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Have Free-roaming Sandbox Games Reached Their Pinnacle?

Have Free-roaming Sandbox Games Reached Their Pinnacle?

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Within the evolution of gaming, there are certain telltale signs that games of a specific genre have reached the pinnacle of their existence and will see minimal improvements from that point on. Oftentimes we can predict when gaming genres will reach this peak simply by looking at how complex the goal of the game is. For example, the Soviet-created puzzle game Tetris, released in the mid 1980s, had the sole objective of clearing block lines before the individual pieces would over flow the screen.

In terms of puzzle games Tetris was able to practically reach its peak during the first incarnation, considering how minor the improvements were in subsequent releases. Due to the sheer simplicity of the end goals there are few changes that a game designer could make to improve the game without deviating from the original format. However, games with more complex goals such as first person shooters or RPGs have longer periods of trial and error before they stop improving in any significant way. Consider the timeline between the first Wolfenstein 3D and the release of Wolfenstein: The New Order. The difference in playability, combat control, enemy intelligence and overall game play has vastly evolved in the past 20 years.

The 2013-14 production year has been a great time for fans of the free-roaming sandbox genre, with the release of Rockstar’s GTA 5 and Saints Row 4. While both games garnered critical acclaim and strong sales worldwide, it seems that these latest entries in the genre have finally tapped out the innovation that could be made with this platform. Take for example the newly released Watch Dogs, this highly anticipated title offer little in terms of improvement compared to the game mechanics and combat systems of previous free-roaming games.

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On the surface, the gaming mechanics for Watch Dogs look and feel on par with other titles from Ubisoft, however, after an in-depth play through of the campaign, some cracks begin to emerge which hinder the overall product. The ability to drive and shoot has become a critical component within the free-roaming genre, so it seems like a curious development strategy to completely remove that aspect of gaming from Watch Dogs. In my opinion, to solely rely on hacking to disable moving vehicles severely limits the freedom of how players can choose to tackle driving missions. Often I found that the easiest method to disable a targets vehicle would be to drive in front of it, get out of the car and shoot the car as it approached. Surprisingly this would work as well as hacking the various traffic lights and bridges across the city. By eliminating the methods in which a player can complete a mission, Watch Dogs essentially reduced replay value in order to make the hacking gimmick a more central part of their product.

In terms of combat systems, Watch Dogs is clearly behind the curve compared to other free-roaming games of its time. For example, Sleeping Dogs, released in 2012, had an immersive melee combat system with a variation between physical attacks, environmental damage and timed counters. In the case of Watch Dogs, the combat system is reduced to a couple of different animations with a non-lethal take down that can only be performed on enemy combatants. By making hacking the central focus of Watch Dogs, the designers failed to create a combat system dynamic enough for a premiere PS4 release.

When a two year old PS3 game is outperforming the latest next-gen release title, it leads one to believe that certain aspects of the free-roaming genre have already peaked. In many ways Watch Dogs will probably be seen as a step back in the evolution of gaming. Moving forward it seems that the main criteria for rating free-roaming sandbox games would have to be the narrative of each title. With similar mechanics and visual technology, the only thing that will separate these games is how invested we are in the characters and their stories.

-YZC

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