GAME ON ‌ Story or Sandbox? 

Open game play's great, but plot still matters

Landing that rocket on Natalyza Gryzunova's smirking grill should have been a landmark moment. After all, I'd blasted my way through what seemed like 100 Volk grunts to get to her, losing most of my armor and health along the way.

Instead, it felt like dropping a grenade on Rodrigo Alvarez. Or gunning down any of the 10 or so other crime lords I'd already offed, strategically camped in the roofs and crannies of Pacific City. And that's when Crackdown, my otherwise entertaining sojourn as a genetically juiced supercop, began to feel as empty as a post-HGH letdown.

It's hard to blame developer Real Time Worlds, who set out to give us Grand Theft Auto III without the Grand Theft Auto part -- i.e., the restrictive storyline. In fact, they did everything short of handing out hundred-dollar bills to forestall the inevitable comparisons to Vice City and San Andreas. No game on rails here, kids! Do what you want, when you want.

That's a noble pursuit -- at least in theory -- but even the guys who gave us all those cheesy Robocop movies, from which Crackdown seems to draw some of its pulpy mythos, were wise enough to emotionally involve us in the action through little things like, you know, plot and characterization. In Crackdown, their absence glares like paparazzi flashbulbs off Britney's bald head. Talk about your plot on a postcard: 21 bosses. One big city. You might be thinking, Dude, I can jump a 16-story high-rise in a single bound and pick off skyscraper snipers by hurling cars at them. Who the hell needs plot?

Well, it turns out that I do. So many of us we say we want a sandbox to play around in, but when we get it in a game like Crackdown, we complain that there's no depth, no soul to the stunts and sniping. What we really want is somebody to sit there and tell us a ripping yarn while we're smashing up our sand castles.

Some genres give us this sort of thing almost automatically. Well done role-playing games, for instance -- like Oblivion: the Elder Scrolls IV -- involve you in a grander story without shackling you to a limited set of tasks that advance the action. Other games tell stories so engaging (think God of War, and, hopefully, its almost-here sequel) that you neither notice or care that there's really only way to get from point A to point B. Heck, even the developers of The Sims, gaming's ultimate sandbox/dollhouse, has recently resorted to giving users story-driven gameplay with Sims: Stories.

The action genre, meanwhile, is still waiting for the game that picks us up and throws us over the Grand Theft rainbow. That's why I have my eye so sharply fixed on Bioshock, Irrational Software's forthcoming noir-adventure about an underwater utopia/experiment in genetics gone wrong. (It was recently bumped to fall.) Having basically tattooed the words "emergent gameplay" on their foreheads, they're promising, like many have before them, a game that gives us both plot and freedom of choice.

In game play previews, Bioshock is already teasing us with the multiple ways in which we'll be able to do something as simple as disarming an enemy. As both Aldous Huxley and the guys at Real Time Worlds could tell you, a lot can go wrong on the way to Utopia. But for the moment, it looks like the best sandbox yet might be floating 20,000 leagues under the sea.


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