Open-worlds don’t always mean better games, as Rise of the Tomb Raider proves

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Open worlds don't always mean better games

Rise of the Tomb Raider is one of the best games of the year. I said as much in my glowing review yesterday. It’s a perfect symphony of different parts coming together in harmony, creating a varied action experience that likes to take control some of the time, but isn’t afraid to give you some slack during others. Rise of the Tomb Raider flirts with the idea of open-world play, but holds your hand enough to make sure that its eventual experience is steered in one direction. And games can really learn a lot from it.

It’s common for action adventure titles like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted to be linear ones, but Crystal Dynamics changes this up a bit in their sequel. Instead of a singular path, you’re given three main hub worlds to explore. These little sandbox playgrounds give the game a fresh bit of freedom, acting as nice sections of downtime after exhilarating and unrelenting set-pieces that shift you between these massive areas of real estate. They’re cleverly designed, but more importantly more smartly implemented.

Tombs act as a nice side-activity that alters Tomb Raider's pace

If Crystal Dynamics really wanted to, they could’ve made Rise of the Tomb Raider open-world. In the same way that hunting for tombs works, Lara could’ve easily shifted from missions to mission, progressing the story at a pace dictated by the player. The mechanics are all there for it too – with Tomb Raider leaning heavily on some light RPG mechanics to drive progression. It would’ve been a radical shift from their reboot, and one I’m glad they didn’t end up taking.

These hub worlds work so well because they’re using sparingly, giving me a small amount of stuff to do before having to press on with the main story. Having tombs and crypts for distractions alongside some light side-missions is a great way to stagger the game’s pace a little, as an endless 10 hours of Lara fighting for her life against Trinity would’ve easily gotten old really fast. These open-worlds give you enough freedom to mess around for a little before being poked to move on, giving the game a lot more structure and control over the experience it’s trying to create.

Metal Gear Solid V suffers from a lack of strict pacing as it continues, and suffers terrible fatigue

It’s at odds with games that have suddenly decided that open-worlds immediately mean more exciting game time, with Metal Gear Solid V being a recent example. Don’t get me wrong, I think Kojima’s shift to open-world was a bold one, and one that immediately paid off given the new stealth mechanics, Fulton system and mission freedom. But its open-world is still one that feels a little dead, with outposts simply refreshing to try and keep your wandering from open checkpoint to the next a little exciting.

In this regard, Metal Gear Solid V could’ve learnt at lot from Rise of the Tomb Raider – a thought I had many times while reviewing the latter. Tomb Raider is intent on forcing me to continue after I’ve spent an hour or two messing around in its open-world, while Metal Gear Solid V doesn’t really care what I do with my time. When I first started playing The Phantom Pain, I loved the unhindered freedom – to the point where I lost myself for 20 hours without even achieving much.

The Witcher 3 benefitted from it's open-world, with the game's structure and density encouraging exploration

It did lead to an incredibly sharp sense of fatigue eventually though, as slogging through the main missions eventually became a repetition of what I had already done. It didn’t feel like progress – unlike Tomb Raider which forces you to fight the good fight if you want to actually tackle that one tomb that’s locked for now. Through taking away some control from me, Crystal Dynamics ensured that my experience with their game was more tightly, finely paced, and it’s a better game for it.

It’s just a small idea that developers should probably take into account as we experience this boom of open-world games. Some desperately need it – like The Witcher 3 – while the likes Metal Gear Solid V would probably have benefitted from a more cautious approach. having a massive world to explore doesn’t immediately make a game better, and it’s a careful weighing of different elements and how they let the player experience the game that ultimately judges whether a game is good or not.

Rise of the Tomb Raider not only understands this, but it acts as the perfect example of how open-world can be controlled to a degree. And it’s something many games of similar genres can learn so much from.

Last Updated: November 10, 2015

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