Open world is often perceived as a vast area that people can explore without the usual constraints games put on them. Without defined paths to go down, certain areas you have to go to, or predefined stages, it gives the player a lot more freedom. However, I think many games recently have gone too far with this freedom. I have no problem at all with open worlds; several of my favorite games have them. I think some of them are simply too big.
The elephant in the room is No Man’s Sky. The problem isn’t necessarily the procedural generation, as games like Minecraft have similar kinds of systems. Part of it is that No Man’s Sky massively over-promised. Open world games are so massive that you have to be certain about any promises regarding the world before making them. Maybe even more so than any other games, open world games should under-promised and over-deliver. No Man’s Sky did the opposite; it over-promised and under-delivered. Plenty of people still love it, but the main complaint is that the open world doesn’t have enough to do. It is lacking many of the promised features, and it clearly suffers for it. It’s simply too large to have interesting and engaging planets every step of your journey. If they had scaled it down a bit, it could be different. That would take away from their main hook on the game, but hopefully open world space exploration like that will be iterated on in the future.
As I said before, some of the my favorite games are open world. A perfect example of one of those games is Shadow of Mordor. That game is certainly not huge for an open world game, but its world feels alive. It always has monsters to battle, Uruk bases to sneak through, or generals to assassinate. Sometimes two different types of enemies are fighting each other instead of you. Something interesting is going on everywhere you look. There isn’t necessarily combat everywhere, as that would tire out the player pretty quickly, but you never feel bored running around the world. The game’s area is basically divided in half, and neither half takes more than 30 minutes to get from one end to the other. However, even after finishing and almost 100%ing the game, I never felt like the world was boring, too small, or I ran out of stuff to do. It’s compact but not restrictive.
The world is also designed around your character’s movement incredibly well. One of the most fun ways to get around in that game is climbing and parkour, so it takes advantage of that. Much of the environment is vertical, filled with small cliffs or mountainsides. The enemy bases are built to be tall rather than wide. This encourages you to climb a fair amount. It still has flat areas to run around, but they are spaced out just enough that your movement always feels great.
Burnout Paradise is another example of a great open world game with a relatively small world. Paradise City is constantly interesting, and the roads are laid out for you to go wherever you want without dead ends. The movement supports that because the main purpose is to drive fast.
The open world is part of why I never really got immersed in Skyrim as much. It has a gigantic world, but it felt unpolished. Most of the world had nothing interesting to do, and most of the interesting things were enemy encounters. The combat system didn’t really support endless enemy encounters because it was a bit sluggish, so the huge world didn’t feel all that great to run around in to me. Skyrim is one of the most praised games of the past generation, but I think it would have been better if it was more focused and more polished at the cost of a smaller world.
Hopefully, the upcoming Zelda game will learn from the successes and failures of past open world games. Link Between Worlds makes me a bit worried for it though. While I loved the game, I don’t think the semi-open world dungeon picking worked for it. We’ll have to wait and see how well Breath of the Wild handles it.