Tag Archives: open world

Open Formula

Open Formula

Tokenism. You’re familiar, right? It’s generally used to talk about the superficial inclusion of a minority or marginalized group of people, often regarding the integration as perfunctory. It is the opposite of an ancillary melding.

It’s a concept that is beginning to run rampant in open world video game design, and for some reason, it can be blamed largely on Ubisoft. They have the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the Far Cry games, Watch Dogs, The Crew, and more. And that’s just from last year. (Assassin’s Creed actually squeezed in two of ’em in 2014.)

And what’s more is that they all seemingly abide by some template for interactive structure. To some extent that can’t be avoided—”open world” is a genre after all, and genres have staples for a reason—but some of it is reaching peak levels of absurdity.

Assassins Creed Unity

Obligatory map discovery? Yep. Point-to-point interest activation? Absolutely. It’s starting to feel like a rubber stamp of game with just different characters: assassins, rebels, cars. Of course it’s not all bad. Certainly there is virtue to each of these implements of gameplay and design. Like curiosity propels discovery and vice versa. It’s nicely symbiotic like that.

It’s why those bits and pieces have remained and been refined over the course of many years and many games. But at some point you have to wonder where has the innovation gone. Or rather, where has the impetus for such inclusion gone? Why did we go from ancillary to perfunctory? From necessity to tokenism?

Dying Light came out this week. It’s also an open world game, but this one features a bunch of zombies and parkour. It’s a pretty fun game that improves on a lot of things from Techland’s previous first person undead outing Dead Island, though it also sadly removes the analog combat from its spiritual predecessor.

The thing is that there are many portions of Dying Light that still strongly abide the steps laid out by Ubisoft, and this is a Warner Bros. publication. (This isn’t entirely unprecedented for them, though, as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor aped large portions of Assassin’s Creed design.) You can, in fact, still climb towers.

This brings about an interesting notion that Ubisoft has unearthed and fully realized the whole body of open world clichés, and now when we see them trickle down to other open world games, we are reminded of their popular genesis. And then, of course, we are forced to analyze the merit of their inclusion.

It was a praiseworthy situation in Shadow of Mordor, where it had largely improved and successfully integrated those platitudes into some bigger and more interesting. It’s even arguable that their familiarity enhanced the overall experience by contrasting the impressive Nemesis system.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

But then it was a source of derision for the Fury, a film that seemed to only want to complete a checklist of war movie clichés just for the sake of seeing a bunch of boxes get ticked off at the end of production. It was a series of token scenes, moving a tank from one place to its final place.

These staple components of genres can’t be tossed into a bucket and be assumed a success. They need to be laid into the foundation and built up into something grander. The reason needs to be there. A game like Miasmata is shaped around the idea of exploration and discovery, earning its foggy map and hidden locations. What benefit is there to doing so in Assassin’s Creed?

There really isn’t one, other than finding a reason for you to climb towers, which was the biggest draw of the original game and arguably still the biggest draw of the series. The designers needed a way to force you to utilize this sizable mechanical system, and the missions rarely forced you to sneak around like that. The solution was to hide the map and show it to you as you used the system.

Dying Light

Dying Light would have a more interesting validation for hiding or restricting terrain knowledge. With unknown and mindless threats, it’s much more engaging to hide layout and structure from you. The surprise of navigating over and under and around things like fences, buildings, and the like forces you to dive into things confidently and boldly, persuading you to play a certain style and engage in specific experiences.

It’s a subtle difference between the two outcomes. Either way, you are being pushed into doing something. One, however, has a careless result, like a detour shoving your route onto a congested highway. The other puts a brick on the gas and hands you the wheel. You can still get somewhere how you want and even hit the brakes, but it wants to propel you forward. The other way kind of yanks you around just because.

There’s nothing wrong with clichés so long as they have a reason, some validation for being there. Otherwise it’s just perfunctory, and nobody likes that.

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor Review: Tex-Orc-Ana

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Much of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is completely unoriginal. From its combat to its traversal to the very foundation of its narrative lore, this is a game that stands wholly on the shoulders of those that came before it. Even its most distinguishing feature (the Nemesis System) brings up old flavors of racing rivals. And despite all that, Shadow of Mordor is still one of the most inspiring and well-executed games made this year.

The crux of the game is that you play Talion, a Ranger guarding the Black Gate between Mordor and the less sticky-looking part of Middle-earth. Set somewhere between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, your watch is attacked by Orcs, resulting in a dead squad, a dead family, and a dead Talion. But when he wakes up inextricably attached to a wraith, things get really interesting.

Strangely enough, it’s almost entirely the things not related to Talion’s quest that are most enticing. Well to do the story justice, it’s important to note that it actually goes some cool places and introduces nuance to an otherwise straightforward tale of vengeance. The dead family and revival thing rings a bit hard for God of War, but after coming across some twists and layered characters, the quality writing becomes apparent and showcases an engaging story, if you can ignore a few misguided delves into the land of tropes.

But the big highlight is the aforementioned Nemesis System. Shadow of Mordor is an open-world game replete with the usual and well-strewn smattering of collectibles and what not, but it feels far more like a living, breathing organism than most other open worlds before it. The Nemesis System complexly but intuitively replicates and integrates an Orc hierarchy into the game’s emergent narrative.

There is a continual upheaval of both what you would expect fodder enemies to do with their time and what you would expect from a game otherwise centered on delivering a predetermined, discrete tale. You see, as time passes, these Orcs and Uruks go about their lives with their weaknesses, strengths, desires, vices, and history. For instance, one lower ranking grunt may make a power grab at the captain above him. If successful, he will move up. If not, he leaves a hole for an even lower foe to advance.

You will develop a personal history with your ladder of Uruk. One warchief of never failed to call me a coward, relishing that he forced me to retreat once. (Like, once, dude. Let it go!) Another bore the scars of my sword from our first encounter to our last, ending with my blade finishing what it started so long ago. And it’s remarkable just how much they can react to and, just as importantly, vocalize. They call you out with incredible specificity, especially when you meet the hand that fell you.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

More than advancing graphic fidelity and 3D-modeled, physically accurate sound echoing, this is one of the first things you will encounter in the new generation and realize what beefier machines can offer. It is emergent yet personal, feeling both wide open to reaction and designed with staid consideration. It is finally an open world that feels entirely open while being an actual world. And once you are able to directly manipulate Orcs in the hierarchy, a modicum of unexpected political strategy enters the mix.

It’s important to mention alongside this fantastic systemic development that it integrates a refined retelling of some previously explored mechanics. The combat is wholly lifted from the Arkham series, using unreal acrobatics to enable a fluid, combo-oriented fighting system. Attack, dodge, and counter, with special variants directed towards specific enemies. For instance, shielded enemies require you to flip over them, and others only can be killed by stealth. Sound familiar?

It is especially evident where the inspiration came from as you earn upgrades to your combat that allow you to use your special moves that would normally require a high combo to only need a small one. And as you sneak around, using arrows to attract and sonically manipulate wandering guards, you realize that both Arkham managed to nail action and stealth all in one go and that Shadow of Mordor managed to not fuck it up. (More superficially, the way Talion’s cape flows around him in a fashion eerily identical to Batman’s cape.)

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

And in a smart move, opting to fuse with a more interesting and more appropriate method for traversal, the freerunning over obstacles and up walls comes straight from Assassin’s Creed. It’s simple but satisfying pushing your stick a direction and having Talion figure out a badass way up there, making huge leaps from window to window and leaping sizable gaps.

But the game also makes wise improvements. For instance, rather than have to climb down or jump down from only particular points, you just leap and it’s all good on the ground. And if you run for a bit, you engage with a super fast wraith run, speeding up otherwise tedious late-game maneuvers. Also, believe it or not, the stealth actually works.

Then, rather than piling on more and more gadgets and weapons, you only ever have you bow, your dagger, and your sword and then get to bind with runes that enable special abilities. Some allow you to regain health as you inflict damage while others or prevent Uruk from running away. Most of them, though, allow for experimentation and noteworthy shifts in play styles.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Combined with increasingly complex enemies and terrain, fighting becomes as interesting and as personal as the Nemesis System. Rather than being a set of mechanics that fill out some arbitrary (and potentially imaginary) content requirement, combat in the game only serves to become more layered and nuanced but never complicated or rote.

Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the scripted parts of the game are the bits that are lacking. Missions are often simplistic and lack any impetus to internalize its context. So much of what was made to be deliberately fun and engaging ended up being obstacles to the juicy bits of Nemesis. Then the instilled drama of slow motion sword-bashing and head-rolling can eventually take its toll on your patience.

There’s also a distinct lack of an endgame regarding the Nemesis System. It ambiguously (yet strongly) motivates you to engage with its advancing slots and players but never reaches a conclusion beyond having reached your self-proclaimed goal of overtaking the Orc military society. And while a sharp-looking game, it only becomes a good-looking one after it opens up in the second half.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Those, however, are middling affections floating amidst the scope of a feature that should define other open-world games that follow. Innovation lacks in the majority of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s designed feature set, borrowing from successful and tested franchises that have come before it, but refinement is not lost on this melting pot. It all supports the Nemesis System, a network of intrigue and personalization meant to drag make-believe vendettas into a shifting, systemic tableau. It comes together in one of the best action packages of the year.

+ Borrows and refines combat and traversal from tried and true methods
+ The Nemesis System makes slaying hundreds of Uruk (and even death) interesting
+ Rune system makes meaningful changes to your play style
– Lack of goal to Nemesis makes the climb up the ladder eventually feel fruitless
– Terribly bland campaign missions

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Game Review: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Release: September 30, 2014
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Monolith Productions
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99
Website: https://www.shadowofmordor.com/

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Open Order

Open Order

When you go to a restaurant, it’s generally assumed that you aren’t there to engage in Greco-Roman wrestling. But imagine that you walk through the door, starving and hoping to satiate your growling tummy, only to have the staff constantly trying to get you on the mat. They give you the menu, ask you what you’d like to eat, and then try to get you into a headlock. Sounds pretty frustrating, right?

A friend of mine just finished Watch Dogs, which is mostly a decent game. It certainly isn’t the runaway success that Ubisoft was hoping for, but it also isn’t an abysmal showing for a franchise’s maiden voyage. It doesn’t necessarily do anything terribly wrong. In fact, nearly every major component of the game is remarkably mature, though perhaps unremarkably so if this was any later iteration.

Its shooting mechanics are perfectly acceptable and even sometimes fun. The driving can be oddly stiff but never gets in the way. And the hacking actually adds to the world, all of which is on top of a story that surprisingly eschews more than a handful of clichés. It’s a game that deserves a smattering of applause but not much else.

However, there is a pitfall that the game lands in so deftly that you’d think it was trying to hit the bottom. It was actually the first thing that my friend wanted to talk about upon completion. If you didn’t know, Watch Dogs actually has a reservoir of minigames for you to dive into when you aren’t trying to solve the game’s overarching narrative mystery. This involves chess, poker, and the classic street hustle shell game.

Unfortunately, the story requires you to embark upon playing a few of these minigames. And this is exactly what my friend and I discussed, half in a fair light and the other half in a hateful dark. About two-thirds of the way through the game, you begin searching for a man to help you decrypt a piece of data. There’s actually only one man who can help you, but lucky for you, he happens to be in the same town as you.

To convince him to help, though, you have to take part of the drinking minigame, institutionalized to be the crux of this particular mission. The minigame itself is a fun distraction, trying to guide a semi-uncontrollable cursor over button prompts that can move, change buttons, and hide all before the timer runs out. But in the context of the narrative curve, it brings everything to a grinding halt.

Watch Dogs

It definitely doesn’t help that the previous mission capping off Act II involved a gunfight, a car chase, and a few explosions. And then things slow down with this starter to Act III with some environmental puzzles involving finding how to unlock doors, and whammy. Drinking game.

You came to this game to drive, hack, shoot, and hack some more. The game put a menu down, asked what you’d like to do in this open world, and then said, “But real quick, do you mind playing this minigame that has nothing to do with the rest of me?” (That’s not to mention it’s a terrible message. Aiden gets blasted and then gets behind the wheel of a car with little to no repercussions aside from slightly blurry vision.)

Of course, that’s part of the charm of open world games, having a bevy of side activities. And Watch Dogs certainly is not the only sandbox to force its minigames on the player during its campaign. Grand Theft Auto IV made you bowl, and my god was that bowling a painful excursion. Red Dead Redemption had you play liar’s dice to goddamn completion, giving your free time a giant middle finger. But that’s precisely why they should stay side activities and remain off the beaten path.

Red Dead Redemption

I’m sure somewhere along the milestone planning of development, any of these could be excised quite easily, and there’s a reason for that: they’re nonessential. More than that, they are not integral to the game, which means their design was not top priority. Chances are, they are not as fully fleshed out as they need to be to hold your attention beyond the initial five minutes of curiosity. But through hubris or foolishness, open world games have a terrible tendency to shoehorn them into a mission or two.

The most frustrating part is that Watch Dogs was aware enough of this awful habit of the genre and bit a thumb or two at it. In an earlier mission, you have show up at an underground poker game with the hopes of finding a black market peddler. There are a few other dudes at the table by the time Aiden gets dealt in, and it seemed my worst fear was realized: a poker video game slapping me in the face when I’d rather be shooting bad guys.

But imagine my surprise when after the first bid (I raised), Aiden straight-up calls out the man you’re looking for and shit gets going again. It was a delicious stiff-arm to the open world staple. I loved that moment so much as I had just moments prior resigned myself to trying to guess how this poker AI was programmed. I chuckled at both the situation and the meta jollies I derived from it.

Watch Dogs

That’s why it’s so frustrating. Clearly Ubisoft knows better as it did better just a dozen or so missions earlier. They knew why we sat down at the table: to eat. And they knew better than to bother you when you’re so hungry for a fat juicy cheeseburger. But less than two hours later, they came back around and slapped it out of your hands and stuffed a pace-killing minigame into your mouth.

It’s a problem with many open world games even though there’s an obvious solution. That is to say, just don’t fucking do it. Maybe it’s the developers showing off or maybe it’s them not understanding the appeal of their own game, but it’s pervasive enough to be a checkbox on the list of What Makes An Open World Game. Really, just let the player eat in peace. This is a restaurant, after all.

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A Tad Bit Stale

A Tad Bit Stale

Open world games are tough. No, wait, hold on: open world games are tough to make. There we go. The thing about giving the player a huge sandbox to play in is that you have to be able to both give enough tools for them to find their own fun but also give them reason to use them to even start searching. That’s a hard thing to do.

Obviously that’s not the only solution, but the games that work are more or less a variant of that. Even games that seem to be wholly constructed by mystery have a facet of poking and retreating, showing and luring. Miasmata, for example, is designed around the idea that all of the experiences the developers conceived from the get-go will be discovered as the player starts to succeed more and more while its overarching narrative mystery compels you to even try.

Part of that is because the exploration of the who, what, when, where, and why are all tied into the mechanics of the game. By simply interacting with the world, you get more answers, and thus your desire to continue interacting is sustained. It’s a brilliant web they’ve spun.

Miasmata

The other end of the spectrum is something like Grand Theft Auto V (or any of the GTAs, really), though it still fits into the mold. Especially since its transition into a 3D world, Rockstar has been filling its games with more and more real life activity analogs such as bowling, drinking, and eating, but the crux has always been driving.

And in a world where, true to its realistic inspiration, everything is severely interactable via driving into it at high speeds, that can be enough to keep interests high. The “tools,” so to speak, that Rockstar gives you are actually scenarios that you begin to recognize and are able to influence on an instinctual level. Each story mission generally involves a sizable set piece that introduces you to a new “thing” to add to your shenanigan repertoire.

The simple act of ramming a cop car in the middle of a high speed pursuit is the start of a branching tree of possibilities that could end up nearly anywhere. It’s that element of emergent gameplay that allows the relatively simple actions of driving and shooting (simple in a game, anyways) to be all you need to make a fake Los Angeles a factory for Michael Baysian fun.

Grand Theft Auto V

But that and Miasmata and many other open world games succeed because they are built around the idea that an open world serves the player best as a platform for discovery and asking “what if” and then finding out. There’s an inordinate amount of simply going from one place to another in a sandbox environment, and unless you like the idea of what could happen as you traverse the landscape, you probably like all that walking/driving/flying/whatever.

That is largely the failing of Infamous: Second Son. It’s a decent game that seems to be set in a largely disingenuous real world setting, but its open world—and, truth be told, those of its two predecessors—is troubled precisely because it fails to make you wonder what could happen as you leave one rooftop and dash over to another.

Almost as soon as you start the game and get through the introductory sequence where Delsin discovers his powers and gets into Seattle, Second Son shows you its entire hand. And if not then, within the next hour or two, it will. You see all of the ambient karmic events, all of the side quest types, and much of what Delsin himself can do.

Infamous: Second Son

Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if there was more to do with Delsin’s abilities. You can shoot dudes in ways you’ve shot them before but with different elemental effects and you can traverse the world. The latter has substantial differences between the powers, but the shooting always has the same effect: someone goes down and you might earn some karma along the way.

You can also hit guys with your chain, but that often has the same result. You see, there’s never a question of what might happen when you set out to reach another waypoint. You know you will see some drug dealers and a few quadcopters and you know how they always end up, so long as you don’t die.

Truthfully, the only thing holding the staleness of the rote actions embedded into Second Son is the fact that the act of doing those things is fundamentally entertaining. Zipping around the world is especially fun as you flash over walls and through fences and up vents, challenging yourself to never touching the ground and never stop moving.

Infamous: Second Son

And the engagement of battles is worthwhile, even if a bit tiring in their length (those boss battles needed to be at least half as long). Moving throughout the world at a breakneck pace but with the tight, confident handling that Sucker Punch is pretty well known for is incredibly satisfying.

Satisfying enough, in fact, to overcome the problem of being in an open world. Second Son falls into the trap of being right in the middle of that sandbox spectrum, never giving narrative impetus to interact with the world (though enough to continue the story missions) and never giving enough emergent value to make you just experiment.

It makes you wonder what would have happened if it had been designed much like BioShock Infinite, building open arenas into a mostly linear world. Granted, that would excise the much lauded traversal aspect of Second Son, but it would certainly give the taut controls a chance to shine. But then again, what ifs don’t do much for retrospect but to generate regret. What ifs in open worlds, on the other hand…

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Not Really Exploring Gotham

Not Really Exploring Gotham

The latest Batman: Arkham game came out last Friday to rather tepid reviews, although I say that only given the fact that Asylum and City both racked up a ridiculous amount of year-end awards and Batman: Arkham Origins appears to be poised only to get Most “Eh, It Was All Right” of the Year. I’m still working my way through it (few outlets outside of the big ones got advanced copies) and a review will be coming soon, but I have some thoughts on it as it stands now.

Asylum was a taut little adventure that felt like a simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic adventure, something like shuttling through a pitch black roller coaster and you can only sense how close the walls and rafters are as they zoom by your head. (It’s also one of my favorite games of all time.) City introduced, well, a city: Arkham City, in fact. It was a the result of former Arkham Asylum director Quincy Sharp becoming mayor of Gotham and turning the projects of the city into one big ol’ outdoor, poorly maintained prison.

It allowed the player to explore Gotham in a way we’d always wanted: freely, albeit a small subsection of it that is largely disgusting slums and dirty streets. Batman’s cape gliding mechanic from Asylum translated to the open world rather well, especially with the addition of the grapnel boost which allowed you to hook onto ledges and launch yourself higher and faster for sustained travel. It actually reminded me of how amazing it felt in Spider-Man 2, slinging webs and zipping around the city like a spandex-clad god. It is a comparison all open world superhero games aspire to make.

Batman: Arkham City

The single problem I had with the system was that right in the middle of the city was a huge facility, locked down the private military firm TYGER. It presented you with an immense impasse if you wanted to travel from one side of the city to the other, forcing you to go around because getting into it early would break the story’s flow. It was, needless to say, a gigantic bummer.

Now imagine that instead of one instance where that’s the case, they just made an entire city of grapnel roadblocks and gliding obstacles. That is Batman: Arkham Origins. A lot of people will casually call it polish or refinement, and though it is a horribly generic term when it comes to games criticism, it is still a true statement.

Origins comes from a new developer, Rocksteady Studios opting for Warner Bros. Games Montreal to take a crack at their masterful take on the storied property. And each time they failed to design or implement some structure to meaningfully allow you to traverse the city, they also failed to give you a satisfying experience. Not just because we have a game that does it better but because it is altogether frustrating.

Batman: Arkham Origins

It seems like half the buildings don’t let you grapnel up to the tops for no other reason than just because. And all those communications towers you have to solve to unlock fast travel destinations? Not a chance. Those are no fly zones even though their entire heights are so far below the grapnel’s range and half of them are shorter than the buildings surrounding them. I don’t even recall seeing the little red circle-cross in City, but it might as well be permanently affixed to the screen in Origins.

This may not seem like a big deal, but comprehensiveness is what makes an open world game. Spider-Man 2‘s decision to attach webs to the open air if it served the flow of locomotion was a critical one because it made the world feel complete. Getting from one place to another was slick, fast, and fun. Getting to the top of any building was just a matter of you understanding how to flip your way up there, not figuring out how to cheat the game.

Then look at Grand Theft Auto V. The previous iterations were great as well, but this Los Santos is undoubted the best city Rockstar has ever crafted because of the attention to detail. There are no roads that exist in that game that, as you approach them, turn out to be unattainable mirages. And all the small stuff from the rumble strips to the crumple barriers make the city feel like something you’re intimately familiar with.

Batman: Arkham Origins

Now we have Origins. Fast travel was ostensibly added because this game world is even larger than City, but I use it even when I have to travel just a few hundred meters because I know the frustration involved in bumping into the limitations of the game’s travel mechanics. If fast travel had been in City, I wouldn’t have used it because seeing that loading sequence would have broken the visage of a complete, real city. Now I just don’t care because I don’t want to be frustrated at a game that has a lot of other good things going for it.

Yes, there is a lot of good to Origins and I’ll put all of those thoughts (and more bad ones) into a review later this week, but this little nugget I had to get off my chest immediately. It’s a new developer, sure, and you can’t expect different and better at the same time (though it’s nice when we get it), but this is still an unfortunate turn. I like Batman: Arkham Origins, but it also took one of the best parts of Batman: Arkham City and turned it into a mess.

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