One of the trends I’ve noticed pick up steam these past couple of years has been the rise of open world games. The Far Cry series in particular has become synonymous with them, but there’s plenty of other examples, including Dragon Age: Inquisition, the GTA series, Red Dead Redemption, Watch Dogs, the Saint’s Row series, and probably a dozen more you could name off the top of your head. Some of these were actually pretty damn good, with something like Red Dead Redemption receiving almost universal acclaim across the board. Many of the others though just felt like their open world was tacked onto the game as a feature simply because it’s part of the zeitgeist.
The best example I can think of of an open world game that really didn’t need it was Dragon Age: Inquisition. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some BioWare RPGs even though they have been of decidedly mixed quality since their takeover by EA. I wouldn’t call Inquisition a bad game, but at the same time I wouldn’t say it was a great game, either. A great deal of the side missions that send you all over the world are completely average. The game puts you at the head of an organisation where you are looking at the big picture and making weighty geopolitical decisions over things that truly matter – so why does it then ask me to personally collect blankets for refugees? Or find herbs that will cure one sick person? These sorts of side-quests to pad out the game’s content actually make me feel like less of a badass because I’m being bothered by trivial minutiae instead of the epic storyline of the game.
And while being sent all over Inquisition‘s world can be an annoyance, the aesthetics of the world itself are amazing. There are beautiful deserts, lush waterfalls, dense forests – each as distinctive as they are intricate. And there’s nothing like finding some obscure quest in a little-trod part of the world to give you the thrill of seeing what not a lot of people have probably gotten around to. On the whole though it just feels like designing these dozen or so massive zones – which wouldn’t exactly feel out of place in an MMO like World of Warcraft – added a good year or two to the development of the game without getting a whole lot in return. To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins out of context: it feels like butter scraped over too much bread. If you look closely enough you can see some of the holes underneath.
Given that BioWare have already stated that Mass Effect Andromeda is going to be heading in this same “open world” direction, I worry they’re going to make the same mistake with that game, too. I don’t need an open world if the narrative of your storyline is good enough. I don’t need you to provide an extra 30+ hours of content running side-missions if all it does is remind me that I’m nowhere near as cool as I think I am. This isn’t me hating on open worlds as a whole. Done right, and by a developer experienced in the genre, they can be truly exceptional. Rockstar have basically got the idea down pat, and Red Dead Redemption is one of the finest examples of an open world game you will ever see. With The Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red have also crafted what many are saying is one of the best open world games in recent memory, too. And Ubisoft did some very cool things with both Far Cry 3 and 4 when it came to including things off the beaten track for people to find without making it feel like you were just treading water, waiting for the next “main” thing to happen.
Like “gimmick” celebrity voice acting, turning games into franchises to be milked like a cow, and adding social media interactivity to your titles, open world gaming is merely the latest buzzword that marketers are using. It can be done well, it can be done poorly, but it most certainly doesn’t need to be in every other game, especially if it adds time but not a lot of worthwhile content. Dragon Age: Inquisition did not need to be an open world title, and I felt was a worse game for having shoehorned it in.
When it comes to an RPG world as beloved as Dragon Age‘s, BioWare and other developers need to understand that “more” does not always mean “better”.