At the last E3, it became clear that the third game in the Metro series would go into sandbox territory. It seems that the open world in the gaming industry has already become a kind of mandatory evolutionary point for all successful franchises. Moreover, if in the case of Metro Exodus the idea sounds quite interesting, then in the case of the upcoming Metal Gear Survive, not so much.
2017 has already been flooded with AAA sandbox games like Horizon Zero Dawn, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild, Ghost Recon Wildlands, and Mass Effect: Andromeda. Freedom of action is no longer surprising, and sometimes even annoying, because sometimes it seems that because of it they save on other important elements of the game.
Players were much less whimsical when the open world just started to appear in games in one form or another. Below are some of the 20th century designs that helped make the sandbox part of today’s gaming reality.
Jet Rocket (1970)
The first attempt to create a semblance of an open world in the form of a flight simulator from Sega. For the first time in the industry, the player could freely fly over a 3D landscape, firing at enemy objects along the way.
Colossal Cave Adventure (1976)
Despite the fact that there is nothing but text in the game, Colossal Cave Adventure contained a key element of any modern open world game — free exploration. In order to find the treasure, the player could go in any direction, although he had to turn on his fantasy properly.
The spiritual successor to Colossal Cave Adventure was Warren Robinett’s Adventure for the Atari 2600. Still lacking visual support, the game still allowed the pixelated player to move freely between screens and explore the three castles and the space between them for stale treasure.
The Portopia Serial Murder Case (1983)
Japanese detective visual novel with non-linear gameplay and unexpected plot twists. The variability in gameplay is impressive considering the years the game was released. The player had access to the study of crime scenes, the interrogation of suspects with numerous branches of dialogue, the point-and-click system that became the basis for future quests, riddles using found items, and even 3D mazes.
Elite is considered the first true sandbox in the industry. Assuming the role of a spacecraft pilot, the player could explore eight galaxies, each containing 256 planets. And although they had the same skeleton, a lot was generated on the go, so as not to take up extra memory. Having chosen one of the five classes, the player was engaged in trade, smuggling, shooting criminals or peaceful ships. The money received could be spent on fuel and ship upgrades, as well as on raising your rank. The game also featured an enemy alien race, the Thargoids, which had many legends among Elite fans. Together, these elements gave players the opportunity to have a unique experience and share impressions with each other.
Another early example of an open world game was the Japanese Hydlide, which is also one of the first action-RPG games. Hydlide brought some gameplay elements into fashion, such as health and mana regeneration.
Despite the fact that the game itself did not receive much recognition from the players, nevertheless, its concept inspired many game designers to develop the genre. The most famous ideological successor to Hydlide is The Legend of Zelda. Also, while working on Metal Gear Solid V, Hideo Kojima tried to recreate the feelings that the world of Hydlide caused him as a child.
Mercenary took the heart of the Elite and brought it from space to the planet Targ, where the protagonist of the game ended up. He immediately becomes embroiled in a civil war between the local natives and third-party invaders. At the same time, Mercenary did not require the player to join someone in particular. Instead, you could maneuver between the two sides, getting the maximum benefit for yourself.
In Mercenary it was impossible to die, and almost impossible to kill. The game did not include points or specific missions. However, the non-linear narrative and the ability to progress through the story, playing its own double game, made a significant contribution to the formation of future game sandboxes.
Turbo Esprit (1986)
Turbo Esprit was the first game to feature a free-roaming city. To be more precise, there are as many as four cities, each of which was more difficult than the previous one. In addition to the player, many cars drive around the city. All computer drivers perfectly follow the rules of the road and the player loses points for colliding with them. Turbo Esprit is called the earliest predecessor of Grand Theft Auto.
Wasteland became an important event in the gaming industry, because it was on the basis of this game that the legendary Fallout was built. Just like it, Wasteland took the player into an open world that survived a nuclear war, in which you could explore the wastelands in any order and complete quests in several different ways. Almost any choice of the player was irreversible and influenced the further passage of the game.
Perhaps Wasteland’s biggest sandbox innovation was the so-called «persistent world,» which, according to game historian Richard Bartle, «continues to exist and evolve even when the player isn’t in contact with it.»
Returning to a particular place in Wasteland, the player would find it in the form in which they left, while in other titles of the time, it would simply return to the starting point.
After 26 years, inXile Entertainment has released Wasteland 2 and plans to release the third part in 2019.
A post-apocalyptic world immersed in an endless snowy winter. You are a military commander in charge of ensuring that enemies do not sneak into your territory. To do this, you need to assemble an army and negotiate with each of the mercenaries separately. But it is not enough to agree with them, it is necessary to maintain their fighting spirit so that they do not change their minds.
Each mercenary is given two hours of game time to control before the game moves on. This time must be spent as efficiently as possible, taking into account the characteristics and background of each fighter. Wandering through the snowdrifts, you search for and destroy enemies, recruit other mercenaries, look for vehicles and equipment.
If the strategic approach is not to your liking, Midwinter provides the ability to destroy enemies with just one character, although this is extremely difficult to implement.
The first sandbox to use full 3D was Hunter. From a third-person view, the game looks like a direct ancestor of GTA 3. The player could control various vehicles, from a bicycle to a helicopter, from which one could get out at any time and walk around on foot. Also in the game there were buildings that you could enter, weapons with which you could arrange a shootout with the military or ruthlessly crack down on civilians.
Hunter offered a choice of three modes of passage. In the first and second, everything was decided by the plot and the execution of missions, while in the third, the player was free to choose how and in what order to destroy the enemies.
Even though this level of freedom was unheard of for its time, the Hunter didn’t catch on and didn’t gain much fame in North America.
Super Mario 64 (1996)
Super Mario 64 revolutionized arcade and 3D games in general, thanks to its spacious worlds that the player could traverse in a free order. Of course, recognizable characters played their role, but the game Super Mario 64 really gave where to turn around.
In search of the princess, Mario must explore multiple worlds, each filled with enemies, friends offering side quests, and multiple paths. The player is free to decide which path to follow and which world to explore. By collecting stars, the player unlocks new paths and mysteries.
Such a fresh approach to arcades did not leave indifferent not only fans of the works of Nintendo, but the entire gaming industry in principle. Subsequently, the baton of Super Mario 64 was successfully intercepted by other 3D platformers such as Banjo Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Spyro the Dragon and others.
Grand Theft Auto (1997)
The slogan of the game was supposed to be the words: «Do not be afraid of the consequences.» Already in the first part of GTA it was possible not to think about anything. The game itself was built to provoke you into a continuous stream of spontaneous actions, sooner or later leading to the fact that you were hunted by all the military forces of the city. For the sake of this magical moment, any barriers were removed. The player could sit in any standing or driving car, beat, kill and crush anyone. When the police appeared, there was no desire to sink to the bottom, but on the contrary, I wanted to arrange a chase of the century mixed with a bloody massacre. At the same time, it was impossible for everyone to die — the player immediately reappeared without ammunition, which was not difficult to get.
For all of the above, a whole city was provided with a view from above, and if the player was bored with complete freedom of action, he could bring some balance to the gameplay at any time by starting to complete campaign missions.
Shen Mue (1999)
Perhaps Sega’s Shenmue has pushed open 3D worlds the furthest. Despite all the above examples, it is believed that this game was the first to implement the concept of an «open city» with changing weather and passers-by living their own lives.
It may seem to some that Shenmue lacks reckless car racing and killing innocent civilians, but the creators of the game had a completely different task. The developers wanted to show a typical Japan of the 80s with an emphasis on realism. Of course, there was no plot. The main character Rio must find the killer of his father and find out what led to this tragedy. And while the player collects clues one by one and progresses through the story, he lives an ordinary life. Rio rides a bus, works as a loader, and returns home before midnight.
Through this seemingly unimpressive gameplay, Shenmue nevertheless built its fan base by showing players that freedom in the game doesn’t have to include actions that a person wouldn’t do in real life.
In 2001, Rockstar Games released GTA 3 and completely turned the minds of players around the world. It seemed that there was everything they dreamed about, but were embarrassed to say out loud, and the hurricane criminal atmosphere further adorned the already fascinating study of Liberty City.
The sandbox has become an ordinary element of many genres, and every year it was more and more difficult to surprise with it.
There are many more worlds to explore in 2017. Crackdown 3, JRPG Xenoblade Cronicles 2, successor to Saints Row, Agents of Mayhem, and Destiny 2. If nothing changes, all these titles will be released before the end of the year. However, the most anticipated game in the context of the open world is probably Shenmue 3, which promises to return to us in 2018 after a 17-year hiatus.