemy’s, sneaking and silent killing is all it takes. Granted, this is more challenging is crowded areas, but once you find the rhythm, the mission is easy. I don’t like the way they rub numbers in your face either. Everything is percentage this, and level that. I don’t need the game to tell me how far through I am with it. That reminds me its a game, a fleeting experience that will end. You rarely see this is non-open world games. Did Uncharted (any of them) tell you a percentage completed? No it didn’t. In fact Uncharted brilliantly marries together area transitions and modality switches, in such a way as to be invisible to the player. This is because a talented design team has poured much effort into crafting an enjoyable experience.
I think the lesson here is don’t let the player design the game for you. Sadly, this is a sign of things to come. Open world games are great for the production of DLC and the promotion of casual play, which consists of nothing more than a few unrelated mission scripts and a handful of assets. It’s a way the developers can print money. This goes hand-in-hand with creating a game that’s so large and shallow, that you can’t possibly complete it 100% without paying additional fees or dying of boredom. Along with a “we can patch it later, it’s just a script” attitude, open world games are really risking becoming the genre everybody loves to hate. Stop buying this crap. It’s your fault.