I have lamented a few times already how “open world” games is now all just about size and run-of-the-mill content rather than a world full of possibilities. One strong argument I made in the past was to take a page out of 3D platformers where they make the locomotion of the characters you control as the key part of the experience and design the levels around it.
But with Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild amassing huge praise recently, I now have a more contemporary example to point out on how to make open world games more meaningful rather than just a patchwork of places to go do similar things over and over again.
So what made the new Zelda so great? It’s a huge departure from its long established formula by going open world. Yes, this made me worry a little, there’s even towers to climb- a red flag for a boring implementation of an open world in my book (though I admit this is a personal bias rather than a fact).
But the Quick Look video done by Giant Bomb on the game present what an open world, at least in my opinion, should be: it gives freedom and a sense of discovery to the players.
Throughout the video you see several instances of the group throwing in quirky ideas on the fly based on the systems and mechanics the game present. Magnetise the ball or find a controller to grab a hammer and whack that ball better? Can the guardian’s auto-targeting laser be tricked into attacking other enemies? What would happen if you set something on fire? What can happen if a skeleton enemy’s head was kick off far down the cliff? Can you drop down said cliff and climb the mountain not far from there?
It’s refreshing. You see many different mechanics and gameplay systems interact with each other and it works. Sure, the new Zelda suffers from framerate issues and sometimes muddy textures but the joy here is to see the many systems interacting, thus awarding player discovery should they mess around with stuff is what an open world game needs.
In Skyrim, you could put a bucket on an shopkeeper’s head to block line of sight and steal everything in the room. It’s stupid, it’s immersion-breaking but that’s just a happy little accident of different gameplay systems interacting with each other. It’s actually fun if you come across it by accident.
In Metal Gear Solid V, you can drop in supplies at a far distance. This is an odd choice at first glance, why not just drop it right on your feet? It’s a tool you can mess around with: distracting enemy patrols is one thing, but using in as a weapon in a boss fight? Now that’s something else!
Such things are missing in games that claimed to be open world. While Ghost Recon Wildlands is a well made game, as I tried in the open beta, it’s game design does not offer such freedom. You go to an outpost, do some recon (or not), and approach the objective silently, or guns blazing (with or without a vehicle). Repeat ad infinitum.
There are ways to spice up the situation, you can call in mortar support or rebel troops to distract the enemies, but that’s a baked in feature. You know what would be cool? Setting up fights by luring Unidad soldiers to the cartel or vice versa. These two factions will confront each other if they are within their sights, so what if we have abilities that can facilitate this? A cartel giving chase since we attacked a small checkpoint they were holding, then give chase where we lead them into Unidad territory.
Plus, Wildlands suffer in its side mission design. Most of them have one optimal way of approaching it, so that’s a bummer if you are looking for a true open world game. It is open world in the sense that you have freedom to make your way from point A to point B, where point B might as well be an instanced dungeon separated from the rest of the world when you’re doing the mission as it does not interact with other systems outside of it. All the outposts are self-contained, for good reason, but there’s not enough variety in its moment-to-moment action.
This is not me just bashing Wildlands just because it isn’t up to my taste (the game’s solid enough if you like what you see and hear), but it is used as an example of how a game can be open world but not utilising more dynamic systems to make the player feel more.. free.
(On another note: Ubisoft does give you the freedom to approach which of the many territories in the fictional Bolivia to clear first, the only thing gating you are tougher enemies. Breath Of The Wild also does this, so credit is where credit is due.)
The small amount of freedom here works fine for an open-ended linear game. Everything is confined to a certain room or small level, so even the choice of sneak or shoot makes a ton of difference and is enough to make interesting gameplay moments. But if you have an open world, why not think bigger?
If more open world games can reward the sense of discovery and wonder of exploring the open world, I would totally be enticed to play it. Great looking vistas and landscapes alone don’t cut it for me, it’s what you can do in the landscapes that matters to me.
Thankfully for Ubisoft, their recent open beta survey available for beta testers are asking the right questions. I of course asked them more freedom and room for creativity to kick in. Yes, it will be a nightmare to test and design- Skyrim and all Bethesda games at the moment are janky for a good reason, and Breath Of The Wild has some interesting dev stories about having certain parts of the game break due to a tweak in a dynamic system applied accross the world- one in particular is about the wind. But the extra effort should make it the talk about town even longer after launch.
I don’t want to remember them as just open world games, I want to share my unique encounters and experience the game provided to me. Because that’s a more awesome story to tell.