Open World, Empty Gameplay

Bigger is always better, right? The larger your house, the more successful you are. The higher your IQ, the smarter you come across (sometimes, maybe…I don’t know. I’m not burdened with this issue). When you order food, you Dragon Age™: Inquisition_20141116211759want a huge helping instead of a small serving. If a game contains a copious expanse of land, a million doodads to collect, endless supply of foes and a plethora of side quests, that means more time with a beloved product, right? Well, that’s what I used to believe, but we should reevaluate this stance.

While playing Dragon Age: Inquisition and Far Cry 4, I was forced to admit that the vast, explorable world was actually empty and didn’t add anything meaningful to the gameplay. Not only that, it eventually became distracting more than immersive.

I would pull up the map, evaluate the landscape and set the nearest event, collectible or side quest as my next destination. In charting the most direct course, either a straight line or following the paved roads, I’d oftentimes find my goal still out of reach. I’d be at the base of a mountain, only to find that the objective was, or I was missing an item or actually should have taken a winding, secret passage to reach my goal. The map and path system failed me. No evaluation of my available equipment or changes in elevation were taken into account. Though it appeared as an available goal, the reality was that that particular segment of the map was meant for an endgame player. I spent time (the most important resource) running in circles like a mouse not able to reach the center of the maze.

Best case scenario, my journey would reward me with exactly what I sought: widget 1 of 100. Only 99 more to Far Cry 4 Mapcompletion! But there were still another 58 thingamajigs, 84 doohickeys, 24 doodads and 6 golden-epic-rarity randomly generated collectables to discover. While not necessary for gameplay, they could offer stat benefits, unlockable equipment, achievements or provide avenues to advance the story a small portion, but they weren’t fun to collect on their own. Instead of finding these objects because it was part of the narrative, I was doing it to fill up a progress bar. I was no longer playing the game; I was just completing chores to receive an allowance.

Another challenge I experienced was that there were too many activities available on the map and within the story. It’s difficult to take the threat of impending doom seriously when a local villager is asking for you to kill five wolves within an alcove. Really!? That’s what I should focus my attention on at this very moment? Could none of the NPC-adventurers who roam this village (who will in fact offer their help on my quest near the final battle), not have taken care of this earlier? Guess I’ll drop everything and run to this cave, which I passed eight times already to kill some wolves that spawned for the first time, just because you and I had a conversation.

The traditional quest structure no longer works. As described with the wolves, there becomes an artificial lengthening of gameplay as you backtrack the environment. The world will already take you hours to explore every DA Hinterlandsgrotto, hidden treasure or enemy camp. To stretch the experience further, the structure of how missions begin and end causes unnecessary traversal over the same landscapes. Couldn’t I just use the walky-talky, messenger pigeon or magic to let the requester know I plucked ten flowers? In FC4, it would be beneficial to collect every quest, circle around the area to complete them and drop them off for rewards. Instead, each outpost becomes an area you constantly revisit to set off on the next escapade. DA:I is even worse. You might clear an area of missions, only to be asked to return to that same section of the map for a single sidequest, and then ten hours later you’ll revisit that same area again. The game doesn’t respect your time. The missions could be streamlined, but instead you are constantly forced to retrace your steps.

Exploring the land isn’t fun. Fighting enemies, completing quests and searching for widgets is only a fraction of the game. Most of the time, you run around with nothing to actually do except hold “up” on the analog stick. The area is beautifully crafted, the characters move smoothly, but it is an empty, meaningless experience. The parts you remember are the times when you are actively engaged with the world, but there is a lot of dead time in between as you journey. In FC4 especially, travel is so monotonous that you can hop in a vehicle and turn on the autodrive function. You don’t even have to be present as the computer controls movement for two minutes.

The vastness of the world ends up being a detriment to the gameplay experience. Infamous: Second Son and Shadow of Mordor are considered open world games but they don’t have the same problems as previous examples. The world FC4 AutoDriveis smaller, more manageable and exploration isn’t the experience but just another gameplay mechanic. You can quickly move into each sector of the map through a myriad of fast travel points. Each area feels like a level that is laid next to each other, like rooms in Legend of Zelda, as opposed to an open span of land. There is the visual of a sprawling world, but action is always within reach. These games aren’t defined by their open world, but make good usage of their design.

If the world was smaller, the mechanics could be enjoyed more often. I would prefer to constantly be engaged with the mission and next goal. What’s great about Infamous is that there is something to do within ten seconds of your current location; its missions are streamlined and convenient. I think that if every time I set up camp over the next hill was another task I would have stayed with DA:I or FC4 longer.

I’m not advocating for these entries to metamorphose into different games or to adjust their gorgeous horizons, stop and smell the roses approach for a faster-paced race to the end. That’s not the game these designers set out to make. But I do think they should reimagine the environments, crafting them to be more intuitive, and better evaluate collectibles and quests to be meaningful and less reliant on backtracking.


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