I’m a huge fan of open world games. I fell in love with them playing Neversoft’s Gun and Pandemic’s Mercenaries on the original Xbox. Both Crackdown and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were both massively influential to me over the past six or so years. I like games that take their time, and more importantly, games that allow players to take their time in them.
Up until last year, if you’d asked me who makes the best open world games in the business, I’d only have one answer – Rockstar Games. But over the past twelve months, I’ve come to realise that maybe there’s a new King in the Open World Kingdom… and that King is Ubisoft.
It shouldn’t be a surprise really – the Paris-based ‘Editorial’ group know that there are big numbers to found in big open world epics. And they’ve been building their arsenal steadily over the past few years. From the fantastic Far Cry to the exceptional Assasins Creed and the epic Watch Dogs, Ubi have been carefully honing their craft.
I thought this year’s E3 was one of the most interesting in recent years. It really showed who the winners are right now, and clearly highlighted the losers. With their competitors trying to attack several genres at once, mostly unsuccessfully – Ubisoft showed that they seem to have mastered the technical, logistical and challenging content creation challenges necessary to make some of the best games in the business right now.
Some of the biggest moments in GTA remain heavily scripted whereas Ubisoft have a stronger focus on letting their player tell their own stories within the game world.
I spent most of last November exploring Rook Island in Far Cry 3. I spent hour after hour in the brilliant sunshine of that game, uncovering all of its secrets and completing all of its objectives. I played several marathon sessions of lasting more than 12 hours before going on to save my friends. And I’ve had an unforgettable time exploring the dark underbelly of Chicago in Watch Dogs. My experiences with those games has primed me for the new Assassins Creed game. It’s very very rare that a publisher can inspire such brand loyalty and deliver such consistency.
What’s even more incredible is the amount of game systems that are shared across all three franchises. If you liked unlocking Viewpoints in Assassins Creed, then you’ll understand how Radio Towers in Far Cry or ctOS Towers in Watch Dogs provide objectives. And then, if you plan on taking a drive in The Crew, you’ll feel at home unlocking GPS Towers. These features are consistently improved upon with each game – and it’s foundations like these which lead me to suggest that the guys in Paris might have Rockstar on the run.
GTA does what it does very very well, but those lush PS4 visuals aside – it is starting creak around the edges when it comes to introducing new gameplay. Some of the biggest moments in the game remain heavily scripted whereas Ubisoft have a stronger focus on letting their player tell their own stories within the game world.
If you liked unlocking Viewpoints in Assassins Creed, you’ll understand how to use Radio Towers in Far Cry or ctOS Towers in Watch Dogs. These features improve with each game.
The first Heist in GTA V evoked moments of the Wall Street escape sequence from The Dark Knight Rises. I loved this sequence but was scripted so that all players arrive at the same place. Ubisoft would have instead made this more like a Base and given the player the freedom to try and approach, rob and escape using stealth tactics. If you’re played through all of the Criminal Convoys in Watch Dogs then I’m sure that like me, you’ve been thinking of how much better GTA will be if the AI was stronger and each Mission allowed players total freedom in how they approached it.
And Ubisoft are not just demonstrating mastery of single player open world games, they are now branching out into co-operative play. Again, this is something I wished Rockstar had offered back in GTA IV, let alone V. Microsoft led the way in encouraging developers to embrace online co-op by providing the solid backbone of Xbox LIVE. Some of my favourite game sessions ever co-op sessions in Crackdown and Halo Reach – and I’ve always been motivated to focus on shared online experience as a result of these epic sessions. I like to describe this as "playing around the game experience" – the best play comes from sharing the play with your friends. It’s unpredictable and often chaotic, but often something truly incredible and unexpected can happen.
But I’m sure the guys in Dundee and NYC are watching Ubisoft closely and maybe healthy competition will spur them on to further innovate and entertain us.
Trevor for President!
Alex Ward is the co-founder of Three Fields Entertainment. He previously co-founded Burnout developer Criterion Games.
[Image Credit: Dead End Thrills]