As technology advances, developers have the tools to make games bigger and better than ever before. Titles like the upcoming The Last of Us 2 or last year’s Forza Horizon 3 look stunning and make the action all the more believable, but while an improvement in visuals can never really be a bad thing, the current open-world trend certainly can.
When they’re done right, open worlds offer a ton of extra content, both in stature and by merely letting you discover tucked-away areas or items. Other games even put their grand size at the very heart of the experience. No Man’s Sky, for example, would have worn out its already short-lived welcome far faster had you been forced to explore a set route of planets in a particular order. It’s a liberation that more linear games struggle to match.
At least, that’s the case if an open world is done well.
When they’re not, you get something like last year’s ReCore. In my review, I actually quite enjoyed the combat and platforming of its main ‘dungeons’, but largely found its sand-shifting open world far too cumbersome and boring. Aside from a few bits of currency, some collectibles, and a sparse scattering of enemies, there was nothing for players to do. I’d simply head straight to the next main mission, or check out a challenge dungeon on the way. I wasn’t seeing cool stuff to investigate. In fact, I wasn’t seeing much other than a couple of ruined pillars and a sea of sand.
Had ReCore adopted a linear approach to mission structure, with cutscenes replacing the laborious traversal of its open world, it could have gone a long way to righting its criticisms. It would have been a shorter experience, without all of the tedious backtracking (only made worse by the awful load times). Heck, a Ratchet & Clank-style mission structure would have been a great fit for ReCore, with multiple, separate areas to explore as part of a particular mission. It conveys the sense of choice, without leaving you any boring patches of nothingness to wade through. The point is, ReCore didn’t need to be an open-world experience, and that’s part of the problem.
This belief that bigger is better when it comes to game worlds can be a damaging one. Dense worlds like Fallout 4’s Commonwealth or The Witcher 3’s Northern Kingdoms can keep players enthralled for hours on end, filling their zones with quests, characters, and lore. But it’s not the sheer scale that allows this. It’s the way the environment is used, regardless of its size.
While not entirely linear, the BioShock series was far from open-world, yet still feels loaded with discoveries to be made. Each area of Rapture or Columbia is scattered with nods to and details of its history. You came away feeling like you’d visited a museum on the place. Despite its size or level restrictions, the world feels lived-in, a quality even vast games like Mafia III struggle to achieve.
Mafia III had all the potential to create an atmospheric and realized open world. It aimed to tackle a culturally turbulent time period in American history, and base New Bordeaux (a fictional New Orleans) as a hotspot for these tensions. Yet, it still lacked the kind of realized polish or technical capabilities that would have it standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of GTA V or The Witcher 3.
New Bordeaux definitely had some noticeable moments as you walked down the street, but there was never enough to make the open world feel warranted. Traveling for 20 minutes across the map for a side mission didn’t lead to easter eggs or hidden stories. Just endless stretches of road that gave you far too much time to notice the game’s lighting issues. NPC interactions were excellent, highlighting the racial tension of the time and really bringing a thought-provoking atmosphere, but they were spread too thin to support such a large space. Its roots in ’60s American history didn’t reach its farthest stretches, leaving its world feeling far too generic and a lot of potential left untapped.
Incorporating an open world is a double-edged sword. Fill it with exciting, varied content and cool things to see and it can truly enhance the experience as a whole. Fail to do so, and the result is a bland, too-large box merely containing the rest of the game. With a handful of major open-world titles on the horizon, let’s hope the mistakes of recent year’s don’t go unheeded.