Arguably, the Grand Theft Auto series can be seen as the series that inspired a lot of the games where a big sprawling environment is a key feature. A player thrown into a new place is like a child being placed in the centre of an Amazon rain forest. You feel disorientated, overwhelmed and there are a lot of unpleasant ways to meet your demise. Whether this happens by speeding trains, bullets or malaria is very often down to the player as to a lot of extents, these games give a tremendous feeling of freedom.
As mentioned earlier, Grand Theft Auto was one of the first cases that gave us a big city to explore. The top down view had its limitations, but to make up for this there were roads that would seemingly go on forever, and a huge city that offered a lot of space to complete missions or cause havoc. It was with the series’ evolution however, that really opened up a whole new world to roam, reap and ravage. You could stand on top of buildings and see as far as the game could render until it turned into a murky fog. You could completely forget about the central plot and just burn and pillage all of those who were indecent enough to wake up that morning and come within a mile of you. There really was a lot of stuff that you could do that gave the sense that it was a living world that functioned without you even playing out the events of the game.
With the latest instalment, Grand Theft Auto IV, it made the open, sprawling world to the next level. You could see far in to the distance and not have your view obscured by the rendering fog. The city functioned even more realistically, with bin men appearing on the back of their trucks in the very early hours of the morning. There was an even bigger population for you to mutilate with car bumpers and an assortment of weaponry. The open world sandbox just got a lot more sand tipped into it, enough to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool that would make the beaches of Weston look even more terrible than they already are.
A lot of other games have drawn ideas from open ended worlds and took them in new directions. Others have taken the idea that Grand Theft Auto introduced and then made a carbon copy of it with a different label slapped on the case. These days, an open world that offers insane amounts of freedom is nothing new. There are so many Grand Theft Auto clones out there wearing different suits, it is untrue. Unfortunately, these different suits are usually made out of tramp blankets and road kill, and they do not accomplish anything near the scale of what Grand Theft Auto has done. There are a few games out there though that have changed the formula and made some very fun additions to it.
Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction for example was a PS2 and XBOX game that was amazing fun to play. Forget nice cars, bikes and speed boats. This was Grand Theft War Zone. It was an open game that put you in the shoes of a Mercenary who could pick when to do missions for the various military factions that had set up camp in
Mafia applied the open ended world to a linear story line and it worked very well. There was similar freedom, as in choosing when to do missions for people, and being able to play about in the city when you choose. The story however, is much more central to Mafia, with there being only one place to get missions from, and no other way to get through the game without following the main story arc. This meant that there was a very well done combination of open world freedom, but tight and to the point story telling.
Massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft and my favourite, EVE Online, also have these wide open worlds with few limits. This is however a necessity for these kinds of games as a linear start location going to an end location would clearly not work in these sprawling worlds, where the players make the game more than anything.
Open world games can be very fun, but these days, trying to emulate Grand Theft Auto is a bad idea, as trying to match the mastery of the series is a very hard task to attempt. Unless something different is done to the formula, then the critics will compare the game to the GTA series, and from here it could well get crucified, ripped down before it is dead, flogged with trees and then burned to a crisp.