Bigger Doesn’t Always Mean Better
As Grand Theft Auto V details begin to trickle out, Rockstar Games is doing what all videogame publishers do: hyping up potential buyers with bits of information that are meant to make their upcoming title more appealing.
The news (from Game Informer’s big December reveal issue) that GTAV‘s setting is rumoured to be “bigger than the worlds of Red Dead Redemption, San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV combined, with room to spare” will likely delight many who are slavering for the latest edition of Rockstar’s sandbox crime series, but, when I read this, I found myself strangely disappointed.
While playing Sleeping Dogs, United Front Games’s surprisingly fantastic open world crime game, I began to think about what made that game feel so refreshing when many other free roaming titles have, to me at least, started to get a bit stale. Part of what makes Sleeping Dogs such an enjoyable experience is definitely its emphasis on melee combat — the fighting system feels like a brutal combination of Arkham City‘s and Yakuza‘s satisfying mechanics — but other aspects of the game also help it to excel.
“If GTAV handles world navigation in a way that resembles other entries in the series it might be a bit of a drag.”The size of the Hong Kong map in Sleeping Dogs is probably about as big as an open world setting should get. Despite how inconsequential the size of a playing environment may seem, the fact that getting protagonist Wei from one end of the city to another is such a quick process helped to make the game much more fun than it may otherwise have been. Sleeping Dogs, like Grand Theft Auto, is packed with side missions, optional activities and collectable items. All of these are spread across an area that is large enough to encourage exploration, but not so enormous that the prospect of completing just one more gameplay goal is ever too far away. In Grand Theft Auto games I tend to stick to the main story missions, never feeling too enthusiastic about taking a five minute drive from one end of a city to another in order to play side content. I’d always assumed that this was just the way I like to play these games. Sleeping Dogs smaller map (and the little distance indicators never seeming to climb above 2200 in-game metres) changed this, leading me to spend probably the same amount of time hunting power-ups or finishing optional missions as working toward finishing the storyline.
Wei cannot fast travel and the three unnamed protagonists from GTAV will likely be confined to vehicles as well. The busywork of traveling long distances between every mission doesn’t always have to be a bad thing (my favourite parts of Skyrim involved the unexpected encounters that organically appeared up while heading toward an objective marker), but, if GTAV handles world navigation in a way that resembles other entries in the series it might be a bit of a drag.
This said, Rockstar has a fantastic track record and has likely noticed the ways in which games since GTAIV‘s 2008 release have improved upon open world navigation. The idea of a Grand Theft Auto V peppered with a multitude of hidden, Skyrim style “quests” written with the same high level of quality as past main game missions would compartmentalize and improve long treks across an enormous city. Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption even has the kind of seemingly random wildlife and human encounters that could provide a template for how such a system could work. A greater emphasis on unique side characters and scenarios — maybe even a revision of some of San Andreas‘ upgrade mechanics — would help justify such an enormous map.
Until any more information is released, though, the supposed benefits of a sprawling Los Santos setting makes me more apprehensive than excited. If Rockstar hasn’t re-thought some of the elements of open world gameplay they’ve previously featured in the Grand Theft Auto series, GTAV‘s massive setting may not be something worth celebrating.