Why So Many Open-World Next-Gen Games?

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If last year’s E3 trend was boats (and bows), this year’s seems to be open world games. It seems like half the games shown for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are open world or take place in open-ended environments.

Metal Gear Solid V and Dead Rising 3 are going to be open-world. So are massively multiplayer shooters The Division and Destiny. We’ve of course already seen this from Watch_Dogs. Ubisoft’s and EA’s racing games The Crew and Need For Speed Rivals respectively are also open-world. The Witcher 3 is going to be a Skyrim-style open-world RPG and BioWare suggests they’re doing the same thing with Dragon Age III. Killzone Shadow Fall and Battlefield 4 are also trying to have more open-ended environments in their singleplayer campaigns. Like most things, whether that’s good or bad depends on how it’s handled.

Concerning Metal Gear, “open-world” is actually what Kojima has been promising pretty much ever since the original 1987 MSX game. The general structure of all the games leading up to Metal Gear Solid 3 basically consists of Snake getting dropped into a world and then running back and forth slowly gathering equipment and defeating bosses. Who knows, maybe MGSV will be the actual culmination of this idea on a larger scale if the trailer is anything to go by.

Battlefield and especially Killzone seem to be taking the open-world approach in a method somewhat resembling the first Crysis — a move I’ve been waiting for. Being simply thrown into a level and left to complete objectives however I like feels much more dynamic and mentally stimulating than running down a hallway. In the case of Battlefield this may be a case of DICE applying its multiplayer’s strengths to its singleplayer in an attempt to bridge the quality gap between its campaigns and Call of Duty’s while also differentiating itself from that franchise.

I’ve already seen more than one person speculate that this could lead to less clever level design and more bland environments. These people might cite sandbox games of the past decade like Assassin’s Creed with its homogenous streets and rooftops. Others may point out criticisms laid upon Skyrim like simplistic quest design or an over-reliance on fast travel.

CD Projekt Red has already put effort into expressing the care its taking in creating an open-world RPG. Those guys point out flaws they saw in Skyrim and even reference relatively obscure games like Gothic 2 which apparently got some praise for how it handled that design aspect. All we’ve heard from BioWare in this area is that it’s after the Skyrim audience.

I’m starting to think that hardware may be the reason behind the new prevalence of open-world games as well as the nature of existing open-world games on consoles.

To me it’s always seemed like a lot of open-world console games have had to sacrifice something compared to linear games. Most of the time it’s graphics quality from having to render so much simultaneously (Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed). A lot of the time the result just seems to be an overall simplicity in game mechanics compared to linear games. Whatever the reason, most sandbox and open-world games on consoles seem to look less polished or paint their mechanics with broader strokes compared to similar gameplay in linear games.

Meanwhile this doesn’t happen as much with PC-exclusive games, even going back over a decade. When the original PC Deus Ex was ported to the PS2, I heard that version ended up having additional loading screens because the PS2 couldn’t handle the game’s relatively large environments. The first Far Cry was never released on consoles in its original form — only chopped0-down versions for the Xbox, Wii, and later Xbox 360 (the true original version is finally coming to 360 this year). The original Crysis — a game with open-ended levels more intricate and denser than those of any open-world console game, didn’t come out on consoles until Crytek ported it to a new version of their engine years after its PC release. Its console-focused sequels were decidedly more linear.

More recently the STALKER games are often held up as incredibly dynamic open-world shooters, but never came out on consoles (people called Far Cry 2 a console-friendly version of STALKER). ArmA II is a PC-exclusive military game with massive landscapes and dynamic battles involving hundreds of NPCs the likes of which has never been seen on a console.

I’ve speculated that bigger and better open worlds is probably going to be one of the main gameplay advancements we’ll see as a result of the PS4 and Xbox One. Many developers are championing the extra RAM, which was indeed cited as an obstacle in many of the aforementioned cases. It seems to be one of the best ways for developers to make games that weren’t possible on previous consoles.

BULLETS:

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