Looking Back on 2015: Open Season
Ben Sheene / Dec 31st, 2015 No Comments
As 2015 comes to a close we all become tethered to a choice. Like every year, we ask “what’s the best game?” And, like every year, that choice ranges from agonizing to easy depending on who you ask. 52 weeks of options leave wallets light as a feather and console hard drives choking for space. Whether it was indie charm or triple-A bombast, there’s room at the top for a lot of games to be awarded the crown of “best of.”
In stark contrast to these claustrophobic lists is the massive helping of open world games 2015 has unleashed onto the world. Free of constraints, open world games drop players into a bustling world thick with characters, side quests, loot, collectible junk, and distractions. No one expects to play Call of Duty and search every box for some yarn or screws. Life is Strange would be a little less exciting if Max took a few hours brushing up on her science skill before trying to save the world. Forget the lists, 2015 was the year of the open world.
Zombies and Beasts
After delays and cautionary feelings from Dead Island, Techland’s Dying Light closed out January 2015. Were players ready for yet another zombie game that was yet another first-person zombie game from the developer that made a name for itself with first-person zombie games? Dying Light definitely had a case of “been there, done that” at first glance, especially without any hands-on impressions to go by. Then it came out. And it was fun. And it sold really well. The open world cocktail of zombies and parkour worked. The game retains many elements from Dead Island but elevates them while also including a number of bugs and general goofiness to remain charming.
January didn’t seem like a wise time to release the game but doing so allowed Techland’s efforts to arrive without much competition. Players are still enjoying it and the developer is continuing to support the game, a surprising move these days. With new endgame content and The Following DLC to be released in 2016, Dying Light kicked off the year’s open world trend in a great way.
Bloodborne is likely many players’ idea of an open hell. In a world full of beasts and monsters, players were usually the hunted rather than the hunter. From Software’s PS4 exclusive spin on the Souls franchise remains one of the beloved titles of 2015 by critics and players. The trademark difficulty and customization are here in spades, along with some of the best boss fights on this generation of consoles. But it’s the incredible structure of Yharnam, the focal location of Bloodborne, that also deserves attention.
Players recognize open world games for their expansive regions and interconnection. Not only should you be able to fast travel from one end to the next but you should be able to conceivably walk from place to place. Or bring a horse. Or use a wingsuit. Bloodborne didn’t have a world map littered with points of interest but it did have one hell of an open world. The true beauty of the game was how nearly every area in the game was tied to another. There was a certain beauty that, after being doused in beasts’ blood for hours, a simple climb up a ladder would lead players to unlock a gate that opened up onto the starting area. Sure, fast travel between lamps is possible but it’s just as feasible to never encounter a loading screen and frolic across Yharnam’s multiple districts. Just don’t die. Through clever shortcuts and unfathomable attention to detail, From Software excels at making Bloodborne feel like a living, breathing world, even though most people are already long dead.
The Witcher 3 is a rare game. Rare in that few games are so dense while being so captivating through virtually every pixel and polygon of the experience. CD Projekt Red’s evolution as a game studio has been one of the most fascinating things to watch as The Witcher series has matured. The Witcher 3 is not only a capstone for the studio but one for the genre. Seeing the game in early forms at E3 hinted at the magic waiting in store after multiple delays and mountains of hype. Plenty of figures about multiple endings, map size, gameplay elements, and PR hyperbole didn’t mask the feeling that CD Projekt was on to something.
Nearly halfway through 2015 The Witcher 3 released. It didn’t have the name recognition of Halo or Call of Duty or Uncharted or Fallout; just an impassioned fan base and plenty of glowing pre-release coverage from countless outlets. Within days the game was profitable and being hailed as a classic. And it’s all true. Nearly every nook and cranny and underground cave of The Witcher 3 has a story to tell. A dead body in the sand by a lake can hold a note leading to an untold treasure. The journey to that treasure leads to a villager in need or a quest to complete or a monster to slay.
Like any good open world game, The Witcher 3 is packed with stuff to do. From the meaningless loot chests full of crafting material that might never be used to the distant vista waiting to be climbed, there are distractions. But unlike most games in the genre, these distractions always hold meaning. Even if it is summed up in a small note, most places and things to do have a story. Unparalleled beauty, a deep high fantasy story, and amazing side quests are just a part of what The Witcher 3 held. Players sink hundreds of hours into the game knowing that CD Projekt will continue supporting the game with free content and meaty expansions. And let’s not even get started on Gwent, the addicting game within and already addicting game. Though many players knew the latter third of 2015 held some gaming juggernauts, The Witcher 3 set a new standard for what should be expected from an open world experience.
That Open, Familiar Feeling
2015 had a lot to offer in terms of familiar yet amazing open world games. Players were itching to have their hands on Batman: Arkham Knight for a long time. As Rocksteady’s final entry in the Batman: Arkham series (and redemption for Origins), the number of delays weren’t ideal but a sign the developer didn’t want to push out a subpar game. Yes, the game’s release on PC was a fiasco but it didn’t take away from the dark and fun Batman game players wanted and even deserved.
Destiny has been one hell of a journey. The game is both a trial by fire for Bungie and the Guardians who grind for hours on end hoping for slightly better loot. The game’s open worlds manage to create a special synergy with first person shooter mechanics. House of Wolves, Destiny’s second expansion, was definitely a low point for several players in terms of endgame value. The Taken King came at a necessary time for Bungie’s social shooter. Players who were starved for content got a much needed fix, making the past year truly feel like a beta test. While the content is getting stale again for many, 2016 may bring Destiny fans what they really need: more.
In terms of putting out games, Avalanche Studios had a great year. Coming off the hype of Mad Max: Fury Road, the studio released its take on the universe a few months later. It may have gotten mixed reception but Mad Max does a fantastic job of realizing a world where Trevor from GTA lead the charge into the apocalypse. Thrilling car combat is a great blend to the desolation of deserts and S&M freaks. Then, of course, there’s Just Cause 3. Who wouldn’t want to end 2015 on a high note of massive explosions and fun? Just Cause 3 isn’t vastly different from the second entry because it doesn’t need to be. Causing absolute mayhem in the most creative way possible is just one of the best ways to experience an open world. The game rarely takes itself seriously because doing so would mess with the spirit of what makes the series special.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a step in the right direction after the large stumble that was Unity. It introduces the Frye twins, a brother and sister duo that have the charm of Ezio and Edward. The story is fun with a dash of serious. Most of all, it doesn’t feel tired; which, unfortunately, is something Ubisoft’s long-running series will soon suffer from. Separated from the entire series, Syndicate is a fun game when allowed to stand on it’s own two feet. However, the formulas that have been circulated and swished around for several years are becoming repetitive and stale. If Syndicate’s spirit can be bottled up (and given an extra year of development time), Assassin’s Creed could be great again.
Phantom in the Room
Years from now it will still be difficult to separate the drama between Hideo Kojima and Konami from what became Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. 2015 turned a gaming icon into a martyr and a once legendary company into a target of pure scorn. Players and press will attempt to pick apart what was cut and altered at the demand of Konami and if Kojima went crazy with money and/or power.
Either way, The Phantom Pain is one of the finest examples of how gameplay should be done, open world or otherwise. Whatever happened behind the scenes doesn’t change the fact that one of the best stealth series made the transition into an open world swimmingly. In both Afghanistan and Africa, players are given the option to play missions in countless ways. With hundreds of tools at their disposal, players can go in quietly or blow everything to hell. The Phantom Pain is a true gameplay sandbox because situations can change on the fly by either being spotted or having a surprise objective pop up. Players can be whatever Big Boss they chose to be, the true dream behind any Metal Gear.
The lack of lengthy cutscenes is probably a mixed bag for longtime fans but the story took a few interesting turns. And when players don’t feel like touring the world and fultoning soldiers, they can take to Mother Base and build a home away from home. Being able to invade other players’ bases and steal resources and staff remains one of the greatest thrills in The Phantom Pain. Who knows where the series will end up next but this is an amazing swan song for Kojima.
A Bomb is Dropped
Much like Star Wars has steamrolled through the box office, Fallout 4 barreled through the industry with the impact of a few megatons. By E3 2015 everyone knew it was coming. Then Bethesda had their conference and blew everyone away. It was obvious that Fallout 4 would be many players’ new obsession. It was probably the only game that had a chance to do well releasing shortly after Black Ops 3.
As with Skyrim and Fallout 3 and so on and so forth, Fallout 4 is going to be one of those games that stays in the gaming conversation. Mods and speed runs and tricks and no amount of ridiculous moments will cement the game’s place in history. This is open world crack. The enormous map doesn’t even hint at the amount of side quests and missions. Even when players finish the main story there will still be hundreds of things to do. It’s the formula of a Bethesda game, a studio synonymous with open world experiences.
Fallout 4 is more than just a bigger version of 3 and New Vegas. Players can modify their guns. They can bring along multiple companions through quests or stay loyal to one, just to hear all their dialogue. As deep and overwhelming as it can be, there is reason to play it multiple times if you really want to see and hear everything. Bethesda went the extra step and allowed players the chance to build their own settlements. It might not be Minecraft but the insane amount of detail in the crafting system is responsible for some creative work (perverted or otherwise). As with The Witcher 3, Fallout 4 has no lack for meaningful stuff to do. It’s a post-apocalyptic world hiding fun and terrifying stories around every corner. And it’s another open world that will keep players engaged well past 2015.
tags: batman arkham knight , Best of 2015 , bloodborne , dying light , fallout 4 , Just Cause 3 , mad max , Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain , the witcher 3