Over the last couple of decades, the Open-World genre has slowly come to define Triple-A gaming. In fact, the most popular question that precedes the release of most major modern single-player games is “Is it Open-World?” More and more gamers (especially those who only purchase a couple of major new games a year) seemingly find it difficult to believe that all of that development time and production money (as well as their personal time and money) would go toward a game that doesn’t let them go anywhere, do anything, etc.
For the most part, the rise of the Open-World genre has been good for gaming. Even older, great franchises (like The Legend of Zelda or FromSoftware’s Soulsborne games) have greatly benefited from pivoting to open worlds. Open-World and sandbox games were seen as the natural evolution of the medium when they started to take off 20+ years ago, and little has changed since then. The very best Open-World titles continue to exceed expectations that already seemed impossibly high.
Yet, for as many great Open-World games as we are regularly blessed with, we’re starting to see more and more Open-World games that fall painfully short of those expectations. It’s not that those games are terrible (though some of them certainly are), but rather that they fail to do enough to justify their open worlds. In some cases, those games are actually made worse by their lazy open worlds. Yes, that statement includes notable disappointments like Gotham Knights, the Saints Row reboot, and Rage 2. More recently, though, it’s grown to include two of the biggest (and otherwise best) games of 2023: Starfield and Cyberpunk 2077 2.0.
The recently released Cyberpunk 2077 2.0 update (and the accompanying Phantom Liberty expansion) greatly improves the original game in various ways. The action is better, the character building mechanics are much more robust, and most of those lingering technical issues have finally been fixed. Cyberpunk 2077 2.0 is being called “the game that Cyberpunk 2077 should have always been,” and that’s a pretty fair summary of both the quality and extent of that update’s sweeping changes.
For as incredible as that update is, though, it does little to address one of Cyberpunk 2077’s biggest launch issues: the game’s dead and barren world. Yes, enemies and NPCs are smarter and more aggressive, and yes, the game finally supports car combat. However, Cyberpunk 2077’s world rarely feels like a place that anyone actually lives in (if only begrudgingly so). Insignificant characters perform redundant activities while large parts of the map go unused. It’s nice that some NPCs actually react to having a gun pointed at them now, but the game rarely leaves you feeling like something is happening in Night City if you’re not causing it at that moment.
Starfield suffers from a similar issue, though in a slightly different way. It is undeniably impressive that the game offers 1000+ planets to explore, but few of those planets (even the ones that contain major cities) actually offer meaningful reasons to explore them for long. “Well, duh,” you’re probably saying, and I hear you. I also didn’t expect all of those planets to offer Rockstar-level Open-World designs, and I accepted that some of those planets would ultimately be resource farms.
What I didn’t expect was how joyless the process of discovering those worlds would be. Starfield‘s daunting size turns fast travel into even more of a necessity than it was in previous Bethesda titles. What’s really annoying, though, is that Starfield’s designers were seemingly painfully aware of the necessity of fast travel and built much of the rest of the game around it. As a result, you don’t just encounter largely barren planets in Starfield but barren sections of space itself that are mostly intended to be fast-traveled through so you can get to the areas that actually matter.
Ultimately, both games suffer from the same fundamental design issue. Exploring their open worlds isn’t a highlight but rather the thing you have to do to get to the actual highlights.
To be fair, both games have quite a few highlights worth reaching. Cyberpunk’s already exceptional missions are made that much better by the improved AI, combat, and character building mechanics featured in that recent update. The Phantom Liberty expansion really showcases how great Cyberpunk 2077 can be when you are allowed to focus on those parts of the game.
Similarly, there are numerous quests in Starfield that rank surprisingly high amongst the very best RPG adventures that Bethesda has crafted. I was stunned by both the quality of those quests and how they were often tucked away in parts of the galaxy that the game doesn’t technically make you explore. Granted, that often made it that much more annoying that those quests were often separated by such joyless exploration and extended dead zones.
Starfield is, fundamentally, an exceptional Bethesda RPG. Cyberpunk 2077 is, fundamentally, an incredible Deus Ex-like RPG. It’s just that the things that make those games great are strung together by Open-World elements that often do little more than remind you of better examples of that genre. I’ve heard of people bouncing off both games, and I truly believe that’s largely because the things that make them great are too often separated by prolonged stretches of tedious navigation that delay the thrill of getting to enjoy the things that really make those games special.
In recent years, the best Open-World games have distinguished themselves by making the process of navigating their worlds enjoyable for reasons other than eventually reaching the thing you really want to do. Marvel’s Spider-Man makes slinging around the city an unrivaled pleasure. Tears of the Kingdom, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Elden Ring make you feel like every corner of the map contains something worth exploring (often because they do). These are games that fundamentally would not work as anything other than Open-World titles. At the very least, they would not work nearly as well as they do. They are not games that feel like they should have been significantly smaller were it not for the lingering pressure of that “Is it Open-World?” question.
Like it or not, that question isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s a shame that smaller games that require significantly less money and significantly less time are often less favored than games that offer at least the illusion of freedom, but that’s where the industry is at. I’ve seen little to suggest that anything significant is going to change on the consumer end of things anytime soon. Quite frankly, given the quality of the best recent Open-World games, I’m not sure that the demand for them should change anytime soon.
Instead, it falls to studios everywhere to do what Cyberpunk 2077 and Starfield often fail to do; find ways to make Open-World games that feel like something more than a smaller, better game broken into pieces and strung together with meaningless McMansion space. After all, if the “Is it Open- World?” question isn’t going anywhere, then the question that really needs to be asked alongside it is, “Why does it deserve to be Open-World?”