With Sonic Frontiers, I Finally Understand Modern Open-World Games

It took a while, but for me, the next generation of open world gaming is finally here. There was a time when open world games were my favourite genre. Over the years, I have seen it sag and bloat, becoming overstuffed with mission markers and busywork, taking all of the joy out of the experience in exchange for checklists, algorithms on player retention, and the endless quest for games that are bigger bigger bigger, even if they’re not better better better. In this evolution of gaming, there have been games that have still managed to be enjoyable, and those that have succumbed to the weight of the new formula. All the time though, good or bad, it’s clear these games are growing stale. Enter Sonic Frontiers.

For many of you, the door to this brave new world has already been opened. Breath of the Wild was the first game to look at the overstuffed open world genre and decide to try something new. Regardless of your feelings on Breath of the Wild as a game, it must be respected as a hugely risky endeavour. The genre had become increasingly reliant on map markers, hand holding, and a compass constantly telling you where to go, and Breath of the Wild removed all of it. It didn’t sit and decide what the necessary parts were and try to trim everything back, it removed all of them completely.

There’s a reckless freedom to Breath of the Wild, and I saw the value in that in the 20 hours I sunk into it, but ultimately it just wasn't for me. Maybe I need a little bit of direction in life, maybe the softly saturated colour tones of Zelda weren’t for me, or maybe it was because even when you found a questline to follow, it would often immediately ask you to go explore the far side of the map to find some potion or creature needed to progress. In any case, Breath of the Wild was a much needed revolution for the open world genre, but it was never quite for me.

For a few years after Breath of the Wild, things stayed the same. Video games take a long time to make, so nothing for a couple of years after BOTW could possibly have been inspired by it in any meaningful way. Individual mechanics were cribbed by the likes of Immortals Fenyx Rising and Genshin Impact, but the revolution was on hold. Even games that had the time and space to learn from BOTW’s formula saw it as too risky – Ghost of Tsushima and Horizon Forbidden West are both pretty standard open world games, even if they’re pretty good at it.

The first game to look at what Breath of the Wild did and build upon it with some degree of reverence and individuality was Elden Ring, another game that gripped so many of you by the throats, and another game I hated. Much like BOTW, I can respect what it brings to the table and how it challenges the status quo, but ‘I don’t like it’ is a fairly high obstacle to overcome. Again, maybe it was the nihilistic world, maybe it was the arcane lore and reliance on knowledge of earlier Souls mechanics, maybe it was just too hard. The ‘why’ isn’t very important. The fact is the open world genre badly needed to change, and I didn’t like the first two games that changed it. As I wrote about in the wake of Elden Ring, it had me fearing that the next generation of open world games wasn’t going to be for me. Enter, once more, Sonic Frontiers. Cheers for waiting at the door for the last four paragraphs pal.

Sonic Frontiers, much like Breath of the Wild, drops you into a map and lets you go anywhere. There are markers if you open the menu and look for them, but while you’re roaming you’re free to go wherever the conveniently placed sky rails take you. It takes the most reliable parts of the original way of creating an open world game, while introducing the freedom that came with BOTW and ER. It gives you a sense that you can go anywhere, do anything, but also reminds you that when you’re done having fun, here’s where you need to go next.

The open world genre as we know it was popularised by GTA 3, and that’s what all GTA games are about. Go and cause some carnage for a bit then come back and follow the damn train, CJ. In that sense, Sonic Frontiers is a regression more than a revolution, but the stripped back appeal of the gameplay and the world means it hardly matters whether we’re moving forwards or backwards – we’re having fun.

On a technical and artistic level, Sonic Frontiers is not as good as Breath of the Wild or Elden Ring. But it provides the perfect stepping stone for me to finally get on board with what open world means these days, and while we should always root for games pushing in fresh directions, I’m glad Sonic Frontiers has helped bridge the gap.

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