What Makes An Open World

Up until recently, I’ve only heard about other people describing Far Cry 3 as “Skyrim with guns.” Aside from being stupefying in how reductive that is, it’s also wholly inaccurate. It’s like saying a Monte Cristo is just a PBJ with meat. I mean sure, they’re both sandwiches and both (in America, anyways) have jelly involved, but they’re so incredibly different that they’re hardly ever even mentioned in the same culinary breath. So when over the weekend I actually heard someone say the words “Skyrim with guns,” I finally had to step in.

On the surface, there are a few similarities between Far Cry 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. They’re both open-world games and they both have combat. And that’s about it. Skyrim is full-on fantasy and Far Cry 3 has just a little bit of the supernatural, but really, those two bits are kind of all they share. Even at that, those two elements are just broad umbrellas that they happen to both fit under.

The open world of Skyrim (and mostly every other Elder Scrolls game) is unique in that the exploration is what drives the world. Every once in a while, you’ll come across something strange and emergent, but mostly it’s about discovering what’s just over the next mountain or what’s at the end of this river. The amount of things you can engage with in Skyrim is, by all counts, truly staggering.

Just in the opening moments of the game, you’ll go from a prison to its containing fort to underneath that fort into a subterranean tunnel system that eventually expels you into a wide open glen of mountains, trees, and animals. Your next task is to travel to Riverwood, a small community featuring a lumber mill, an inn, and dozens of characters and quests to interact with. Already you have experienced enough to fill any other game, but you have just begun this one.

Walking around the world of Skyrim, you’ll encounter so many strange people and places that it’s hard to believe it all fits into one game. I remember just wandering about, searching for a way around a mountain to continue a quest, when I see a stone structure at the top of a small hill. Correction: stone structures, their numbers becoming clearer as I come closer. I’m not entirely sure what they are, but they’re hardly the first set of mysterious statues I’ve messed with in the game. But then some mystically endowed enemy attacks! It’s a tough battle, but I win, only to find that this is one of many such structures. This was a discovery I made 20 hours into the game. 20 hours and I’m still discovering new things.

I still had guilds to join and people to save and tombs to explore. Every building and cave was just a building or a cave, but contained within was a quest or item or just something so unique that Skyrim might as well be entirely composed of snowflakes. Everyone, I’m sure, has that moment when they realize their quest log is growing faster than they can clear it only to open the map and realize that there’s still three-quarters of the world left to explore. It’s both a daunting and inspiring moment, perfectly encapsulating just what kind of open world Skyrim has.

The open world of Far Cry 3, while both a world and most definitely open, is completely different but still just as compelling. In fact, some would say it is one of the few redeeming qualities of the game. I disagree and would say it is one of the many positive aspects of the game, but I digress. What I’m saying that the open world of the Rook Islands is just as interesting as the one in Skyrim but in a totally contrasting way.

It is just as interesting despite showing you its hand well within the first half-hour of the game. You are introduced to a village and its shop, a radio tower, and an enemy outpost almost immediately, and those are really the only three things in the game to discover. As often as you come across creatures fighting in the wilds of Skyrim, you’ll just as often come across entirely unique structures in Far Cry 3, which is to say it’s not rare, but compared to how frequently you find the games playing to their individual strengths, it might as well be like spotting a unicorn in Manhattan.

Far Cry 3 is all about the crazy things that can happen while you wander the world. For instance, I was out hunting for some Komodo dragons for crafting. I saw something rustling about off in the distance, but it quickly moved over a hill before I could tag it with my camera so I sprinted over to where I last saw it. Bad idea. Turns out it was a leopard. With just my sniper rifle out, I was ill equipped to both heal myself and swap to a shotgun and reload it in any competent and timely fashion, so I decided to haul ass out of there. I saw a hill nearby that I could jump my way up so that the leopard couldn’t follow, so I beeline’d it straight there.

The only problem was that an enemy patrol vehicle was crossing the road at the time. With me constantly patching myself up just so I could make it to the hill, I knew this was no time to pick a fight. I mean, how was I going to take cover against armed pirates while a flesh-hungry jungle cat was chasing me? So I continued to run.

But an epiphany! I remembered I had grenades. The pickle I found myself in, though, afforded me no time or distance to turn around and chuck them, so I instead hurled them at my feet, hoping they would detonate just as either the pirates or the feline ran over them. Two grenades into it, however, I came across another problem. One very large, wet problem, actually: a waterfall. Praying to whatever Rakyat gods were watching, I dove over, all the while still hurling grenades.

It turns out the waterfall dumped out into a fairly deep river, so no harm done. But then I saw one little *plop* in front of me. Oh no.

The grenades.

I began to swim away, only to be quickly ensnared by an alligator. Tussling with it, I mashed away at buttons when suddenly—BOOM—the grenade went off. I was taken down to a sliver of health, but the gator was dead. All’s well that ends well, right? Wrong.

Plop. Boom. Dead.

That’s how Far Cry 3 works. It’s about how you find yourself in these binds or come across seemingly insane and impossible situations only to get yourself in deeper into trouble/shenanigans. It’s like a kid telling you a story of and then this and then that and then and then and then, impossible to not get swept up in the ever maddening web of explosions and jeeps and sharks.

The best I can sum it up is Skyrim is like clicking around Wikipedia. One link leads to another which leads another and suddenly it’s five in the morning and you have 53 tabs open in Chrome. Your exploration of the world around you is unimpeded and grants you endless discovery. Far Cry 3 is like every fantastical notion you had while playing tag during recess come to life. Every cops and robber scenario, every Power Rangers battle, and every Star Wars tale you concocted made material and tangible through this digital medium.

Open worlds are, by definition, of a similar ilk. They’re large, expansive, and exist solely for you to poke with a stick. But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Skyrim and Far Cry 3 are both open-world games but they couldn’t be more different. Grand Theft Auto games, too. Every open world, whether they succeed or fail at their original vision, are unique and shouldn’t be reduced to a single catchall. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 53 tabs in my browser to work through.

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