With some reluctance, I’ll admit here and now that I’m a fan of the open world genre, though the games within this category rarely live up to their namesake.
It’s the old-school JRPG enthusiast in me screaming for attention — that lonely, fallen kid who once endured multiple playthroughs of “Final Fantasy III” (or FFVI if you either live in Japan or are stuck up) and “Chrono Trigger” and didn’t consider a game worth its salt unless it featured multiple towns and a cast of hundreds. Battle systems, storytelling, graphics and music were all secondary to the number of times I would be able to walk around cities and talk to those little virtual people who spent their days waiting in a small block of space, anxious to tell me “Welcome to Castle Town” as I walked through the front gates of the city. Of course, I’d always have to click twice, just to ensure these little blocky humans hadn’t neglected to give me some vital piece of information. Being a largely irresponsible person myself, I know how these things go. One simply forgets sometimes. Usually, though, they’d just repeat our prior conversation, likely convinced that my little avatar had some kind of hearing problem.
“I SAID, ‘WELCOME TO CASTLE TOWN!’”
There’s something about stepping into a new, digital landscape that causes a flow of giddy emotion to surge through. I’m a sucker for huge worlds — the ones that require massive, detailed maps and hundreds of hours to explore. I always enter these new, digital worlds bursting with optimism. Usually, however, I’m left disappointed.
I’m not the first to note the major problem with most open world games is a complete lack of anything remotely interesting to do. Sure, you’ve got a wide expanse of space in which to play, but it doesn’t really matter if playing — and I mean “playing” in the sense of running around and goofing off rather than simply going from one scripted mission to the next — in this world simply isn’t enjoyable. If a massive, open world is simply an expansive menu system for selecting missions, I’d rather have just been given a list.
“Brutal Legend” is a good example. This is a game that, by all logical conclusions, should have appealed to me immensely, but lost interest within a few hours. Oh, there was a moment there when I first stepped foot into Tim Schafer’s heavy metal wonderland that I was completely enamored. Any game in which I can ride around in a souped up muscle car listening to Black Sabbath while crushing hers of monstrous boar creatures beneath a set of four massive, rolling wheels is going to draw at least a couple pints of joy from my blackened heart. But, alas, like most any Dream Theater song, “Brutal Legend” got old fast. The world — though cool looking with its monuments to metal — didn’t really contain much worth doing. Sub-missions were a total bore, so much so that I eventually just moved from one mission to the next without really exploring any of the landscape, and I really, really like to explore. In fact, I can spend hours just toodling around in a cool open world. Call me the Coronado gaming…or Magellan if you like. Not DeSoto, though. Shiver.
So far, after about 13 hours of just wandering around and casually completing the game’s formal goals, I can confess to being deeply in love with “Red Dead Redemption.” I know most every critic in the world claims Rockstar Games to be masters of the open world — a genre they are largely credited with creating, though I’m sure PC gamers had experienced “open world” games long before the PS2 and Grand Theft Auto III rolled around. “Daggerfall” comes to mind. Still, I must admit that RS does handle open worlds well, deftly crafting believable, living environments — something with which most other game designers who have dabbled in the genre seem to have trouble pulling off. I’m not saying it’s easy to create great big worlds full of interesting things to see, but I am saying it takes a much greater craftsman to create a great big world full of interesting things to see that also seems alive.
“Red Dead Redemption” has life in spades. People shuffle through their little AI designated lives if I stand there and do nothing — engaging in little amusing conversations or stopping for a drink at a bar or trying their damndest to stab a hooker in the throat with knife — and realistically react in panic when I start shooting at them for no apparent reason. Rather than being presented with a standard set of missions — though the game certainly has those as well — there are also a bunch of “ambient challenges” which encourage exploration. These aren’t merely little tokens floating in the world like coins in a Mario game; they involve tasks consistent with the game’s old west environment…things like hunting big game and treasure hunting. This is the kind of game in which I can tool around in for hours and, in fact, already have.
I don’t think Rockstar’s open world designs are always infallible, however. Although overall I consider myself a fan of the game “Bully,” I don’t think the world itself presented me with enough incentive to explore. Sure, characters said funny things and I liked fist fighting with people on the street, but the game contained nothing like the “ambient challenges” that flush so well with “Red Dead Redemption’s” world. Sadly, I can’t really comment on “Grand Theft Auto IV’s” successes and failures in this regard because I simply didn’t play enough of it. Like some other gamers about whom I’ve read, I found Niko’s constant barrage of cell phone calls to be grating. I already have trouble committing to phone conversations in the real world; I really don’t need some kind of ENCOM mainframe version of that same activity occupying my time. When I’ve freed up some time, I might give it another go.
I’m equally digging the Renaissance-era Italy presented in “Assassin’s Creed II,” a game so drastically improved over its predecessor that I can barely contain my excitement. The first “Assassin’s Creed” was, in a fashion similar to “Brutal Legend,” something that welled a deep, passionate love at first but quickly, through its many faults, turned my adoration into an all-encompassing bitterness. Although I loved riding a horse down from the opening village and descending upon ancient, Middle Eastern cities like God Himself, it’s the fact that I had to do this over and over and over again that ended our affair.
The sequel seems to have fixed these faults and presented me with all kinds of new traits to love and squish into my heart. It’s great. And, although not as cohesive as “Red Dead Redemption’s” world, the playspace presented in “Assassin’s Creed II” offers plenty to do with little boredom.
Plus, there are, like, four towns to explore, and as any old-school JRPGer knows, it’s the number of towns that really counts. “Brutal Legend” didn’t even have one. Need I say more?
[BONUS: I didn’t have anywhere else to go with this, but I’d like to say that “Red Dead Redemption’s” characters are great, especially protagonist John Marsten who has to be at least nominated for “Most Polite Game Character of All Time” if such an award exists. In fact, he’s so polite with his “Yes, sirs” and “No, ma’ams” that it’s kind of hard to believe he murders people as easily as brushing dust from his chaps. It’s akin to Mr. Rogers gunning down the residents of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
“Oh noez, meow!” says Henrietta Pussycat as a hollow point rips through her small cotton dress and into the fleshy hand underneath. “Plez stop, meow meow, shuteing my bodeez, meow.”]