The freedom and non-linearity of open-world games are often among their most vaunted characteristics. But what really is open-world? And what is it really other than busy-work to extend the life of a game? Was it ever really all that it was chalked up to be? Or is exploration truly a plus for open-world? Or perhaps is that the very nature of open-world: busy-work framed with fun gameplay and enticing stories?
Being free to choose how and when you want to do something in a video game is empowering. It is a step beyond merely “do this to get or reach the objective.” This is the essence of open-world gameplay: all the fun of what players are forced to do in linear stories, except presented in a format that lets you choose where, how, and when you do it.
Let’s take a look at the open-world nature of the side missions and collectibles, as well as the single-player main campaign missions, in Assassin’s Creed Unity.
You, as Arno, can accept (or likewise ignore altogether) side missions that Arno accepted as part of the Paris Assassin Brotherhood and other missions he took on to help people in need during his lifetime. Each of these missions had main objectives to them, combined with 100% Synchronization challenge objectives that weren’t required but were completed by Arno in actuality. Sounds open-world enough, right?
Two areas where they truly shine are the gameplay and skill required, and the deep and well-written stories that definitely drew me in. The restructured skill tree in Unity, not seen in previous iterations, forces players to think carefully as to which skills they use to their advantage and what skills to use their hard-earned points on. As such, the more skills you purchase, the easier missions should get. You can, however, not even have any chance of full sync in some missions if you haven’t bought the skill(s) required to satisfy the conditions of the challenge. As for story, many if not all of the missions had surprisingly well-developed story arcs despite being just side missions, a definite upgrade from previous titles.
The collectibles game in Unity, meanwhile, is merely a mechanic to get you to pour time into collecting things with the ultimate goal of stretching total playtime beyond the main story campaign. Now what they could have done was include a secret ending or some sort of 100% sync bonus item or mission to reward players beyond just a trophy.
After playing the single-player main campaign, I can say I instantly fell in love with the new assassination mission format. Entirely conducive to my terse definition of open-world, these missions afforded the player many avenues of choice in creating opportunities and advantages, as well as many possibilities as to how to approach the target and assassinate, whether covertly or, if your cover gets blown because of a stealth fail, in direct open combat.
Lastly, exploration itself in Unity is fun as a novelty activity, whether you enjoy just strolling around Paris or participating in crowd events like killing criminals and tackling thieves. With the standard need for the repetitive Viewpoint synchronization animation, Unity still falls into some pitfalls in terms of fun, but that is just a picky complaint. The only real open-world element beyond just finding ways to get around the city is the familiarization of the city to be more ready for single-player main and side missions in the different areas (which I know for sure helped me in my playthrough).
So is open-world alive and well? Yes.
Is it busy work nonetheless in some respects? Yes.
But, despite this, games that boast open-world like Unity can still make up for it with strong and solid gameplay intertwined with deep stories and an emphasis in exploration in order to give players an edge in later main and side story missions.
Like the old maxim says: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!