Calling time on the era of the open-world to-do list
At first, Just Cause 3’ s lack of a minimap feels like an oversight. Yes, there are moments when it rankles – the enforced trips to the map screen to seek out the final few objects you need to destroy before claiming a military base, for instance. But over time you realise that this is a conscious decision, and an entirely appropriate one for a game that puts the player at the heart of so much of what it does. That it does so, in part, by stripping away one of the open-world genre’s standard pieces of screen furniture shows how few games of its kind extend players the same courtesy. In turn it makes you realise that the minimap was not invented to meet the needs of the player, but the creator.
Try it. Load up a save file in any Assassin’s Creed, pick an objective, and see how long it takes for something else to appear on the minimap and distract you. It is entirely possible to spend an entire session in Ubisoft’s Rome, Paris or London without achieving a single thing of substance; you’ll have picked up some feathers, sure, maybe opened some chests, or chased a few scraps of paper across some rooftops. Each will have nudged you closer to a goal you didn’t know existed, and a reward which may not interest you. But all of them are marked on your minimap, given the same prominence as the waypoint you set earlier. Assassin’s Creed dictates that something someone on the dev team has made is of equal importance to the thing you, the player, have chosen to do. Such distractions are made in such volume that it is as if the developer is terrified of you not having anything to do. So it gives you more than you could ever need, plasters it everywhere, and makes sure it can’t be missed.
Despite our associating open-world games with freedom and agency, they are often more authored than they appear. Ubisoft does not sic a staffer on a fourmonth project to build an in-game Arc De Triomphe because a player might get a kick out of seeing it there, perhaps even climbing it. It does so because setting a mission or two in, around and on top of a world-famous landmark is a bullet point on the intro page of Assassin’s Creed’s design document. Look, we made Big Ben. You’re going to jolly well climb it.
It wouldn’t be fair to single out Ubisoft, of course, though so much of the publisher’s output is set in an open world that it is surely the most frequent offender, if not the worst. Avalanche’s New York studio made Just Cause 3, but its Stockholm parent made a collectathon of its own earlier this year with Mad Max. And the New York team’s game has its share of collectibles too. Weapon parts are buried in far-off corners, a full set giving you powerful new guns. Light all Medici’s little roadside shrines to fallen rebels, and you unlock fast travel, for free, to anywhere on the map. There are General Di Ravello’s audio diaries. There are even hidden ancient tombs. According to the stats screen, anyway. Forty hours in, we’ve found a few weapon parts, lit a few shrines, played back a few crackly old tapes. But tombs? We are yet to find a single one.
That’s precisely as it should be, surely: we should have to actually find this stuff. They should be called discoverables, not collectibles; a reward for exploration, not just for moving from dot to dot on a map that is overflowing with icons. Avalanche even treats Medici’s towns, outposts and military bases in this way: you have to find them before they’re marked on your map. With six of seven settlements in a given province set free, you consult your map for potential signs of the final one. Is it that cluster of buildings by a roadside? Perhaps that clearing halfway up a mountain? Or the small island a few miles off in the distance? There’s only one way to be sure. Use your grapple hook, parachute and wingsuit to get up in the air, then go and find out for yourself. Perhaps, then, it is Just Cause 3’ s unique approach to traversal that enables its developer to take away the reins. Combing every inch of a Rockstar or Ubisoft world would be painstaking in the extreme – driving cars up every hillside, setting foot on every rooftop. You can quickly explore Medici by helicopter or aeroplane, your map filling in as you soar on high in the sky. But Rodriguez’s abilities work so well in concert with one another, and are so satisfying to use, that a speedier alternative feels a little like using a cheat code.
And along the way you make up your own things to do – just as you should in a game that fancies itself a sandbox. Those roadside buildings were, in fact, a petrol station; can you send the whole lot up in flames with a single bullet? It turns out there was nothing up that mountain, but can you wingsuit down through the forest on the other side? It must be the far-off island, then – can you cross four kilometres of sea using only your abilities, grappling to the odd passing vehicle for a handy boost of momentum?
Throughout, you’ll have a gentle designer’s hand pulling you along. A glimpse of something red and silver in the distance, perhaps, in need of blowing up. The realtime leaderboards telling you a pal has beaten your freefall record when you’re hanging upside down from a helicopter, half a mile up in the sky.
Avalanche doesn’t completely get out of the way, then, but it does at least know to keep its distance. Games with more prosaic movement systems may not be able to copy the studio’s playbook to the letter, but Just Cause 3 is a convincing case study that less can definitely be more. Games are getting bigger all the time; do we really need them to be busier as well?