Elden Ring Shows How Non-Rock Stars Can Make Brilliant Open World Games

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Elden Ring is more than just a brilliant open world game – it heralds a renaissance for the genre. For decades, the focus of developers in this genre has been on adding detail: creating a seamless universe where players can explore wherever they want, and this “more is more” approach is meeting with varying degrees of success. For every Grand Theft Auto city packed with quests, shops, golf courses, and bowling alleys, or for every Elder Scrolls region packed with dungeons to explore, there are bland interpretations of real-world locations that may have the right details but end up feeling dull. and swollen.

Of course, the most obvious punching bags are any of Ubisoft’s recent open-world games. It makes sense that almost every Assassin’s Creed would have an open world, since they’re set in real world locations from the story, but Ubisoft has included open worlds (or very large maps) in many of their other series with mixed results. Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon all have big islands or cities to explore, but not much. in plus millions of mindless collectibles that will eventually earn you an achievement.

Even the post-Assassin’s Creed reboot games, which are easily Ubi’s most successful open worlds, get a lot of feedback from some corners for feeling like less exciting imitations of Rockstar’s greats. It’s an often-mocked trope for Ubisoft games, and thankfully, the developer is walking away.

As such, 2022 didn’t see a new open-world adventure from Ubisoft to compare it to, but plenty of other developers tried. Elden Ring has earned all the praise, but the same can’t be said for the Saints Row reboot, which didn’t make much of an impact, much like Gotham Knights did at the end of the year. Both games are perfect examples of the failure of the “more is more” approach: the developers tried to create maximalist open worlds, and instead we got boring cities with hardly anything important to do in them. Sonic Frontiers fared a bit better, despite it being the first time the blue hedgehog had a completely open world to explore, but at times it still felt like a characterless void filled with collectibles and not much else.

Elden Ring is the innovative exception. By harnessing the defining characteristics of games like Dark Souls, FromSoftware enhances the open-world genre in truly new ways, illuminating a different approach to maximalist philosophy that only Rockstar has truly achieved. Of course, it helps that Elden Ring is, at its core, a difficult game, stretching out the time it takes to explore the Lands Between, but there are other reasons why it managed to be one of the best in the genre without trying to keep up. Rockstar script.

Open world pioneers with Elden Ring quality: a few lanky human-like people with long necks, kneeling as burning coals pass by.

The biggest lesson we can all learn from Elden Ring is that quality experiences need a long time in the oven. Rushing to get a game out in time to satisfy shareholders happens quite often – just look at Cyberpunk 2077 – but the most accomplished examples of this genre are the ones where the developers have enough time to perfect everything.

Cross-platform games, in particular, often take much longer to complete, as studies look at the myriad of hardware optimizations for PC and multiple console generations. After all, ensuring that a map as large as this runs correctly on each device is a Herculean task for the assigned QA teams; however, Elden Ring even runs fine on Steam Deck with a frame rate cap.

Open world pioneer of Elden Ring quality: Malenia straps her brass arm to her shoulder.  Her long red hair covers her face.

The real secret to Elden Ring is mastering the challenge of marrying the unique way these games tell their stories, along with soulslike combat and bosses, in an open-world setting. That was almost certainly the biggest hurdle FromSoftware had to face. Too many games explain everything with exposition dumps instead of letting the player discover the world for themselves. With a new open-world setting, FromSoftware’s method of drip-feeding through item descriptions for powerful relics adds to that joy when you find something buried in a seemingly inconspicuous corner of the map. This is a trick that Sonic Frontiers sadly misses, as Eggman’s Journals contains plot elements that, if found on the island along with other major upgrades, would be rewarding to discover. Instead, you just exchange them for fish earned in the fishing minigame, which isn’t all that exciting.

One strange benefit of Elden Ring’s open world design is that while repeated boss fights are a common complaint in regular Souls games, the same kinds of rematches against familiar bosses are some of the best parts of Elden Ring. They come with adjustments, such as adding normal enemies or pairing them with another boss. Take, for example, the Godskin Duo. You’ve already fought Godskin Apostle and Godskin Noble, and they’re formidable on their own. However, by sharing a criminally high health bar, you have to kill them repeatedly. They’re far from the most demanding Elden Ring bosses, but with these tweaks, it’s one of the most memorable encounters and a talking point when someone asks about your progress.

Elden Ring Quality Open World Pioneer: A demon priest stands at an altar with a three-pronged spear in hand.  The sky shines with stars.

This brings me to a more controversial point: repurposed assets can up your game if you know how to use them correctly. Elden Ring doesn’t just do this with bosses; it also has tombs full of imp-like grotesques that ambush you as you navigate fiery traps, pits filled with poisonous water, and pressure plates that shoot arrows from walls when you step on them. No design is a complete copy-paste job, even if it gets pretty close at times. On the other hand, many locations and missions in Saints Row feel repetitive in design and layout, contributing to its bland presentation.

Giving everything purpose is hard, so doing this in the open world genre, which by definition lends itself to being comprehensive rather than focused, should be next to impossible. Elden Ring isn’t without its flaws, with bugs always slipping through the cracks, but it’s so right in its design that it should be required reference material for anyone trying to build meaningful experiences in a genre that lends itself to meandering.

Rockstar may be the only developer on the planet with the endless money and attention to detail it takes to embed meaning on both the macro and micro scales of a sprawling open world, yet most other developers in this genre they have been following their script. The results are predictable: with the possible exceptions of The Witcher 3 and (after a bit of work) Cyberpunk, no one else has come close. For years we’ve needed a game like Elden Ring to show us a new path.

I hope that in the next five years we have an open world game as monumentally important as Elden Ring, which understands why it was so good before improving it in every way. Realistically, it will take that long for someone to usurp him from his lofty throne.

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