Doing Open Worlds Right

With Horizon: Forbidden West coming out, I decided to pick up the first title (Horizon: Zero Dawn) and give it a whack. Well, you can tell by it being the subject that it either really impressed me or really made me angry. Now, normally in this column I go into how things anger me so much I throw my controller like I’m trying to score a Hail Mary. This time however, it was the opposite of blood boiling rage.

This game has almost built the perfect open world.

Like many games such as Grand Theft Auto, The Ubisoft Sandbox (for there is only one), and Red Dead Redemption, you go to the icon on the map and do a thing. There are also collectables de jour and optional side quests to go on. So, what separated Horizon from, say, Far Cry? I am a huge Far Cry fan and usually showed it as my example of a great sandbox. Well, truthfully, I think it comes down to how Horizon rethought the formula and went back to fundamentals. Below are a few reasons why I think Horizon had a better environment than most AAA open world games:

1. Little Wasted Space

Bustling scenes in settlements in Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon focuses on the exploration of the world as opposed to doing missions in a city. I was just given a point and I could go there however I wanted. Combine that with the fact that killing machines along the way gives you much needed experience, it made me want to forgo fast travel and even riding a mount to explore and massacre machines. Games like Far Cry have colossal maps, but a lot of empty space. Far Cry has open space with nothing but their beautiful environment, but rarely a reason to explore once you have already hunted whatever animal you needed skin from. Horizon is great proof that sometimes less is more.

2. No deluge of side missions

Elephants can become your best friends in Far Cry 4, with an early skill that let you ride these massive tanks into battle.

Most open world games have a habit of loading the users down with a metric ton of side missions. My wife is playing Elex and the number of quests they have given her is enough to give me anxiety. Some of these games will have six people giving you six different side quests that can take a considerable amount of time. Many of the side quests in Horizon are head to a location that isn’t too far away and deal with a machine or protect some people. There are no radio towers to climb to open your map up, upgrades like improved overrides and rare modifications can be found through exploration.

3. No Moral Choice/Faction Choice System

This is pretty much box standard in any AAA open world game now. You either have to play a character hard one way to get rewards (Paragon/Renegade in Mass Effect as an example) or choose a faction that is extreme in one way or another. Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation refers to this choice as “Fascists vs. Nutters” and he isn’t too far off. Far Cry 4 is a great example of both options not being ideal and the whole faction thing ends up taking a backseat to everything else. Horizon doesn’t make you liberate enemy territories or have to butter up to a faction as part of the story. It just focuses on Aloy and her journey and doesn’t shovel in unnecessary busywork for the player.

This piece isn’t so much cheerleading for Horizon as it is pointing to it and asking for more games that follow those fundamentals. More games that are open world, but still narrative/character focused. Not making a world gigantic only to fill it with a lot of empty space that the player doesn’t want to traverse.

And please, please can we do away with the moral choice/faction choice for a little while. Or at least, can we update it a little, so it is not completely cartoonish. Everyone is tired of Nazi’s vs. Hippies… although that sounds like a cheap knockoff of Plants vs. Zombies so I should try to make that and see if anyone buys it.

Thanks for reading and make sure to check out the podcast with fellow columnist Vincent. We recently had a show discussing NFT’s in gaming. Stay safe everyone.

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