2015 in Preview: Your Open World Is Boring

2015 in Preview: Your Open World Is Boring

Freedom alone does not a great game make. Here are four upcoming titles that could shake things up.

Here's an SAT question for you. DOOM clones:1995::________:2015

If you wrote "open world adventures," congratulations! You're either very smart, or else you read the headline of this piece. Either way, points for effort.

Open-world design has become the "it" thing in video games. Last year at E3, you couldn't swing a dead level-of-detail slider without smacking into a publisher's representative gushing breathlessly about their game's open world. As if it were a new innovation, blithely unaware, it seems, that every other blockbuster title of the show touting the exact same thing.

I won't lie, I love freedom in games. Open worlds can be incredibly rewarding, whether it's the satisfaction of exploring the nooks and crannies of Skyrim long before the plot directs me there, or just cruising along the shoreline in a hijacked speedboat in Grand Theft Auto V and soaking up the sights. I don't even need an expansive world to enjoy its liberating effects; I loved Fantasy Life despite its overall map being fairly limited in scale and often gated by essential story progression.

But that's OK, too. What I enjoy most about open worlds is the sense of versatility they create, not necessarily an infinite horizon to explore. The sense that I don't have to take a predetermined path to complete a game. When a game lays out an obvious, intended sequence of events for me to complete and then lets me go about it however I like — that's quality stuff. It shows the developers had enough respect for me to go to the trouble of designing and testing lots of variables, which is no small task.

An open world in and of itself, however, does not a great game make. Assassin's Creed: Unity reminded me of that this past fall — I loved the aesthetic of the game, the colorful and lively slice of revolutionary Paris, but the world itself consisted of repetitive boxes with nothing to offer but a checklist of collectible and missions to check out. There was no sense of discovery, since everything was laid out on the map for me, and once I'd pilfered my way through a particular district it no longer had an iota of interest for me. Not even as a bit of ground to traverse between points A and B, thanks to fast travel. In Unity, you pillage and then forget, maybe stopping every now and then to snap a screenshot of a particularly impressive sunset from atop Notre Dame, but rushing to your next map marker with little need or reason to stop and appreciate the world itself.

The preponderance of open-world games on their way this year, I suspect, will serve as a grim reminder that this form of game design is every bit as prone to flaws and boredom as any other. Open worlds definitely make a good first impression — the sense that, wow, I can go anywhere and do anything! There's so much to this game! — but sustaining that initial shock takes effort. Rockstar sinks hundreds of millions of dollars and god even knows how many man-hours into building its virtual Liberty Cities and San Andreases, crafting its clockworld worlds over the course of years Ubisoft stamps out a new Assassin's Creed from the assembly line every year (or, as with 2014, two new Assassin's Creeds), and the disparity between GTAV's Los Santos and Unity's Paris shows once you spend more than an hour in each world. Los Santos feels like a living place that its protagonists inhabit; Paris feels like a theme park that you drift through but never interact with.

I suspect this year's enormous slate of open-world games will fall more into line with Paris than Los Santos. Beautiful, perhaps, but empty. Soulless. After all, creating a breathing, living world requires money, something Rockstar has more of than just about anyone. It's hard to compete with that sort of funding.

Freedom and scale are all well and good, but there's something to be said for smaller, denser, more carefully sculpted game worlds. Take the Mario games. For a while there, it looked like Mario was going to go full open-world with Super Mario 64 and then Super Mario Sunshine. But people complained that Sunshine was too tedious, boring, and sloppily designed; so Nintendo EAD Tokyo scaled down the level designs of its sequel, Mario Galaxy, while creating a vast cosmic illusion to surround the more compact and self-contained stages of that game. And people loved it. By rendering immensity as mere window dressing and focusing on smaller, more tightly designed stages, Super Mario Galaxy abandoned none of the previous games' majesty while simultaneously restoring the best-in-class level design that propelled the 2D Mario games to the front of the industry.

Something tells me that once the perils of open-world design rear their ugly head — possibly as a result of the current lemming rush toward homogeneity! — we'll see a move back toward smaller-scale game worlds. For the moment, though, everyone's going big. With so many developers cutting their work from the same cloth, that means open-world games need a little something special to stand out this year. Currently, I have my eye on four (presumed) 2015 releases that add a little something extra to the mix. If these games can't shake things up and keep open-world design from degenerating into a plodding checklist of tasks to complete, we really are in trouble.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

What is it? The latest entry in the Metal Gear Solid series — the proper one, not the expensive paid demo that was last year's Ground Zeroes. The big thing about this sequel (well, prequel) is that it's gone open world, offering an environment that's several hundred times larger than all previous Metal Gears put together, and combining this immensity with the base-building mechanic of Peace Walker.

What makes it so promising? We've seen stealth and open worlds unite before, especially in Assassin's Creed. What makes Metal Gear different, though, is that it's still very much about the particulars of gameplay. Assassin's Creed tends to let you breeze through the action, with a few simple button combinations that let you perform nearly any action based on context. Metal Gear remains pretty much old-school, demanding more rigorous discipline and meticulous attention to avoid blowing a mission.

On top of that, The Phantom Pain adheres to the series' tradition of offering countless ways to work around a single problem. The dynamic tactics of Metal Gear Solid 3 — The Phantom Pain's spiritual predecessor — appear to be on full display here. During his Tokyo Game Show 2014 stage presentation, producer Hideo Kojima showed off a ridiculous variety of combat options ranging from a computer-controlled spotter who could snipe enemies to goofy inflatable decoys resembling protagonist Big Boss.

What pitfalls does it face? Stealth game design requires, well, design. Enemy lines-of-sight, safety zones, opportunities for evasion... all of these things factor heavily into effective and fun stealth gameplay. Most open worlds feel heavily copy-and-pasted or else procedurally generated, but to play effectively The Phantom Pain demands a more deliberately crafted world. Knowing what a control freak Kojima can be, this probably isn't a major concern, but it's definitely an important factor.

Batman: Arkham Knight

What is it? The conclusion of the Arkham trilogy. No, apparently Arkham Origins doesn't count.

What makes it so promising? We've watched as the Arkham games have grown ever more ambitious in their rendition of Gotham City, from the claustrophobic corridors of Arkham Asylum to the full-on open enormousness of Arkham Origins. Arkham Knight aims to raise the stakes even higher by integrating the Batmobile into the mix.

Not that vehicles are something new to open-world games — you have played GTA, right? — but the Batmobile makes Arkham Knight feel different from any other game I've experienced. It's not some replaceable, crash-it-and-hijack-a-new-one hot rod but rather an essential part of Batman's arsenal. The tricks it offers, from its ejector seat to its remote-control device, greatly expand the player's available options at any moment and play a huge part in the puzzle-like design of story sequences. Moving into and out of the Batmobile changes the scale of the adventure, but even when Batman is on foot, his ride is always a part of the action.

What pitfalls does it face? As the fourth Arkham game in six years, this series' gimmick could be wearing thin. Everyone else has been doing all of Arkham's trademark elements — especially the fluid, reactive combat — better than Batman of late. How tragic would it be if Arkham Knight were overshadowed by its own WBIE-published sibling Shadow of Mordor?

Xenoblade Chronicles

What is it? A portable conversion of the beloved Wii RPG, running exclusively on the New 3DS. Not, unfortunately, the old 3DS. (This hasn't been announced for a firm 2015 release, but the sequel is slated for next year, so they're probably going to want to ship this one before then.)

What makes it so promising? It's a vast, console-scale, open-world RPG on a handheld system. That's phenomenal. Such things have been promised for years — remember how there was supposed to be an Elder Scrolls on PSP? — but they've proven tragically elusive. The bottlenecks and limitations of handheld systems don't play well with the needs of free-roaming exploration across endless vistas. And here's Xenoblade, which pushed the limits of the Wii, promised for a portable device. If Monolith and Nintendo can pull this off, it'll be an experience like no other.

What pitfalls does it face? Can Monolith actually pull it off? That's the question. And will it impress when scaled down from the Wii's true resolution of 640x480 to the 3DS's true resolution of 400x240? A big part of immersion in an open-world game is the ability to look out at the horizon and see tiny details in the distance... something you probably won't be doing on 3DS, New or otherwise. But even if this flops, there's always Xenoblade Chronicles X in 2016...

The Division

What is it? Another of Ubisoft's open-world games, but this one has a difference: It's centered entirely around cooperative play.

What makes it so promising? While The Division adheres to Ubisoft's increasingly familiar "take possession of key points in an open world and make them yours" formula, it attempts to raise the stakes. Set in a post-apocalyptic, near-future New York, teams of players band together to claim territory from marauders, capturing not only essential control points in the city but also vital goods like ammunition caches and computer systems. Between the cooperative play design and the push-and-pull struggle to retain control of the city, The Division looks to be the shakeup the company's factory process desperately needs.

What pitfalls does it face? Can The Division's team overcome the humdrum tendencies of Ubisoft's formula? It looks great in the limited demos we've seen, but the real proof is in how well the overall experience fits together.

The-Probably-Not-2015 Honorable Mention Department

This one won't be showing up this year, but I have my eye on it regardless...

The Legend of Zelda (Wii U)

What is it? The next chapter in The Legend of Zelda series. Or maybe a reboot. Who knows! It looks great.

What makes it so promising? Unlike the Mario games, Zelda has always been about exploration and freedom. The original Zelda for NES imposed very few limitations on where players could travel from the outset — if you could survive the nasty territory to the north, you could hit Death Mountain from the very beginning.

But since A Link to the Past, the Zelda games have taken a more intricate, puzzle-like world design... which isn't bad (in fact, it's often very good), but it does leave one wanting for a Zelda adventure that recaptures the spirit of the original. Wind Waker had a bit of it, though sailing on the open sea can grow a bit wearying for some, and occasionally you'll see nods to it (remember how vast Hyrule Field felt the first time you played Ocarina of Time?). But with the Wii U iteration, the series at last returns to its grand, epic roots....

What pitfalls does it face? ...or that's the promise, anyway. Unfortunately, Nintendo can't really seem to rid itself of that compulsion to chatter didactically at players. And there's nothing worse than an open world that you can't explore because you're stuck dealing with compulsory tutorials. Here's hoping this Zelda restores the sense of discovery all around.

In other words, ditch the tutorials, dudes.

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