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Is 2011 The Year Of Game World Exploration?

A Good Year For Open Worlds

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This year has been unusually rich in the kind of game that I most enjoy: those that are open-ended, or provide a sandbox world for me to mess about in. We usually get a couple of these every year, but in 2011 we seem to have run into a minor bounty of the open stuff, which is good news for explorers and meanderers alike. I’ve gone into a bit more detail about why this pleases me below.

INTRODUCTORY RAMBLINGS

Open worlds and sandboxes are not the same thing, of course. They do, however, overlap on a Venn diagram that you can imagine if you try. Essentially, open worlds are those games whose entire game is contained with a wider, freely-explorable container-world, while sandboxes are simply games that provide you with the tools you need in a certain place, and let you get on with things. Where the lines blur between these two modes of doing things, we get (I would argue) the most interesting games. Let’s take a look at some of those.


The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Let’s get this one out of the way, eh? The fifth Elder Scrolls game is probably the most interesting open world game of 2011, if simply thanks to the scale of its terrain, the visual splendour with which it is delivered and the sheer amount of content that the Bethesda team have put in there. It’s worth noting that this is actually a smaller game are that Fallout 3 (I believe) but it has more locations, and far more random encounters. Sure, they repeat, but the diversity of Skyrim’s world is what has made exploration and general galloping about so pleasurable.

EXPLORATION RATING: 9/10


Saint’s Row The Third

SR3 gets the toys part right – there’s tonnes of mad stuff for you to use on the streets of its city – but it’s a bit of a shame that the city itself is both bland and repetitive. There’s little reason to explore outside of the quest chain, aside from collectibles. Still, at least with the various vehicles getting about the game is lunatic fun. It’s sort of a direct antidote to Skyrim’s austere wilderness-wandering.

EXPLORATION RATING: 3/10


Batman: Arkham City

Arkham City might not be obviously one for the explorers – it’s not that big or varied – but in terms of life and intricacy, and the tools to explore it, there’s not really been anything better this year. It’s a game that delivers its world so naturally that taking to the rooftops is immediate and perfect. You are never inclined to become a pedestrian, and instead grapple and zipline your way across a gothic horizon with true zeal. There are a few interesting things to find, and scattered collectibles, but really Arkham City is just we great way to contain all the individual missions.

EXPLORATION RATING: 5/10


Rage

Surprising, really. I mean it is, essentially, a linear shooter, but there’s some freedom there – although not enough, as I explained here – in the two wastelands which contain the settlements and the dungeons. I wished it was more open and more alive, of course, with more reason to explore, but it was nevertheless a lovely structure for a shooter. Imagine if the Battlefield 3 campaign had been set on an actual battlefield and you’d had to pootle about between the lines and bases to get it all sorted. MUCH more interesting.

EXPLORATION RATING: 2/10


Dead Island

Dead Island’s introductory path might keep you fairly hemmed in, but once this game opens up it /really/ opens up. Like a number of games on this list it unlocks in stages, of course, so freedom is constrained throughout, but exploration is essential if you’re going to find the resources you require to make a mess of the armies of zombies. It’s also a fascinatingly detailed location to spend your time exploring.

EXPLORATION RATING: 7/10


Dead Rising 2

Speaking of making a mess of zombies, Dead Rising 2’s world was built for one purpose in mind. What a shame, however, that it really wasn’t that interesting a world. If there was a reason to explore, then it was to find more bits for your zombie eviscerating development.

EXPLORATION RATING: 5/10


Proteus EP

Proteus! I almost forgot about this. I suppose it’s not officially out, but the musical world is one of the most charming experiences I’ve had in indie gaming of late. The whole point of the game is to see what is out there, and explore the audio-visual consequences of your moving about in the world. Definitely worth a look if you like to wander in imaginary spaces.

EXPLORATION RATING: 7/10


LA Noire

LA Noire is an odd one. I have to admit that enjoyed responding to emergencies across the city, and chasing dudes, and ultimately shooting them, but it was also strange that the game wasn’t more about that. With all its focus on hunting for clues and interrogating minor Hollywood actors, it was almost as if they’d forgotten to make use of the meticulously crafted 1940s Los Angeles that the team had created. I love that the game made use of Rockstar’s technologies, of course, but it perhaps wasn’t the best use of it, and really doesn’t do enough to reward exploration.

EXPLORATION RATING: 4/10


Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

Probably the best of the Assassin’s Creed games, and the least constrained, there’s really no arguing against the meticulousness of Ubisoft’s open world creation. If only Ubi would learn to be even more hands-off, worry less about plot, and let us get on with messing about in their worlds, and they’d end up being the masters of the form.

EXPLORATION RATING: 6/10


Fable III

I’ve not had a chance to play this, so I can’t really comment on the exploriness of it, but I do think that idea of putting the whole realm under your influence – what with you being king and everything – is one that could bear repeating and further developing in future games. Anyone have any opinions on this one?

EXPLORATION RATING: ?/10


Driver: San Francisco

The bizarre body-hopping plot device of the most recent Driver is certainly interesting, but sadly the real-world location and limited scope for where you are allowed to go means this doesn’t rank highly on our explorometer. You can really only drive about along a certain set of roads, and that’s that.

EXPLORATION RATING: 2/10


Minecraft

This was our game of 2010, but it should still get an obligatory mention. Exploring is, in Minecraft’s eminent, procedural, sandbox world, pretty much the most important thing you can do. And now it’s officially finished, too. Long live freedom!

EXPLORATION RATING: 10/10


Anno 2070

This is what made me write this article in the first place, actually. It’s not really an open world game as such, but with your ship exploring the maps, and you ability to colonise across the archipelagos, it’s something like an open-world strategy game. Which leads me to ask: Where are the open world games that play with ideas about genre? Eh? Surely there must be more than this. And if not, why not?

It strikes me that open-world techniques could and will be applied to a whole bunch of games we haven’t seen before in a way that RPG mechanics have found themselves pollinated through other game types. We’ve got an open world puzzle game being developed by Jon Blow with The Witness, and there’s an open RTS being developed with Kenshi, but I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg of developmental possibility…

EXPLORATION RATING: 2/10

IN CONCLUSION

I’ve probably missed something significant here, and you can obviously argue that Deus Ex and The Witcher 2 are pretty freeform and exploratory in their play, but they break my arbitrary rules by not having an overall container-world for you to go back and forth in.

Anyway! I think the important lesson here is that more and more games are benefiting from allowing us some freedom. The trick, I think, is that these kinds of games give themselves an immediate advantage over linear games being motivated by the player. Linear games only really work as long as the forward momentum is kept up, but when the world is open, the pace and direction can change, and the player knows that’s their responsibility. If the story isn’t going forward it’s because you spent the past three hours looking at mushrooms. And you did that. Agency!

In fact it almost doesn’t matter how superficial the “life” or general detailing of the open world is, so long as we have some reasons to mess about in it. The games which provide us with great toys to use in the world, while also making that open world interesting to explore, are the games which I think contain a taste of the most interesting possible future of game design. Linearity might continue to dominate, but I think its grip is weakening. And good thing too.

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