If imitation is a sign of respect, then Grand Theft Auto has to be one of the most respected franchises that the video game industry has ever known. Shortly after the incredible mainstream success of GTA3, free roaming, or sand box, titles became all the rage. Although there have been many recent entries in the genre, the vast majority seem to steal at least a few lines of code from GTA. Obviously, most of these pretenders have come up as half-hearted experiences that would have us take our boring commute to work rather than traverse in a poorly constructed open world.
However, there have been some titles that took the formula found in the GTA franchise, and applied it to new, original experiences that didn’t always make us feel like playing another GTA clone. We know that GTA didn’t create the open world genre, but without a doubt the franchise has standardized it. So join us as we take a look at some titles that have managed to tear a few pages from GTA, and stuff them into a new book with enough panache to make us overlook any similarities.
Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
Part of the problem with open world games in a post-GTA3 era are very similar environments, but Mercenaries took us away from the regular urban sprawl and dropped the player into a warzone smack dab in the middle of North Korea (and you thought Liberty City was a little rough). Instead of taking down a rival drug dealer, players were tasked with raiding weapons caches and infiltrating military bases to assassinate one of the many key political figures. All this had to be done while maintaining some diplomatic relations and trying to stay neutral even though you were a gun for hire. After all, the only real loyalty a mercenary possesses is to the all mighty dollar.
Different breeds of vehicles were thrown into the mix, such as attack helicopters, tanks, and hummers, that gave a more militaristic feel to the game rather than being a carjacking thug. Most importantly, players could also call in air strikes and destroy every single building in the game, offering the freedom to mold the environment as a fine artist of mayhem more than any free roamer before it. There were some similarities to GTA such as jacking vehicles and visiting varying individuals for jobs, but Mercenaries made it enjoyable in all the right ways, and without looking too influenced by Rockstar’s series.
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction
The open world genre definitely seems be a preferred setting for destruction: after all, what’s better than being given an enormous vibrant environment and then having the ability to ruthlessly tear it apart? Besides this functionality, the genre has always made for a great canvass in which to craft a superhero game, as being allowed to execute such powers in whatever way you wish can truly replicate the feeling living in their shoes, or in the Hulk’s case, his purple shorts that thankfully never tear off. Living as the Hulk meant the ability to leap long distances, run up buildings, and smash everything in sight, far more than Tommy Vercetti could accomplish. Another part of the freedom given to the player was the use of objects in the world, from using street lamps as baseball bats to molding a bus into a pair of boxing gloves.
All of these elements within the world allowed players to become the Hulk, and do whatever they wanted while imbued with his powers. There is a certain lack of restraint that comes from possessing the relentless rage and freedom to leap anywhere and break anything as the Hulk. This effect on players that was nothing like GTA, even though it used the same kind of open world and mission based mechanics.
It almost feels a little inappropriate to call Crackdown an imitator of GTA, especially since the game’s designer, David Jones, was responsible for the original Grand Theft Auto. There are similarities between the two, such as jacking cars and the ability create a kind of ‘wanted level’ with the many gangs of Pacific City, but Crackdown does far too many intuitive things to warrant a clone status. Like Hulk, there is the superhero element, as the player can hone different skills in strength, agility, and firearms in an RPG-like manner. Fortunately, there was never really a coarse feeling of grinding in order to gain these abilities, as the collection of agility orbs on rooftops throughout the city brought a platforming element to the title and was probably the most addictive collectible in games since the coins in Super Mario.
The great thing about this skill progression was that it allowed the player to hone whichever skills they deemed most valuable to their own play style, be it having superior driving skills to get around the city or simply leap their way from one objective to another. To top it all off, Crackdown offered cooperative play, so that another person could join in on the open ended action and clear through the entire campaign together. Co-op has always been a gateway to new possibilities within the world of any videogame, and doing it in an already unpredictable free roaming one made things all the more spontaneous. The combination of coop and a skill system allowed users to shape their own experience within the vastness of Pacific City and lead gamers down a road that GTA never took, making us forget about any similar scenery witnessed along the way.
THQ’s free roamer did a whole lot more than just borrow from GTA, and bore such a blatant resemblance to the king of the sandbox genre that one could even call it a parody. But while the over-the-top gangsta atmosphere and ridiculously funny characters served as excellent comedic material, the actual gameplay was no joke. Despite carrying such a close resemblance to GTA, the game did offer many traits that were on par with the series, and in some areas exhibited aspects of improvement.
This ranged from a free aiming system as opposed to the restrictive lock on mechanism of GTA, and in-car GPS to make navigating the streets of Stillwater easy. The game even threw in online multiplayer, something that the GTA series had never done. Saints Row is an easy target if you’re looking to label a game as a copycat of GTA, but besides reflecting the criminal tone and mission structure the game also managed to replicate the quality of the godfather of free roamers to an impressive degree.
Of all the titles mentioned so far, AC probably departs the most from the content and tone of the GTA series, but still carries some similar elements such as side missions, gaining heat from local law enforcement, and of course a variety of cities to visit. GTA has never really been known for its stealth elements, so it was interesting to experience the role of a sneaky assassin in the Middle East during the Crusades. The overall feel may have been different but there was still that aspect of being on the other side of the law. AC may not have necessarily had a “wanted level” mechanic like GTA, but stirring up too much trouble in the streets would alert nearby guards, and this weighed heavily into carrying out missions in just the right way. The open ended nature of the game created a multitude of varying ways in which to take out your prey, and once it came to escaping the guards that were witness to your work, the chases that kicked in were very familiar to anyone that has had to make a run from the fuzz of Liberty City.
Of course, none of these moments were too similar to a GTA game, partially because of the way the main character, Altair, handled when scaling buildings and rooftops but also due to the exquisite manner in which the ancient cities in the game were rendered. If one does want to recreate a historical city such a Jerusalem, being able to wander around and on top of its many structures made for a great way to feel what living in such a city may have been like, if you were a professional knife for hire. The fact that horses replaced Ferraris, and other factors listed, made AC an enjoyable game that should not be considered GTA: Middle Ages. Filling out side missions, picking off targets, and avoiding the cops, is something all GTA fans have done, but doing so in such a stealthy manner, and in a very different context helped AC achieve a new breed of sandbox experience that left little GTA aftertaste in our mouths.
We’re glad you joined us on our look at the open world genre during a time when its biggest innovator of it is about to return. While all of these games bare some resemblance to GTA, none should be considered weak for seeking influence from the greatest free roamer of them all. Let us remember that the GTA franchise practically spearheaded the growth of the sandbox genre, and if it never were to exist most of these games would have probably never been dreamed of. Despite a few bad batches of clones, the franchise has managed to inspire some developers to pick up where GTA left off, and pursue their own design ideas that were sparked by Rockstar’s masterpiece, most of which listed already have sequels in the works. Here’s to more prosperity in the sandbox genre, and given the success of titles within it that don’t even carry the Rockstar logo, more are sure to come.