Also an English sentence: Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.
After making you all wait for far, far too long, here it is: its moment at last. Far Cry 3: A review- or is it?
I’m actually chunking this review into two separate parts- and this isn’t the part that’s the “overview of everything” part. This part is actually a little more intensive on my game designer experience, focusing on one of the primary claims that FC3 makes about its gameplay. Is Far Cry 3 an open-world game?
To answer this question, I’ve got to create a definition of what an open-world game is. Strictly speaking, an open-world game is: A type of video game level design where a player can roam freely through a virtual world and is given considerable freedom in choosing how or when to approach objectives. (A la Wikipedia) In other words: it’s a game set in a massive environment with no strict and stringent storyline defining where the user may be and what the user may do. Note that there can be a strict storyline, a series of events that *has* to happen, but the difference between an open-world game and a linear game is that the player can sporadically bugger off and ignore the storyline. The first attempts at open-world games came around in the 1980’s (you can read that wikipedia article if you want to see which ones) but what I consider to be one of the really defining games of this
genre was Grand Theft Auto. In my opinion, the GTA series really helped to define the open-world genre. It had three principles, which I can parallel to pretty much every open world game that I’ve enjoyed and at the same time I can find lacking in open-world games that I didn’t enjoy. These three principles are: Map size/map boundary definitions; player-defined pacing; and a quantity of non-storyline content. GTA’s meets these three requirements: it has vast environments which the player may traverse, and the way that each level is structured allows the player any amount of freedom to go from beginning to goal, taking as much time as they want, completing side missions as they want, achieving points/money at the pace and style (generally murder vs. carjacking) they want. Three goals, three successes, and a very good pioneer open-world game.
Nowadays, there are hundreds of open-world games- I’ll only focus on notable examples, but if you’re into playing fun games, I’ll provide a list of examples of successes and failures at the end of the article. However, let’s take a look at how these examples apply to some modern successful open-world games.
First, let’s look at the map-size and border definitions. Any open-world game needs a big map- more specifically, it needs a map capable of exploration. What are some successful big-map games? For starters, Minecraft, the game based on open-world exploration and Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood. These three games show two of the techniques that an open-world environment can be developed well. Minecraft’s strength and popularity in the gaming community rises from its brilliant procedurally generated content– while many games use this technique to create a series of environments, then choose one out of the many and use it as the main map, Minecraft creates a brand spanking new environment every single time the player begins the game. This creates an environment that is constantly new to explore, always different, always changing. This allows the player to have a blank slate every time they begin the game- any ability they have to recognize patterns (such as a vein of silver means hooray mine more silver) becomes a skill in the game as opposed to map memorization.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to create a vast environment that the player is perfectly happy to explore without resorting to modifying the map every time while maintaining replayability- here’s to you, Assassin’s Creed series! 2 and Brotherhood are marvelous examples, with really rich environments with clever AI (From the programming side. I won’t say anything to the enemies’ perceived intelligence!) and excellently generated enemy spawns, AC games are always fun to run around in the environment for, having solid and mostly full content paired with an interesting and beautiful environment.
Take a look at Assassin’s Creed 1- a brilliant game in terms of delivering interesting mechanics and a beautiful historical(ish) storyline, and yet almost a third of the content is garbage, open-world environments done horribly, horribly wrong. What do I mean? Well, to understand, we’re going to have to look at quantitative non-storyline content and how it’s presence in an open-world game turns it from blah into hurrah! In AC1, gameplay is primarily focused within a handful of major cities. Altair roams from city to city, assassinating the shit out of various major players in the Templar order. Every moment spent in a city is well spent, from interesting missions to well developed content between missions. However the process of traveling from city to city is awful. The player gets put into a big environment and there’s nothing to do but wait until you’ve reached the next city. It plays like a long, boring, interactive wait screen. Sure, there’s something about collecting flags, or something, but quite honestly there was nothing to really hold my interest and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had nothing better to do at the time, I might never have finished the game and missed out on loving one of the best game series I have ever played. This is where AC2 and Brotherhood steps up their game- the developers saw that the city-play was the most enjoyable aspect of the game, and tweaked the game to primarily focus on that aspect. These two installments have a wealth of in-game, non-storyline content- even the basic process of moving around in each city provides a compelling and engaging experience. The guards are smart enough that it’s impossible to simply move around on the ground- the guards spot you and proceed to attack. Why not just climb the building? That’s right, all the guards on top of the building do the same thing! This is where the vast in-game content helps- Ezio can blend in with crowds, hide in bales of hay or on benches, and he can stealthily assassinate his way across the city. He can even go on a brutal killing rampage, taking out wave after wave of enemies who cannot deal with him. Each of these actions comes with it’s own balancing system that effects how able the guards are to recognize you, and that system has a number of mechanics that allow the player to adjust it given time and skill. Just the basic task of moving from point A to point B is engaging and interesting- and that’s not even counting the various sidequests that are available! AC2 and Brotherhood master the idea that non-storyline content is vital, even if it’s not the part we remember the best. Another example: let’s examine the difference between Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. It’s pretty obvious which one is an open-world game and which one isn’t (hint: they’re not in respective order.) However, both games definitely have a large environment, which is possible to explore, the player can backtrack and revisit areas- so where’s the beef? Once again, quantitative non-story content explains all. Both games feature non-story content, a la the Riddler, but that’s the extent to which Arkham Asylum goes. The only time that enemies exist in Arkham Asylum are those that are in areas that are currently focused by the main storyline. Revisiting an older area is like visiting a graveyard- the only things that exist are the dead bodies of the environment and these few-and-far-between Riddler trophies. This creates a scenario where, even with a large environment, the player is focused and constrained to the main storyline for interesting and engaging content, thus giving the game a linear progress. Arkham City corrects this by giving the player a single large environment with small linear mini-levels (The museum, the courthouse, etc), an abundance of sidequests with a wealth of interesting and engaging content (The Mad Hatter, the Riddler, Bane, Catwoman) as well as that AC style of enemy interaction, where there are a large number of enemies which the player may choose to fight or eliminate.
Last, let’s look at pacing, which, let’s face it, goes hand-in-hand with quantitative non-storyline content- no reasonable player is going to really spend time “doing nothing” to take the story at their own pace. I make the most basic assumption in that any time spent “not playing the main story” is still spent playing the game! Let’s take a look at the Borderlands series, whose pacing is sublime. During the game, the player runs around, collecting a number of missions throughout their playthrough. The missions all take some kind of basic idea- go here and kill somebody, go here and find something (killing a bunch of people in the way), go here and press this button (which kills someone), have you heard of this thing? I bet you can kill it, etc. The player can rack up quite a number of these missions, in addition to the missions sparked by the main storyline. At any time, even during another mission, the player can jump back and forth in between doing a sidequest or the mainquest, and all missions are cataloged until the player’s got enough time for them. The setup is very well done, and it really gives the player the freedom to take the game at the speed they want to.
I’d like to wrap up this definitions section with an explanation of how one of my favorite games of all time fits these criteria- in fact, this was the game that inspired me to write this piece, developed my love of open-world games, and helped me figure out what makes an open-world environment an open-world environment. I consider this game to be the single best open-world game ever made, although I have a number of games that I need to play to confirm it. I am talking about Fallout 3, Bethesda’s 2008 masterful FPS/Open-world post-apocalyptic adventure. This game has some of the most engaging content I’ve ever touched, and even after three separate playthroughs, I still don’t feel as if I have really even begun to explore the content that is available to me. In terms of the three principles of Open-world environments, let’s look at this: First, map size: The world of Fallout 3 is enormous. It can take more than an hour to walk from one end of the map to the other, and the boundaries are set up well enough that finding the invisible borders (which is possible, I have achieved this) is difficult enough that the player isn’t going to accidentally steer out of the main environment. In terms of content, Fallout 3 is the flame to which all other games hold their candle to. There is an abundance of side quests, terrain navigation, exploration, in-game jokes, to such a large degree that after my three playthroughs, I don’t think I’ve even played half of the game. The pacing is masterful too- in one version of the game, I completed my playthough in under 8 hours, and in another, I put in over 60 before completing the game. The player is free to explore what they find interesting, free to play the game using different tactics and motives, and the game adapts to these decisions an modifies the available content based on it and based on how the characters perceives the players. The game is, in its entirety, a beautiful example on how to develop a game, on how to let the player guide their own experience, on what an open-world environment means.
Now, since this article is getting to be about 3 times larger than it should be, let’s wrap things up. Far Cry 3 fails two out of these three principles, and here’s how. First, it succeeds in giving the player a large map, which is where its claim to open-world comes from. However, I found the non-storyline content to be insufficient and the pacing to be ineffectual. Aside from the main quest, there are a number of different events and sidequests for the player to accomplish. You can capture bases, assassinate pirates, go hunting, do supply drops, find weird creepy statue things, and find letters from Japanese soldiers trapped in WWII (Which somehow you are able to read in English? I don’t even know anymore.) There are also a handful of odd sidequests, which are really kind of mind-numbingly stupid. This sounds like a lot of content, but it’s actually really un-engaging. Once you’ve done any of these sidequests once, it’s like you’ve done them all. There is really a minimal difference between each mission (mostly being in a different place) and while I experimented with different techniques for accomplishing my goals, they really didn’t provide any additional enjoyment other than whoop-de-do, captured another base or whoop-de-do, made myself a new wallet out of this buffalo. BORING. The worst part is, while at the beginning of the game, there were enough enemies between point A and Point B to almost create a challenging experience, every time I captured a base, that number of enemies dwindled and became uninteresting. (In truth, there was still too much space around each set of enemies, so I could engage one set and the other would never know that anything had ever happened.) This mechanic ended up having me screw myself on pacing- the more I tried to deviate from the main storyline, the less interesting both the main storyline and the sidequests became. I ended up burning out good side content so quickly that I was left with dull and repetitive side content and the main storyline.
I have to wrap this half of the review up, so that’ll be all for now. Friday, tune back in for me to explain that while FC3 isn’t a good open-world game, it’s still a great FPS.
As promised, some lists for y’all
Good Open-World Games
- Every game in the Assassin’s Creed series, save the in-between cities part of AC1 and AC3 (because I’m not done with that yet).
- Borderlands 1 & 2
- Batman: Arkham City
- Fallout 3
- Pretty much every GTA game (I haven’t played them all, just trust me on this one)
- Oblivion and Skyrim (durr)
Bad Open-World Games/Games That You May Think Are Open-World, But Are Not
- Batman: Arkham Asylum (Failed quantitative non-storyline content)
- Left 4 Dead 1&2 (Actually a linear map! A big linear map, but still strictly linear)
- Mass Effect 1 (Not a bad game, by any means, but pretty much every map fails either to be a non-linear map or, in the planet exploration mode, fails to have quantitative non-storyline content)
- Far Cry 3 (See above)
Games That I Really, Really Want An Open-World Version For
- Mirror’s Edge (I really just want another ME game, please!)