Self-awareness is such a wonderful thing.
I’m always an optimist, am unfailingly polite, and every joke I make is hilarious. I know that my rendition of the rhythm guitar part from Long Train Runnin’ will eventually replace that of the Doobie Brothers as the definitive interpretation, and that one day my writing shall be recognised for its insightful contribution to the canon of video-game-related literature. I’m convinced that green (specifically the deep, rich, morning-sunlit forest variety) is the best colour in the visible spectrum and that my driving skills are excellent. More and more as I age – the big 3-0 is just around the corner after all – I grow in appreciation of my natural gift for objectivity and absolute avoidance of sarcasm.
And had you asked me a week ago whether open world ‘sandbox’ games were any good my answer would have been a categorical “no”.
My experiences with games like GTA III (PS2), Rage (PS3), Assassin’s Creed III (PS3), Farcry 3 (PS3), Skyrim (PC) and even the venerable Red Dead Redemption (PS3) left my gaming heart feeling, well… a little cold. Of these examples only Skyrim had enough hook to get my hours tally into double digits, and that was because it was just so stunningly beautiful. Then there is Minecraft (PC) of course, but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll label it with ‘survival’ rather than ‘sandbox’ to keep the comparisons simple.
What was it about the console games that resulted in an average play time of just an hour or two?
Years of sitting by the fireside pondering this question has led me to blame the gaming world’s gradual shift in balance from narrative-driven play to Choose Your Own Adventure with incessant side quests around every corner. I’ve found myself yearning for the on-rails story progression of a Resident Evil or Pokemon title, which both boast sizeable, detailed maps but populate them with guiding hands and relevant achievements/powerups that build your momentum in the journey rather than slow you down. Reflecting on my own journey, perhaps this sentiment is owed to growing up with SNES platformers like Super Mario World, Megaman X and Donkey Kong Country that make it clear through map screens and completion percentages how well you’re travelling. It was only people who had already ‘clocked the game’ that ever went back looking for faster times and 100% secrets. Raising all the flags on your DKC map screen was the sign of a serious player, but not something that ever distracted the first timer from their primary, banana-rescuing objective. Perhaps this delicate balancing act of direction, freedom and sideline activities is what sets apart seemingly similar games like Zelda: Link To The Past and the vastly superior Secret Of Mana (SNES). One got played for tens of hours and one for hundreds*… But enough with the historical naval-gazing.
This last seven days has seen my opinion of open world games take a serious torpedo to the stern. I’m now five hours into Monolith Production’s Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor (PS4). On the face of it five hours doesn’t sound like much, but as it has consisted of eight or nine playing sessions this figure represents more initial attraction than that of any sandbox game that has come before it.
After my initial 20 minute sitting – in which I attempted to come to grips with some of the complex systems on offer and died repeatedly – I presumed that Shadow Of Mordor would be following that well-worn path back to the shelf where it would rest, unloved and unappreciated, for an indeterminate time. Possibly forever. By the following day, however, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about how to take down the crossbow wielding mega-orc I had created through my numerous fatal encounters (thanks ‘nemesis system’) in which he grew more powerful and I went back to the start. To be honest, I still haven’t succeeded in taking him out and in the meantime he’s ambushed me a couple more times for good measure, but far from losing hope or interest I find myself resolved to work my way into a strong enough position to end his irritating fictional life. So I’ve researched his weaknesses, fought to broaden my skills and (shockingly) have actively sought out those pesky side quests that will in some way assist in bringing about my nemeses’ timely demise. Only now they aren’t so much ‘pesky filler material’ as vital character building and – presumably with much consideration on the part of Monolith Productions – have managed to successfully bridge the gap between sideline mission and main story. In addition to having an immensely satisfying combat system, Shadow Of Morder tames the flood of choices that in other titles has left me feeling lost at sea and creates a rich path for my cursed ranger to walk.
The best part of all this is that it has taken place within the first few figurative pages of the narrative so I anticipate many more challenging and enjoyable hours to come. And if they play as addictively as the first few I may consider refraining from categorically denouncing open world games in the future.