I’ve recently started playing Batman: Arkham City again, partly because I didn’t get a chance to finish it when I came out in September, but mostly because it came free with my PlayStation 3 and I want a break from endlessly shooting dudes in the face (that said, love you, Max Payne 3!). I’ve just finished my last Augmented Reality training mission, and now I’m soaring around Arkham City to my heart’s content, saving political prisoners from Penguin’s thugs and answering calls from serial killer Zasz while completely disregarding the main storyline.
Wait a minute, isn’t that sort of frittering about what I don’t like about open-world games?
You may have seen my previous disparaging thoughts on open-world games and why they’re not my cup of tea—if not, then you ought to have. I’ll sum them up in brief: open-world games tend to concentrate on creating a huge, sprawling environment for players to explore, often at the expense of a cohesive storyline and compelling play mechanics. Talk to fans of Skyrim, for instance, about their favorite part of the game, and you’re less likely to hear about its combat system or sweeping narrative as you are to hear them recount stories of joining this guild or trekking through that part of the environment. Fans of GTA will likely tell you about the sense of place found in Liberty City, along with the thrill of going berserk inside their private, explosive sandbox.
This is well and good, and judging by the sales of Skyrim, GTA and others, gamers have no problem enjoying games with a more open-ended focus. Myself, I can’t justify the time. Many open-world games, by design, are not terribly directed experiences, content instead with letting players create their own fun. I have enough difficulty fitting games into schedule as it is (or so I keep telling myself), and I need that direction in order to justify the time I spend with them. Perhaps it’s because I was reared on so many linear 2D platformers, where the sheer mechanics are fun enough for the game to feel respectful of one’s time, but I rarely have the patience for games without a strong sense of direction.
What compels me to explore Arkham City and Renaissance Italy so thoroughly is the promise of a well-implemented and directed single-player experience when I’m through exploring. The critical path in both Assassin’s Creed II and Batman: Arkham City is just as focused and polished as other top-tier linear game. If I wanted, I could ignore the sidequests in Batman: Arkham City entirely and still get my money’s worth from the game’s core missions. By contrast, missions in the GTA series always feel mercenary in their design, hardly distinguishable from each other and their place in the story, and the best way to enjoy them is in the context of simply being able to do them at all.
To me, Grand Theft Auto has always been the Old Country Buffet of videogames, offering players all sorts of choices to fill up on, choices that are so-so by themselves but together add up to a tasty meal. I have always preferred restaurants with a more specific focus; a steak from the Rib and Chop House will likely taste better than one from the OCB. Batman: Arkham City somehow pulls off the impossible: it provides a sumptuous feast of tasty delights, and each course is lovingly prepared and crafted by the finest artisan chefs *.
Since I feel so secure in the knowledge that I can enjoy the core game without making excuses, I have no qualms about trying to accomplish the more esoteric achievements in Arkham City and Assassin’s Creed II. It’s all a matter of hoodwinking myself into enjoying the game’s sprawl; if the main game makes good use of my time, I tell myself, then the rest of it must be equally as respectful. Granted, some of the extra guild challenges in Assassin’s Creed can feel pretty masturbatory (the ones that reward me money, in particular, smack loudly of Meaningless Sidequest syndrome), but again, I can still turn a blind eye to the extras and still lose myself in Ezio’s story, sans extra window dressing.
The exception here is Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which is just as aimless and wandering as many of the games I’m accusing, if not more so. Amalur differs itself with its action-packed and addictive combat, though, fooling me into feeling like I’m playing a more focused, sequenced game. Even though sidequests are as incident-free as you could hope, it honestly, truly doesn’t matter when I’m tearing up goblins and trolls like Kratos from God of War. Fun, remarkable mechanics win out over nearly anything in the video game space, but only if they’re fun and remarkable; I don’t care how competent your cover-based shooting mechanic is, you’re going to have to show me more than that in 2012, thanks.
I’ll try to open myself up to more open-world games going forward, especially since I’ve had such a strong run of good ones lately; Dragon’s Dogma possesses a strong, fun combat system and engrossing quests in addition to its large territory, and I keep itching to play through Dark Souls again (even though that game is, on the surface, anything but respectful for my time, its NES-like “try, fail, learn, succeed” feedback loop satisfies me in ways I couldn’t have predicted). Hopefully developers can pay attention to Rocksteady and Ubisoft Montreal’s efforts to create an engrossing critical path along with a world worth getting lost in.