Sandbox Games

January 5, 2012

I will find a way to critcize you. Have no fear.

Hello readers, death-threat writers, and people who randomly got here by trying to Google something else entirely. Today, we shall be crit-I mean ‘talking’ about sandbox games.

First, lets be clear on what a sandbox game is. Well, it’s clearly not a game actually set in a sandbox (although that would be a good idea for a game). It is a game in which, generally speaking, you are free to do whatever you wish wherever you wish within the bounds of the game. Sounds really free-form and open, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately, a true sandbox game (and there have been a few made) usually -only- focus on the general choices, never have a story, and are more or less as niche-centric as a low-level comic book publisher. Others throw away concepts of open-ended factions and choice in favor of more controlled action and keeping it interesting, this can result in a few flavors:

Vanilla — Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption are both good examples of this. They aim for a semi-realistic, almost action-grit style sandbox. In the latest GTA games, you can even do things like go down to comedy clubs, play darts and pool; and even watch TV shows that are exclusively in-game. The problem is, their narratives are as linear as can be, and rarely is there a moral compass for the player’s story outside of how the NPCS (computer generated people populating the world) around the player react when he appears. So you can be a mass-murdering lunatic or a Christian-robin hood style character, but the main plot characters won’t give a crap either way.

Chocolate — Fallout and Elder Scrolls fall more or less into this category. They try to be the best of both worlds. Now I’ve already spoken before about how the present Elder Scrolls games handle it, but from what I hear, Fallout actually does a decent job of conveying story, choice, faction relations, and even makes it possible for the player to complete the game without killing a single person (also, it’s latest iteration, Fallout: New Vegas, has more ending variations than almost any RPG — about 59-65, if I remember correctly)

Strawberry — Dragon Age, and arguably Deus Ex: Human Revolution fall into this category, although not entirely. The first game is from Bioware, who prefers branching narrative and a focus on making the player feel important and involved in the story. Deus Ex: Human Revolution does this, but not as much to the extent of a Bioware game. It’s just as willing to let you sit back, ignore the story for a little while and just hunt around in the sewers or amongst the cities to find something to do.

That One Flavor You Cannot Discern — Japanese Role Playing Games, they could be applied here, but I’m just saying now that they won’t be. They are almost always entirely linear affairs, outside of a few (and I mean it when I saw FEW) series. We’ll devote another post to this topic at a later date.

Rocky Road — Red Faction: Guerilla, Just Cause 2 and Saints Row are those type of sandbox game that wants to be like Red Dead Redemption and GTA, but really aren’t. In Red Faction’s case, it is a semi-open world game plagued with a bipolar focus that rarely actually makes its key talent be the center piece. In Saints Row’s case, it finally gives up trying to emulate after the first game, made a very popular (and violent) sequel. We will also be doing an analysis of Red Faction: Guerilla (perhaps today, depending on how long this lectu-erm, ‘post’ takes). Just Cause 2 is essentially an unintentional hybrid of Saints Row and Red Faction: Guerilla.

*breathes in briefly* Now that we’ve covered the general sand-boxy games, the problems with them:

Realism is always an issue, and as I’ve experienced, the only games to ever handle realism well have been Red Dead Redemption and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Why? Because they do it -within the context of their fiction-. GTA can’t decide if its the Sopranos or is Better Off Ted. Also, to lightly prod a dead horse, Skyrim’s AI, dialogue, faction handling, and quest decisions are rather often break immersion due to their unrealistic behavior (I killed just one chicken, that’s all. If everyone got wanted for that, McDonalds would be an illegal crime syndicate).

Spreading itself too thin. No game is a better example on this list than Red Faction: Guerilla of how to not compliment your best feature. It’s main mechanics is it’s very well done destruction engine that lets you destroy whole buildings with just a hammer or with a dozen explosives. Despite this it also has sniping missions, interior-combat missions, horrible driving-centric missions, duck-and-cover missions, and stealth missions. Why? Because apparently Volition thinks that despite the fact you can clean most of the EDF out of an area in about 2-3 hours, you need a bunch of additional things that would make sense if you weren’t making a game that centers on running in, blowing things up, and then running back out. Seriously, why am I defending a random hill from 5 enemy tanks with no cover when I could be destroying that giant mineral processing plant two miles away? I can see it from here Volition, don’t tell me it’s a mirage. This isn’t the first time a game’s tried to be something its not in order to try and increase it’s marketability, but it is especially clear and sloppy in this game.

This one will seem a bit odd a point and even more ironically Red Faction: Guerilla is one of the best examples of succeeding against this issue: Making a playable demo for a sandbox game. Now, how did Red Faction succeed where GTA, RDR, Human Revolution, Saints Row and so many others have failed? It used common sense. It’s demo lets you play one of its best missions (arguably the best one in the entire game), and it limits you to have 10 minutes to do whatever you want in the demo (and after playing it about 3 times, you’ll figure out how to destroy most of if not all of the buildings in that time). Another good example is the game Just Cause 2. Now it doesn’t restrict you to one mission (there’s about technically 3-5 you can do in the course of the demo), but it does still give you a limited area to explore and a 30 minute limit on playtime before you have to restart. It seems to be a simple formula, yes? Tell that to your favorite sandbox developers, because so far most of them seem oblivious to the benefit a demo could do for their games.

Now I realize I haven’t covered every sandbox type and every game, but this gives you a general idea. I’ll end this on a more positive note by pointing you to some decent sandbox games that avoid most of the faults mentioned.

inFAMOUS — PS3 exclusive sandbox game centering around being either the ultimate super hero or super villain. In the first game, your powers are exclusively electric, but in the sequel you can get flame or ice abilities. If you like the demo but don’t want to sink $30-60 dollars into a game, get the Festival of Blood standalone DLC from the playstation network, which will only set you back $10 and includes the custom-mission maker that inFAMOUS 2 has. And yes, they let you make your own missions in inFAMOUS 2. If that and a power fantasy don’t have you sold, I don’t know what will.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution — I could spend an entire post listing how good this game is. Yes, it may feel short, because the primary locations are often reused, and the developer has even admitted two other visitable locales were cut due to time constraints. The game’s difficulties are far better in explaining themselves than the basic easy-medium-hard, and the game is very approachable if you’re willing to dig in and think with more than trigger reflexes.

Just Cause 2 — This is not a game for narrative lovers or people who want moral focus. This is a game for people who like to see stuff blown up sky high while the protagonist hang glide-kicks the antagonist off of an airship hotel as they plow 20 bullets into the nearest mercenary opponents. It doesn’t have the destruction of buildings like in Red Faction, but it compensates it with satisfying combat, hillariously corny voice-overs, and a far more forgiving physics engine than the first Just Cause game.

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