"Our game's open world is so groundbreakingly big that it'll take you an hour to travel from one side of it to the other." Anyone that's followed the industry closely will have heard the prior quote before, whether it's paraded positively by a public relations person during a presentation, or typed out on an official channel like the PlayStation Blog. Developers often flaunt the size of their sandboxes like a badge of honour; it's the bullet point that makes their latest title worth buying. But is bigger really better?
Back in the days when Push Square was little more than a blog catering to a few hundred people a day, Codemasters sent us review code for a release called Fuel. It was an off-road racing game, and it had the biggest open world ever designed at the time. A quick peek at the Wikipedia page reveals that it was 5,560 square miles in size – more or less on par with the entire state of Connecticut. It was a big deal, and it formed almost the entirety of the title's marketing campaign; the pitch was that you could literally explore for hours.
The problem was that there was nothing to see. The developer – a Bordeaux-based outfit named Asobo – went on to win a Guinness World Record for the technical achievement, but reviews were mixed. Granted, it was impressive the way that you could scale the map from one end to the other without ever seeing a loading screen, but the release was empty, lifeless, and utterly devoid of things to do. Worse still, you never developed a connection to any particular segment of the setting because it was just so big.
Some titles feature content for the sake of it – it's the game design equivalent of bizarrely popular website Buzzfeed
And while titles have gotten better at populating their sandboxes with trinkets to collect and side-quests to complete, isn't this kind of busywork becoming a chore? The Crew is a good example, as its gargantuan depiction of the United States is comparable to the aforementioned release. While it has a little more going on than Fuel, though, can anyone honestly say that they enjoy scouting for satellite dishes and stopping to check in at hundreds of landmarks? It's content for the sake of it – the game design equivalent of Buzzfeed.
Compare all of this to Resident Evil, a release which has just been remastered for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3, and has a setting so small that it would barely even register on Assassin's Creed Unity's icon infested map. The Spencer Mansion is tiny, but there's beauty in its brevity, with every single carpeted corridor and locked door harbouring secrets that almost insist upon your attention. Sure, some critics may argue that there's a bit too much backtracking in the adventure, but learning the ins-and-outs of the environment is part of the package's appeal.
And you never, ever build up this connection with enormous open worlds. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has one of the best sandboxes in recent memory, and yet, once you get beyond the impressive scale of it all, you'll probably find yourself fast-travelling from settlement to settlement, probing for the meat in its otherwise vacant expanses. It's successful in conveying atmosphere, much like Grand Theft Auto V, but doesn't the tedious travel hurt the pacing of the experience once you've got past the initial allure of its technical achievement?
Meanwhile, Batman: Arkham Asylum, with its intricately woven districts, is, for many, still the pinnacle of Rocksteady's superhero series – and the biggest difference between it and its successor, Batman: Arkham City, is the scale of its open world. Similarly, consider how Jak & Daxter ditched its compact hub for the dreary vehicular playbox of Jak II: Renegade – a step back, despite the latter being a more technologically accomplished affair. In each case, the developer has assumed that bigger is better – but is that really the case?
There'll be a fair few of you shouting at this article already, screaming that you adored Los Santos and soaked up every square inch of Skyrim – and that's fine. But in demanding bigger worlds, are we actually getting better games? The factory-like output of publisher Ubisoft is sucking the soul out of its titles, and even as its worlds grow, the content inside them is getting increasingly predictable. The Spencer Mansion proves that less can be more – and we must try to remember this before we get lost in a world of empty, overly expensive environments.
Do you agree that smaller sandboxes can sometimes be better, or do you want publishers to push harder for bigger open worlds? Set a waypoint to the comments section below.
Do you prefer bigger open worlds? (91 votes)
Of course, bigger is always better
Hmm, it depends
No, there is a thing as less is more
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