You’ve got a whole wide world to explore, after a silly little tutorial mission where you beat up a chicken to learn the combat system and run away from a goose to learn how to traverse terrain. You’ll endure a lengthy scripted sequence where you are frantically wishing dialogue and plot nonsense would get out of the way before you can get stuck into the meat and bones of the game. Generally, these meat and bones involve picking up billions of collectibles and taking over out-posts over and over again just because.
Having an open world with a sense of agency has been an aim of a vast amount of major gaming titles since around October 2001 when Grand Theft Auto 3 was released and suddenly the open world was the only world to be in. From there, we went through a slew of terrible GTA clones until eventually we arrived at this particular tower, where no amount of climbing and gazing into the horizon would ever cause the map - and therefore the way forward - to become clear.
I don’t want to point fingers, but this is all Ubisoft’s fault.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity was a wakeup call for them, in a way, but it hasn’t really stopped anything. The original Creed title was a flawed but ambitious title. The sequel took us to Italy and delivered on much of what the first game promised. Hopes were high for the third title, which would round off the real world story set up and also take us through the life of an Assassin from childhood to old age. An epic saga of love and life and loss in the back drop of the birth of the United States of America.
It’s a shame it was fairly awful. Most of the games following 2 were. But yet, Ubisoft repeated the formula every year, taking a game with a size that beggars belief and repeating it over and over with almost exactly the same template. The same thing happened with Far Cry 3 and 4. Instead of climbing a building, you climb a radio tower. Watch Dogs’ formula echoed Assassin’s Creed to such an extent that it seems like it was an Assassin’s Creed game that was renamed part of the way through development.
The formula has seeped into other franchises with the stellar Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor copying the formula almost note for note. The same goes for the last three games in the Batman: Arkham whatever games. Though they get something of a pass for having every other game copy their combat systems too.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s weird to think that size has become a strange substitute for quality. Even the once incredibly linear Metal Gear Solid has gone open world. The recent Mad Max has its own take on liberating radio towers or climbing buildings to open up the map. This would all be great if these worlds were full of unique and fun things to do but more often than not the gameplay devolves into doing the same thing over and over again, and being able to chase that horizon is no longer a unique selling point when you’re going there to climb a tower or do another assassination mission.
The stellar Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has raised this with me, when I release that outside the story missions, the actions performed in the open world are essentially the same over and over again, and the Mother Base growth and research facilities are just a substitute for a skill tree or an experience points system. The side ops are often repeatable and often indistinguishable from each other, but it’s that core gameplay loop that keeps you playing. But why do we want a gameplay loop instead of a tight line?
Metal Gear Solid V will take fifty to sixty hours to beat 100%. The average Assassin’s Creed would take possibly up to a hundred hours. The Witcher 3 will take hundreds of hours. Skyrim is endless. Time is increasingly a commodity as I get older and have more money to buy games but less time to play them, and I find myself hurried through open worlds to beat a game to get the next one lined up.
I think we need to go deeper and tighter rather than wider and looser. We’re still nailing open worlds and organic gameplay but with the Triple-A studios pumping so much time and money into massive tent pole games that are increasingly releasing as broken messes, surely they could make five polished, ten hour, unique experiences for that much? Split the marketing push in five and give us five new franchises. Or four new ones and one safe bet. Watch Dogs 2 is a sure bet, as is another Assassin’s Creed after this next one. Far Cry 5 is coming for sure. We’re bound to get another Arkham game, despite what Rocksteady say.
Can’t we just cut the rope and try something new? There is a long list of games this year that I haven’t been able to give my full time and attention and the back log is only getting worse. Plus, all those damned perfect indie games on Steam just keep pulling me back because they don’t feel like I’m sitting down to War and Peace or don’t require me to liberate ten more whatever-posts before I can do the next mediocre story mission.