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The Next Generation Sandbox
The Elder Scrolls. Fallout. Saint’s Row. Arkham City. Grand Theft Auto. The sandbox games, while remaining very popular, have slowly evolved since Grand Theft Auto 3 rolled onto the shelves back in 2001. While the scenery and style change from game to game the sandbox remains half full. The free roaming playground is missing toys and the kids are getting anxious. Anxious for what? What the Grand Theft Auto 5 trailer showed off: the next generation sandbox. In order to find the savior of open world gaming we go back to its roots. Rockstar recently unveiled the newest GTA game in the form of a teaser trailer. Teasing new(?) characters, a familiar yet brilliant city, and maybe even the main focus for our main protagonist. However, what was subtly hinted at away from the voice over and logos was a glimpse at the future. The streets were filled with life. NPCs constantly going about their business. Active construction work around the city keeps the noise levels going. Grand Theft Auto 5 looks to finally bring the biggest missing feature in sandbox games: life.
Barren wastelands and dangerous dirt-drawn paths of the fantasy realm may have a bit of reprise from this. No one expects tons of people to walk around when irradiated beasts, raiders, bandits, dragons, and demons roam the world. I would stay inside, as well. Skyrim’s towns were bustling with life and NPCs hard at work in their respective fields. Soldiers patrolled and exchanged chit-chat with their fellow citizens. I consider Bethesda’s latest to be the closest next generation sandbox game and even I am still blown away at what Rockstar showed off with GTAV. While Skyrim’s roads were traveled, when you see someone walking or running about you instinctively pull out your weapons and see what happens as they stride towards you. There is no surprise or randomness here. Someone is walking the road. Who would be that stupid with dragons about? Oh, bandits or perhaps even a member of the treacherous Dark Brotherhood. The Capitol Wastelands and still striving New Vegas strip had its fair share of travelers but they were mostly roaming soldiers or bandits. Arkham City is a bit different here, as well. The portion of Batman’s famed home in the recent bombshell of a hit was quarantined off from the rest of Gotham. There were still things going on in the streets but seldom could you drop to surface level and walk around looking for people to save or purses to snatch back. The game alerted you to any events happening around you. Even for the god damn Batman, this isn’t how it goes. He isn’t Superman and doesn’t have super hearing.
These games are missing the sense of real life. Where I can drive down the street in a sports car I just stole from an unsuspecting victim and had it re-stolen by some punk with brass knuckles. Where I’m in pursuit of a mission target on the run and a bum trips me up for some cash to eat. The sense of absolute randomness that can happen in everyday life. The Grand Theft Auto games scream for this. I feel that our beloved open world pioneer has lost sight of what made the games so fun and ridiculous and I found solace in Saint’s Row 3’s loving embrace. To feel the roar of an uncharted city map and an out-of-this-world arsenal at my fingertips reminded me of my katana-wielding days in San Andreas.I may seem like I am contradicting myself here as I cry out for realism on the virtual streets and a dildo bat in my hands. However, sandbox games struggle to keep serious and keep the fun around. Look at GTA4. While the game wow’ed many critics as it was released, I found it to be very dull and unoriginal. Rockstar has went away from the magic of the prior three titles before Nico rolled up. The sense that at any time I could drive down Central Street in a tank and destroy anything that walks or beeps. I want a police officer to stop me for a routine check and take my katana away because its a deadly weapon and try and charge me a fine. Then I want to shoot him in the face with a rocket launcher. Oh, and take back my sword.
That reminds me of one of my most asked for features in the GTA franchise. Something that the Elder Scrolls does very well. An in-game law and fine system makes every action I do seem to weigh something. If I pull out that tank and mow down hundreds of cars and people before I finally get busted, should I have to pay $20,000,000 in fines? Obviously that wouldn’t sit right with players but besides getting arrested due to crime stars or dying, there is no real law system in the world. If there is a cop around and he sees me run a red light, shouldn’t he try and pull me over? I may be in the minority here but whenever I was bored in GTA I should try and obey the laws of the road. Yet, other NPCs would run lights, hit my car, or run me over. Where is the cops!? Sure, I hit his car then I might be one star. Justice!! Where is it!? Bring the judicial system to my sandbox!
Sure, the graphics and physics of the open world have evolved marvelously but it feels like we’re still stuck in 2001 and GTA3 is wondering why we aren’t moving on. With every generation comes new tech and new boundaries to push. With GTA5 seemingly releasing on the current stage of consoles, it makes me wonder with the next gen riding right behind us it Rockstar is using their upcoming hit as a tech demo. Using a new engine they’re going to put what is out there now to the limits to give us a glimpse of what is to going. We may not see the trust next generation sandbox until GTA5’s potential knockouts or the full release of GTA6. Maybe another developer can take this shining achievement away from Rockstar and release a sequel or even a new IP on the mysterious PlayStation4 or X-Box 3 filled with life, decision, punishment, and unheralded fun. Until then, we have Grand Theft Auto to hopefully open the gates to this wondrous land of the next generation sandbox.