With Grand Theft Auto V around the corner, I started to think about all the open world games I have played recently. Mostly, the memories have been happy ones. Of enjoyment. However, Looking back at these games, some of them don’t feel like they used their worlds to the best of it’s abilities. I'm mostly going to be talking about open world games that came out during this generation going as far back as GTA IV.
Some games seem to benefit from an open world. Skyrim comes to mind. The true feeling of an explorer can be felt in Skyrim thanks to it’s size and variation. Here the world is used to as a place to escape to. The geography of the world, the lore and the people give the player a continuous place to explore. Without the open world, the game would be a series of conversations between people and bland caves to explore.
So Skyrim benefits from an open world but I am hard-pressed to find any other games that benefit from it nearly as well. Grand Theft Auto IV doesn't feel like a game that gains anything from it’s open world. The game’s main story is linear with no real side missions. You get a choice of which people you would like to do missions for in what order but you still end up doing all the missions. The open world aspects of the game like side missions were not great. There were relationships that had to be maintained but this ended up being more annoying than enjoyable as driving to locations and back was not fun gameplay wise even If the dialogue was enjoyable. There were missions to collect cars for Brucie and other inconsequential missions that were not fun. All this being said, Grand Theft Auto IV would perhaps be a significantly worse game without this open world and I am not sure why that is. The open world feels like it hinders the progression of the game as well as you spend a lot of time driving to and from missions and when you reach missions, there is more driving. Once you reach your destination, you are treated to sub-par third person shooting and then more driving. I'm not sure why I enjoyed GTA IV but I did. The driving filler was a hindrance but the missions involving skillful driving were fun and felt like they used the the space provided well. Would GTA IV be better if there was no open world?
Saint’s Row: The Third feels like a game that also doesn't need an open world. Here I am less torn about the idea of removing it from the game. Saint’s Row: The Third would be a better game without the open world. Firstly, all the crazy stuff that you can do in an open world are already being done during the missions. Secondly, the side missions were part of the main story and were the worst part of that. Removing them would not be so bad. It’s pacing would also improve as each crazy thing would not be separated by unnecessary driving. The game in it’s current state is a somewhat crazy open world game but removing the open world would make it a solid action game. You wouldn't need to lose much to do it either. You can keep all the customisation options and they would easier to access through a menu.
Arkham City feels like the perfect game to show that not all games require a huge area to explore. The games open world was used to hide far too many collectibles and the side missions were not things that required an such a large area. The size of the world just hurt the pacing of the game. The tighter more focused world of Arkham Asylum was more fun to explore as more of it felt designed with purpose. The side missions in Arkham City were very good but they didn't need an open world to implement them.
There are some games that use the open world as a setting to make the user feel like they are in a world without using the open world for it’s gameplay. Sleeping Dogs and LA Noire don’t require open worlds but hugely benefit from then to add the tone and context to a game. In Sleeping Dogs, Hong Kong was interesting place to just drive in as It was different from the open worlds found in games like Saint’s Row and GTA IV. It gave the player the idea of the differences between them. Specifically the cultural difference between the American cities that GTA is based on and the Asian city. It help to establish that the game was in a different place. The same can be said for LA Noire and time.
Assassin’s Creed games should be the ultimate Open World games, the worlds are used to give the player context and the side missions help to change the state of it. (In Brotherhood, you restored Rome, In 2 and 3 you made yourself stronger). They were also a lot of fun. The problem with the Assassin’s Creed games is that the main story path is not all that difficult. This negates the need for the improvements to your character. There is also no need to do the side quests to progress the story. Again, the potential for the open world is wasted. This was the most problematic in the newest game in the series.
The side missions in most of these games also feel like they lose value once you have completed the main narrative. This is due in part to how these games end. There is enough finality to them that going back into the world seems unnecessary. Achievements are a good way of making the side stuff worthwhile but even that isn’t enough sometimes.
So most of these games don’t really use their open world to the best of their abilities. If the games were built with more focus, would they be better? The weirdest part of this question is I find myself going no. With the exception of L.A. Noire. I think most of these games would not be the same experience without the open world. Even the first Batman games had a small overworld to explore and removing that would also hurt it. The problem is that on the surface, it feels like they hurt the game.
Obviously, I'm talking strictly about my experiences with these games.