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"
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.