To The Ends of the Sandbox

Empire Bay is a detailed and vast recreation of an East coast, 1940-50s US city. A fictional metropolis which resembles parts of a number of iconic American cities, it is the most impressive and memorable part of last year’s Mafia II.

Despite being set in an urban sandbox it is a linear game devoid of side missions and optional narrative paths. You awake at the beginning of each chapter, receive a phone call from a friend, undertake a straightforward mission which is guaranteed to go tits-up, then spend the rest of the day trying to pick up the pieces before heading back home and hitting the hay. With the exception of the 159 collectable wanted posters plastered across the city, Mafia II offers no impetus to give in to your wanderlust.

Finishing the campaign and deciding to mop up some of the remaining trophies, I began to fully explore a city which had only been teased during the course of the game. In doing so I was truly astonished by the detail on display and the effort that must have gone into its creation. Alleys, back roads and huge plots of land that were left undiscovered during the campaign displayed the same level of detail as the more visible main streets and buildings.

Behind uninviting chain link fences lay abandoned workshops, their facades lovingly decorated with detailed period posters of consumer goods. Turn the corner and you might find a mechanic working on a car or a homeless gentleman slumped against a dumpster. At the far end of a seemingly inaccessible labyrinth of warehouses are countless labourers milling around waiting to be found. Expensive chalets await in the hills overlooking the city, where wealthy residents sit under a parasol enjoying ice cold lemonade. I would wager that the vast majority of Mafia II gamers will never stumble upon these hidden treasures as it makes no attempt to lead you towards them.

Mafia II is part of an increasing trend of sandbox games this generation, a pattern which may largely be traced back to the huge success of the Grand Theft Auto series, in particular GTA IV. When done well, an open world can be an exciting playground, but when the execution isn’t up to scratch it can be a distraction that consumes all else in the game and is liable to become repetitive, fast. Mafia II features an exemplar sandbox, yet does so little with it, which begs the question; why set a linear game in a sandbox? Creating a city on the scale of Empire Bay must be a time consuming and costly proposition, but increasingly it has become the norm as developers are not averse to creating worlds that outgrow the stories and characters living within them. 2010’s Just Cause 2 is a perfect example of this.

After nine hours Rico finally ran out of road

Whereas Mafia II creates a city, Just Cause 2 created its own country. The fictional South Asian island state of Panau is one of the most impressive and overwhelming open worlds yet, taking in varied terrain including alpine resorts, cities, towns, rainforests and glorious beaches straight out of a holiday brochure. Unlike Mafia II, the majority of the game is non-linear as you travel all over the islands, laying waste to infrastructure in whatever method you see fit.

The story is just as silly as the many daredevil activities which you are encouraged to partake in, taking a back seat to the free-roam fun. It makes no apologies for having the narrative and characters play second fiddle to the setting and extracurricular activities it affords. Just Cause 2 pushes the sandbox to the very limit, but at times it feels like overkill. Travelling in a jet aircraft from one corner of the map to another can take the best part of 5 minutes, and travelling in more pedestrian and easier to find transport becomes a dull and drawn-out affair. Driving through rainforest and seeing no sign of civilization for minutes at a time makes you wonder if the map is attempting anything other than offering an impressive sense of scale.

Large open worlds can feel bare and succumb to repetition, something which Empire Bay avoids with its smaller land mass and attention to detail. Panau falls victim to this, but being more rural than urban and thus offering fewer opportunities for detail, this is not overly surprising. However, Red Dead Redemption’s prairies, deserts, hills and woodland feature only a frugal collection of settlements, yet it is full of character, feeling lived-in and an integral part of RDR’s significant charms. More sparse than the majority of modern sandboxes, it manages to be far more atmospheric than most and allows its interesting inhabitants to take centre stage, never overwhelming the scene. Rockstar excel at creating worlds that are a defining feature, yet are careful not to steal the lime light from the real stars such as Nikko Belic and John Marston.

No matter how hard he looked, John couldn't find a stunt ramp.

One of the ways Rockstar have achieved this level of excellence is through music; a crucial element in creating an immersive open world, helping to build upon the mise-en-scene and establishes mood in a setting that desperately needs to be filled. A quiet sandbox can feel hollow – a lonely place that you are far less likely to want to explore. Driving around Liberty City (GTA IV) is infinitely more enjoyable when listening to the in-game radio stations, and it pulls you in deeper when the DJ refers to places you have just passed, or even plot events.

Mafia II succeeds with its period tunes from artists such as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters and news reports which detail the aftermath of your latest heist. In the same manner, the low-key sounds and occasional folk songs enrich Red Dead Redemption. Taking this a step further, by putting the musical landscape in the hands of the player, Burnout Paradise challenges you to put your own stamp on Paradise City. The custom soundtrack is fully integrated into the game, giving life to a map otherwise devoid of human presence.

By moving away from the usual single-player confines of an open world map, Red Dead Redemption took the unusual step of utilising its sandbox as a massive multiplayer hub. Usually a rather controlled and rigid entity, it turned the hub into an ideal place to posse up with friends, shoot the shit, other players and NPCs and explore the game outside of competition. Continuing the theme of the vastness and nothingness of the old West, it made the jump from single-player to multi far less jarring and more of a seamless transition, which Burnout Paradise also achieved with stunning results. This is something I hope we see a lot more of in the future as developers try to bridge the gap between single and multiplayer.

Sandboxes come in all shapes and sizes, whether its Rome in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood or Dead Rising 2’s mall with their invisible barriers, or Just Cause 2’s island state which sticks closest of all to the principals of a truly open world. The best of them display a fine balance between the open world and what’s going on within, and are ever mindful of how small details work to flesh out their setting, be it through the soundtrack or art design. The rest of them fall well short.

I have found myself increasingly drawn to sandbox games of late, and have come to appreciate their charms whilst being very aware of their drawbacks. A good open world game is full of fun distractions, able to draw you attention away from the narrative drive. A great one succeeds in leading you back, knowing that without addictive core gameplay and an engrossing narrative a sandbox is just a big, empty space waiting to be filled.

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Written by Matt M

Matt has been a gamer ever since Father Christmas left him a Master System II in the early 90’s. Santa was clearly a Sega fan, as a Mega Drive and Saturn would follow in later years. Matt has long since broken free from the shackles of console monotheism and enjoys playing a wide range of games, almost as much as he enjoys meticulously ordering them on his living room shelves.

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