Open World and Levels

I’m playing some Assassin’s Creed: Origins now.  There’s a lot of good here, which shows that not releasing a game every year is a good path.  It looks amazing, is a massive (MASSIVE!) seamless world, and has some pretty solid mechanics.  I am a huge Egyptian-antiquity fan, and this scratches a good itch.  There are many liberties taken, but overall it does a decent job humazing the time period – specifically the Ptolemic.

Even the tedium is entertaining – hunting various animals, finding treasure, and aligning stars – it all works pretty well.  There’s one nitpick and it’s the trend to apply levels to open world games, as a gating mechanism.

Open Worlds

In this case, I will define an open world as one where most/all of the activities are available at most parts of the game.  You can choose what to do, when you want to.  Ubisoft and Bethesda are the main leads in that front. Legend of Zelda is a great recent example, where the mechanics are open at the start and it’s how you leverage those mechanics to progress.

Story Unlocks

Progress in some open world games is predicated on specific points of the story being complete before moving on.  Nearly all traditional games operate on this concept, where killing a boss opens up the next part of the game.  Traditional Zelda games are like this, where you need say the hookshot in order to progress.  The game grows somewhat organically and it’s the mechanics that modify over time allowing you to go forward.  Some games only have a small handful of these gates (Horizon) to keep the story fresh, while others use the gates to ensure you’re ready for the next challenge (Monster Hunter).

The point here is that you never really feel like you’re held back or hitting a wall, as there’s a logical progression to the game.

Level Unlocks

Progress here is limited to your level.  You can see the area or task, but the underlying numbers prevent you from participating.  You could be level 10 but the enemies are level 20 and kill you in 1 hit.  Many RPGs use this model (FF games with open maps), and plenty of MMOs put “zones” at specific level ranges.  You can access the area, you just can’t do anything once there.

This model can work if the core story/game progress aligns with levels assignment.  What I mean is that if you follow the breadcrumbs of the story line, you can continually progress through levels.  You never feel handicapped level-wise, while participating in the story.  The tail end of Ni No Kuni 2 does a poor job on this front, and there’s a need to grind/side quests to progress in the last 10%.

AC:O does a worse job, since after the first zone, all main-story progress is predicated on you completing ~50% of the nearby side quests to continue.  I don’t know what the level cap is, but after around level 8, this becomes apparent.  The good news is that the side quests/tasks are generally fun.  The bad side is that you’re forced to “explore for ?” to find more of said side activities.  It doesn’t feel natural because they are so far off the main path.  For example, the 2nd zone has you moving North on the main quest.  Half the side quests are actually East/South.  And if you head too far East into the next zone, you get 1 shot.  Ehhh.

Forward

I can see the challenge around providing side tasks in a game that’s level related, to make certain they provide some benefit.  I thought that the solution was already clear – scaling numbers based on your own level.  We all learned that lesson between Oblivion and Skyrim.  That was 7 years ago.

I am truly struggling to see why that model was not applied here, if only because Ubisoft wasn’t able to get the concept of open-world and levels to jive in their operating model.  But the solution exists, so I am in no way worried that this gets addressed in the next iteration.

 

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