Making the Perfect Sandbox

In Video Games on April 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Today we have our pick of open world games, ranging from the latest romp du jour to the years old title that fills the gap between boredom and diversion. The genre struggles and excels in the same areas depending on the game, as it’s really more of a styling or framework rather than a genre, as such games can encompass anything from fantasy to crime to zombie pastiche. Which elements, done well, would produce the best open world game when combined? Let’s find out.

It’s true that the open world “genre” has been around for some time. RPGs frequently made use of this in the olden days, though these implementations relied upon limited interactivity and procedurally generated content. Some games ascribed to an open world philosophy that wouldn’t begin to gel until much later in the series — and even then only superficially. In my opinion, these games tease with an open worldliness that you can’t achieve due to the limitations of character and interactivity. You can’t fly, drive or launch yourself into the air (for the most part). It must be said that a walking population is easier to manage, and limited modality of movement certainly makes it easier on the developers.

Which is when you begin to realize how very ambitious it is to create modern sandboxes where you can drive, fly or grapple anywhere. A tall building isn’t just a decoration. Players will want to stand on it, fly around it, over it and into it.

Of course, ambition is a metered thing. Grant Theft Auto: San Andreas offered a huge world with multiple cities that would again be reduced to a single New York counterfeit for GTA IV. GTA also likes to mete out portions of its open world across the game’s plot, forcing you to play missions to unlock the full game. Other games — Saints Row, Crackdown and Just Cause, to name a few — give you everything right away. The same effect can be had with dolling out upgrades and vehicles strictly. Remember when getting a helicopter was the end-all, be-all? And how in Saints Row 2 you could pretty easily get one, to say little of The Third? But then, GTA and Saints Row have been at cross purposes for a while now, one game offering a pastiche of violence, parody and satire and the other one openly admitting it’s offering a pastiche of violence, parody and satire.

If there’s one element these games share in common, it’s the frequency by which players will toss their grand designs aside and just muck about. How much the game itself interferes with this can be used as a measure of how good the open worldness actually is.

Grand Theft Auto and Dead Rising both get poor marks for this. The former because it has aspirations of legitimacy (which are undermined by its elements of parody), so it doesn’t readily let you have all of the fun toys right away or very easily. The latest game bothered you with phone calls from “friends” when you’d have rather forgotten they existed. Dead Rising paradoxically placed simultaneously an emphasis on exploration to find new weapons and running amok to level up, with a time limit that was constantly and prominently displayed on your screen.

Saints Row seems to embrace this side of itself, throwing neat weapons and vehicles at you as rewards both early and often. Yes, you might think you’ve topped things out when you get an attack chopper a few missions in but you haven’t even gotten your jet bike or VTOL, and as happy as you are with your rocket launcher the game happily gives you satchel charges, airstrikes and reaper drones “just in case.” It even grades you on everything you do! Most silly things you can think of doing get a meter that pops up and rewards some token points for doing well.

Yet Saints Row also feels very limited in what the player can do. Travel is restrained by the fragile, fragile vehicles at your disposal, and your weapons seem eager to run out of ammunition at every opportunity. Those buildings just stubbornly refuse to drop. And the developers just won’t give us our damned superpowers. Also, Saints Row is at odds with its tone, the second game showing the Boss as a sadistic, cruel power-thirsty bastard while the third game smoothed that over into more of a direct parody.

Just Cause 2 is a weird game that people didn’t jump up and down enough about. It gives you a ridiculously large and varied island — from snowcapped peaks to sandy beaches to jungle to cities — with a physics-defying grappling hook you can use to zip around and a parachute you can use to fly around. You can hook things on to people and people on to things and things on to things, whipping enemies and cars and bikes around on the back of your (or someone else’s) car, tank or jet. Looking gorgeous every bloody step of the way.

It was strangely liberating. I don’t think there’s even a sprint meter. And doing all  of those things (and more) added to a metric used to unlock missions, guns, vehicles, and modding parts. It’s ridiculous.

If only it were multiplayer, or at least co-op. Some progression would be nice too — upgrade your health or whatever with XP.

Crackdown 2 managed to utterly embrace a level-up mechanic that made zero sense in the context of the game yet remained compelling regardless. You leveled up among several tracts by doing whatever they governed. Levelling up got you better abilities, weapons and vehicles and the difference was staggering, especially for “agility” where you’d go from a modest two-story jump to leaping up and over whole blocks at a time.

Crackdown also had an interesting dichotomy between fighting “intelligent” criminals during the day versus hordes and hordes (and hordes) of “freaks” at night. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sandbox game’s streets so full as in the middle of the night in Crackdown 2. The change of pace was pleasant in a game so mired with repetition and generic set pieces.

So. My perfect open world game would be like Just Cause for its huge scale, varied locations and high powered military hardware. Like Mercenaries, you should get lots of “off map” goodies like vehicle and weapon drops, airstrikes and whatever else they can toss in. It should embrace giving the player easy access to powerful, fun toys like Saints Row while offering some manner of incentive and player boosting progression like Crackdown (with the bonus of becoming more superhuman being a definitive plus). Tossing in that game’s variety between human enemies and fun mindless hordes to mow down wouldn’t hurt. Co-op is a must as well. Destructible buildings, even if such demolition isn’t permanent, would send this right over the edge.

I might have said it should use GTA’s production values, but Just Cause 2 actually looks gorgeous. So let’s just say Rockstar should fund it with their deep pretentious pockets and call it a day.

  1. So many posts! Making up for lost time, Trod?

    I’ve honestly fallen out of love with the sandbox genre some time ago. It’s not to say I’m outright snubbing it or ignoring it, but I’ve found these player generated experiences are inevitably muted compared to what a more concisely defined and linear game can often offer.

    That would be the core difference though between what we’re looking for, respectively. You considered Dead Rising a bad example of a sandbox game (I won’t comment on the recent GTAs), but I consider it something I really enjoyed DR1 and 2 because I liked having the wrestle with the freedom of the environment and the constraint of time.

    If I’m going with a sandbox game, I still want an experience, something that tells or a story or takes me through something. I do think a sandbox game should cut a player free fairly soon- Fallout 3’s opening was unique, but perhaps a bit lengthy, while New Vegas quickly let the player get on their way (yet I feel the story direction was, ironically, much clearer). Something like GTA (going off the older ones which I had played) were still being laid out with a story in mind (even if, such is the case of San Andreas, it ended up being pretty bad).

    What you seem to want is something that’s purely co-op and gameplay oriented- basically the tonal opposite of several of the games you listed. You want all the shiny toys but it seems like you’re objecting to earning them- many of these things are locked off for a reason, generally to ensure that early missions are balanced as well as to create a material reward for completing things. I get wanting to have everything open when you’re going to paint the town red, but this bizarre mish-mash of Mercenaries/Saint’s Row/Crackdown (with zombies?) you’re describing sounds like you want several different games at once.

  2. I have bitten by the words bug. Words words words.

    For the longest time I didn’t even know I liked open world games (for the record, “open world” refers to non-restricted open level design; “sandbox” refers to non-linear gameplay. “Emergent gameplay” is when solutions to problems are limited only by the interactivity of the game itself, rather than a pre-conceived decision as to how to complete an objective, see also Deus Ex).

    This was back when the only developer making this sort of game was Rockstar, who I’ll go out on a limb and say aren’t very good at either focusing the player on what they should be doing, or distracting them from the crushing weight of everything they could be doing.

    It actually took Saints Row 2 to get me into the “genre,” because it offered a more focused narrative alongside concerted, discreet “Diversions” that rewarded the player in a way that didn’t seem to be a punishment for not doing it. It helps that it is both a funny game and a brutal game, one with a few layers if I so choose to interpret it as such.

    Dead Rising is too focused, and much like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter I can’t imagine why they’d make a game that forces you to replay it if you want (or need) to level up. It also makes this weird thing where survivors will die when their rescue timer runs out, but that timer lasts for “hours.” Sandbox mode in Off the Record ameliorates this somewhat but removes the main objectives and survivors from the game and thus runs out of gas pretty quickly.

    Of course I want several games at once. I basically said I’d like half a dozen games to have a love child. You seen those parents? That kid’s gonna have issues.

    You can have co-op in a narrative-focused game (DR and SR did). You can even just offer the world itself as DR did, if there’s enough there to entertain. I’m not averse to earning rewards, but getting a fancy toy that obliterates everything at the end of the game pales compared to giving awesome toys and challenges that keep pace.

    I don’t think the world itself needs to be locked down unless there’s a good reason. GTA often just had a roadblock on a bridge that got you killed for looking at cross eyed. You don’t unlock the city by obliterating the roadblock, you just do someone a favor.

  3. On a random, but connected, note. Recall the annoying Saints Row 3 april fool’s joke, teasing us with a matrix-esque add-on? I’m thinking something like that could be pretty groovy, with the majority of action taking place ‘inside’ (sort of a reverse “Surrogates”) and the only reasons for doing this would be to excuse superpowers and the fact that a building once blown up can be quickly reassembled…cause it’s just code.

  4. The guys at Volition need to have realized that with SR3 being what it is, their April Fool’s joke actually sounded fairly legit — moreso than some of the content they already delivered.

    Despite knowing the date I had a hard time deciding it was a hoax, since literally the only thing weird about the announcement or its contents is that it took place on April 1st.

    And yes, I was excited and was ready to buy it when it was released.

  5. Going back to your first comment, I actually liked Dragon Quarter… however, I would concede that it was an acquired taste, and I didn’t give it a go for some time, never mind get into it. It was certainly experimental, and I wouldn’t advocate taking such hard-lined approach on a regular basis, but it executes its methods rather well, honestly.

    As for Dead Rising…

    Well, the level up for replay thing is as much to make it easier the second time around, so you have a chance to do better. I beat both DR1 and 2 on my first round and got the best endings on both (2 being less frustrating thanks to much improved design), obviously without having to take advantage any replay carryovers.

    The time flow versus survivors, well… I think we’ll concede that none of these games flows in real time. Many of the survivors you find tend to be holed up somewhere anyways, so you can more or less reason that they’re standing their ground.

    I’ve tended to prefer focused design over truly open sandboxes. I think the approach to Dead Rising does give more replayability since it creates a branches set of challenges. I think the hard thing is conceding that you probably can’t do everything, and either letting the story go so you can save more people, or letting people die to find out the truth.

    I would admit though, part of my problem is that I don’t like playing something much where I didn’t accomplish something tangible. It’s probably bizarre to say that I prefer to play a game for “results” rather than for “fun,” but this may owe to the long list of games I have backlogged and the fact that I worry about wasting time. I could probably talk about how the above games are more restrictive with save data as part of their challenge but, well, that might start getting off topic and I’m thinking about putting something together on that myself.

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