It strikes me that the games I'm most excited to hear about from this year's Gamescom are large, sprawling leviathans, aiming big. Titles like The Witcher 3, Sunset Overdrive, Far Cry 4, No Man's Sky, Assassin's Creed: Unity, Destiny, and Dragon Age: Inquisition, all built upon declarations of size and scope and scale.
With the current generation firmly underway, it seems that the motto is bigger is better.
But as the past has shown us many times before, size isn't everything... it's what you do with it that counts.
Open world games are often only as good as their traversal systems. There's nothing worse than having an expansive experience turn into a tedious trudge. With the likes of Sunset Overdrive delving deep into Jet Set Radio's bag of tricks, Little Nellie popping up in Far Cry 4, and speedy, fast-travelling steeds being seen in The Witcher 3, it looks like the upcoming crop of large-scale titles are well placed to deliver on that front.
But we need more than that. We need context and purpose. No Man's Sky is one of my most anticipated games, but I'm still not entirely sure (and I probably won't be until I play the finished game) what my purpose in that game will be. That's not a problem necessarily. One of the joys of more experiential games coming to the fore is us players being able to make our own fun, and discover things our own way. But for that to happen, the world itself has to be engaging -- that in itself can happen aesthetically or mechanically or reactively or all of the above.
In RPGs like The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, we want to be able to affect the world around us -- for our actions to have consequences, and to be able to see those consequences brought to bear upon our companions and our surroundings. To jump genres, that was one of the best things about Far Cry 3. It was a typical Ubisoft game in many ways -- find towers, unlock bits and bobs along with segments of the map, liberate enemy-infested strongholds, and so on and so forth -- but perhaps more so than many of the same games that follow a similar pattern, Far Cry 3 really gave life to the progress you made, imbuing every act with just that little bit more significance.
Contrast that with Assassin's Creed III -- a game that, for many (myself included), has proven to be the low point of that series. A huge map, with bespoke paths carved through its central map of the frontier, but one that felt lacklustre because of a dearth of meaningful content per square mile, wrapped up in a poorly told story, fronted by a plank of wood rather than the more affable leading lights of Ezio and Edward and Aveline. Assassin's Creed IV was bigger still, but more broken up, its archipelago providing key points of interest, but filling the gaps in between with the most interesting new mechanisms from Black Flag's predecessor -- the naval combat and seaborne exploration.
Unity has an opportunity to bring lots to the table, with that game being focussed on the new consoles, dedicated to pushing the boundaries of the franchise forwards rather than treading water. But Ubisoft needs to find a way of ensuring that its content is meaningful and not just padding. Watch Dogs was overstuffed, filled with too much filler, and not enough killer. It's nice to see crowd AI being given an overhaul, and the developers using the extra power to pack more people into a space rather than simply look to make the space bigger. Depth in detail is often far more impressive than simple scale.
Destiny is still something of an enigma to me, and the more I dwell on what I've played thus far, the more I can't help but feel that it's Destiny 2 that'll be truly groundbreaking. The bizarre need to go back time and time again to the menu rather than triggering story and side missions from out in the game world makes little sense. Old Russia quickly became an area of repetition, with optional quests that harked back to the most well-worn MMO templates. The gunplay saved the Destiny beta by making it seem less of a mess than it was, but on reflection, its conflicting underlying philosophies and dedication to level-based formats might prove problematic. There's a real sense of the epic to what we've played, but there's a real sense of emptiness there too.
The point is that bigger isn't always better -- my recent review of Eidolon is testament to that. It's not enough to present players with an expansive game world, we need detail and context and things to do. And that could just be walking around and looking at stuff, actions don't always have to include rampaging around like a murderous Godzilla. But special considerations come with that too -- there needs to be stuff to look at and getting around needs to not be an exercise in extreme patience.
It always comes back to interaction, and so it should, it's what underpins the unique wonder of our industry. The point is that scale means nothing without more meaningful ways of interacting with our game worlds. An epic world is nothing without context to place ourselves in it, and consequences to give significance to our actions. A massive game with missions and quests we've seen hundreds of times before delivers nothing new. I'm not saying that developers shouldn't aim high (or should that be large?) but rather that the devil will always be in the details and the depth.
Even saying that, though, it looks like there's plenty to be excited about on the horizon. Roll on Gamescom!