Yesterday, Ubisoft announced that the latest Far Cry will be eschewing guns and vehicles for hunting mammoths with spears. It's a cool idea; and interestingly enough, part of what has become a very common trend.
In the past year alone, Witcher 3 has won critical acclaim for its intense monster hunts, Horizon: Zero Dawn has earned multiple Game of the Show nods at E3 for its incredible looking robot dinosaur battles), and Evolve... well, Evolve exists. Now we have Far Cry Primal, which puts you in the role of a prehistoric tribe. Given all that, I think it's fair to say that hunting games are very much a thing. So why is chasing monsters to stab them so popular all of the sudden?
It's tempting to call out Monster Hunter, and I certainly think that it's a factor. Capcom has been doing this formula successfuly for years over in Japan, and it was only a matter of time before a western studio latched onto the formula and ran with it. But you'll notice that none of these games are actually Monster Hunter games in the traditional sense of the word. With the exception of Evolve, they are open-world games with hunting elements tacked on.
Hunting is a natural fit for games like these. Open world games have long been characterized by their aimlessness, encouraging players to just do whatever they want without worrying too much about having an overall direction. Until recently, for example, the missions were always the worst part about Grand Theft Auto. It's always been much more fun to fly around with jetpack or do things like this.
As open world games have ascended to become the equivalent of gaming's Oscar bait, though, designers have naturally had to think about what they actually want their players to do in these beautiful worlds. Hunts are the perfect answer. They give players one big lumbering objective to target; and done properly, killing a particular monster can become a sidequest in itself. Witness The Witcher 3, where a typical hunt requires that you first research the monster, then gather the proper materials to actually fight the thing, then finally battle and finish it off. The quests practically write themselves.
Hunts also fit perfectly into an open world setting. I've said before that the open world genre is a perfect fit for Metal Gear Solid because it gives the mechanics room to express themselves. The same can be said for a game where you're hunting for monster. Give a player a lot of options for taking down a monster, and they'll find all kinds of interesting ways to take it down. If nothing else, they make for great fodder for Youtube or Twitch.
Finally, a well-designed hunt makes for a terrific spectacle that feels more organic and less forced than in other games. I think of the dragons in Skyrim, which will terrorize villages and draws NPCs to attack them as they circle high overhead and scare the hell out of everyone. That's the sort of setpiece that you can only have an in an open world game. And as Shadow of the Colossus demonstrated many years ago, there's nothing quite like making players feel tiny as they battle gigantic monsters. Put them next to one of Horizon's robot dinosaurs or Far Cry Primal's mammoths and watch as they gape in wonder.
More than ever, Triple-A games are this industry's summer blockbusters, leaning heavily on spectacle to sell customers on the idea of shelling out $60 for a game on a disc when they could just be playing on their mobile device. And nothing says "spectacle" like asking a player to play cat-and-mouse with a sabertooth tiger.
The Thrill of the Hunt
To be clear, I really like these sorts of experiences. Whether it's assassinating people or chasing animals, there's something thrilling about stalking and defeating a dangerous foe. As a hunter-gatherer species, it's embedded in our genetic code. It's why we played hide and seek growing up, and it's why people find it fun to sit in the woods and shoot at deer.
From a gaming standpoint, it only makes sense that big hunts are becoming a bigger part of open world games, particularly with the technology being where it is. We're now at the point where you can have some truly awesome and dynamic battles with very smart monsters. Given the natural spectacle of hunting a huge beast, it's not surprising that they typically feature heavily in E3 presentations like this one.
Going forward, I fully expect this type of gameplay to be a major feature of open world games, and not just because Far Cry was starting to get stale and was in need of a major refresh. It just makes too much sense for Triple-A open world games right now.
So get used to trailers like the one for Far Cry Primal. There will undoubtedly be more where that came from in the near future.