Playing In The Sand.

I was going to write a post on Blizzard’s new Real ID system, but given that

a) I don’t use Blizzard’s forums,
b) Everyone else has done it already and
c) Blizzard have scaled back the implementation of Real ID-

It felt like a waste of my time and yours. I would like to make a point though that Blizzard have not abandoned these plans merely scaled them back, and so users should continue to fight them if they feel their privacy has been infringed.

Instead I’d like to take a look at a phenomenon that has taken off in recent years of video gaming- the sandbox. In case you’re not familiar with the term, a sandbox videogame is one wherein you are given a large open map, and very few restrictions on what you do. Typically, scattered around said map will be many little diversions such as missions, mini games, resource gathering, random encounters and so on. In many respects, a sandbox is very similar to an RPG, and it’s from that genre that a new generation of ‘sandbox shooters’ has evolved. Recent examples include Red Dead Redemption, Crackdown 2 and Just Cause 2.

Strangely, I didn’t really notice the sandbox until quite recently when I picked up Prototype, which makes little sense as I’d been playing GTAIV well before then. I think the reason I noticed it in Prototype was because it was the first sandbox game where I started to notice the shortcomings of the style.

Now, I’m not going to launch into a hate speech about the Sandbox idea- many excellent games have been built around the concept- but you have to admit that it does have some issues that seem to pop up every so often. So let’s take a quick look at the Sandbox, the good and the bad.

The key idea that makes the sandbox so much fun is the freedom that you’re given. Rather than moving from level to level and doing the same things over and over again like you would in a non sandbox game, each time you turn one of these titles on you’ll get a new experience. Pop Modern Warfare 2 in, and while you’ll have a good time playing the single player mode, once you’ve completed it nothing will surprise you. With Red Dead Redemption though, you never know what to expect. Even after completing the main story line, random encounters and strangers who pop up can help keep the game fresh and interesting.

Of course, there’s also the satisfaction that comes from discovering something new, especially if you do so before any of your friends.

However, on the flipside if they are not well executed, sandboxes can quickly become a tedious annoyance. One trend I’d like to see end is this desire for bigger and bigger worlds. All I can say is this- bigger isn’t always better. There’s nothing wrong with having a big sandbox, hell if it’s too small there isn’t much point. The problem is more one of density, and this is a very tough thing to get just right. If the world is too dense, then you never get anything done as you’re constantly waylaid by requests for aid, random missions, gathering a resource you may need later and so forth. If it isn’t dense enough then it defeats the whole purpose of a sandbox as travelling between locations just becomes padding as nothing happens.

It’s hard to get right, and even worse when you consider that there doesn’t seem to be much of a ‘perfect density’. For example, in Red Dead Redemption you don’t want that much happening as there are lots of exploration tasks such as the treasure hunting and survivalist challenges. You’d be put off if bandits attacked every five minutes.

On the flipside of this though is Prototype. Being an out and out action game, you want to make sure the player is never more than about 30 seconds away from something they can get involved in, even if it’s just a random spat between the army and the infected.

I don’t think Prototype did a good job of the sandbox element to be honest. Now it wasn’t awful, but half the time it felt like I just wasn’t doing anything. As dramatic as the travel is, after a few hours running up a building, back flipping off it and gliding to the next one looses some of the charm. Once this occurs, travel is just dull. A little more to do apart from dull mini games would have gone a long way, as would shrinking the map a little.

The best iterations of the sandbox though are still to be found in RPGs. The Elder Scrolls series have done a great job with their worlds. If wondering through the wilderness you rarely go more than a few minutes without something happening, be it a random encounter or something more sinister. Things lurking within the woods always provide a source of entertainment and stumbling across a strange door or daedric statue is always interesting.

Linked to this is the fast travel system- something many sandbox games have. I think this is the yardstick by which you can judge how good a sandbox game is- the more you use the fast travel system, the poorer the game. Think about it this way- if you’re always using the fast travel to instantly move from one mission objective to the next, then it means the world holds no interest for you. If you’re not interested in exploring and looking for other things to do, the game’s sandbox element has failed. On the other hand, if you only use it every so often or when you want to make some progress on the story to unlock more areas, then the sandbox element is clearly strong enough that you don’t feel time spent moving from A to B is wasted, and is going to be somehow rewarding for you.

Just Cause 2 was a game where I was always using the fast travel. I can appreciate how Panau has been wonderfully crafted as a living, breathing island with lots of locations and roads, people going about their daily lives e.t.c, but exploring that world was not rewarding. It took ages to get anywhere, and I never seemed to find anything interesting while I was moving. To be fair though, I’m in a minority here. Most people like Just Cause 2, or at least find it entertaining.

As a closing note, not every game needs a sandbox. Many people have riffed on Final Fantasy XIII, accusing it of being linear (myself included), but if you stop to think about it for a moment, the strength of this game lies in the combat and the combat alone. Everything else is pretty weak, but the combat is an incredible amount of fun, and saves FFXIII from being consigned to far lower scores. Without a sandbox element, the game can focus on quickly shuttling you to the enjoyable bits- and this is probably the best argument against the sandbox idea.

In a sandbox you always need to go looking for the fun. In a linear game, you just need to sit back and all the fun comes to you so long as you keep playing. You’re far less likely to have boring bits. Some might say that’s a pithy attitude to take, but at the end of the day it’s apples and pears. Both linear and sandbox titles can be fun or awful, but it’s important to remember that a sandbox needs a little more effort to pull off than a linear game.

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