Rockstar took open world gaming to their all-time best with San Andreas. Even after V
it is still, for me, their best game and in a way every title they did after that, including Red Dead Redemption
is a drastic comedown.
The crucial thing about open world gaming is Opening the Sandbox
. That is expanding the field of activity around the protagonist as he moves through the story. The characters start at one point and as they progress they go up in surroundings and income and eventually they settle down. Like Tommy Vercetti in that mansion in Vice City
. Here's the rub, once they settle down, the main thrust of the game disappears. The game is more fun when you are progressing and moving up the ladder then it is when you reach the top and fight to stay there and be there. The ideal open world character is a guy who is out of place, an outsider, a drifter. That person is Carl Johnson.
CJ is out of place at Ganton, he's been five years on the east coast. He's a little too ambitious to be content with protecting and bettering the hood. In that respect, his brother is right in that he's Not So Different
from Big Smoke. Of course for CJ it's not so much about making the families relevant by staying away from drugs but more about wanting his own identity. The fact that he breaks out and befriends the Hispanic gangster and approves his relationship with his sister, that he pals around with Woozie of the Triads. Put it simply, this guy is multicultural, he forms a crew with people of different races with the only white guy being The Truth.
The gameplay expands around him, first he rides a bicycle,then a bike, car, boat and then he owns his own airfield and teaches himself to fly. The game ends with the perfect final lines, CJ restores his hood, his family and he does his responsibilities and now he's "fitting to hit the block and see what's up", he'll go back down the road. Because his world will always get bigger and further from home.
Rockstar has gone realistic lately, since GTA is its wildest, most fantastic and over-the-top game. For me this fantasy is more poignant and honest and down to earth than their pretentious later games with portentions of seriousness. They've never bettered San Andreas and never will, in my view. But then they don't have to. This is a great effort.