Weekend Hot Topic, part 1: Best open worlds in games

GameCentral readers discuss their favourite open world environments, from Zelda: Breath Of The Wild to Fallout: New Vegas.

The subject for this week’s Hot Topic was suggested by reader Talon and follows debate over whether open world games are becoming too predictable and too bloated with filler content. Is that something you agree with and what do you think are the best and worst examples?

A lot of people tried to avoid mentioning Red Dead Redemption 2 and Breath Of The Wild but although they were the most popular choices there were also more obscure picks, including Trails Of Cold Steel and Just Cause.

Never-ending world
Red Dead Redemption 2 may be prettier and Zelda: Breath Of The Wild more interactive but I’ve got to say Skyrim for this. You only have to look at how many times the game has been remade and revamped to see the amazing appeal of the game and it’s open world.

Skyrim is nine years old in November and it’s not only still being played now but it’s being added to via fan mods and still appearing on new formats and with new tech like VR. I’ve actually lost track of how many times I’ve completed the game (I think it’s four) but I would happily do it again and I’m sure it will.

There’s something about the layout of a good open world that very few developers get exactly right. You want it big, sure, but you also want it memorable and something you can navigate through just by memory and landmarks. Bethesda understood that for Skyrim at least and Rockstar are masters at it, but Ubisoft I’d say have always been pretty bad, despite so many copying them.

Making a point
For me the setting of Santa Destroy in No More Heroes made me think of open worlds far more critically than I had done. Since then I divide open world games into those that have properly crafted and constructed worlds integral to the game, and those like Santa Destroy which are just hub worlds for the levels that the action takes place in.

I guess Suda51 was making a statement about the state of open worlds and their lack of interactivity at the time, and things have got better since. But then, I do exclusively own Nintendo consoles, so I feel that open world games are less of an issue for me than those who play on the other formats.

Looks aren’t everything
Probably not the most well-known series in the West (however thanks for reviewing all the games – led to me getting hooked) but Trails Of Cold Steel has probably not the best looking, but certainly the most detailed open world I’ve played.

The sheer amount of characters that update after every main story part, the freedom to pick your party, the hidden quests that you have to find – I certainly found it the most engaging open world game out of all I’ve played recently.

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Balancing act
It might have been a buggy mess most of the time but the one I always remember most fondly is Fallout: New Vegas. As far as I’m concerned it’s the best Fallout and I do not understand why we’ve never had a remaster or remake. If it’s because Bethesda are embarrassed that everyone likes it more than their own games then that is just tragic – but probably true.

Although it’s designed well enough I was really disappointed with how small the map was in Fallout 5 and while the one in New Vegas probably wasn’t any bigger physically, what with being on old hardware, it felt far more like the endless wasteland that the series has always been about. Getting anywhere felt like a real effort and simply hiking about required skill and preparation.

Open worlds must be a tricky thing to design because on the one hand you want them to be as big as possible but then on the other you don’t want too much hassle getting around. Balancing those two things with things like vehicle/animal transport and fast travel is really difficult and very few games get it 100% right.

I was particularly not impressed by Ghost Of Tsushima allowing you to fast travel instantly between almost any point of interest – I never ended up learning the map because of it and lost interest a lot sooner than I would’ve.

Intrinsically fun
Marvel’s Spider-Man had a good one I thought, even if all of his games are always set in the same place. I thought it was the most realistic depiction of a normal modern city we’ve seen in an open world game though and that was really important. The way every building seemed to have proper windows with things inside them was really impressive and the game somehow managed to avoid looking like it had been cut and paste or created by AI (I assume both were involved, in reality).

Importantly, getting around the world was intrinsically fun, since Spidey comes with his own unique locomotion system and you don’t have to worry about walking or driving or anything as boringly mundane as that.

I thought the game had problems in other areas – the sub-Arkham combat and overly serious plot that still managed to not be about anything in particular – but the open world is great and I actually look forward to it being reused in Miles Morales.

All world, no game
I’ve always been a big fan of the Just Cause games and they all have great open worlds. In fact, they’re almost nothing but open worlds as they’re pretty light on story and interesting missions. That doesn’t matter if all you want to do is mess around though and that’s what I enjoy.

I’d say they’re one of the few modern games that are a proper sandbox game, in that you just do what you want and the game world and enemies react to you on the fly. That’s something I thought there’s be a lot more of nowadays but it’s actually become rarer. Maybe next gen?

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The special one
The best open world game to date has been Hyrule in Zelda: Breath Of The Wild. It’s not even a close contest and I see the sequel as the best chance of it being beaten.

(Cyberpunk 2077 will be a front runner for some but, for me, the developers will have to have learned a huge amount since The Witcher 3 if it’s to take the trophy, and what I’ve seen so far of the obnoxious tone and atmosphere hasn’t yet convinced me.)

Plenty of other open worlds are more visually stunning than the latest Hyrule but the detail is usually only surface level. Even when there’s an impressive amount of interactivity, it either gets in the way because of some misguided appeal to authenticity (Red Dead Redemption 2) or the sandbox factor is a bit meaningless or disconnected to actual rewarding gameplay objectives (Bethesda and Ubisoft worlds).

What makes Breath Of The Wild so special is the amount of work that went into every corner of the world, with so much consideration given to what you might be drawn to if you looked around on the brow of a grassy slope or what would happen if you experimented with some oddities in the environment. It’s always about discovery and exploration, the player’s ownership of these and the rewards for indulging in those elements. Breath Of The Wild seems to have been the only game that has bothered to deconstruct what really constitutes exploration and discovery in modern open world gaming.

Selecting one map icon out of hundreds on your screen, then having magical sat nav handhold you till you get there – only to find the main distinction in content from the last 10 times you did this is the story context – is neither exploration nor discovery. At best it’s an emulation of these. The work and talent required to make the real appeal of open worlds feel organic is probably the reason other games focus so much on script and story to cover up the fact that the gameplay loops don’t extend beyond about two or three hours of interesting content. As such, the relative lack of story and dialogue in Breath Of The Wild almost felt to me like a deliberate statement.

Some people prefer to be explicitly led and they really didn’t get on with Breath Of The Wild but to this day it continues to show where other devs – even the most celebrated ones – to some extent squander the opportunities offered by open worlds, beyond some superficial novelties.

So what could Breath Of The Wild have improved upon? Aside from certain visual elements (a recommendation that would slightly undermine my argument, although some of the rock textures were disappointingly low res, even by Wii U standards) my main suggestion is even less copy and paste content. There were probably enough ideas to warrant maybe a quarter of the overall Korok seeds and maybe two thirds of the shrines, although when I consider what we got overall, any improvement requests almost feel like too much to ask.

But, really, just more of the same intangible creative genius that made newly discovered content feel fresh, interesting and exciting even when you’ve already got 100+ hours under your belt is as specific as I can get.

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The small print
New Inbox updates appear every weekday morning, with special Hot Topic Inboxes at the weekend. Readers’ letters are used on merit and may be edited for length.

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