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Editorial

Exploration Games, Past and Future

       There's something to be said for giving the player the ability to roam freely in a world-space and not have it get boring after the first 10 minutes. Sadly, with the great AAA creativity drought of 2014, we didn't get very much in the way of inspired beauty, applied imagination. Or really anything else required to make a game interesting enough to wander aimlessly for hours on end; And I for one really missed that feeling. Luckily, the 2015/16 launch period looks to be showing a lot of interesting games in the exploration/sandbox genre that I am very excited for. But what would make them a good sandbox game?

What really sets open-world sandbox games apart from all others is the sheer vastness. It's always the first thing that strikes you. If one looks at No Man's Sky, for example, the scale of that game really feels near infinite. Now of course that's an exaggeration, but if you look at gameplay videos then it's certainly the feeling you get. It's truly fantastic to see a new space exploration game with this kind of scale that could easily stand next to or even up against games like Elite: Dangerous and Eve: Online. Of course, you don't need a universe to play in to really feel like the world is your oyster, look at games like Skyrim or Just Cause. It's games like these that prove that sometimes, just a small slice of the world to do with as you please will suffice. Having huge areas to explore really stuns the player from the word go, installing a sense of wonderlust that sticks with them as they continue onwards.

One of the many planets in "No Man's Sky"

Of course, it's not enough to have square footage ad infinitum. The true test of an open world exploration/sandbox game is just that: exploration. This is where I think of games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter stand out from the line up. The game drops you in to a world in which you can, (within reason) explore pretty much anything you can see in the distance in your own time and in your own way. What you find though may have nothing to do with the story. The point of exploring the landscape away from the trail, in that game is to take the scenic route. When you run off of the beaten path, and stumble on to a rocky outcropping, the views you see of places that ARE relevant to the story are just breathtaking and really shows off what the developers can do with the engine. It's not just square footage, but enough things to do and see within the square footage to keep me wanting more. This also seems to be true of games such as Journey, or the upcoming Firewatch. What they lack in scale, they more than make up for in beautifully populated landscapes filled with little gems to discover, if you don't mind going out of your way to find them.

One of the many views of the terrain in "Firewatch"

          Now, the one thing that splits the genre of the open world sandbox apart is the multiplayer feature. The line between a multiplayer sandbox and an MMO will always a blurry, grey one; but to those who can master the difference between the two go the spoils. Take Journey again, for instance. Journey is a game in which strangers show up to guide you through the vast planes to find buried treasure and that's all the multiplayer it needs. Elite: Dangerous is another great example, in which you and a group of friends join together with the capacity explore every inch of the game's universe. Games like this in which you and a small group of other, real humans can achieve the endgame together always bring such a higher sense of reward than a lot of games that offer single player only campaigns. You and your group won. Your team. You all came together and worked out a way in which you could find the hidden treasure, plot a course to the new, undiscovered planet or take down that arse of a final boss, and it really gives eveyone involved something to talk about and reminisce. Of course, there's nothing wrong with sandbox MMO's either, as they do this but on a much larger scale. From the hundreds of thousands playing EVE:Online, to the millions of people playing World of Warcraft; there's hours of play time. With tonnes of player interaction that would otherwise never have happened in the real world. At the end of it all, I think we can all agree that exploring a world with both friends and/or strangers is far better than wandering that space ahead alone.

Eve: Online has hundreds of thousands of players

           With hardware these days being so powerful. It isn't surprising that we're seeing so many huge exploration based sandbox titles creeping on to the radar, and I'm very happy to see that the majority of these games are definitely worth looking out for. There's something to be said for a Dev team that takes on games of this scale and it's a testament to their skill and dedication when they can pull something of this magnitude off. The 2015/16 release period is going to be a good one for open world games, maybe even the best it's ever been. So I for one cannot wait to see what the next two years have in store for us in this genre. Watch this space people. This vast, densely populated space.


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