Is an open world map really all that good?

Recently I decided to sit down and play Far Cry 3 again. When it came out back in late 2012 I remember it being one of the best games I’d ever played. Sure there are some parts of the story I wished they’d focused on more, all in all it’s a fantastic game. But something bugged me back then that still does now, the open world. I started gaming just over 10 years ago in the midst of the PS2 generation of consoles. Most of my earliest gaming experiences were linear FPS games like the James Bond games, Timesplitters, Turok Evolution and of course the Halo series. I won’t lie, I’m a linear FPS guy at heart. But recently, even though I do enjoy some open world games like Skyrim and Fallout 3, I find it being crow-bared into games that do not necessarily suit it.

Far Cry 3’s Rook Island is an interesting setting with lots of history, one that is showcased in a handful of the main story missions quite effectively; yet outside of missions this history isn’t shown off very well. Between missions you are encouraged to “Explore”, but what is there to explore? It’s huge but there’s nothing but miles and miles of identical jungle with some annoying terrain thrown in for good measure. First of all, the entire map is jammed; there are radio tower climbing puzzles which, when completed, reveal the map. It’s a neat idea but it doesn’t work in practice. Getting to the towers can sometimes be an awkward and boring sidetrack around a steep hill trying to find the single dirt path that’ll lead you up towards it. What’s worse is that upon revealing the local map, the camera pans out and shows you some ‘interesting’ landmarks in the local area.

One tower took me a while to get to due to the aforementioned annoying hilly terrain, and once I had climbed to the top of it, the camera showed me three things: A cave, a small hut, and no joke, a table with some boxes on it.
So for once I decided to check them out. First, the hut. Nothing there but a bit of money that I could have looted from a couple of dead pirates. Then I checked out the table, again a pathetic amount of money and one of the
game’s pointless collectibles; you know, the kind that’s essentially just a number on a checklist, not adding any story or content. I figured the cave would be the biggest highlight of the area but I couldn’t find it. All the game had shown me was a cave mouth in an unbroken sea of green grass, ferns and palm trees. There were no discernable landmarks or anything I could use to find where this cave was. It was no big deal, since then I came across a couple of caves they weren’t that interesting at all.

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Despite having it’s fair share of nice vistas, most of Rook Island looks like this; miles and miles of trees and no discernible landmarks

 

There’s also a hunting/crafting system that seems to force you to spend more time in this open world than you’d like. early on in the game you’re urgently prompted to go and rescue one of your friends, However, the game decided I could only carry a couple of clips of ammo until I’d spent a couple of hours travelling around the map trying to hunt and kill animals (Which isn’t that fun when it’s a case of spraying them down with machine guns then driving for a few minutes to your next waypoint) And you have to drive too, if you chose instead to run across the island then you’re in for an even more boring experience. It’s here that I’m going to draw attention to another game series that I love: Borderlands. For those who don’t know, Borderlands is a semi-open world FPS/RPG; The main meat of the story missions take place in rather linear maps that are usually peppered with enemies to kill, chests to loot, and a few open sections here and there for some of the larger scale fights. Annoyingly however, these maps are linked by rather large hub maps. These maps are almost specifically designed for vehicles, and vehicle combat in Borderlands is NOT FUN.

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Rust Commons in the original Borderlands. If your car got blown up here you were in for a good five minutes of sprinting through empty terrain to get a replacement

 

Where the guns of Borderlands are powerful and interesting, the vehicles present you with chain guns, rocket launchers, and a couple of other choices, all of which are underpowered and not fun to use. But these hub maps almost force you to use them, if you want to spend the entirety of the game on foot, experiencing the fast paced and entertaining FPS action you paid for, it would take you at least two or three minutes to cross some of these hub
worlds. Sure you might be attacked by some of the wildlife or some bandits, but fighting on flat and open terrain isn’t as fun as fighting in the dense linear maps that you’re trying to get to.

Going back to Farcry 3 there were times where I ended up losing my jeep in a river as a result of trying to speed to the mission start point as fast as possible and had to sprint until I found a vehicle. Watching your gun bob up and down for several minutes as you pass nothing but identical terrain isn’t fun, it was this that evoked memories from an almost identical situation on Borderlands 2’s early hub world. A lot of what people liked about Farcry 3’s open world was the unpredicability. When I voiced my negative opinion people came up with anecdotes about how they had been attacking a camp and a tiger had attacked them, forcing them to flee straight into the camp and instigating some sort of three way fight. And they’re right, this happened to me and it’s fun, but this also happened to me in some of the core missions. One mission has you assault a camp set in a cove, usually I’d sneak up one of the sides and attempt to reach the objective at the top of the camp without alerting anybody, but this time I thought I’d take a nearby patrol boat and drive straight up the middle and gun down everything.

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Pirates Cove, a level you play relatively early on in the game with potential for stealth, or assault either on foot or in a vehicle.

It was great, 30 seconds in the entire hill to the left was on fire and I was gunning down pirates left right and centre, then out of nowhere a snake attacked me. It must have swam onto my boat; I never even knew that could happen, so I panicked and bailed into the water before swimming ashore. I was now outnumbered and no longer had a firepower advantage. The following minute was one of fast paced action, quick thinking, and use of Farcry 3’s incredible cover system. In that mission alone I had more fun than I had in the previous two hours spend unlocking the ammo capacity I needed to be able to take on the pirates in this base. The only thing actually worth doing in Farcry 3’s open world is liberating outposts, small camps occupied by a group of usually half a dozen pirates. You can either stealthily take out all the guards for a bonus, or go in guns blazing and risk them sounding an alarm that calls reinforcements. Either way is fun, but the main storyline presents just as many opportunities for such freeform gameplay.

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One of Farcry’s outposts, fun while it lasts, as it only usually takes a minute or so to clear before it’s back to the open world.

I understand even as someone who hasn’t played the previous games in the series, that Farcry is a historically open world game; but what I’m wondering is would it be better as a linear game? Same with Borderlands. I’ve spent today’s 4 or 5 hour session of Farcry 3 making heavy use of the Fast Travel system to basically speedrun through the open world and get to the mission start points as quickly as I can. Even played almost back to back the missions are still exciting and well paced, there was no point where I thought “well that all happened too quickly, I should have explored a bit between those two levels”. It worked well, and I had more fun today playing missions almost back to back than I did trying to unlock a few fast travel points and reveal more of the map yesterday.

If we didn’t know that Far Cry was a traditionally open world game and Far Cry 3 was instead the first game in a new series, I’d think that they designed a linear FPS and then threw in the sandbox as an afterthought. All the side-quests are essentially the same mission copy & pasted many times over and placed in a slightly different area of the map. Go here and stab the pirate captain, go here and kill this Tiger, go here and stab this other pirate captain. I would like to, at this point, reiterate how good of a game I think Far Cry 3 is. The characters are utterly fantastic, the writing, the acting. The directions the story takes, going from action movie to an almost ‘Indiana Jones’ style section, then into Spy Movie. It constantly changes tone but not in a way that would alienate the player. It keeps things interesting. There’s funny moments, sad moments, and it’s got PLENTY of action packed epic moments, but to me the open world is just an excuse to say your game is bigger than it is.

Even Far Cry 3’s expandalone DLC, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon seemed to make me think the same way. The most fun parts of the game by far were the scripted missions, but the game gives you very basic weapons and forces you to acquire upgrades for them through almost identical hunt/kill side quests. It dragged the game length out a little bit but on a recent play through I decided to forego a lot of the side missions and instead unlock a couple of attachments for a single gun which I then used to power through the campaign, completing it in just a couple of hours. I still feel like I got my moneys worth.
Borderlands also would work fantastically as a linear FPS, it has solid mechanics and usually only has you play through the sections once. There’s some revisiting due to some side quests which are in a lot of cases not worth doing due to just being the same fetch/kill quest with a different text introduction or voice work. If, instead of overly relying on the fast travel system or rushing through the hub worlds to reach these fun linear levels, they were simply placed back to back with constant story content being delivered, I think it’d be a lot more fun.

Maybe you think I’m not a sandbox sort of person? Well what if I said that Fallout 3 is one of my favorite games of all time, and I’d count Skyrim as being up there too. The thing about these games is that dispute being very large and sometimes quite empty, they support the emptiness with a slow pace; Far Cry 3 keeps playing it’s tense and adrenaline inducing soundtrack even in the open world, whereas Skyrim relaxes me and I feel more comfortable walking through the landscape. Skyrim to me isn’t about the sword fights it’s about the exploration, soaking in the atmosphere as I journey towards the ruin a guard just told me about..

Not only that but Skyrim has very unique sections, you can see the snow creeping over mountains to the north, you can see autumn setting in towards the east. There’s the plains of Whiterun and the forests of Falkreath hold. It’s completely different to Far Cry 3’s identical jungle terrain. Fallout is a strange one because it almost mixes the open world with the horror genre. I remember my early playthroughs of Fallout being a lot more fun than recent playthroughs; I almost can’t play it now because I know the game almost inside out. But early on I spent my time learning as I went, panicking every time a bandit or mutated creature caught me off guard. Seeing a super mutant, unaware of my position, brought on one of the most monumental adrenaline rushes of my time gaming as I pondered whether the 10mm pistol I had was enough to take it down before it had a chance to use that pneumatic sledgehammer it was carrying.

Another game I enjoyed recently was GTA5, and one thing was repeated in nearly every review I read was “Density”. It was a sprawling world, packed to the brim with people going about their lives, crimes in progress, spontaneous side quests that each had their own unique little story. You could walk around in one part of town and just observe people. Recently I played Watch_Dogs and was impressed with the way Ubisoft built this open world , it’s a sandbox that boasts density rather than size, which is what I like. Rather than sprinting or driving straight through it like I would do with Far Cry 3 or Borderlands’ hub maps, I spent most of my time on Watch_Dogs exploring the world like the developers intended. I walked through at a slow pace as I peered into the lives of the people around me; Similar to how I remember reading people’s minds back on Destroy All Humans. The world of Watch_Dogs is one where you can exit your car almost anywhere in the world, and within 10 seconds, the game will have found something to occupy you.

In recent years, games like Call of Duty have given the linear FPS a bit of a negative image, and it seems more and more now that in the current drive for innovation and change, developers are taking advantage of better tools and more powerful consoles to push games to be open world. You see it every year. “________ GOES OPEN WORLD”. I wouldn’t say I’m scared of losing the FPS or Action Adventure genres to boring sandboxes because I know these genres are tried and true and are never going to die off. But I’m worried that a lot of new Ips are going to go the sandbox route, and they’re going to do it wrong.

They’re going to do what Ubisoft seem to have done with Far Cry 3 and more recently Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag: spread the content out across a vast distance and fill the spaces in between with identical base capture levels and samey side quests, and force the player to do all this by tieing the necessary upgrades to grinding in the open world. I even think Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag would have been better if it just put me into mission after mission, as each mission still had a very healthy serving of naval combat and stealth, except within the context of a mission it was mixed up a lot more than it was in the open world. If I’m honest I see it as a fad, a trend for game devs to follow, and they’re following it badly. They’re making what may well be a great game with solid mechanics, and then thinking. “Hm, it’s 10 hours long. People who hate Call of Duty will point us out on this so we need to make it 40 plus”.

In more cases than not, the side quests for these games and the activities in the open world, the collectibles, the “exploration”; they’re all done as a lazy way to pad out the game’s length. They’re doing it so they can use “open world” as a buzzword in their E3 stage demo.

I love open world games when they’re done right: Fallout’s hauntingly beautiful world that creates a sense of loneliness and horror, Skyrim’s sense of grand scale and adventure, GTA’s rich and detailed satire of the modern world. But it doesn’t work for all games, especially games corner-stoned by high octane action and fast paced shooting like Far Cry 3 and Borderlands.

I’d like to see more developers not being afraid to keep making games like Bioshock Infinite, Lara Croft, The Last Of Us, games that still keep the open ended combat of open world games as well as keeping us engaged at all times. Concentrated doses of story, atmosphere, and action, rather than throwing us into an empty space and going “LOOK HOW BIG IT IS”.

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