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Who Makes the Best Sandboxes?

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By Nelson Schneider - 08/15/21 at 03:33 PM CT

The Open-World Sandbox genre has come to dominate modern videogaming so completely that, at this point, it feels somewhat like the ‘default’ form-factor a game should take, not unlike the 2D Platformer across the 1980s and 1990s. However, the Sandbox isn’t just a natural progression of basic concepts, but is instead the result of decades of hard work on the part of various development teams to push hardware capabilities and software paradigms as much as possible, occasionally going past the breaking point, but typically learning from the mistakes of others in the process.

Since the genre first proliferated in the mid-2000s, I have played quite a few Sandbox games by a variety of different development teams. In experiencing these games, it has become obvious that they all have their strengths and weaknesses, but also that some just have an overall better ‘feel’ than others. Let’s take a look back at a brief history of the genre and compare the biggest players to see whose formula comes out on top.

RockStar
If you asked the average pedestrian, Mainstream gamer who invented the Sandbox genre, they would probably – after you explained what the genre is – declare that it was RockStar with the release of “Grand Theft Auto 3” back in 2001. However, they would be wrong.

“GTA3” was the first game in its series to feature third-person, on-foot gameplay, with the preceding two titles being top-down Driving games with a completely different flavor and ambience to them.

Of course, “GTA3” had huge and profound effects on the evolution of Open-World game design, from the sprawling – but not ludicrously-large – map size to the swarms of lifeless pedestrians to the freedom to start and complete missions in a largely free-form, out-of-order sequence. Its most profound effect, though, would have to be the Mainstreamification of gaming through its criminal-underworld-centered setting and themes. Personally, I’ve never played a ‘Grand Theft Auto’ title because of the setting and themes, and probably never will.

Fortunately, RockStar isn’t quite a one-trick pony, and has, subsequently, produced multiple other Sandbox IPs, including both ‘Bully’ – a school-themed game which sees a typical ‘GTA’ protagonist as a troubled youth instead of an adult – and ‘Red Dead’ – a cowboy-themed Sandbox set in the Old West. While “Red Dead Redemption 2” is on my wishlist, I find myself not terribly enthused about it due to the number of realistic-but-annoying touches other gamers have shown-off in the series, ranging from the maximum walking speed of ‘amble’ to the unnecessarily-long animations for every banal task.

While they were undoubtedly influential on the genre, and continue to iterate on it up to the present day, I definitely wouldn’t say RockStar makes the best Sandboxes.

Sega
While it’s impossible to say whether RockStar directly stole their ideals for transforming ‘Grand Theft Auto’ from a top-down driving game to one of the first Sandboxes from Sega, it is awfully suspicious. Just a year before “Grand Theft Auto 3” was released, in 2000 Sega published “Shenmue,” a suspiciously-similar Open-World game revolving around exploring a vast urban environment, while simultaneously allowing the player to engage with all manner of non-core gameplay elements and tackle the core elements at their own pace… or ignore them completely.

Somewhat shockingly, in a world that seemingly couldn’t get enough of “GTA 3,” the ‘Shenmue’ IP dried-up rather quickly, ultimately transforming into a super post facto Kickstarter effort for the way overdue “Shenmue 3” – officially published by Deep Silver, not Sega – in 2019 after “Shenmue 2” flopped on the OG Xbox in 2001. (Ultimately, the failure of ‘Shenmue’ most likely came down to Sega’s choice of release platforms: Neither the Dreamcast nor OG Xbox could be considered any kind of ‘success.’)

But Sega hasn’t been without a flagship Sandbox series for all those intervening years. In 2006, the company launched a new Sandbox IP with, again, very similar themes to ‘GTA’ and ‘Shenmue.’ The ‘Yakuza’ series follows the travails of career criminals – in Japan – as they explore vast urban environments, allowing players to dick around with non-core gameplay elements and engage with the world and a variety of missions at more-or-less their own pace.

Again, I’ve never played a Sega Sandbox, and probably never will, unless they start to mix-up their settings and themes a bit. I have zero interest in stories about career criminals, organized crime, or urban decay, thus the concept doesn’t appeal in the slightest.

And because they are such a one-trick pony with their settings and themes, I don’t think Sega even comes close to making the best Sandboxes.

Bethesda
If you thought Sega’s “Shenmue” or RockStar’s “Grand Theft Auto 3” were the original Sandbox games, you definitely need to think again. Way back in 1994 – that’s six years before “Shenmue” – Bethesda Softworks, recently of Microsoft’s Xbox Gaming Division, released the first game in its long-running ‘Elder Scrolls’ franchise, “The Elder Scrolls: Arena,” which was followed a mere two years later by “The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall” in 1996. These two first-person games from the Dark Age of PC include a number of core elements that helped to shape Sandbox games into what we think of today… of course, they’re so old, technologically restrained, and poorly designed that it can be hard to see the influences past all the jank.

Ultimately, it wasn’t until “The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind” hit the OG Xbox in 2002 that this formerly PC-exclusive series really hit enough different pairs of eyeballs and minds that it could have an impact on anything. However, by this point, “GTA 3” was already established as the big dog in the Sandbox, and “Morrowind” does bear a resemblance to it, far more than previous ‘Elder Scrolls’ titles.

Unlike other developers who are content to push one core series to the brink of oversaturation, Bethesda has developed a reputation for pushing out a variety of big, popular franchises. After the success of latter-day ‘Elder Scrolls’ games, for example, the company purchased the rights to the ‘Fallout’ IP from the self-destructing InterPlay, and built a new sequel, “Fallout 3” in 2008, using the same basic engine and concepts that powered the ‘Elder Scrolls.’ Of course, this ended up working out largely because ‘Fallout’ was already dealing with Open-World design and Sandbox mechanics back when it was an isometric RPG in 1997-98.

Looking into the future, Bethesda seems even more intent on getting out of their ‘Elder Scrolls’/‘Fallout’ rut under Microsoft than they did on their own, with the upcoming first game – “Starfield,” scheduled to release sometime in 2022 – in what will undoubtedly become another long-running Sandbox series, only this time in space.

With its wide variety of settings, ranging from High Fantasy to Post-Apocalypse to Space Opera, Bethesda definitely offers more compelling Sandboxes to someone like me who enjoys those settings and themes much more than the organized crime and criminal underworld themes of other popular Sandboxes.

So… does Bethesda make the best Sandboxes? HA! No, sadly. Bethesda is largely hampered in its own efforts by its constant re-use of aging technology. Imagine making a modern game using either the engine from “Fallout” and “Fallout 2” or the engine from “Daggerfall.” It wouldn’t be pretty, and would be completely unplayable. Bethesda isn’t quite that bad in reality, but the Gamebryo engine that underpins even their most recent endeavors, like “Fallout ‘76” is far too long in the tooth and in drastic need of updating… or flat-out replacing. And even when they aren’t woefully out of date from a tech perspective, Bethesda games just love to crash, and crash, and crash. And when they aren’t crashing, they’re glitching.

No, Bethesda doesn’t make the best Sandboxes because they’re simply incapable of maintaining a baseline of technical quality.

Sony
Like its main competitor in the console space, Microsoft, Sony is fairly new to the Sandbox genre. While “GTA3” may have been a PlayStation 2 exclusive, it was also released in an era of exclusives and potent third-party support making or breaking a given console. With its biggest and most popular IPs of yesteryear either going multi-platform or going dormant, Sony has recently stepped-up its first-party efforts and has started creating a few Sandboxes of its own. They’ve got the ‘Horizon’ IP from 2017, which is now officially a series, with two games. They’ve got the perpetually-rebooted ‘Spiderman’ series from 2018, also with two games. Most notably, “Ghost of Tsushima” is a brand new IP that just released last year in 2020, which checks all of the Open-World sand-boxes.

Of course, Sony is a very iterative and copy-catty company when it comes to nearly everything videogame related. They’re infamous for knocking off Nintendo’s ideas and stealing concepts, even if they don’t get around to using those concepts until the fad has passed. But at least all of Sony’s new Sandbox series have different themes and settings, so if you don’t like one (EFFING SPIDERMAN), there’s probably another that will have some appeal.

I’ve got “Horizon: Zero Dawn” near the top of my ‘play next’ list, and Chris assures me it’s amazing. So… could Sony make the best Sandboxes? Honestly, all of these IPs are so new and untested, it’s too early to say… and they are kind of derivative…

CD Projekt
What did people first say when they saw footage of Sony’s “Ghost of Tsushima?”

“IT LOOKS JUST LIKE SAMURAI “WITCHER 3!”

(Well, at least that’s what they said if they weren’t thrice-damned Souls Trolls immediately painting it as a Soulslike, because that’s what they do with EVERY third-person game with melee combat…)

Yes, with the release of “The Witcher 3” in 2015, CD Projekt officially went from a small-time Eurojank developer with a storefront that sells really old, really bad games under the moniker of ‘good,’ to a “AAA” Sandbox-ing powerhouse. Unfortunately, with the rushed release of “Cyberpunk 2077” in 2020, the company showed its true form… Still a small-time Eurojank developer that just happened to get lucky.

While people love “The Witcher 3” and love to hate “Cyberpunk 2077,” I don’t think either game really makes a case for CD Projekt being the best purveyor of sand in the industry… they are, after all, kind of derivative…

Nintendo (LOL)
And speaking of ‘derivative,’ no discussion of Sandbox games would be complete without a brief mention of Nintendo. The fanboy-powered Japanese console maker has struggled to maintain relevance in recent years, relying on gimmicky hardware, like motion controllers and dockable handhelds, to ‘compete’ against no one but themselves.

In the actual games space, though, Nintendo has adopted several modern conventions, in spite of the company’s characteristic conservatism and independent-mindedness. We won’t dwell on the subscriptions or Season Passes, but we will dwell on the Switch’s noteworthy Open-World Sandbox games. Both “Super Mario Odyssey” and “The Legend of Zelda: Break of the Weapons” employ heavy Sandbox elements. While most Sandbox games aren’t platformers, “Super Mario Odyssey” makes a compelling case for not-too-big-but-not-too-small worlds filled with not-too-many-and-not-too-few collectables to discover. On the other hand, that ‘Zelda’ game is just wholly, painfully derivative of other games that came before it.

So, while we might be safe in saying that Nintendo makes the best Platformers, when it comes to Sandboxes… nah!

Ubisoft
Lastly, we come to the French branch of the Triumvirate of Evil. Ubisoft was, like every other Sandbox game developer aside from RockStar, Sega, and Bethesda, a Johnny-Come-Lately to the genre. It wasn’t until the third release in the ‘Far Cry’ series in 2012 that Ubisoft transitioned the IP from a more linear experience to an Open-World Sandbox where the player was given unbelievable amounts of freedom with regard to how to accomplish their goals.

Their success with “Far Cry 3” caused Ubisoft to start cramming Sandbox elements into its other franchises and IPs, with the greatest success coming in the form of the Sandbox-ification of the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ series, beginning, roughly, with the Age of Sail-themed “Black Flag” in 2013.

Ubisoft Sandboxes bring a breathtaking scope and scale that outdoes the games from nearly every other developer. (Only Bethesda has games of a larger scale in its repertoire, and only because “The Elder Scrolls: Arena” and “The Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall” were mostly empty and heavily procedurally generated if the player strayed from the beaten path.)

Ubisoft seems thoroughly at-home with the technology available to developers today, and creates these massive, realistic worlds where the player can see from horizon to horizon, and every noteworthy landmark can be visited (and almost certainly climbed). Discrete cities contained within a typical Ubisoft Sandbox are filled with ‘GTA’-style mook civilians that realistically represent crowds (of profoundly stupid people… so, yeah, realism to a fault), while the most recent entries in ‘Assassin’s Creed,’ such as 2018’s “Odyssey” and 2020’s “Valhalla” allow players to explore beyond a single landmass and take control of their own ship – the type of freedom unprecedented in 3D games, and the likes of which we haven’t even seen in stylized RPGs since the transition from 2D sprites and the downplaying of the trope of traveling on foot, then traveling by sea, then traveling by airship to reach the most remote sections of the world map.

Also noteworthy is that, in the ‘Far Cry’ series, Ubisoft rarely revisits the same setting and theme twice. Yes, the overarching theme is a lone hero trapped in a hostile environment. However, within this central theme, the series has pitted the player against a wildly creative array of different villains, ranging from island terrorists, to religious fundamentalists in rural America, to cave folk, to tropical dictatorship in the upcoming “Far Cry 6,” slated for release in just a few months.

While I don’t care for every single Sandbox game Ubisoft has released, the ones I have chosen to engage with due to their themes have been truly stellar experiences. They’re typically not-too-short, as non-Sandbox “AAA” games tend to be. They’re also (usually) not-too-long, which tends to be a problem, as nearly every other Sandbox developer pads their games with too much annoying crap (running back and forth, dealing with inventory clutter, etc.). The non-core elements that players can explore in Ubisoft Sandboxes also tend to tie directly back into the core gameplay loop as well, meaning that even when wandering off the beaten path, the player isn’t simply wasting their own time.

Between these finely-tuned gameplay elements, the wide variety of settings, and the core gameplay conventions revolving around the world map, exploration, and traversing terrain that we can see directly reflected in both CD Projekt’s and Nintendo’s latest efforts, I feel quite comfortable in saying that, in spite of my long-running low-level disdain for all things Ubisoft, from their Frenchness to their vile DRM practices, that they do, at least, make the best Sandboxes.

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