Open world games by its most technical definition have been around for quite a while, with the first Ultima releasing way back in 1981. But the notion of open world as something truly novel didn’t occur until 3D rendering became standardized, opening up a third axis of movement to allow the exploration of a large space past being a virtual tabletop for an otherwise linear experience. With the release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 to the more recent The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, open world began to represent notions of emergent play over merely being an experience no longer confined to a preset series of events in both a temporal or spatial context.
With the advancements in visual fidelity, titles like Grand Theft Auto III became more then simply games to be played through. Instead these sophisticated simulated spaces became more like a giant sandbox where players could utilize the various in-game mechanics as tools in order to craft their own unique systems of play. But also the spaces themselves became the point of focus past the actual mechanics of action like shooting or stealing cars. Spending hours simply driving through Liberty City and taking in the sights was a common activity for many, and often was done in complete ignorance of the actual scripted or written gameplay that the developers had crafted.
The appeal of open world is often seen as largely an unintended consequence of providing a highly detailed space that has shaken the shackles of pitting players into isolated zones or instances with clear directives. For example playing through a game like Doom, while players could freely move around a single map or mission with a large degree of freedom, there was simply little to actually do past what the developers intended. Players could either choose to engage in the intended play of proceeding from the spawn point to the end of the map, or essentially refuse to play the game. There was a lack of incentives to diverge from the intended narrative nor were there mechanics to provide for any sort of meaningful play past what was required to reach the objective.
The popularization of open world can arguably be seen as the most recent paradigm that has called for nearly every new title to have some element of it. While it is hard to think of this as being in anyway negative, open world at least in its current configuration isn’t a model that seemingly fits into every mold. While franchises like Assassin’s Creed or Saints Row have taken the basic formula to great heights, the notion of an open world has also conversely been bended to other projects that didn’t really call for it. Mafia II with its extremely focused and personal narrative seemed like the worst title to call for an open world setup, and while the city of Empire Bay was definitely novel in its own right, much of the game space was never properly utilized. It is difficult to imagine that Mafia II would have been worse off if it had simply placed players into isolated mission spaces instead. The free roam element of the city at large was ever only utilized to drive someone from point A to B while some narrative exposition could unfold. In this manner, the free-roam arena of Empire Bay was less a sandbox but more a glorified loading screen or minimally interactive cut-scene between proper segments of gameplay.
In either case, while open world may have had questionable effects upon mechanical expectations, it did however heighten the need for all games to have a more depthful space in both design and execution. Titles like Bioshock and its eventual followup Bioshock Infinite are likely more memorable for their absolutely inspirational worlds more so then the gameplay itself, and neither were what anyone would consider “open.”
The new demand for better and more immersive worlds has become a universal requirement not only relegated to the genre of open world or sandbox titles. And with every new major release boasting a large space to engage in, what was once immediately novel has now become largely redundant. It has to be said that when games like Grand Theft Auto III first hit the scene, it was absolutely something spectacular. But in the next decade and a half after its release, there has been minimal innovation or attempts to expand on creating a more meaningful space.
What has occurred instead is a linear cycle of simply increasing density of rendered assets and the scale or size of the space available. While at a casual glance the Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto III is seemingly primitive with its low polygon count to the likes of the same fictional space in Grand Theft Auto IV seven years later, nothing of note has really been improved upon past its arbitrary visual enhancements. The NPCs are still mindless automatons, the mechanics available to the player to engage with the space are largely untouched, and the type of emergent play likely to occur is also fairly identical.
With the recent release of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I found for the first time being completely uninterested in the world that surrounded me. This was rather shocking given that while the Assassin’s Creed series has recently been subject to criticism, the new worlds with each proceeding title have always at least provided a modicum of appeal. But the Paris of Assassin’s Creed: Unity simply felt unimpressive and reliant upon legacy systems.
In comparison, the recently launched online racer The Crew with its rather primitive representation of the continental United States had me completely intrigued. Past playing through its narrative or participating in PvP play, I likely spent thirty or so hours since its December 2nd release date simply going off on road trips to explore various landmarks or cities.
This was entirely shocking for me personally, given I am one to typically abuse fast travel which The Crew allows for shamelessly. Despite that, I found myself instead spending up to an hour to drive cross-country instead of the few seconds it takes to open up my map and merely click where to instantly teleport to. The journey of racing down mountains or country roads while soaking in the sights around the player was fundamentally unique.
And while The Crew hasn’t been devoid of its own criticisms, its space is something to behold but also seemingly doesn’t solve the issue of bringing any sort of new innovation to the table. In many ways, both mechanically and spatially, The Crew is largely derivative of Ubisoft sibling franchises like Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry. It even has players hunting down comm towers to expose areas of the map, just like climbing towers in the other two franchises.
The question then becomes, why did The Crew succeed where so many other open world franchises have recently failed? The solution in the absence of innovation is obviously a difficult one. At face value, it isn’t apparent how The Crew diverged from its contemporaries or whether it did at all. And it has to be said that the appeal of a certain game space might also entirely be subject to personal bias.
The United Areas of America: Consolidation and Accessibility
As someone who admittedly isn’t too fond of racing games because of my lack of skill in that particular mechanic, The Crew was still initially quite appealing. I was intrigued by the premise of a large expansive open world racer, but also one that had more friendly controls. While this is obviously not something that diehard racing gamers will particularly like, it does in turn make the game more accessible to those of us that can barely keep a straight line or ends up spinning out of control on the first corner in titles like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport.
To provide a bit of narrative context, The Crew follows Alex Taylor, a native of the Midwest and younger brother to a member of an upcoming prominent street gang, the 510s. Alex unintentionally witnesses the murder of his brother at the hands of corrupt FBI agent Coburn and fellow gang member Shiv while also simultaneously taking the fall for the murder.
Years later in prison, Zoe another FBI agent looking to take down Coburn and the now nationally massive 510s enlists Alex’s help. Working undercover, Alex infiltrates the 510s and makes his way up the chain of command to ultimately get a chance at revenge against his brother’s murderers.
The main narrative follows Alex’s ascent inside the 510s while simultaneously building up his own devoted crew of friends all of whom have their own motivations for seeing Shiv go down. The premise and tone of the game is very much in the spirit of the older Fast and Furious films or Gone in Sixty Seconds. While the narrative itself is rather direct and to the point, it does serve as a satisfying framework in order to motivate players to actually get to the next mission and become invested in Alex’s personal struggle.
As a racing game set within a space largely composed of non-urban areas, The Crew isolates players to the scope of interaction available to being within a car. Alex is unable to get out of his vehicle to walk around, enter buildings, or more closely explore areas not accessible by vehicle. This poses a variety of challenges in designing a world that is worth exploring when much of the accessibility is immediately cut off.
For example, in something like Grand Theft Auto V which also has its fair share of rural landscapes, players can utilize both walking on foot and aerial crafts to traverse terrain otherwise not possible by normal street cars.
The Crew however does address this issue and nearly all of its expansive map can indeed be explored. The virtual continental United States is divided up into several larger areas which all present a different specialty or “spec.” The starting area of the Midwest provides the starting spec of “Street” which allows for Alex to tune his vehicles to most efficiently traverse tarmac. By the time he makes his way to Las Vegas, players can access the “Raid” spec which allows for a tuning that allows vehicles to traverse harsher terrain meaning everything from a rocky off-road to literally scaling mountains.
Topography in general is something that games have tended to scale down in order to promote accessibility. For example, while a game like Skyrim may appear to have visually realistic geographic features, taken holistically it is apparent that the game space is conveniently bowl shaped, with mountains bordering the map and most of the central area being a flat valley in between. The mountains themselves are also scaled down to allow players to be able to traverse them in a timely manner instead of the literal days or weeks it would conceivably take if it was rendered at a realistic scale.
The issue then isn’t the degree to which a game achieves an actual sense of realism, rather how well it masks the topographical fiction it has presented. The Crew for a game that seemingly lacks mechanical accessibility has conversely not strayed away from including terrain that is altogether formidable. For better or worse, there were often times I became stuck without chance of escape past fast-traveling my way out. It also wasn’t surprising to find on a regular basis after going off-road in a raid vehicle that I would come to a road that I was unable to enter because of a never ending barrier in the form of an indestructible wall or fence.
While all of this might sound terrible and often it was, it does however provide for an accurate sense of actually being in such a place as depicted. Because despite the antics of the hosts of Top Gear on their various outdoor excursions, going into rugged terrain will likely end in disaster.
But for the most part with the system of different spec vehicles, The Crew seemingly promotes a methodology of play that is both expansive while also intentionally limiting. Players if they so choose to, can almost always travel on marked roads only. And even going off road, as long as players take note of upcoming terrain and plan their route in advance, treacherous areas can easily be avoided.
Because of this while players will occasionally find themselves stuck in frustrating situations, the holistic experience of traveling the continental States is one of great immersion. Being on a mountain road feels genuine just as much as being on the flat structured streets of Los Angeles.
And unlike the space of Skyrim which has regularly been called out for being rather flat, the United States of The Crew are geographically diverse and immersive. And more importantly the layout of the roads, highways, and dirt paths is planned out in such a fashion that makes travel an activity that isn’t merely mundane, but engaging in its own right.
But none of this should suggest these virtual States are at all close to reality or matching the scale of the actual country. The landmass has unsurprisingly been scaled down to accommodate the limits of modern day hardware, but also to a manageable chunk from both a development standpoint, as well as from a gameplay context that often calls for lengthy journeys.
And the process of consolidation is possibly where many world spaces fail and unintentionally expose the facade it is continually trying to mask. The Crew by any stretch with its enormous coverage is obviously whittled down, especially apparent for anybody who actually lives in the States. For one, there are no individual States at all and many major metropolitan areas are omitted completely. Cities themselves are in terms of size, typically on par with a small town or settlement.
It is ultimately easy to draw criticism to the supposed lack of detail or abundant omission but in all honesty, would be a somewhat unfair stance. The Crew regardless of its consolidation might possibly be one of the most massive game spaces ever created. Driving from New York to Los Angeles in the game tallies up to roughly a bit over 70 miles. While obviously that figure falls drastically short of the real world distance of around 2500 miles, comparatively no other major open world game comes close. As a comparison Skyrim is about 4.32 miles across and 3.42 miles high.
The size however isn’t really indicative of the quality of a world space. I think what should likely be considered with more emphasis is what a player can see at any given time. In hardware terms, this would typically mean the effective draw distance, but for the sake of ease is simply as far as the player can see into the distance in any direction from a static point.
One of the issues with Skyrim was how from certain vantage points, the scale of the topography could easily pull a player out of immersion. Landmarks were simply too densely packed for any proper sense of wilderness for example. On the other hand, it is altogether easy to be absolutely stranded and in the middle of nowhere in The Crew given the player ignores the map. And also impressively, the game features no loading screens.
A player can drive from Miami to Seattle while passing through Detroit, Las Vegas, and Yosemite all without a single loading screen or transitions. While in Skyrim, entering any major settlement like Whiterun or a building will load the player into an isolated separate zone. Even most MMOs like Guild Wars 2 or World of Warcraft have the map divided into smaller chunks that can only be accessed one at a time.
So finally moving past the mechanical aspects of designing a world, what The Crew ultimately does well in the absence of a 1:1 realistic rendering, is capturing the character of the place it is attempting to embody. A player only needs to open the map of The Crew to see that there has been a liberal amount of redrawing up the supposed infrastructure of its fictional United States.
And while Ivory Tower’s idea of what they believe is the core character of The United States may not completely mesh with every single player, it does however strike me as a novel effort. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the late Patrice O’Neal’s comedic attempt to simplify what he perceived as the needlessly complicated divisions of the States into what he informally termed The United Areas of America. And while probably coincidental, Ivory Tower’s own efforts into consolidating the country from 48 separate States arrives at a similar result by characterizing areas not by States, but by the major cities they encompass.
Providing context and meaning to a world space
When considering memorable open worlds, I typically think of Fallout: New Vegas. This is significant because it is also a game that I initially was disappointed to find didn’t allow players to continually play after completing the main narrative. Comparatively, I was expecting something similar to The Elder Scrolls that provided a never-ending personal narrative of play that wasn’t constricted by the framework of a primary written conflict.
However in future replays and thanks to the installation of mods, I was able to replay Fallout: New Vegas without this prior restriction. But surprisingly I found myself with little to do once the climactic battle at Hoover Dam had passed. There were no missions to complete, no new sights to explore, and generally no real incentives to play past the credits. I reluctantly found myself quickly just wanting to move on to a different game altogether or re-roll a brand new character.
While I would be reluctant to blame this lack of post-game appeal on any sort of faults of the world design itself, I did however find that this could largely be linked to the game’s strong reliance upon its writing and characters. With such definitive resolution in the game’s conclusion, the context or motivation to engage in the world largely disappeared.
Whether intentional or not, this might be why a game like Skyrim can conversely be played endlessly, because its narratives are extremely minimal and often open-ended. Characters are loosely developed and players are often left to essentially fill in the blanks themselves. For example a player siding with the Stormcloaks might view Ulfric Stormcloak as a patriotic revolutionary, while on a future play-through as an Imperial (or even still a Nord), may conversely cast him as a spy for the Thalmor seeking to weaken Skyrim for potential invasion.
In either case, the presence of a framework or a certain abstract context to provide meaning to a world space is likely as important if not more so then the physical design itself. The recent indie release The Vanishing of Ethan Carter for example was simultaneously one of the most gorgeous game spaces I had ever explored, while also being a completely dreary and dull mechanical experience.
The Crew however doesn’t need to go to great lengths to justify its choice of setting. The narrative places Alex within his country of residence and has him traveling all over to dismantle and infiltrate a prominent criminal enterprise. In addition to the narrative, the exploration and advancement to new areas of the map brings forth new mechanical additions seen in the introduction of new specs, as well as highlighting the recruitment of additional crew members.
The game could have honestly done more to delve deeper into these individual characterizations, but for a game where narrative is admittedly not the main focus, it definitely seems to meet a certain level of satisfaction. Each proceeding area is as characteristic of Alex’s ongoing narrative, as it is of exploring the specific motivations and back stories of these new characters. For example, players will spend considerable time investigating Harry’s mysterious behavior in the East Coast to only learn that he has secretly been looking after Alex’s nephew by stealing from the 510s.
And much like the formula of Assassin’s Creed or Saints Row, The Crew does everything to distract players from shooting straight to the next primary mission. Along the way, the path is littered with skill challenges, landmarks, and optional races.
However in the scope of actually expecting players to explore the space in front of them instead of simply fast-traveling to their next objective, many games fail unless they prevent fast travel outright or at the least, limit its usage drastically. And this is typically what most games do, instead requiring players to unlock points of fast travel by manually revealing them beforehand.
While The Crew utilizes a standard “fog of war” mechanic, it allows for fast travel to any point of the map that is uncovered. In addition, the radius of which the player reveals the map at any given static point is substantial which allows for a player to conceivably reveal the map with fast travel instead of driving to the locations. All they would have to do is fast travel right up against where the fog of war ends which will instantly reveal a segment of the map and repeat.
But aside from gaming OCD or gamers who are simply extremely lazy, The Crew doesn’t really motivate this type of meta-gaming behavior. Because the main spectacle or point of focus for The Crew is the driving itself, players will find themselves actually wanting to drive to a destination as opposed to simply clicking on a point to teleport to instantaneously.
What is ultimately interesting comparatively is how in Skyrim I often did utilize the fast travel mechanic despite being surrounded by interesting landscapes and points of interest. And there was plenty to discover completely outside the scope of scripted events. In Eastmarch for example, there is an unmarked location where the player can come across some hunters bathing in hot springs. There are also plenty of structures, dungeons, and caves not linked to any type of specified quest or mission but are simply available to be explored independently.
But despite this and past the fact that many who do play Skyrim do actually disregard fast travel, I personally never felt like doing so. I simply didn’t find much enjoyment in manually hiking or riding a horse to my destination. This could potentially be explained by a difference in what players ultimately look for in a game. While some players may enjoy this range of interaction, I personally favored play that was more narrative driven where I could role-play a specific character. In this context when playing Skyrim, I tended to spend more time in interaction with other characters then wandering the landscape alone.
And while I’ve easily put more hours into Skyrim then I would be comfortable confessing, I did eventually grow tired of it. One can only hear the same collection of recycled dialogue and AI behaviors before the illusion ultimately breaks and becomes hollow.
With The Crew however, the interactive framework is entirely different. With players being imprisoned within their vehicles, there is no need for a complex system of interaction given the only avenue of it is with other real players who obviously don’t need an AI system assisting them in providing human responses.
Instead players regardless of their personal inclinations, interact with the world of The Crew largely through the spatial movement of their vehicles. There is no dialogue prompts, choices to be made, or enemies to be killed. The Crew is wholly focused on players driving their vehicles down roads and dirt paths. In this manner, The Crew doesn’t suffer from the same sort of constraints as other open world contemporaries that must continually battle a sense of hiding its facade.
I guess in other words, The Crew while feeling quite genuine, might have achieved this at no extra expense or effort. By its very own limiting nature, it has indirectly made itself deceptively more immersive by not allowing players to get close to its thin veneer.
And the actual gameplay in relation to how it connects to the world at large is a point of some contention. In numerous reviews, the story missions were often described as completely dull and lazily produced. For the most part, the missions are entirely formulaic consisting of a few different scenarios. Alex is either engaged in a race against other drivers, driving from point A to B with a time limit, or chasing down another vehicle.
What I have to give The Crew credit for however, is how these recycled missions are often contextualized. Through the liberal presence of character interaction that overlay these missions, I still felt deeply connected to the struggles at hand. So while onscreen I may have been racing down mountain slopes arbitrarily chasing down someone who wasn’t actually in front of me, the voice-overs of my various crew-mates made the ordeal quite real.
Open world titles after the fact, tend to often be viewed for its capabilities for emergent gameplay over the merits of what the writers actually came up with. But it has to be said that as players, we might tend to favor sandboxes that had us emotionally invested at least for a short duration at the expense of free-roam capabilities.
Narrative driven titles like the more recent entries of the Grand Theft Auto franchise have been incredibly successful despite a lack of coded diversionary play. While enormous sandbox Just Cause 2 which was arguably built around the concept of players essentially ignoring the narrative, were somewhat of a bore failing to reach a large audience.
The issue wasn’t that Just Cause 2 had poor mechanics either, if anything it had the potential for some absolutely exhilarating play with a combination of Rico’s grappling hook and destructible environments. But with its laughably terrible writing and lack of creativity in building a world that responded back at the player, it simply fell short of expectations. Ultimately, Just Cause 2 was a game that felt like a “game,” where players were unable to buy into the fiction presented by its world space.
With the injection of an online component, The Crew offers the potential for a more organic experience that can be shared with random strangers and real world friends. In the sixty or so hours I have currently put into the game, I have found myself engaged in play that was completely outside the scope of any formal matchmaking or coded systems.
When I was still making my way through the main story, I took a break early on to explore some of the map. I found a small race track where a few other players had congregated. Without the usage of chat or mics, we informally started taking turns going down the track in opposite directions to crash spectacularly on the other side.
Later when I reached the West Coast of the United States, I joined a crew of three other players and without any other communication then the movement of our cars on screen, we set off on a road trip from Los Angeles, thru San Francisco, and eventually up the coast to Seattle. The experience wasn’t simply an informal race, rather a leisurely coastal drive where members would regularly take turns leading the pack.
A final assessment of The Crew and future innovation
My intention with this article was never to formally review The Crew nor consider it that specifically. More or less my recent experience playing it had me thinking about the genre as a whole and its current state, more so then the quality of this particular game. But for the sake of disclosure, while it may appear like I might be singing the game’s praises throughout the article, this is far from my actual thoughts.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time playing The Crew and I will likely drop plenty of more hours into it before I move on to something else. But like many other recently published Ubisoft titles, The Crew was absolutely inundated with issues at launch, most of which have yet to be resolved.
And despite Ivory Tower or Ubisoft’s best intentions, The Crew will likely be a short-lived experience. Its current popularity is already questionable and given its “always online” requirement, it is doubtful that they will continually support it in the long run unless they can somehow maintain a healthy player population.
The bigger tragedy however is that there was immense potential with The Crew. Its world space is both visually and mechanically engaging. However there happens to be no tools or abilities for players to properly make use of the world that way we want to.
One of the most common questions and requests I’ve seen is for some way to draw a custom route on the map. Currently the game only allows players to set a single way-point where it automatically tracks its own route. As described in the emergent play I experienced, there is a demand for players to be able to make up their own trips for others to follow.
And strangely the game itself seems to almost hint at this possibility. Out of the many awards achievable in the game, a large bulk of them require players to drive along a specific route stopping off at several different points of interest. While this task is definitely doable by setting way-points one at a time, it does immediately seem awfully inefficient especially considering some of these trips can cover roughly 40 or so miles and involve numerous turns.
But there is something to be said for Ivory Tower’s efforts in including some of the more notable landmarks of the United States and distilling them down into representative analogues. For example San Francisco in the game is roughly a few miles in width but actually driving through it I never got pulled out of the fiction. Everything from blazing across the Bay Bridge to swerving down Lombard Street, the whole package felt like the real deal and this is coming from someone who grew up in the Bay Area and still lives close by.
And with the main story and a large bulk of the skill challenges completed, I often still find myself opening the game to take long relaxing drives through the countryside, much in the same fashion as a session in Eurotruck Simulator 2.
Ultimately the question remains in regards to what developers should strive towards in order to rejuvenate the idea of an open world. The Crew surely isn’t the answer although it points to the unnecessary drive to continually expand on qualities the genre already has.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity with its self proclaimed realistic crowds failed to impress anyone. While the simulated mobs of the French Revolution might have been somewhat impressive, the individual NPCs were altogether lifeless and the overall effect was ruined by its own inability to smoothly render them. And simply increasing the size of the map doesn’t help matters especially if it comes at the cost at efforts being stretched more thin then they already are. All that results in is more or the same, and an even duller world space.
If The Crew revealed anything to me, it’s that a proper world in the absence of a technical leap needs to address the potential for play directly. What I mean by this is that certain self-labeled sandbox titles often over saturate their world with various activities, side missions, and other interactions to essentially waste time. The motivation for this type of mindless content generation is simple, and it is simply to distract the player from the fiction of the world which will easily be broken once the hard-coded content becomes exhausted. Pedestrians cannot be interacted with, and the game eventually shows itself for what it is, simply a collection of formalistic mechanical systems.
Instead developers should aim to make worlds that are actually responsive in a way that feels organic to the player. With The Crew, this was easily accomplished by the presence of the depthful free-roam map itself. As a racing game, players could essentially break the confines of the borders of a track and make any street or terrain their own custom race scenario. And like the most novel sandbox titles, The Crew provides the tools for players to create their own play, whether that be the mechanics and physics of the vehicles themselves, of the playground of the virtual United States.