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I finally have to be a fan of sandbox games, thanks to my favorite franchises

by Ron Duwell | January 21, 2017January 21, 2017 11:00 am PDT

Me and open world sandboxes have never really gotten along. I’ve dabbled in a few that have caught my interest over the years, like Crackdown, Just Cause 2, and Middle-earth: Shadows of Mordor, but by and large, I find myself more in love with games that don’t let open world design distract me from my progression.

This isn’t always the case, as I’ve always pursued sidequests in my favorite classic JRPGs, but generally, the Grand Theft Auto style of open world design is one I’ve shunned for the last few years. I find myself unable to become emotionally invested in open gaming worlds as they feel more like time-sinks to me than storytelling devices, and once every game becomes open world in design, nothing really stands out anymore…

…or at least I thought. The last two years have shown me otherwise.

As more and more games make their way into an open world setting, the inevitability of my favorite franchises following suit has become a sure thing. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was the first to come and challenge my perceptions about open world games. I knew it would happen the second I fired it up, but finding a balance between making progress in the story and living out a completionist’s hell became almost unbearable.

The game is a perfect recreation of Metal Gear’s mechanics blessed with just enough open world freedom to extend itself well beyond a standard running time. While playing, I found myself running the same missions over and over again to get the perfect soldier recruits. Better equipment became a goal of mine rather than actually seeing how Snake’s mission wrapped itself up. I eventually had to put the game down and walk away because I sunk so many empty hours into it, barely moving the story along.

And surprisingly, I had a lot of fun with those empty hours.

If you thought Metal Gear Solid would torture me in such a way, imagine what happened last year when my beloved Final Fantasy took an open world approach. It wasn’t the first time the series allowed this to happen, but never before had Square Enix so closely mirrored the open world model on which most games thrive. Final Fantasy XV equally stunned me in that I wanted to explore its open world, complete its sidequests, dig through its dungeons, and find its treasures more than I wanted to wrap the story up.

I still haven’t beaten it, by the way. I’m getting closer and closer to the finish line each time I sit down with it, but Final Fantasy XV has proven to be huge in teaching me that open world games might have a place in my future.

2017 is now in full throttle mode with another iconic series that is about to mirror these tendencies as well. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks ripe with all of the open world RPG exploration that has powered games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3, and the influences of other open world genres, specifically survival games, have this game screaming of time-sinks galore.

The Legend of Zelda practically invented open world design, but not since the NES original has it stuck this closely to such freedom. Thanks to its gorgeous the trailers alone, I want to dig through every last inch of this open world. When I get my hands on it, don’t expect me to make any human contact for a few weeks.

And finally, Nintendo put the final stake in my heart just this past week. Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Zelda all getting a sandbox version of themselves seems like a natural progression that each series would have to undertake eventually…

But I never thought in a million years I’d see a Super Mario sandbox game. Nintendo even specifically used the word when it revealed Super Mario Odyssey during the Nintendo Switch presentation, so we know that’s where Mario is headed in the future. By all means, it looks exactly like you would expect a Super Mario open world to look like, and if anybody can get me to love sandboxes, it’s Nintendo.

Either way, the time has finally come for me to choose, it seems. Either embrace that open world, sandbox design is the future of console gaming for the time being or distance myself from four of my favorite gaming past times and look elsewhere for fun. Their developers have put me in a situation where I have to make or break, and it goes without saying I’m not ready to back out of anyone of them yet.

These four franchises are the last remaining mainstays from when I first started playing video games, and if I can’t evolve and change my opinions with these games, I can’t do it for anything.

Bring on the sandboxes. I can’t wait to see if Dragon Quest XI makes a few changes as well.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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