So, there we have it. GTA4 finally released and with the full stop of a full Peoww review. It’s the one last big game before the summer drought and it looks like it may just have to carry us through until the Autumn.
The big draw with the GTA games has always been the idea of having an entire city to play in. Sometimes, that level of freedom to go anywhere you like is enough to make a even a fucking horrible game like Spiderman 2 seem incredibly exciting. At least for a few minutes. GTA games, whether you love or loathe them, have always been more than a sum of their parts and much of that is down to their sandbox game environments.
There have, of course, been many examples of sandbox gaming dating all the way back to perhaps 3D Ant Attack on the Speccy. It doesn’t always work, just look at post-GTA3 shit like True Crime or Driver 3 for proof of that, but sometimes it does and sometimes you might even get one that out-Sandboxes even the GTA titles.
Here’s my selection of my favourite ones and yes they do all count as sandbox games!
I first fired up Oblivion on Nov 14th 2006. Observant gamers amongst you will know this day by its stupid name of ‘Emergence Day’. Yes, on the day Marcus Fenix and chums arrived with chainsaw bayonets in Gears of War I fired up Gears for an hour or so but fancied something a little slower. Oblivion had sat on the shelf for a month so I figured I’d give it a try. It didn’t leave my console for a month.
Oblivion is the ultimate sandbox game. So much so that you could call it GTA: Medieval Edition. From stealing rides (wellâ€¦ horses), breaking into shops and houses, taking on side quests and generally having the freedom of a huge game world this out sandboxed everything else. The five story arcs were more than enough but raising your money and ability levels could also be done in more ways than you could imagine.
Probably the best game on the 360. Stay away from Knights of the Nine though. It’s clichÃ©d, predictable and deeply uninteresting.
Raising funds by stealing absolutely everything in Bruma over several nights.
Buying the house in Skingrad and amassing a collection of every type of armour, weaponary and jewellery and then completing the house with a maid, a house gay (your biggest fan) and a balcony full of glowing stones. Pimped.
Cruelly known for being ‘free with a copy of the Halo 3 beta’, this game held my attention for way longer than Bungie’s arsehole-generating shooter. Crackdown puts you in the shoes of a cybernetically enhanced law enforcement agent and gives you a city with three areas to play in. Each area is packed with bastard gang members and a half a dozen or so gang bosses.
Crackdown’s biggest strength is that your agent is effectively a superhero. He can leap onto high buildings, pick up ridiculously heavy objects (and absolutely luzz them at gangmembers) and has the hand-to-hand and weapon skills to take down a small army.
Thankfully, for the balance of the game, each gang actually is a small army so you won’t get it all your own way although this is quite a short game (unless you are going for achievements). A sweet co-op mode and a host of races to complete give you a bit more value for your money but seeing as how this goes for less than a tenner these days, you really can’t go wrong.
It’s not the smartest game in the world and the plot is practically non-existent but for constant action and genuine sandbox fun, this is a hugely underrated classic.
The view from the Agency tower.
Taking the Agency buggy into the Shai-Gen neighbourhood and triple backflipping it out of the biggest tower you can find.
The great thing about Mercenaries is that it knew exactly what it was trying to achieve. Take that GTA-style sandbox gaming and put it in a warzone. After that make everything, and I mean everything, destructible. Perfect.
Mercenaries puts you in the middle of a modern day conflict scenario. This time it’s Team America versus those pesky North Koreans. Of course, the South Koreans and Chinese are involved as well and as an amoral mercenary it’s your job to make as much money as possible by doing missions for whoever you like. Of course this can make you unpopular with certain factions but as long as you’re getting paid who cares?
Each mission you undertake gets you close to the ‘Deck of 52’. The top military men in the North Korean regime. Kill them or incapacitate them, it’s up to you. Also up to you is your method. Go in all guns blazing? Snipe from a distance? Drive a tank up in his face? Or just nab the nearest NK helicopter and fly in undetected.
Extra weapons, vehicles and even HUGE targeted air strikes are all available if you’ve got the cash. Just remember to save some for your retirement.
Ordering stacks of C4, wiring up the allied HQ and calling in a laser-guided carpet bomb attack. Yes, with enough ordinance, even HQ buildings can be taken down in this game.
Calling in an airdrop, leaving a truck packed with C4 in the drop location and detonating it before watching the helicopter wreckage hit the ground twenty seconds later.
Of course, not all sandbox games have to be third-person shooter/driving games where you run around pissing off the neighbourhood. Taking its cue from Elite, Freelancer set you up as a space fighter pilot and gave you a fantastically realised galaxy to play in. Aside from the main storyline which was great but let itself down by being far too short, you could spend time raising money in order to get better ships and more effective weaponry.
In true sandbox style this could be done in a number of ways. You could take on smuggling, assassination or collection missions for the various shady factions in the game, act as a bounty hunter or policeman or, if you fancied a rest from the killing, you could just buy and sell artifacts, equipment and supplies to planets and colonies in the various local star systems.
Freelancer’s main draws were the fantastic graphics, which still look gorgeous today, and mouse-driven space combat which was exceptionally enjoyable and intuitive. A series of warp tunnels connected all the locations in the game which made traversing Freelancer’s vast universe a lot less of a chore than it might have been.
Any dogfight. The combat on this game was flawless.
The final battle. It’s like Battlestar meets V.
Despite not having flashy 3D graphics (okay, if we’re being picky, it was isometric but not true 3D), a modern soundtrack and all trappings of the GTA series, Syndicate is definately the series’ spiritual successor and one of the greatest games of all time.
The premise was simple. Use your cybernetically enhanced agents to complete missions and overrun other corporations (huge global ones that act as governments). It’s pure dystopian cyberpunk with trenchcoated agents armed to the teeth with all the weaponary you can eat.
At its simplest level Syndicate can be compared to the famous point-and-click shooter Cannon Fodder however the freedom the game gave you in terms of tactics meant that you could complete any scenario in a number of different ways.
A four-man full assault with gauss guns was one way but you could also go lone-wolf style with sniper rifles, set up ambushes, steal a car and rush to your target or just persuade the town’s populace to help you using the ‘Persuadatron’. The choice was yours. Sure, there were no side-missions but the world was still your playground.
One of the few cutting edge titles to retain its playability, Syndicate remains a true classic and a pioneer for so many games that followed.
Check out Mark’s Perfekt Past article for more information.
Persuadatroning an entire town, giving them all uzis and then recruiting all the local agents by force.
Using a lone agent to chase a target towards the rest of the team, pumping them full of chemicals and giving them miniguns. Carnage.
Shenmue? Sandbox? Are you sure? Well, why not? You’re given the run of the local town, loads of things to go and do at your leisure and people to talk to or kick in the throat as you see fit.
Aside from being stunningly good-looking. Shenmue allowed you to play the game at your own pace. In between hunting down the prick who killed your old man, you could visit the local arcades (and play classic Sega arcade games like Outrun or Hang On), practise your karate, go shopping for weird Sega-related action figures or even get yourself a job.
Much like GTA, Shenmue was more than the sum of its parts but it was also a unique experience in its own right that few who played it will ever forget. Shenmue 2 took you away from the comforts of your hometown, to the bustling, urban sprawl of Hong Kong which for me killed a lot of its charm but the original remains a true highlight of the Dreamcast era.
The huge hundred-man brawl at the end of the game.
Did I mention the arcade?