The PS2 era gave us a lot of things; cheap DVD players, a competitor to rival Nintendo that they haven’t stomped into the ground yet, and a return to the three console competition we hadn’t seen since the 16-bit era. But probably one of the most influential things it gave us was “Grand Theft Auto III”. And no, not because you could pay a hooker to regenerate your health or run over pedestrians. We could already do that.
No, it was the open world. Before, gaming had largely been limited to a linear path, but now, now we could explore and buy prostitutes on our own time, or take a tank down Fifth Avenue blowing up cop cars like we’d always dreamed. After “GTA III”, sandbox gaming not only became popular, it practically became the standard. Every game has a huge, open world now for you to explore and usually to stab things or blow things up, because, let’s face it, that’s still what games do best.
But believe it or not, GTA wasn’t the first to let you poke around without exploiting a glitch. Gamers have been exploring diverse game worlds and blowing up things the developers didn’t think it was possible to blow up since the ’80s. Here’s a brief timeline of games that opened up amazing worlds of fantasy, adventure, and gunshot wounds.
Introduced in 1984, “Elite” was revolutionary for the ’80s, which means it’s mind-numbingly boring now. Â But, at the time, this really was the height of computer-based entertainment:
Despite the charmingly crude graphics, “Elite” had some pretty awesome gameplay: you explored planets, traded materials, and, of course, blew things up. Â It became a national phenomenon in Britain, paving the way for games like “Mercenary” and “Cholo”, and game companies like…well, like Rockstar. Â But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Blaster Master (1988)
“Blaster Master” is a fondly remember NES game for two reasons. Â One, it’s got an absolutely rockin’ theme:
Two, for its pretty unique gameplay for the NES. “Master Blaster” offered up arguably the first real console sandbox: you had to drive your tank around and trash bugs, but you also had to get out and fight both in side-scrolling and top-down gameplay to solve mazes. And getting to higher levels meant exploring, meeting new people, and blowing the crap out of them. It was pretty revolutionary for the NES, not least because of the huge game world mixed with the different gameplay styles.
Of course, it also helps define Nintendo Hard, as all the memory was dedicated to building this rich game world and none of it was dedicated to a password system. So, yeah, you have to finish the whole game in one playthrough. At least you had some awesome music to accompany you.
The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994)
Yep, long before the game where you could fill an entire room with watermelons came along, Bethesda had created an open-ended RPG. Â If you’ve played “Oblivion”, actually, you’ve played the original “Elder Scrolls”. Â Originally, “Arena” was supposed to be a first-person fighting game, where you and your team of noble heroes went around stabbing people in the face to entertain huge crowds. Â Then Bethesda decided to add some RPG elements, and kept adding them, and kept adding them, until suddenly it was an RPG and the arena combat was gone. Which was probably just as well, since even a decade and change later, stabbing rats with a rusty sword hasn’t become any more exciting than it probably was in the early ’90s.
The key reason “Elder Scrolls” makes the list is actually the fact that the terrain outside the cities was randomly generated: you could explore to your heart’s content, finding inns, monsters, and…well, there weren’t many wenches, but you can’t have everything.
Fallout 2 (1998)
Don’t get us wrong, “Fallout” was an amazing game with a lot of options and a crazily unique world that the player could explore endlessly. Â But it was “Fallout 2″ that blew that game world wide open: everything was fair game, literally.
The great thing about “Fallout 2″ was that you could pick and choose pretty much everything. Â The SPECIAL system (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck) could completely reconfigure the game and how you played it. Â You could literally make your character too stupid to speak, and the game was still playable. Â Skills played a vital role in gameplay. Â There were dozens of ways to solve problems and finish quests. Â There was a karma system.
Basically, “Fallout 2″ was not only an open world, it was also an open game; anybody who picked it up could play it in their style without the game breaking. Â Black Isle kind of took care of breaking the game with dozens of bugs that had to be patched. Â But, hey, downloading patches is a small price to pay for one of the greatest games ever made.
Before “GTAIII” brought 3D open worlds to the masses, there was “Driver”. Â ”Driver”, if you only know it from the terrible, terrible sequels, was a game about an undercover cop trying to work his way into the Mafia by driving around four cities and completing missions…sound familiar?
Yeah, it was for the PlayStation, so the graphics seem laughably primitive by modern standards. Â But “Driver” was the first game to make free-roaming a 3D phenomenon, and it was also actually good.
We know, we’re shocked too.
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Yeah, we’re skipping “Grand Theft Auto III”. Â Why? Â Because you’ve played the game, and you need us to tell you about how amazing and influential it is about as much as you need Niko to introduce you to his little friend. Â Sandbox gameplay became practically required of any game; you had historical sandboxes (“Assassin’s Creed”), fantasy sandboxes (“Fable”), modern-day sandboxes…even the Zelda games started adding more sandbox elements after “Ocarina of Time”, mostly by adding either a horse or a boat and making you travel way too much, like that stupid fetch quest in “Wind Waker” that we’re still completing.
“GTA IV”, though, raised the bar. Â Yeah, “Vice City” and “San Andreas” expanded both the mechanics and the game world, but GTA IV made that game world into practically a work of art.
The great thing about Liberty City is how expansive and detailed it is. Â Rockstar spent over $100 million developing the game, and every nickel shows in the pigeons, the reaction of pedestrians, the change from night to day…all of it. Â Rockstar built a genuine, living, breathing city.
And then let you loose in it with a rocket launcher.
Well, we guess art comes from destruction, too.
Red Dead Redemption (2010)
The great thing about “Redemption” is that it shows us the future of gaming: it’s got a huge open world, of course, along with people acting like jackasses and inspirational moments of the human spirit:
It’s also got gameplay as flexible as the world itself. Knock over banks, save innocent children, heck, the game will even give you an achievement for tying a woman to the railroad tracks. Get caught? Well, instead of being executed, now you’ve got bounty hunting missions instead of just losing some money and getting dumped outside of a hospital.
It means great things for the technical future of video games: more dynamic gameplay, wide open spaces, unique character feedback systems. As for tying women to train tracks…well, we guess it wouldn’t be a Rockstar game without something like that.