If you’ve played a video game with deep action, adventure or role-playing roots, chances are it has strong ties to the open-world genre. Games of this type contain an abundance of content and, over the past few years, open-world games have flooded the industry – almost to the point of over-saturation. Many titles of this ilk follow the same formula, but vary greatly when it comes to the developers’ delivery of what is an ‘open world’.
The appeal of an open world hinges on so many characteristics and it’s rare to play a video game that ticks all the boxes. This makes open world games a risky business: they can excel at one aspect but completely fail at another, often throwing the overall enjoyment out of kilter.
No doubt 2016 will see the release of many more open world games. So, as a personal checklist as well as a bit of guidance to developers, here are five sure-fire ways to make a cracking open world game.
A good open world game needs an entertaining main quest line, otherwise players will see your character’s plight as nothing but a chore. Without an engrossing story you can spend hours and hours in a world where your last story mission was as forgettable as the last.
This was an issue I found with Watch Dogs, released in 2014. Aiden Pearce is a man who cannot decide if he’s a good guy, a vigilante, or a mass murderer. He’s blinded by his daughter’s death and is fixated on blaming a lot of people for it. The path to vengeance is extremely murky in Watch Dogs and the impressive list of side missions overtakes the flat and muddled personality of Pearce’s interactions with the supporting cast.
In contrast, games like Dragon Age: Inquisition delivered a completely different experience. I finished Inquisition at a tick under 90 hours, where a highly enjoyable single player campaign would’ve taken up just over one-third of that time. One thing I’ve found with open world titles is the difficulty in striking that balance between limited, awesome story and stacks of side missions. Yes, there may be close to 200 hours of content but how many hours of repetitive crap do gamers have to trawl through to get a great story?
Side-content is there to give gamers a break from the epic main quest at hand. You don’t want to abandon a stimulating tale to be unknowingly bombarded with ‘fetch quests’ – you know, “bring me 10 of these”; “kill 20 of that”; “escort me to here”. It’s a terribly mundane approach, Dragon’s Dogma standing as a prime example of what not to do.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag got it right, however, deviating from the cut-and-paste nature of most of its predecessors. A change of scenery to the Caribbean, as well as the added motif of exploration associated with pirates, brought a lot curiosity and adventure to this particular instalment. Through Edward Kenway, players could hunt marine life, raid rival ships, decipher treasure maps and plunder underwater wreckages; the side-content on offer was virtually spot-on.
The key is to include small, challenging, slightly addictive activities that are reflective of the world and period you’re in – something that also made Red Dead Redemption an absolute pleasure to play. Gang Hideouts, Treasure Maps, Gambling, Shootouts and Bounties – all in the backdrop of a beautiful but bloody Western setting.
On top of Horse Races and in-game Challenges, the utter appeal to this game was that, despite the variation in side content (numerous multiplayer modes, including Free-Roam, were also a bonus), it still played second fiddle to the main plot. Red Dead Redemption also encouraged players to seek additional missions outside the main hubs of activity, on the outskirts of towns or even ones obscured from view. It was a fantastic way to open up the map and get players’ eyeballs on the various in-game locations.
High Quality Graphics
Gamers play with their eyes and, though I don’t like to admit it, a game failing to catch my visual appeal is off to a bad start. It’s virtually a pre-requisite for open-world games to look great from a visual standpoint as there’s so much depth and detail in the world that needs to be on display; the world needs to draw players in immediately.
The unique comic book-style, cel-shade effect of Borderlands, later seen in other titles like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, was something I hadn’t previously seen. It drew immediate intrigue and how it was integrated into the wacky, harsh and surprisingly humorous world of Pandora was just one of the positives I took away from it. The developers took advantage of the art style to create some really memorable moments, like the quick introductions for boss battles and the use of various eye-catching neon colours for both underground and mountainous locations.
Other games, however, are taking a different approach to satisfy gamers of various tastes. No Man’s Sky, just one of the hotly anticipated titles stuffed into 2016, has burst through the seams of the open-world genre with procedurally generated universes built for space exploration.
For a game that’s built on developing a log of foreign flora, fauna and the possibility of human colonisation, graphics are a high priority. Each planet is said to be unique and the bright colour palette, along with a pastel-like art style, is a great way to provide players with some fantastic screenshots.
History tells us that an incredibly good looking open-world game must be huge for it to accommodate the immersion and graphics in store for players. There’s mountains of sound effects, dialogue options, an absorbing and affecting score, not to mention realism when it comes to both combat, customisation and locale; the visual and audio contributions must be highly effective and affecting.
I believe that players need to feel most confident during the daytime, fearful under the night sky, and relieved when entering populated townships. Dragon’s Dogma, for all its fetch quest foolery, excels in this particular area. Of course, taking into consideration these technical achievements, open-world titles more often than not overlap with their role-playing counterparts.
The sense of exploration, discovery and confrontation is something these two genres do best, so it’s no wonder they’re a winning combination when it comes to video games.
Where titles such Rise of the Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid V and Witcher 3 have excelled at immersion, the same cannot be said for games like Mad Max. Despite a great depiction of a post-apocalyptic Outback wasteland, the variety in locale was certainly lacking. Motoring across brown highways definitely put a dampener on Mad Max’s satisfying car combat and further hindered its unimpressive melee gameplay.
What that game needed was something briefly seen in the movie Mad Max: Fury Road – green. It would’ve been a breath of fresh air for an otherwise bland colour scheme and possibly opened up new content focussing on reviving plants, trees and addressing other environmental concerns in the Wasteland.
It’s not good enough to create an open-world game with just a day or night cycle. Both must be implemented to deliver maximum immersion and realism and to show a game’s wonderful graphical contrasts between the two settings. It’s always surprising to weigh up which is better – a picturesque sunrise or unbelievably life-like downpours during a thunderstorm. Players also need to sense when the weather conditions are relentlessly hot or, like Rise of the Tomb Raider, are so cold your body is on the verge of severe hypothermia.
Along with rippling streams and the heavy sway of nearby trees, other important effects must be considered when manufacturing a dynamic environment of an open-world game. Events must happen on-the-fly, whether it be in-between waypoints or through sheer exploration.
This is something Ubisoft have become quite proficient at, with the Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs franchises, not forgetting their upcoming Ghost Recon: Wildlands and The Division releases.
Watch Dogs uses technology to assist with impending crimes and Assassin’s Creed tries to convince players to chase down thieves and protect bystanders and fellow gang members. This is not only an effective way of constantly keeping players stimulated – even if they’re not the one in imminent danger – but mixes up bits of gameplay into short, entertaining bursts that can trigger epic chase sequences and action-packed shootouts.
Open-world games are indeed a risky business. They have so much to get right and if their scale isn’t in sync with their content, amongst a myriad of other necessities, the end product often results in a forgettable title. They may have infested the industry, with many second-rate contenders among the few gems of today, but only time will tell whether developers will continue to gamble on this genre that demands perfection.
What ingredients are most important to you when it comes to open-world games? Which games have succeeded or failed? Let us know in the comments section!