Revenge of the Clones: The State of the Sandbox Game

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Watch Dogs blew it. It blew it so badly that I won’t even dignify its title with the underscore that’s supposed to be in there. Full disclosure: I haven’t played it but I know enough. Take your pick: the fact that it’s literally unfinished, the low level of optimization on non-Nvidia cards, or you can read this baffling Polygon review that calls out WD for its problematic handling of race, gender, and gender identity but still gives it an eight out of ten.

It’s time to take stock. Watch Dogs could have been great; the hacking mechanics are brilliant but badly implemented, and Ubisoft definitely mishandled the launch. Instead, we can shelve it in the category of “GTA Clones – Bad” right next to Grand Theft Auto V and Driv3r. It just goes to show you that—

What?

Yeah, GTAV wasn’t good. It failed to live up to the standard set by prior games in the series, namely GTAIII, which is what spawned all of the GTA Clones that have changed the definition of “sandbox game.” I won’t use that term here because it doesn’t really apply, seeing as true sandbox games let you alter your surroundings as you wish. Instead, GTA clones have pretty much turned into their own genre, defined by an ability to not only drive vehicles but walk around the game world.

I digress to reinforce my prior point: GTAV was a bad Grand Theft Auto game and a bad game in general. It would have been an alright movie, but instead it was a video game that reinforced the tired social commentary we got a hint of in GTAIV while at the same time overwhelming the player with a game world that was just too big, with too many options for stuff to do between (bad) missions. Every time I played GTAV it felt like I was opening the pantry to see it fully stocked but without a single thing I actually wanted to eat.

I won’t discredit Rockstar—it’s hard to make a truly bad game with a budget of over a hundred million dollars (*coffee spit take*) and in truth I’m being very harsh on it. The voice acting was some of the best I’ve ever heard in a video game, and the character switching mechanic was flawlessly implemented. But the world was too big, and the minutiae were too mundane. You can go to a strip club in Grand Theft Auto V.

Why in the fuck would you?

Pardon the extended metaphor I’m about to get into here, especially considering it’s an overused one. The sun will represent realism, and GTAV is the Icarus here. I’ll let you figure out the rest. GTAV tried too hard to be realistic and ended up perfectly replicating how boring and mundane real life can be sometimes. True realism is for sports games and simulation games. Euro Truck Simulator 2 actually realistically recreates what it’s like to drive a truck around Europe, I assume, having not actually driven a truck around Europe. Realism, aside from basic physics, is not for GTA or games similar to it.

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“Physics”

The best games to follow the GTA formula have completely eschewed realism in favor of straight-up goddamn fun. Take the Saints Row series, a personal favorite of mine. The first was a humble beginning to a new IP and it didn’t do much to distinguish itself from GTA but it had a lot of promise. By the second, things were heating up and the protagonist was no longer silent. By the third, Hulk Hogan had gotten involved, there was a giant dildo weapon, and given enough money you could buy enough upgrades to make your character invincible. It was great, and we all wondered how the fourth entry could possibly top that.

The fourth introduced aliens, a virtual simulation, and superpowers to the mix. Oh yeah, and your character is the President of the United States of America. The first mission features that character climbing an already-launched nuclear bomb in an attempt to defuse it while Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” plays. [SPOILER WARNING] Shortly after that, the Earth gets blown the fuck up by aliens anyway and you and your crew go into space.

And also the weapons do shit like this.
And also the weapons do shit like this.

What Saints Row IV did with the GTA genre was nothing less than brilliant. It subverted realism entirely by placing the great majority of the action in a virtual simulation. This accomplished a lot of things. First things first, it made the pedestrians that are so vulnerable in every GTA clone into virtual pedestrians. Perhaps acknowledging that it wasn’t a good thing to make it possible to kill real virtual people, SRIV instead made the option killing virtual virtual people.

It also made it possible to stretch the limits of reality by introducing superpowers into the mix. Of course this is all possible, it’s a simulation! Jump over a building, run so fast that cars you pass by go flying into the air, shoot fire out of your hands, it’s all good. Of course these abilities have to be unlocked and upgraded, but it’s worth it when you unlock the ability to turn yourself into a nuke given enough falling distance and blast away a ton of bullshit aliens. It’s a lot better than driving around as a white misanthrope and shooting people, that’s for damn sure.

Speaking of which, Saints Row is also unique in the GTA clone arena in that you create your character. This means that, yes, you can actually play as a woman! Considering that every other game I mention in this article features a male protagonist, this is really something. The series also features women who actually matter to the story. Not counting the protagonist, we have Shaundi (introduced in the second game), Kinzie (third), and Asha (fourth). That’s not to say its treatment of women is perfect, as there are still women who get put into the proverbial fridge (most notably Johnny Gat’s girlfriend Aisha), but it does more for women than GTA ever did.

This isn’t just a love letter to the Saints Row series, though. That’s in my desk drawer. There are other games that have surpassed the master that was the original Grand Theft Auto III. Take Sleeping Dogs from Square Enix for instance, which places a premium on hand-to-hand combat in lieu of gun fighting and takes place in Hong Kong, a setting virtually untouched by previous video games and therefore a fresh experience. It’s not as over-the-top as Saints Row, instead opting for the feel of a Hong Kong action movie and doing pretty well in that regard.

We also have Just Cause 2, also from Square Enix. This is another game that throws realism out the window in favor of straight-up fun. Though superpowers aren’t involved, the central mechanic of the game is centered on the player character’s grappling hook, which can be shot at will and tethered to other objects. Combine this with an infinite supply of parachutes and we have a sort of reverse Spider-Man going on, with the hook used to grab the ground and pull and the parachute used to gain and maintain momentum.

I’ve played over thirty hours of JC2 and have only done three story missions. The story sucks and the characters are ridiculously transparent and stereotyped. But criticizing the story of a game like Just Cause 2 is like criticizing the story of a movie like Die Hard: you’re not there for the story, you’re there for the action. When I’m riding on top of a car and shooting at one of the passengers before tethering the car behind me to the road and watching it flip up in the air, I’m not worried about why I’m doing these things. It’s just goofy and fun.

One of the best things to do in JC2 is tether an enemy to a gas canister and then shoot a hole in the canister. The canister will go flying through the air, taking the enemy with it. You can also tether two enemies together, or an enemy to a vehicle, or an enemy to a wall. The options are limitless, and within the last year a multiplayer mod was released for the PC version. The trailer is below:

Now tell me: does that look a hell of a lot more fun than Grand Theft Auto Online or what?

Here’s the best part about all of these games: they’re dirt cheap. Just Cause 2 is $14.99 full price but it seems like it’s on sale for a fraction of that cost every other week. Sleeping Dogs is $19.99 full price but, like JC2, it is often on sale. I got them for less than five bucks each; the former I got through XBL and the latter I got through Steam. And I’ve got news for you, if you have XBL: Saints Row IV is on sale, right now, for $11.99. It is worth that price and more. Get that shit.

The common thread running throughout these games, and many others such as The Simpsons: Hit & Run, Crackdown, and Red Faction: Armageddon is that instead of trying to be more than just a video game they try to just be fun. Whether they do so by using the Simpsons, using superpowers, or using destruction-based gameplay is up to the makers of the game.

I’ll digress for a bit here and say that it is, of course, able to make a video game that is capital-I Important that’s also fun to play. None other than Rockstar did this with Red Dead Redemption, a unique take on their own formula. By setting the game in the Old West, Rockstar was able to create a fresh game, unbound by the limits of playing in an urban city. Instead, the player can ride the plains on a horse and do missions as they see fit. The story here is actually very good and very heartbreaking; it’s far and away Rockstar’s best, and is easily one of the best I’ve ever encountered in a video game.

It’s funny how the best GTA clone Rockstar made wasn’t actually a GTA game. For the record, I have nothing against Grand Theft Auto IV and it stands today as a very solid game. It’s weird that it took such a different direction from III, Vice City, and San Andreas, but I think that signaled a more seismic shift in Rockstar’s plans. The last two GTA games have been closer to movies than video games. For people who want that, that’s great. But if I want to go see a movie, I’ll go see a movie.

As we move tentatively into the next generation of video games, with next week’s E3 being the first since all three eighth-gen consoles have been out, we’ll likely get some more GTA clones. Some new IPs, some old IPs. We’ll also probably get our fair share of GTAV DLC, as if the stuff included with the game wasn’t enough. But, at least for the time being, Rockstar is no longer the company making the best GTA games.

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