Gaming was once about the overall interactive experience. The console was a portal that transported us into the addictive realms of virtual entertainment and compromised nothing; if you needed to get to point B you’d always know exactly how to make it there, get the t-shirt and then be back in time for tea. Then we hit 2008…
The masses were calling for “sandbox” and “open world” and “we need more sandbox” and “that’s not enough sandbox, more please” because GTA IV was precisely that and it ended up breaking records (what with it being a modern, ballsy and ridiculously entertaining wannabe-mobster’s wet-dream). Now that was fine, sandbox seemed a no-brainer as it equalled more bang for the buyers’ buck – you got both the full dose of a regular game combined with the longevity and replayability factors associated with the open-world environment. I repeat, that was fine. However things only worked well that way because the in-game mechanics of games around about/prior to 2008 were so clear and precise you were always a pin-point on a map away from exactly where you needed to go. We struggled for a bit towards the end of the decade and now it seems like things really are going tits up.
Fallout 3 (yes, yes it’s an RPG), Red Dead Redemption (another Rockstar production), Spider-Man 2 and Saints Row are all fantastic examples of sandbox done right – in one way or another these titles really attempted to throw something drastic and new into the mix of open-world gaming. Fallout 3 used its incredible heritage, sound design and over-arching concept to create a world that would fully immerse players in a way that The Elder Scrolls never could. Spider-Man 2 utilized the fantastic web-swinging mechanic to not only tick a box in so for as Marvel was concerned, but to also offer players quite literally a fresher perspective on the open-world of NYC (primarily from upside down hanging from a skyscraper like a suicidal David Blaine). These games were clever, creative and yet always concise – issuing players with comprehensible paths to cross in order to progress through the games meaty narrative. It was that concrete simplicity that remained at the heart of all those hours of exploration that really drove these games.
Sadly, it seems to me that those days are now behind us. Assassin’s Creed 3 has done nothing but resurface the crippling emotions I’ve felt recently when playing games such as Fable, Crackdown 2, Mercenaries 2 and New Vegas. The original Borderlands, for example, took a fantastic concept and within a few hours of playthrough provided gamers with a monotonous mess of cell-shaded checkpoints and vague narrative excuses. Assassin’s Creed 3 seems to be receiving a load of flack for not really focusing on its USP – the assassinating – and instead focusing on that “world of warcraft”-esque grafting malarkey whereby you feel the need to dedicate so much time to your fantasy world so that you end up having the nicest fictional home. Kirsty and Phil aren’t going to pop round at any minute to give you a valuation, guys – let’s get real.
Even if grafting wasn’t such an issue (and perhaps it isn’t, because I remember Nintendogs being a real hoot that engrossed children so much that they forgot all about their actual pets and let poor Foo Foo rot into their laps while they pressed their faces against a DS screen to get closer to their tamagotchi Labrador) there is still the underlying notion that these games just aren’t as focused anymore. It’s too easy to get lost (with Silent Hill: Downpour being another example) and that just amounts to added frustration on those days where you don’t feel like pissing about with the AI pedestrians and actually want to get some work done. It doesn’t necessarily need to have a good story (Crackdown 2) but at least it needs to have some semblance of a logical outline – you can’t just go to different areas on a map, kill random creatures and then find yourself having completed the game without really understanding or enjoying any of what had just happened.
I hate to rant, and that definitely is what this now feels like, so I’ll try and sum it up as simply as I can. Gaming used to be obvious. Not so obvious that it insulted our intelligence, but the sort of obvious that combined with the right amount of creativity provided us with some genius gaming experiences. I appreciate everything that sandbox and open-world games are trying to do, however I think it’s time we all requested we go back to some of those old school glory days. If we’re to have the next Elder Scrolls in a couple of year’s time – let’s make the main bulk be engrossing and entertaining, okay? Those millions of extras should be an afterthought.
Do you agree? Or do you feel games that the quality of the game industry is improving day by day and this is soon going to become the norm for all videogames with a decent budget? Comments below!