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Sandbox games are looking nicer but they keep making last-gen mistakes

Far Cry 4, Assassin's Creed: Unity, GTA 5, Watch Dogs and inFamous: Second Son are just a few new-gen sandbox games that make expansive, organic worlds shine on PS4 and Xbox One. However, VG247's Dave Cook is worried that the genre is in danger of repeating several last-gen mistakes.

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”New-gen sandbox games can look as nice as developers like, but without context and a solid reason to be raising all that hell, the impact gets diluted.”

Cast your mind back to the first sandbox game you ever played, and think of just how awe-inspiring it was to take those initial, daunting steps into that living world. Those who played GTA 3 at launch will no doubt remember just how revolutionary it was. Players could go anywhere, do anything, be anybody they wanted. It was a watershed moment for the medium.

Suddenly, the path from first mission to completion wasn't carved in stone. Everyone had their own unique stories to tell, like the time they found the Dodo in Liberty City, to stumbling across a downed UFO in Fallout 3's vast wasteland. These personal, tailored experiences are yours to own, lending both weight and ownership to the hero's journey.

If anything, the next wave of new-gen sandbox games should propel the genre into a new age of prosperity. However, the last few years have shown that although the illusion of living play-spaces has grown more tangible, developers of these titles keep making old mistakes. In some cases they're looking nicer but growing too familiar to feel innovative.

Let's have a look at that shall we?

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The whole 'territorial control' thing is getting old

I don't know about you but I'm personally getting a bit tired of playing sandbox games that ask you to relinquish enemy control over a portion of the map by taking out an outpost or map. Doing so will probably reduce enemy presence in the area, open up fast-travel and reveal new points of interest on your map. The same goes for climbing up to high points in the Assassin's Creed series. I've climbed up things and synced so many times now. Make it stop.

”The last few years have shown that although the illusion of living play-spaces has grown more tangible, developers of these titles keep making old mistakes.”

The problem isn't bottle-necking gamers into the outpost battles themselves, but in the familiarity of it all. Far Cry 3 had garrisons and radio towers to liberate and reveal segments of the map, but the process was largely the same every time.

inFamous: Second Son had DUP control points that, while offering skirmishes of different size and severity, still felt a tad monotonous by the end. These things are optional, but that shouldn't be an excuse for 'copy-paste' content.

In Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, I made my first order of business defeating all of the naval fort encounters and fast travel points so that the rest of the game was a breeze. There comes a point that you just can't be arsed having your ship attacked at sea on the way to a story mission, so what do you do? You chase these outposts to reduce the chance of that happening. Some may like this, but its not for me.

GTA 4

TL;DR

The problem with some sandbox games is that the narrative simply can't hold it together across the span of their colossal run time. I always felt that the earlier GTA titles suffered from this problem. Sure, some of the latter missions in Vice City and San Andreas are truly memorable, and GTA 4's 'Three Leaf Clover' mission is worth the price of admission, but those stand-out quests are grouted with rote chores like 'pick up this guy,' or 'kill this dude.'

”Assassin’s Creed’s flags are a good example of wasted real estate, offering players the chance to seek out over 300 of them in exchange for simple achievements.”

GTA 5 managed to keep its plates spinning by the end credits because you actively wanted to play through the next mission to see Rockstar's next ludicrous and frequently hilarious cut-scene, and this was ramped up when you worked your way towards one of the game's big heists. All of the core missions seemed to bear great relevance to the main story. They mattered.

Fallout: New Vegas handled this particular issue well by adding a degree of purpose to each of its main and side quests. Very rarely did I feel that Obsidian was just chucking pointless content at my face to beef up the RPG's running time. New-gen sandbox games can look as nice as developers like, but without context and a solid reason to be raising all that hell, the impact gets diluted.

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All filler, no killer

Sandbox games are large and they're only getting bigger. Of course, developers can't fill those spaces with blockbuster, border-to-border content given how expensive these projects can be, but it can be really obvious when a studio has just dumped something largely redundant in there to flesh out its offering. Assassin's Creed's flags are a good example of wasted real estate, offering players the chance to seek out over 300 of them in exchange for simple achievements.

”Crackdown did exploration right with its Agility Orb collectibles which, while numerous, actually served to improve your agents jumping potential.”

Crackdown did this a bit better with its Agility Orb collectibles which, while numerous, actually served to improve your agents jumping potential. Watch Dogs has collectible clues and QR codes to help Aiden unlock new quests, and so on. In fact, Assassin's Creed 2's Subject 16 glyphs may have been among the best of these collectible side distractions, thanks to the incredible video unlocked at the end. Special points should also go to the Batman Arkham Riddler puzzles.

It's all well and good making a photo-realistic landscape for players to enjoy, but some of us - not all of us of course - will likely ignore filler or slog through it for the sake of completion. Content of this nature often feels included by obligation and more like a chore than something you actively want to engage in. I reckon that sandboxes should strive for quantity over quality where possible, but we're all different.

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Welcome to Monotony Island

Red Dead Redemption is a fine game. I remember being in awe as Marston crossed into Mexico to 'Far Away' by Jose Gonzales as the sound of babbling water and clopping hooves echoed across that dusty, sun-baked terrain. It's a magical moment in videogame history, one that I felt was diluted once I was asked to do more of the same menial tasks over the border. The overall game is superb though, I need to stress that again as I know a lot of you out there are fans. I'm right there with you.

”Your resources as so stocked that the whole currency mechanic becomes redundant. Watch Dogs saw me siphoning funds from civilians like a portly gent tearing into a pudding supper.”

I used to get really excited whenever I unlocked a new island in the PS2 GTA titles, only to encounter the same issues. Essentially, it was the same s**t in a different place, and that has stretched my patience thin in quite a few games. It's easy to criticise as a player, but when I try to think of ways developers could remedy this issue I start to struggle.

I guess it's a question of narrative keeping the missions and your reason for unlocking new areas both relevant and urgent. Aside from one or two decent missions, GTA 4's final island was when things started to fall apart for me. It took me years to finish that game because I simply couldn't be bothered with it any more, but I've stuck with others right to the end - hello Saints Row 4 - so I guess it all depends on the game itself.

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Money for old rope

I don't think I bought a single thing in Assassin's Creed 3. This isn't a problem specific to Ubisoft sandboxes, but there comes a point in some sandbox games where you basically don't need to buy anything either again, or for a very long time. Your resources as so stocked that the whole currency mechanic becomes redundant. Watch Dogs saw me siphoning funds from civilians like a portly gent tearing into a pudding supper.

”Where Niko stumbles is that he staunchly bleats on about wanting to be a good guy and to leave his criminal past behind, only for the player to have him whack some innocent pedestrians with a shotgun.”

There was simply no need for me to worry about cash, trade in loot at stores or worry about earning my bucks through other means. GTA games get a bit like that too, although GTA Online's GTA$ currency has greater significance than its offline counter-part. All I'm saying is there's no point in dropping mechanics into a sandbox if they largely mean very little. The same goes for Assassin's Creed 3's hunting. What was that about?

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Hypocrite!

Aiden Pearce is not a hypocrite, because he's firmly established as an anti-hero with a skewed moral compass from the first moment we see him. Many people feel he lacks personality, but at least his motivations are never called into question. The same can't be said for GTA 4's Niko Bellic. Because players are given near-unbound freedom in sandboxes, it's hard to craft a narrative that shifts depending on what kind of players we are.

”As a player the illusion of freedom is broken once the character starts professing to be something other than what we’ve made them.”

But where Niko stumbles is that he staunchly bleats on about wanting to be a good guy and to leave his criminal past behind, only for the player to have him whack some innocent pedestrians with a shotgun.

There is no penalty for that action, no shift in his demeanour as a response, and certainly little in the way of narrative repercussion. Sucker Punch dodged that issue in inFamous: Second Son by including a karma system, while Far Cry 3 never brought morality to the table until the very end.

It can be easy to connect with a character in a sandbox game because they are essentially us. Some of us would feel genuinely bad slaying a group of digital NPCs between missions, so we choose not to, while others will simply wade in with a grin unloading buckshot into the nearest back they can find. Call that image disturbing if you will, but it happens, and as a player the illusion of freedom is broken once the character starts professing to be something other than what we've made them.

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In this article

Assassin's Creed Unity

PS4, Xbox One, PC

Batman: Arkham Knight

PS4, Xbox One, PC

See 4 more

Crackdown

Xbox 360

Far Cry 4

PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Grand Theft Auto IV

PS3, Xbox 360, PC

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About the Author
Dave Cook avatar

Dave Cook

Contributor

Dave worked on VG247 for an extended period manging much of the site's news output. As well as his experience in games media, he writes for comics, and now specializes in books about gaming history.

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