Take the money or open the box? The case for and against sandbox gaming
With Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption about to mosey up round the corner and gamers still grappling around the huge country of Panau in Just Cause 2, sandbox games are extremely popular.
But is everything fine in the sandbox; or are these types of titles getting too big for their cowboy boots? Here, we take a quick look at the good, bad and ugly points of open world gaming.
Sandbox games have a surprisingly long heritage. Even some games for the ZX Spectrum began to widen gamers’ horizons with titles like The Lords of Midnight introducing vast lands you could choose how to explore. A natural fit for the RPG genre, games such as Daggerfall took the concept further still, allowing the player freedom to explore – and play – the game as they wanted (within the obvious technical limitations of the time).
More recently, games such as Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto have defined the style of open-world game we know today: huge, living and breathing environments within which players carve out their own paths, free to follow or completely ignore often tenuously thin plotlines.
So, what are the negative points?
First, a sandbox game requires a major time investment to get the most out of. However impressive a game’s draw distance, you just know that in order to reach that mountain on the horizon or run amok amongst those far-off skyscrapers, you’re first going to have to earn your sandbox stripes. This can often involve trekking around a game’s initial environments, grinding away at menial tasks until you’re given access to the wider world. At best this can be frustrating, at worst it breaks the very illusion of immersion such titles set out to achieve.
Second is the often mind-frying complexity of your sandbox to-do list. Most modern open-world games require you to accept missions from different opposing factions, tribes, gangs or other organisations. You may find yourself running an errand for one lot whilst trying to infiltrate another as you receive a message for a third demanding you pick up their groceries…unless you’re a born multitasker, this often gets grating.
Last, is the sacrifice such games make to plot. It’s understandable, when most of the development effort has gone into creating a huge world with its own ecosystem and one which has to be able to react to a player’s often unpredictable actions. However, for those of us who love a good story to go along with our action, sandbox games often let us down, with plots being generic ’start at the bottom, defeat the ultimate baddy’ in nature. Don’t expect the emotion, pathos or characterisation of a Heavy Rain or Dragon Age here.
With those points out the way, let’s focus on the positive.
It often amazes us quite how much detail developers manage to pack into sandbox games. Non-player characters going about their own business, day / night cycles with variable weather systems, a multitude of vehicles, weapons and equipment which all behave as you’d expect them to: these games can be hugely immersive. They can feel like simulations at times – in a good way. Often, enjoyment can be had from simply standing still and watching the world ‘live’.
Next, once you accept the envelope you’re operating in, these games tend to be fun in great big capital letters. Suspend your disbelief at the action movie / comic book physics of a Just Cause 2 or a Crackdown and you’ll have a blast just playing with all the toys in the box. Want to jump off that building? Go ahead. Drive your car off a cliff and bail out at the last minute? Be our guest. In fact, and as movie clips on the web testify, a lot of enjoyment comes out of doing crazy stunts and impossible feats in the most amusing way possible.
For the role-players amongst you, the open-world game can be a sublime experience. Whilst the excellent plots of a Bioware title may bewitch and beguile, the sandbox nature of a game such as Oblivion is closest to the ‘pure’ RPG experience. You can mould your character as you see fit, specialise in skills until you’re the best in the land, choose which quests to accept…the list of possibilities goes on. In sandbox titles, you really *are* the hero / heroine of your own adventure.
So, that’s our thoughts on sandbox gaming. Love them or loathe them, they’re hugely popular and they’re here to stay. They’re pushing the boundaries of gaming, even if the games themselves can end up being frustrating. We’d love to hear what you think.
As for us, we’re dusting off our spurs and our six-guns and looking forward to galloping into the open-world Wild West of Red Dead Redemption. Even if it means shooting a few hundred vultures before we’re allowed to saddle up our horse.