Musings on Open World Gameplay

Posted on July 24, 2013 by richardgoulter
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Just completed Far Cry 3. Very fun.
Anyhow, the games which have the highest number-of-hours-played on my Steam account are what you’d call “Open World” games. In this case, Saints Row the Third, and Just Cause 2.

These 3 games each have a lot in common; and while they’re all quite a lot of fun (for probably the same reasons), they each have a slightly different approach to the open-world formula they follow; and none of them have everything which would make them a notch above the others.

So, here are my musings and comparisons of these three games.

1. Setting

In terms of general setting, Saints Row is set in a city, and you play as a gangster, and both Just Cause and Far Cry are set in an archipelagoes somewhere in the Pacific.
The environments don’t necessarily distinguish the games from each other, though; they’re all action-shooter games. Far Cry is first-person, the others third.

What these games share in the open-world formula is primarily the ability to go wherever-you-want in the world (when not on a mission). But these games also share the concept of taking-over and conquering the island/city. (“the game world”, let’s say).
You start off as just a wee powerless peon and work your way up to be the king.

2. Progressing

So, in terms of how this conquest is made varies in each game.

Far Cry has the most violent interpretation of conquest here.
In terms of conquerable territory, the Far Cry islands are populated with Outposts and Radio Towers.
Radio Towers determine map visibility. Once you activate a radio tower, the map for its surrounding area is revealed. (To activate the tower, the challenge is a bit of first-person platforming).
Whichever faction occupies an Outpost determines what combatants are to be found in its surrounding area. Good Outpost = good guys in the area. Baddie Outpost = bad guys in the area (so you need to be on guard while exploring).
The violent bit is that to conquer an outpost, you have to kill all the enemies in the outpost.
– These mechanics lead to the dynamic of sneaking/rushing to a radio-tower, activating it, then conquering the outpost in the newly-revealed region.

Just Cause 2’s conquerable-territory is quite a mixed bag.
The bigger conquerable elements are Fortresses; to conquer a fortress, you have to complete a mission (pretty much identical for each fortress) which involves escorting a team through the fortress, and defending them while they capture it. Quite action-y here.
Having a fortress means Allied-Factions will join in on fighting in the area.
To a lesser extent, there are hundreds of smaller territories in Just Cause which can be ‘completed’. For the most part this isn’t exactly conquest, but certain things such as destroying radio masts supposedly have effects on how the enemy can fight.

Saints Row’s conquerable territory is the most diverse scheme here.
Many territories are ‘conquered’ by buying the territory. Some things which can be bought also include shops (for weapons, vehicles, clothes, etc.).
Some territories are conquered by killing a group of enemies in the area.
The remaining territories are completed by completing an activity/mission for that territory.
- The most important of these territories would be “pent houses”, which are loosely equivalent to the outposts of Far Cry, or the fortresses of Just Cause.

These three games also differ in the ambiance of enemies which remain in a conquered territory.
In Far Cry, once an outpost is captured, there are no more enemies for the area.
In Saints Row, there is usually at least one enemy to be found about the place. (And provoking a fight means they reinforce).
In Just Cause, there’re always enemies more/less everywhere (except the captured fortresses).
– Only in Far Cry, though, will the enemies fight without the player initiating the fight.

Of these, Far Cry’s is the best; the mechanic to conquer, in a shooting game, is by shooting stuff.
Just Cause’s isn’t bad, but the player never really conquers anything which has a strong impact.
Saints Row’s is frustratingly bad. The activities in Saints Row play as minigames, and constrain the player. For all the hours I’ve put into Saints Row, I’ve not conquered the whole map because I can’t play the damn-minigames so well. The minigames detract from the game, I feel, in that I’m wanting to “get back to the game” when I’m playing the minigames.

3. Getting Around

In an open world, it would be painful to have to walk from one end of a huge world to the other end. (Especially if there’s no gameplay in between).
The level of mitigating this varies from game to game.

Far Cry 3 lets you Fast-Travel to outposts you’ve unlocked. (Teleports you there).
In terms of less-instant travel, you can find cars or hang-gliders about the place; and in the later half of the game, you get a cool wingsuit/parachute ability which can make going down a hill less tedious.

Just Cause’s equivalent of Fast-Travel is being teleported to the sky above a previously visited location (e.g. village, military outpost, harbor, etc.).
And there are vehicles (cars, bikes, boats, helicopters, planes) to hijack.
But the best thing about getting around in Just Cause 2 (perhaps the best thing about the game) is the grappling hook and parachute combination.
It’s a lot of fun to go short distances using the grappling-hook and parachute. It’s not at all realistic, but you have an infinite number of parachutes which you can use at any moment; and the grappling hook will pull you (at great speed!) to what you grappled at. In tandem, you grapple something to gain speed, then pull a parachute to fly. (Flying at speed = fun).
The grapple also makes hijacking vehicles easy; and it makes getting around buildings simple. (Want to get to the rooftop? Just grapple there!).

Saints Row lacks the equivalent of a Fast-Travel.
However, vehicles in Saints Row are fantastic.
Like Just Cause, you can hijack a vehicle. And driving is a lot of fun, also. But what makes getting around with vehicles good in Saints Row is that you can store the vehicle you’re driving in a garage you own. Once in the garage, even if you blow up or lose the vehicle, you can get the vehicle back again for free. From any garage.
Similar for helicopters (stored on helipads, not in garages).

– The downside, perhaps, of this mechanic is that it means as soon as you have an awesome vehicle stored, there’s no need to preserve the vehicle (and so no pressure to do so).
The dynamic being that, once you get the fastest plane/helicopter, that becomes the quickest way to get from A to B; you’ll end up just flying to the destination and abandoning the helicopter. The vehicle loses value.
On the whole, I love this aspect of Saints Row, and it’s an example of something I wish Just Cause had; having a garage/helipad so as to freely get a vehicle you own. (In Just Cause, you can ‘buy’ a vehicle, but you only get the one vehicle, not free copies of it).
(Far Cry wouldn’t necessarily benefit from such a feature, since vehicles don’t play a huge role in getting around the island, and vehicles are littered about the island anyway).

4. Money

Far Cry 3 had money mostly used for buying weapons, ammo and attachments; maps (for collectibles) could also be bought from the store.
You get money for selling collected items. Loot to sell can be found from enemies, once killed, or from chests scattered about the world.
Other ways of making money were by doing activities. (Activities which involved lightly-constrained shooting; e.g. use weapon X to kill target Y; not unrelated minigames).
There were minigames, though: e.g. Poker (bet money to win money, playing Poker), or target-shooting with knives or shotguns, or racing around; these make up the activities you’d use to farm for currency.

Just Cause awards money for collecting items, completing territories, or just blowing stuff up.
I wasn’t aware of any repeatable activities which would earn money; but there’re so many collectibles in Just Cause that you’ll get an abundance of money with a bit of gameplay.

Saints Row awards its money for pretty much everything.
Anything which gives experience (e.g. killing other gangsters, completing a mission, etc.) also awards money.
A regular income is also given for each property owned; more properties = more-money-per-hour.

Of these, I like Saints Row’s idea of having some kind of regular income, which can be increased by owning more territory. (As an aside, if the expenses remain constant, then this means the player will conquer the map ‘exponentially’. I suspect what happens is that prices rise as well as how much money is earned).
Being able to farm for money is good, especially when the activity is good fun. Saints Row, I think, also has this; even though some of the activities are banal, activities where you get to cause mayhem in the streets with a tank are good fun.
A looting scheme only really makes sense with RPG elements in a game; but I’d say in an action game having to manually pick-up and sell items is rather tedious. (Far Cry 3 does some things to counter tedium; a quick-sell feature for obviously useless items, as well as a quick-ammo-refill feature mean there’s less micro-management of inventory).

5. Character Progression

All three games make some use of starting out with a rather weak character, and turning him into something much stronger.

Just Cause increases player’s maximum health for every 5 or so health collectibles found; and proficiency with weapons/vehicles similarly for their collectibles.
On the whole, though, your abilities with the grapple and parachuting and superhuman kickassery are pretty much there at the start.

Saints Row’s character is fairly stock; weapons can be upgraded during the game and all.
But what’s best about Saints Row here is the ability to purchase no-damage, infinite-ammo, etc. abilities once the player has gained enough experience. (This is designed to occur after the final levels).
That god-mode-ish ability does take the challenge out of the gameplay, but not necessarily the fun from an open-world playground.

Far Cry’s character levels up his inventory space, etc. through hunting and crafting. Which, for the RPG setting, is a pretty fun and neat way to do things.
There’re also ‘bonus abilities’, such as quicker reload times, unlocked through a skill-tree, after gaining enough experience points.

### 6. Concluding Thoughts

There’re more features/elements to an open world game than I’ve compared here. (Does the game have a story? How does it relate to the game environment? Should the world be a playground for the character, or is the character merely a pawn..).
But, uh, I enjoyed these games, and liked different bits from each of them. As game design progresses, hopefully we’ll see the best bits pilfered from the games, to the improvement of the genre.

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