Open world game design is difficult. I won’t pretend it isn’t. But Ubisoft (and several other publishers) seem to be missing the point entirely.
In the past I have enjoyed Ubisoft games immensely. Looking back on their past creations it’s easy to see why. Games like Prince of Persia : The Sands of Time, Rayman and Assassin’s Creed II are rightly considered classics. They are all full of character and excellent design. But recently Ubisoft have started making mistakes and I’m not talking about their misleading trailers, DLC practices or other company policies. I believe that Ubisoft’s current open-world design philosophy is fundamentally flawed. Open world games that Ubisoft release today are homogeneous, unstructured snooze-fests.
I think that an open world should add something to the overall game. It should develop the story and world feel, or allow the mechanics to reach their full potential. A game like Just Cause 2 for example needs to be open-world in order for its unique brand of sandbox chaos to properly flow. The ability to leap from a stolen chopper into enemy base on a whim, is central to the games overall identity and design. It simply wouldn’t be Just Cause without it.
Another fantastic example of an open world truly having an impact on a game is Spider-Man 2 on PS2. Web-swinging is a huge part of what makes Spider-man so special and the recreation of Manhattan present in the game allows the player to swing to their heart’s content. Sure some of the side activities may have been a bit bland but it was worth it to make the central mechanic more fun.
My problem with Ubisoft is that they seem to conceptualise an open-world as nothing more than a platform upon which various mindless activities can be endlessly repeated. The world exists only to house what are essentially mini-games and all sense of overall structure is abandoned in favour of progress bars or checklists that the player must slowly fill out. I despise this idea. I like a game to feel cohesive. You can’t just dump a player into a sea of meaningless content and call it a day
The most recent and egregious example of the Ubisoft approach is Far Cry Primal. The game has a huge map and beautiful scenery but this adds very little to what is essentially a flat, lifeless experience. All you really have is a map screen littered with what can charitably be described as “side quests”. The story is almost non-existent. This could all be forgiven if Far Cry Primal was a true sandbox, but it really isn’t, at least not in the way a game like Just Cause or GTA is. So what is it? Open-world cannot be a game’s defining feature and yet I feel like that’s all Far Cry has to offer, Some nice scenery and a big world. The more recent Assassin’s Creed’s have also become a lot more like this. You only need look at the map to see it.
Of course Ubisoft aren’t the only ones guilty of this. Arkham City is a fantastic game, but I feel like Arkham Asylum was far superior. The switch to a fully open world really added very little. The story lost its focus and many of the villains didn’t get properly fleshed out (as they were so well in Asylum) It felt like the only reason the switch was made was so that Rockstar had something new to slap on the back of the box. Arkham Asylum felt like a tightly scripted new Batman movie. It made you feel like the caped crusader himself. Arkham City also achieved this but was somehow less satisfying. There really wasn’t a lot to do in the actual city, other than beat up groups of thugs, an activity which Asylum could carefully pace and regulate. The open-world didn’t make you feel more like Batman and so in my eyes was a failure.
Open-world games can be great, and I’m happy that they exist. However I also have growing concerns that the modern industry has forgotten how to properly implement them and Ubisoft are leading the way. There may be a market for these games but I can’t see this new model lasting. People will quickly realise how insubstantial and dull they really are.