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Open World Game Design of Today

Back in 2012, I found myself switching between Assassin’s Creed 3 and Far Cry 3 – both Ubisoft titles. Being a massive fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, I was dumbfounded with the just how disappointed I’d become at this latest installment. While the world and atmosphere were captivating, gameplay, mission designs and characters were below average when compared to previous iterations. Side missions were notably poor, with a terrible user interface, basic tasks (such as crafting or selecting a weapon) became needlessly challenging.

All of this had been made even worse by Far Cry 3, which did everything right when it came to gameplay. Side missions were connected and fun, taking control of an enemy guard post cleared a section of the map from enemy activity – which made things easier. Hunting wildlife, which you could then use to craft a larger weapon holster to carry more guns being an example, everything was tangentially connected. This for me with a lot of open world games is the key, fun engaging gameplay with important content.

I began to question the Assassin’s Creed franchise and wondered if it’s previous games were actually like this all along. So with too much spare time on my hands, I went back and replayed Assassin’s Creed 2, Brotherhood and Revelations. Thankfully I found myself relieved to find each of them still as fun as I remembered, with missions more open in design. Brotherhood was the first game I remembered playing with a connection between all side missions (assets that I think may have been an influence on Far Cry 3). I can understand what Assassins Creed 3 had tried to do, it wanted to shake things up and it was no secret that after Revelations the Assassin’s Creed franchise was beginning to feel a little stale with its design.

Assassin's Creed III

So what I think the Assassin’s Creed 3 team wanted to do was to create something with more in common with the likes of Red Dead Redemption. Developers had actually spoken about the title being a huge influence. In a recent interview with Eurogamer; Alex Hutchinson (the director of AC 3 and now Far Cry 4), talked about how his team wanted side missions to be discovered by players who wanted to find them (much like a The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim I’d imagine) but felt it failed because gamers were too spoon fed by previous games in the franchise to realise.

Anyone who has played Assassin’s Creed 3 will immediately realise the lack of important information given to the player. Hutchinson is quick to brush off the issues with the title – such as the terrible chase sequencers, though quick to point out it was the most successful game in the franchise financially. While I respect Hutchinson creatively, making a game on this level with the timeframe that Ubisoft release games, must be beyond stressful but that still doesn’t change the fact the game was broken.

Despite glowing reviews at the time, Assassin’s Creed 3 had quickly become labelled a disappointment – Most notably by IGN who’d placed the game forth best of the six console released games in the franchise at this time. Seems Ubisoft themselves knew the game underperformed gameplay wise due to it’s sequel Assassins Creed 4: Black Flag borrowed it’s mechanics from Far Cry 3, even having a segment of the FC 3 team working on the game. AC 4 was a huge relief; the franchise was back on track with its best game since AC 2. Expanding on the linear navel boat missions from AC 3 players could now captain a pirate ship and travel throughout a tropical open world. Like Far Cry 3, players had enemy bases to take over on boat. Along with attacking and plundering enemy ships on the seas. It seemed Ubisoft knew the system that worked.

Far Cry 3

Recently I played through Watch_Dogs, Ubisoft’s latest open world release which caused a huge stir back at E3 2012 with it’s next gen graphics and after a long delay the game finally came out in May of this year. For some reason didn’t grab me, but it should right? It has missions and upgrade trees all similar to that of Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 4, and yet it’s nowhere near as enjoyable.

Being set in a not too distant futuristic real city of Chicago, I found made the game more difficult in terms of what is plausible. On a random made up island or hundreds of years in the past not everything has to be exact or logical, designers can get away with some realistic aspects in favour of enjoyable gameplay. We all live in the modern age, we know how a modern city works so we can’t help but point out the strings or the falseness of a game set in the modern age. Unless of course that game is Grand Theft Auto V, the current champion of creating a realistic modern open world. Missions in GTA 5 are far more movie like and of a high quality, even side missions have interesting characters and dialogue and sometimes equal quality of a main mission. The world, due to a large budget, time and of course talent helps add to the immersion. Exploring is fun to because of the level of detail.

When it comes to Bethesda games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim, exploring isn’t only encouraged but a must if you want to see everything. And by everything I mean major storylines and missions. This is what was seriously lacking in Watch_Dogs, the team built this open world but have nothing there worth exploring, side missions are clearly highlighted and would slowly become available, the player is full on told through the in game reasoning of an ‘NCT’ scan noting of a crime, a big pop up appears informing the player. While some of these missions are fun at first it will all start to become tedious as the game continues. The hacking ability, in which players can hack into a certain number of objects such as; traffic light or traffic barricades isn’t as prominent in gameplay as what it seemed in earlier demos. Something which FC3 and AC4 had was player generated stories in gameplay, how you took over an enemy checkpoint or what weapon you used at a certain situation.

Watch_Dogs

With the revelation that the formula that seemed to work well with Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed didn’t always work, I stumbled across the full E3 demo of Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain. In this demo players can stake out an enemy area and attack in any fashion and in day or night. This reminded me of an old forgotten gem called Far Cry 2.

Playing Far Cry 2 is stressful, it was back in 2008 and definitely still is in 2014, it has mechanics that only exist in it, and such as the fact you have malaria. You will need to pop a pill at any random time and when you run out you have to do a mission to get some more supplies. Playing through the game I feel weak, I have to be clever in every combat situation, unlike most FPS games you are not Rambo. In my first hour of the game I was ran off the road in my car by a random enemy encounter. After dealing with them which required using a grenade near my car and theirs I had to make my own way on foot. I pulled up the map in real time and noticed there is a guarded safe house near by. I took my time, hearing the birds and monkeys in the trees, I approached the safe house, two guards sat in chairs, and I quickly jump up and took them both out.

This type of gameplay I have never experienced in any other game. I can have a buddy who helps me out in gunfights if I become seriously injured. Far Cry 2 has plenty of interesting ideas but falls down in the gameplay department. Various guard posts are throughout the world, but even when all guards are cleared the post will eventually be re staffed. In an attempt to keep players busy while travelling to a mission. This quickly becomes frustrating, especially when most missions involve shooting people. I do think the day and night system is great and you can choose whether to do a mission in the middle of day or under the cover of darkness. FC 2 had ideas that would be better executed today; it was rather ahead of its tech. Far Cry 3 is pure fun, you feel powerful and earn XP. While I prefer FC3 to FC2, a certain charm is missing, no buddy or day and night systems. There has to be a balance of fun and survival. Too many games have you becoming too powerful by the end.

Assassin's Creed Unity

E3 2014 showed of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the first exclusive next gen assassins game. It looked great and what impressed me the most was the developers making the world feel more real as opposed to a place to do missions. At first I was worried it would be like AC3 where all side missions are either buried away or to passive and insignificant to bother with. But instead they can affect main missions; if you have to tale a guy to a base you can kill him and take the information, but that means the location will be more heavily guarded. You may have done a side mission earlier, which will negate this mission all together. The world is revolutionary Paris and we are told many of the building can be entered smoothly with no load times. It seems the next gen games have some next gen ideas.

The key at any games core however, is that it has to be fun.

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Steven, born in England and recently moved to Australia is studying Film and Media Studies at Uni. Always enjoying a good chat about video games writing for TPoW.

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