It’s Tuesday, and I’m a bit hungover, so instead of doing real work I’m going to write something.
I’ve been a fan of the Dragon Age games since I picked up the first one. The story stumbles at times, and the limitations of the engine were painfully obvious, but I kept coming back for the characters and their journeys. Dragon Age: Inquisition was the first game I got for the PS4. And let me tell you, I was floored. Not by the graphics ( which were a really good intro to the PS4 ), or by the story ( which I really enjoyed ) – but by how freaking big the game world was.
The first area of the game, the Hinterlands, is so big that at first I thought the entire game would be this area, plus maybe a few small areas for special story missions. Finding out that no, it was just one of several areas of the same size just completely floored me. There are multiple posts out there that tell people ot leave the Hinterlands so they can go experience more of the game.
I’m not kidding when I say that until I saw the world map and went to my second big area, I thought I was a good third of the way through the game.
Inquisition felt like the first of a proper new generation of games. Games with actual worlds, where it felt like you were actually gallopping across the grasslands, summiting a mountain, or hiking through a swamp – rather than finding your way through a dungeon where the walls and ceiling happened to be a somewhat pretty outdoors texture.
Then a few weeks ago Horizon: Zero Dawn came out. This was a game I had pre-ordered based entirely on the world premeire video from E3 2015. I didn’t watch any of the other trailers, I knew nothing about the story, or exactly what kind of game it was – but that world premiere video had completely sold me. It was a beautiful world that I wanted to play in.
Once I got the game, I was quickly hooked. Again, here was a video game world full of adventure and mystery – and I wanted to explore. The starting area of the game felt even bigger than DA:I, and better populated. There were robot animals and dinosaurs to hunt! It made the world feel even more real, because hiding in each set of ruins, within each forest, or over the crest of the next hill could be some group of animals or brigands for me to chase, hunt, or slay.
Something that made the game feel even bigger was when I realized it was a GTA style open world – no loading screens as you transition from the starting area to the desert mesas or to the thick jungle. Those mountains in the distance? Go climb them, and see a breathtaking sunrise. That tiny bird in the distance is actually a gigantic flying bird filled with thunder and hate.
Coupled with a story that makes you want to explore every nook and cranny of this big world, Horizon is a fantastic game.
So last night I started playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. A game I’ve been looking forward to with hesitation, because Mass Effect 3 burned me pretty hard. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve replayed the entire Mass Effect series a bunch of times, along with all of the DLC. I’m a big fan. But the end of ME3 was… troubling. If you want a good long in-depth read that pretty much accurately reflects my thoughts as well, go check out Shamus Young’s novel-length series on Mass Effect – it’s a good read, seriously, go check it out.
I’d heard some things about the latest Mass Effect title, due to a bunch of people getting to play early because of reasons. The facial animations were horrendous. The game isn’t polished. It’s buggy. It sucks. Etc. Etc.
When I started playing, I tried to put all that out of my head – and I think I succeeded, because as I was going through the character creation I started to feel that excitement.
That little ball of anxiety, but in a good way? Hovering somewhere around your heart, when you’re about to experience something you hope will be awesome? I’ve felt it before. Booting up and starting Horizon: Zero Dawn. Standing in line for Doctor Strange, Rogue One, and The Force Awakens. Creating a character and starting Mass Effect 2 & 3. These are the moments when I feel… just that weird mix of child-like awe, excitement, and impatience when I’m about to experience something I’m hoping will be good – or at least, not terrible.
The first few hours of the game carried that feeling forward. I’m not going to spoil any of the story, even if it is the first part that is probably all over the internet and in hundreds of videos already.
One thing I noticed is that the first time I got to set foot on a planet that it felt… familiar. Not like I’d been there, but the way the place was structured. A somewhat linear experience, so that I could get used to the controls and mechanics – then a more open area to let me explore a bit. Once I was done exploring the area, back to a more linear experience, and then back up to the ship.
It was a familar feeling, because I had just been through this with the last big game I played: Horizon: Zero Dawn. And before that with Dragon Age: Inquisition. And probably numerous other games that aren’t coming to mind right now.
Back in Andromeda, after a bit of running around I got my own ship and could go explore. So I headed to the planet marked as part of a quest. After landing and exploring a bit, I got access to a vehicle – the successor to the much maligned Mako from Mass Effect 1
It was at this point that I started to feel… my excitement being dampened. Not extinguished – more like someone had reached over and turned the dial from 10 down to a 5 or 6.
See, now that I’ve explored a bunch of the big worlds that are possible on the PS4 ( or XBox One if that’s your jam, or the PC, even ), I’ve started to notice something.
A lot of games these days have big open worlds. The difference comes down to how they use them.
A great example of how to use an open world is Horizon. It’s got tons of variety in the game world. There’s different types of terrain – you start in a mountainous area with arboreal forests. After that, there’s some lowlands style forests & plains, then a place that reminds of the area around Mesa, Arizona.
Later on, you find the jungle section of the world, which has a completely different feel from the other areas you’ve visited. The jungle feels crowded, and your visibility is cut very short due to the abundance of plants. That contrasts nicely to the mesa & desert areas, where you can see for quite a distance – including the big giant robot monster off in the distance you should probably avoid for now.
Each of the areas has robots that will be more or less prominent. The starting area is full of more herbervores, as well as a few robots that will attack you if you get too close – but nothing too overwhelming for when you’re first starting out. The jungle, on the other hand, is full of dangerous robots; such as the one that can cloak and become invisible and loves to ruin your day.
The world is big, but it feels full of life. Along with the robots, there are animals to hunt such as rabbits, foxes, boar, and turkeys. There are bandits to fight, as well as interesting things to see and to scattered all over. It helps that the game is visually stunning, so even something as simple as running over a hill to see a river and forest before you is fun and engaging. The open world in Horizon is well-built – it’s got a polish that speaks to the care and dedication the dev team put into the game.
Contrast that with Darksiders 2, a game that has a couple of big open areas. This is a game that feels like they took the map from a failed MMO to save on dev time or budget. It’s big, but there isn’t much there. There are a few places that will have respawning monsters, but it feel rote, as if “having things to punch and slice” was more important than immersion. It feels like a game from the 90s that they just scaled the maps up by 100x and then slapped prettier graphics on top.
So if we scored each games on just how good their open world feels, I’d give Horizon a 10, and Darksiders 2 a 1, and Dragon Age: Inquisition would probably get a 6.
Why? It’s got a beautiful open world, but after traipsing across it by horseback for the 100th time it started to feel… well, like a video game. It’s not a world that feels lived in or alive. It’s a pretty board that the designers place quest markers on so that you’ll travel across it to see all the pretty.
Here’s another way to look at it: in all three games, you have a secondary method of transportation. In DA:I & Darksiders 2, you have a horse you can use to travel faster across the open world. In H:ZD, you can override robots, and some of them can be ridden like a horse.
The difference is that in Darksiders 2 the horse is mandatory – otherwise you’ll be spending at least three times as much time traversing the world. In DA:I, I’d say the horse isn’t required, but comes highly recommended. The game is pretty enough that the first few times travelling through the big open areas is fun, but eventually they wear down their welcome and you just want to get to that next quest marker now, damnit.
In Horizon: Zero Dawn? I only rode robots twice, and each of them were part of a quest ( ie, the game made me ). I found myself wanting to go by foot, because there was enough variety and splendor in the game world that I never felt bored by travelling through it.
So, back to Mass Effect: Andromeda, and that sinking feeling.
What’s one of the first things you get when you step out onto your first planet?
One that is required on this planet, because the abbandoned settlements have a force field that protects you from the crazy radiation. So to explore this world, you have to use the vehicle. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful world – the visuals so far are just as pretty as Horizon. But the fact that the designers not only put in a vehicle but force you to use it worries me. How empty are the worlds I visit going to be? Are they going to be stunning vistas filled with not much? Am I going to be wishing there was a fast travel system so that I could just be at point B already?
I’m only a few hours into the game so far. My excitement has been dampened, but not extinguished. There’s enough of a story hook that I want to see what happens. But the game has been slightly tarnished for me. Not by facial animations, but by the game giving me a big open world that apparently is only interesting when I’m speeding by at 90mph.