I can remember the days of games like Microplay/Rainbird's 1989 Midwinter and the later sequel, Midwinter 2: Flames of Freedom published by Microprose quite fondly. They were in-essence the hybrid of first person shooter and RPG, with a large open world and a sandbox-gameplay mechanic that meant you could lose yourself for hours and hours just exploring Mike Singleton's creation.
As I look back over the years I've been gaming, since I had my start on an old ZX-80 with games like Hunt the Wumpus there have always been these sandbox style titles that attempted to break free of the shackles imposed by linear gaming. Now as we firmly rocket closer to 2009 we're given a veritable slew of games that are embracing this gameplay mechanic as the new Messiah of gaming, along with my all-time favourite gameplay mode: cooperative gaming which is to be the subject of a later article.
This particular article stemmed from my desire to talk/rant about sandbox games, the kinds of sandboxes I like and perhaps the sandboxes yet to be created. We are all aware of the GTA phenomena and the inevitable clones that it spawned over the years. From the 3d sequels Vice City and so on to the spin-offs that were inspired, such as Just Cause and Saints Row we've had a pretty good time as sandboxes go. Even the superhero genre has titled towards the old sandbox with the latest Spider-Man games especially Spider-Man: Web of Shadows.
If you read my review you'll see why I rate that game amongst my favourite sandbox Spider-Man games to date along with Spider-Man 2. Assassin's Creed provided us with a historical sandbox to run around, climb and generally leap from roof to roof and whilst playing it I couldn't help think that Ubisoft need to get their hands on DC comic's Batman license and then do a sandbox Batman game using that engine.
The very nature of a sandbox game would be perfect for the Caped Crusader and could even include the aforementioned cooperative gameplay mode. I think it would be immense fun to have access to a virtual Wayne Manor and the hidden Batcave. It could serve as the global hub of operations and then random crimes could be displayed on the Bat Computer for you to select and deal with as you see fit. There's a wealth of options there in costumes and vehicle design with the chance for players to explore land, sea, air and Batman's various gadgets.
Iconic villains could serve to further the global story and minor bad guys would be of course served up on the plate of punishment to give the player a break from the main goals. Sandbox gaming should be all about player choice and whether it be single or two/more player cooperative gaming it should present a large enough world for the player to enjoy, enough challenges that they don't get bored and there should be one single caveat for future games in this genre. No more flag collecting missions, yes, Ubisoft - I'm talking to you here!
Assassin's Creed was a wonderful sandbox, with some pretty awesome dynamic combat and great chases. What spoilt it for me was the same thing that Just Cause suffered from, a lack of enthusiasm and repetition in the side-mission design, most of the time they just weren't all that fun and you had to repeat the same core side-mission types several times. I can't tell you how much I wanted to repeatedly stab and gut the arrogant assassin jackhole who kept on losing those flags and then crowing about how I was the asshat of the order. At least I didn't drop 30 flags around Jerusalem when I was sent to kill someone!
Whilst I'm on a do's and don't rant, we shall poke a little at the recently released Mercenaries 2 on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. When you give the player a pretty massive sandbox to play in, the first thing they want to do is shoot people or blow things up. When you tout that you're giving them an over the top destructible environment and enough arsenal to wipe out all known life within a ten mile radius, don't immediately make it so that said player has to run up and play tag with a beacon then have to stop, select the beacon and then throw it to deploy said device.
Then have about a second in which to run away from massive explosion of death, that's just asking to implement a degree of frustration that takes away all the fun of actually blowing stuff up in the first place. Remember what I said about player choice in sandboxes? You should make sure that you give the player a decent control system and allow them freedom to use it, immediately tagging a quick mini-game into the satellite strike didn't annoy me at first, but after a while I began to tire of it.
If you're going to have jackable vehicles, here's a tip, make the jack look cool by all means but don't put a damn quick-time event into the vehicle-jack as an attempt to lengthen gameplay since each jack is different and you have a split-second to press the right button before you're hurled to your non-doom on the ground below/kicked in the teeth or shot in the foot. The moment you put a quick-time event into a sandbox game you take away that vital element of choice and replace it with the element of frustration for most gamers who just want to BLOW things UP!
Most sandbox games of the GTA-style genre are guilty of things like that, from poorly implemented controls to a lack of design in terms of missions and some are just missing that element of fun. The True Crime series tried very hard and succeeded in some places, mostly let down by control issues, graphical troubles and a bland story/design. Morrowind, the epitome of freeroaming RPG goodness had a story (somewhere) that was buried in a myriad of side-quests and exploration. Morrowind lacked focus however and for everyone who loved it, there are people who hated the fact that it took an Act of the Gods to actually find the main story.
This brings me onto my next point, the sandbox storyline. You need that kind of cohesion in any kind of game, linear or not - you need a good solid story that drives the player on and on to the next goal, or you get Crackdown, which was fun but in the end lacked the final push to make it any more than just a sandbox to kill gangs in with a good friend. Thankfully Rockstar have always understood this with the GTA series and whilst IV was a dark and gritty game, it was a solid one with a twisted bitter story and thoroughly real main character. My only major gripe with it is that I got sick of being pestered by friends to go out bowling and drinking, especially when I was about to embark on a main mission.
The problem with sandbox gaming is that by definition it's a mode where you can ignore the main story, focus on exploration and doing side-quests/missions to your hearts content until you want to slip back onto the main core story and finish the game. Developers put diversions in, taxi missions, vigilante missions and so forth. Getting the player back on your story is a hard thing, you have to make sure that the missions are fun and interesting, many developers therefore make the side missions bland and uninteresting in order to try and focus the gamer's back onto their plot. This kind of railroading of course often leads to games like Just Cause and so on, where you'd rather finish the main story because the side missions are annoying, over too quickly and aren't at all very much fun.
Then there's various property you can own, vehicles to collect, store, buy and steal. It's all about choices to do these things and the best sandbox games give the player a myriad of options in which to express their various larcenous urges, as well as rake in huge amounts of cash. Every genre approaches this differently, gang-games like GTA IV and Saints Row 2 stand as great examples of how this can be done effectively and brilliantly, especially in Saints Row 2 where there's that much player choice it can literally hurt your head just thinking about how to best spend your time. There are a myriad (my favourite word) of activities and diversions in that game, all of them can be enjoyed with a friend and best of all - they're fun.
On the other side of the mirror, you have the RPG style sandboxes as previously mentioned: Morrowind. With the sequel, Oblivion, Bethesda pushed the boundaries a little further, gave us a main quest we could easily follow and stacked their world with numerous side-quests that were fun and enjoyable. Oblivion was king of the sandbox RPGs for a while, of course all that's now changed since the release of Fallout 3 which ups the ante yet again and faithfully creates a bleak and apocalyptic future RPG where there's that much sand it's hard to work out where to put the first sandcastle.
Day night cycles whirl on by and you can drown in the detail of the Wastelands, it truly does capture the spirit of sandbox gaming. You are not restricted one iota where you want to go, who to kill, who to work for. If you want to steal and murder you can do, if you want to play the hero, you can do that as well. Fallout 3 has the post-apocalyptic RPG shooter down to a T and its main story is easy enough to follow, proving that Bethesda was the best choice to handle the Fallout series and I don't care what the Fallout fanboys say.
The fantasy side of freeroaming RPGs has also seen some love recently from Lionhead. Fable 2 has done numerous things correctly, whilst presenting a pretty linear story it has allowed player choice and a freeroaming game mechanic along with property ownership, a morality system and an artificial companion who removes the feeling of being alone in this vast world. By removing the mini-map the developers have crafted an elegant system that fits in with their world and most importantly fulfils one of my caveats for a sandbox game, the story one. Following the golden breadcrumb trail is deliciously fantasy/faerie tale and also provides the player with a foolproof navigation to the next part of their quest, side quest or main story.
NPCs are interesting to interact with, if a little shallow in the emotional responses. Yet they are given life and that's another thing I want to touch on regarding sandboxes and perhaps the most important thing of all. These worlds are huge and if they're huge you expect there to be people to interact with, if not in RPG terms then at least in visual terms. Now Fallout 3 has a few NPCs here and there and the Wastelands aren't teeming with people, this is to be expected of course in a post apocalyptic setting. The people in the cities and settlements all lead their own lives, they do their own thing and they move around interacting with each other, with you and their environment.
I first saw this in one of my favourite games: Gothic, I loved to watch the settlements going around their daily chores, guarding, blacksmithing, interacting, playing instruments by the fire. STALKER pulled it off well enough and as far as sandbox gaming goes, it kind of fits in there with the whole genre.
Saints Row 2 has an incredible level of NPC detail. The developers placed over 20,000 ambient animation nodes in order to accomplish this and the NPCs can use them as well as the player. If you leave your PC standing around doing nothing for a while, the chances are they will seek out an ambient node and perform that animation. Smoking a cigarette or drinking from a 40oz bottle of booze are all things that I've seen so far, dancing on a dance floor, fishing at the boardwalk are others. In fact there are also ambient animations tied to the whole city, to objects that people can interact with. It all adds to the sense of life in this sandbox.
Having a good selection of vehicles is paramount to any kind of gang-game based sandbox. Air, water, land and so on. If you can add in under-water vehicles to something like Mercenaries 2 you're on the right track. Taking away the player's freedom to navigate the environment you have presented unless it's part of your story or theme (ala Fallout 3) is a bad thing. If there's water, the player wants to swim in and under it. If there's road, the player wants to drive on it and so on. You need to seriously think about your world's design and the navigation aspect as much as bringing it to life. Just Cause was massive and it was empty, you could get around using a variety of vehicles however and they were all fun to drive/fly and so on.
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows allowed Spider-Man to finally swim; this was a great step forward to the series as a whole. Finally, no more annoying water based deaths or canned scenes of Spidey getting out of the water. You might think it's not important but it's actually quite a major step forwards in term of that series and the sandbox gaming it represents.
What's next for the sandbox genre, it's pretty hard to predict where it's going to go next but there are numerous titles that are touting the word: sandbox in their portfolios. Gearbox Software's Borderlands seems to be the most interesting, promising a sci-fi dark world with some Mad Max style elements, full cooperative gameplay for up to players and vehicles with numerous seats for co-op driving/gunning.
It also generates weapons procedurally and there are 500,000 weapon combinations possible with this system. The planet is presented as a sandbox and there are RPG elements to the game. If Gearbox can pull this off it should be a phenomenal title that truly expands the sandbox game genre. Darksiders promises a sandbox-style dark fantasy story of Biblical proportions with the main protagonist War being able to navigate the large environments on his horse: Ruin whilst still being a linear progression-style story with boss battles and so on.
Prototype is shaping up with a sandbox city and a very interesting character armed with numerous mutant powers. I have high hopes from this game since it's the developers who crafted Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Only time will tell if they have the stones to be able to handle their own fully fledged IP and make a lasting impression on the genre, as long as they can steer clear of too many protect missions, timed flag runs and timers in general I'll be extremely happy.
When I cast my eyes back to the original concept for Halo, before it turned into a linear FPS and just after they canned it as an RTS I weep a little. Halo was originally planned to have that very sandbox element, early production videos were just that. Soldiers driving across the various Ringworld environments, digging deep into Covenant installations and seamlessly moving from surface to sky to underground. It would have been one heck of a ride.
The technology is here now however to make that kind of thing happen, whatever transpires, you can be sure that we'll be in for some fun times and plenty of new sand to kick around.
I have a feeling I'll be kicking a lot of it in Borderlands though.